The Vacuum at the Christmas Table

By vacuum, I mean unfillable empty space, rather than someone who can suck up a large quantity of food in very little time, although we will have one of those too.

Best Man is not going to be with us. Our family is lopsided, having one child permanently (my daughter) and one half the time (his son). This means that sometimes it feels as if we are a small rocking ship, periodically struggling for balance as we adjust to a member of the crew leaving, then getting back in as soon as the ripples have subsided. The transition gets smoother as time goes on and we grow more used to the rhythm of his visits, but at times like Christmas, the lack of one family member becomes glaringly apparent.

My Intended feels this most of all. At first, when we spoke of this Christmas, he would say ‘but we are not having Christmas until after Boxing Day, when (Best Man) is here.’ When I pointed out that Chief Bridesmaid would still be expecting to have Christmas on Christmas Day, we made plans accordingly (we’ll spend it with my family). Best Man will be sorely missed, although of course he’ll be having fun with his Mum and other step-family. It’s hard to know what the situation is like for him, but maybe it’s easier to be the one leaving rather than the one who is left behind…

My Intended sat morosely playing his guitar last night, and I became irritated by his gloom. Many angry rants were running through my mind (all beginning with ‘you’ and ending in ‘ruining Christmas’ and ‘always in a mood’), until he said to me

‘My Dad died on this day.’

Even after 5 years together, there’s so much I don’t know and so many things I never thought to ask.

Today, I direct my thoughts and good wishes to those who will feel loss and sadness this Christmas. Peace and love, I wish them…

The Trophy Cabinet of Memories

I am in a tree-top, shaking like one of the leaves which I think would take minutes to float down to the ground, way below me. To get my feet back to that solid place, I must first walk along a tight-rope, wobble my way across several rope swings, and swing down a zip wire. Only a harness attached to wires stands between me and certain death. I watch my daughter swing through the trees ahead of me, and the world swings dizzily in front of my eyes. I shut them, and reflect on the events which have led me to this terrible predicament.

We were discussing speeches, and whether we were going to have any. My 11-year-old future stepson is going to be Best Man

‘You don’t have to give a speech if you don’t want to,’ we tell him ‘It’s up to you.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he says.

‘What about me?’ says my 10-year-old daughter, who is Chief Bridesmaid, ‘do I have to give a speech?’

I start to bore on about how traditionally it is men who give speeches at weddings, while women remain passive and silent, and do we think this is right? But Chief Bridesmaid is not listening. She is already talking about the speech she is going to give. We tell the kids that the speeches are usually about memories people have of the bride and groom; sometimes people can try to embarrass the couple.

‘Can I tell everyone about the time you called Mum a mad bitch?’ says Chief Bridesmaid to my Intended.

‘No,’ he says. I say that the wedding speech is supposed to be about happy memories, maybe funny memories, not bringing up bad things that we have done in the past. ‘But can’t I talk about when you threw yoghurts? That was really funny.’
‘No,’ I say, wedding speeches are for those happy, rose-tinted memories that you get on holiday or at Christmas, or when you do something exciting together. They’re the trophy memories, all bright and shiny and ready for public display.
Chief Bridesmaid gets it. These are the instants that often get captured on camera – the ‘Kodak moments’.

‘I know. We’ll do a Powerpoint presentation of all our happiest memories.’ The kids quickly get carried away with this idea.

‘Can we have a photo of me surfing in Cornwall?’ asks Chief Bridesmaid.

‘Have we got a picture of the time Dad put the Christmas tree on the fire and it went whoosh, up to the ceiling and nearly set fire to the house? That was ace,’ says Best Man.

‘When we went ice skating!’

‘When we got a ride on the back of that jeep and I got to drive it!’

As the kids reach back into our trophy cabinet of memories, we realise that a) they enjoy it when we do things together and b) we haven’t done anything together for a long time. This is how I come to be fighting terror as I watch my Intended, Best Man and Chief Bridesmaid swinging one by one down the longest zip wire I have ever seen, their voices getting fainter as they zoom off, screaming, into the distance. I close my eyes, sit down and let myself go. My feet graze a treetop as I gather speed. I can hear the kids yelling something, maybe ‘the zip wire is broken and you’re going to die’? Their voices get closer and closer until I am suddenly ricocheting along soft bark, my clothes scooping it up and depositing it down my back as I slide.

‘Don’t worry, Mum, we got you on video for the Powerpoint.’

The next climbing zone turns out to be too much for Chief Bridesmaid. We are mounting higher into the treetops with every set of ladders, until we reach a wooden tunnel which is suspended on a wire. It sways alarmingly as she puts her hands across the gap to climb in.

Ooh it’s going to fall. You go in first Mum, I need to see if it can take your weight.’

I climb into the tunnel, clenching my teeth into a rictus grin.

‘It’s absolutely fine, it only wobbles a bit.’

Chief Bridesmaid takes one look at my face and yells ‘I want to go down!’

‘Oh. Well, If you really insist…’

We climb back down and walk shakily back to the starting point. As we go, we polish our story, making the memory shine until it’s the bravest and funniest thing we have ever done. On the way home, the car breaks down and Best Man admires the sunset as we wait for the AA.

This can go in the Trophy Cabinet of Memories, too.