John Fountain: Christmas Eve with Mama and ‘perfect love’

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The ground is soft for this time of year, not frozen as usual. No sign of winter’s snow or ice. No frost. Only towering emerald pine trees nearby, stone monuments, and the ghosts of Christmases past. Of loves and lives collected here beneath the serenity of a blue Christmas Eve sky.

Our roses are red, our flowers a beautiful spray, as we stand here with Mama. This is her favorite time of year — her favorite day, next to Christmas.


A cool wind washes over me with a certain nostalgia. It stirs a deep feeling, more than just a string of memories. This feeling has haunted me for weeks now. Suddenly, while driving, or walking, or simply inhaling the air of the season, I have been transported back to Christmases of old — caught in a moment of familiar Christmas anticipation and excitement, of Christmas serenity and the way this season always supplanted our poverty when we were kids.

And I remember how Mama always worked miracles at Christmas. How much she lived for “family” and for Christmas, even after we were grown. How much it meant to her for her children and grandchildren to gather Christmas Eve at her house in the western suburbs, or at our West Side apartment on South Komensky Avenue — where we lived for many years.

Mama beamed like holiday lights after dinner-potato salad, greens, chicken and dressing and all the trimmings — as names were called from the mountain of gifts beneath her big tree.

“To Kamika, from Grandma . . . ”

“To John-John, from Uncle Jeff . . . ”

“To John, from Mom and Dad . . . ”

We passed out the boxes amid excited chatter. The family oohed and aahed at the gifts Mama always managed to give. Then Mama sat in delight, watching the kids raid the tree for candy canes amid a sea of torn gift-wrapping and boxes that were soon collected.

The Temptations’ “Silent Night” spilled from stereo speakers as some of us adults sipped spiked eggnog or other spirits, and slapped cards into the night-hand after hand of bid whist, Mama’s favorite. I can still hear Mama and Aunt Clotee, laughing and trash-talking during our card game, or snapping their fingers to the music. Or singing along to James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” as if they were school-age girls without a care in this whole wide world.

But on this Christmas Eve, my siblings and I stand with the Ghost of Christmas Present, staring enviously at the Ghost of Christmas Past and brokenheartedly at the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Bearing flowers, memories and tears, we stand. At Mama’s grave, marked by a gray headstone that reads “Beloved Mother,” we stand, for only the second year in our lives, facing celebrating Christmas without her.

This year is harder than last. Perhaps we were still numb from Mama’s death to Alzheimer’s and cancer, months earlier. This year, the pain courses through us with a numbing chill.

Still, the four children born to Gwendolyn Marie Hagler Clincy — John, Gloria, Jeff and Meredith — and also my wife, Monica, and our two children, have come here. In part, because Christmas, especially Christmas Eve, for us, will never be the same. . . . Because none of us quite knows how to do Christmas without Mama. And because none of us wants to.

With tears in our eyes and our hearts heavy but grateful, we gather around her headstone.  We hold hands and pray. We give thanks for a mother’s “perfect love.”

We lay our red roses. And we plant our beautiful spray of flowers in the soft soil on this Christmas Eve with Mama.


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