December 25. 1942. Bing Crosby is singing White Christmas on the radio. The world is at war and we’re losing. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just over a year ago. England is in imminent danger of being conquered and destroyed by the Nazis. It’s a perilous time.
I am five years old. My family is gathered in the big room at my Uncle Harry and Aunt Vera’s lovely home in Indianapolis. Everyone is there—except Daddy. No one talks about it. We are opening presents from a pile under the big tree with multi-colored lights. Most of them are for us kids: me, my sister, Eloise, nine years old and my older cousins: Bill and Harry Junior. I am the youngest.
My father, John Francis Kerr, is not there because he died only four months ago. He was an Army doctor, but he wasn’t killed overseas in war. His shocking death had been from an unexpected, freak accident involving a train. I love him with all my heart. I miss him. I want him here.
I look around at the smiling faces and feel as if something is crushing me. The weight of the despair in the room falls on me. I believe I am the only one feeling sad. I have not developed the adult “skill” to cover up my emotions.
I open the present I am given and say thank you as I am trained to do. I feel terrible, but I don’t have a name for it—those names will come later: grief, devastation. I’m not sick. The scar on my stomach from the emergency appendectomy four months ago has healed, though it will remain visible for years. I cannot relate to the laughter and talk through the misery I feel. I know something is terribly wrong, but I don’t know what it is. I am not thinking about how Daddy took me to the hospital and then died five days later. I do not connect those traumatic events consciously in my young mind. I don’t have a clue how deep the scar on my psyche is. All I know is I feel bad—very, very bad and I miss Daddy very, very much. But no one else seems to because they aren’t saying it.
December 25, 1943. Bing Crosby is now singing the heart-wrenching “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams” for all the missing sons and husbands fighting this brutal war. The Allies are still losing an ever-widening, terrifying battle. The family is again at my uncle’s house. I am now six years old and overwhelmed by the same, mysterious and terrible feelings of a year ago. I do not know the cause any more than I did last Christmas. But now I judge myself because I cannot “cheer up” as my mother urges me to do so impatiently. Presents don’t make me feel better.
An inescapable depression at Christmas is becoming established. Every year, I begin to dread the Holidays. I feel like an alien—that I don’t belong in my world.. Like clockwork, I start getting the flu every year that I later call the Christmas Crud. No doubt it was my body’s attempt to bypass the Holly Jolly time. It took years and a lot of personal dredging to understand why I felt so bad come December. Now I no longer get the flu or become deeply depressed, but shadows and sadness still arise in a kind of Pavlovian response to what used to be called Xmas.
December 2017. I sit in a parking lot talking on the phone with a long-time friend who has seen me through those old feelings year after year when they resurfaced. I feel compassion rather than judgment for my depression now.
I look out at the neon signs and Christmas lights twinkling in the early dark Florida sky. But what I see in my mind’s eye is that first Christmas after Daddy’s death. I can envision the Christmas tree over in the left corner of the room and all the people gathered in a circle.
In that long-gone room were my father’s three older siblings: Uncle Harry, Uncle Paul, and Aunt Louise. Daddy had been a surprise baby, born 11 years after Louise. He was the darling of the family, spoiled and adored. How painful his death must have been for them all. His mother and father, my Grandma and Grandpa Kerr never recovered from that blow to their hearts. Then there was my mother and my sister, whose lives, like mine, were ripped apart and changed forever. The entire room was filled with pain and grief.
As I sit in my car, my heart goes out to them in their attempt to cover up their own grief for the sake of us children—for making such a valiant effort to be in the Christmas spirit.
I talk with my friend as tears roll down my face. I am weeping for my family. I know now that as a child, I not only felt my own enormous grief, terror, and loss, but theirs as well—even though they tried so hard to cover it up with smiles. What else could they have done, I wonder. How else could they have behaved?
Were they wrong? Were they just a part of the culture of the times? I don’t know what I would do as an adult in that situation. What does a family do now at the holidays when faced with a terrible loss that affects them all? What do you do? I would love to hear.