I Think It’s the Garland That Makes Me Want to Cry

I am not a grinch.

But Christmas makes me want to cry. It starts just before Thanksgiving. As the days shorten, the temperatures drop, and the inevitable countdowns and jingles infiltrate every media source, my mood plummets.

I stared at a beautiful tree today and felt the familiar tightening in my stomach and sense of dread welling in me. All of a sudden I heard the words to Bon Jovi’s hit tune from the 80′s “Living on a Prayer” :

Gina works the diner all day….she brings home her pay for love. Tommy says it’s OK, someday….

Like a storm surge just after the levy breaks, memories flooded my mind. And, it became very clear to me exactly why Christmas makes me sad.

In 1980 everyone in South Jersey had a fake tree. Because Egyptians believe that “more is more” when it comes to decorating, our tree at home tended to be a sight to behold.  One gloomy Saturday evening my Mom called my sister and I down to the family room. She had a twinkle in her eye and seemed giddy. She had dragged the tree and all its branches out of the crawl space. The floor was littered with  boxes of balls, strands of colored flashing lights, a huge iridescent star, and piles and piles of fuzzy, sparkling tinsel garland.

“We are going to surpise Daddy!” She announced happily. “It’s his birthday, and soon it will be Christmas!”

We all set to work. We squinted to see the color coded holes in the fake tree trunk so that we could shove the matching twisted wire of the branch into place. Bit by bit the tree went up. Followed by every ball, every strand of light and the flashing star. We saved the garland for last. My sister and I danced around and giggled. My Mom wrapped a garland boa around her neck, threw back her head, and in her broken English declared “I am Mar-Lene Moonrow–you know her?? She so beautiful!” We laughed and laughed and stood back to admire our handiwork. None of us cared that the tree was leaning or that the extension cords were showing. It was perfect.

As my father’s headlights turned into the driveway, she bustled us into a bedroom closet so we could surprise him. We could barely contain our excitment.

The key jangled, the door opened and I heard my Mom’s “happy voice.” I loved that one.  We couldn’t make out the words but before long, my father’s voice was growling. The cabinet was opening. My mom was pleading in Arabic “Balash En-Naharda, il banat fo.” Please not today, the girls are upstairs. The cabinet slammed shut. Ice clinked in a glass and the familiar glugging of the Johnny Walker from the gallon size bottle began.

When we finally got up the courage to come out of the closet, the house was quiet. We tiptoed downstairs. He was sitting in the chair nodding off, half full glass just seconds from spilling. “Where’s Mom?” I squeaked.

“She just went to the store, she will be right back.” I must have seemed suspicious because he then smiled feebly as he slurred ”Mafeesh Habebty.” Nothing’s wrong my love.  The last thing that caught my eye as I trudged up the stairs with my baby sister in tow was one sorry strand of garland that had slipped off of its branch and hung half suspended as if clinging on with its last breath.

My mother did not come home for one full week. That, it turns out would be the first of many.many “trips to the store.”


  1. All I can say is I know how hard that must have been to share. Christmas is a hard time of year for me too (do you remember the first year I became your patient and you marched into the examining room all full of Christmas cheer and I burst into tears before you could even say hello?) but because I miss my mom so much. Christmas was her holiday and she had a way of making it extra special and with much more emphasis on the spirit of the holiday. This was the amazing mom who did her best in spite of my abusive father (and he didn’t even drink, he was just mean!). So, much like you, as soon as I hear those first Christmas songs or see my first tree of the season I get a twinge of sadness, just for a different reason. But then of course, we are both lucky enough to have beautiful families that help us in creating new memories each year. So here’s to new memories and no garlands allowed! Thanks for sharing…Ellen W.

  2. Ellen I remember that like it was yesterday. I have basically been crying off on and on all day today dealing with the fall out of posting this story. But with stories like yours on top of stories like mine we can lift each other up!! And yes, there will NEVER be another strand of garland in my house!! Thank you thank you thank you. And, I am looking forward to chatting with you about “other” stuff.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about the “fallout”…I take it that some didn’t find the re-telling of this story as cathartic an experience as you? I’m sure you didn’t mean to cause any pain but I’m sure it felt good to get it off your chest…hang in there! Ellen

  4. Hang in there doc!! I know what this feeling is all about… Hope you feel better soon..

  5. I have heard so many of these stories from my own mom (who ironically is also an immigrant) about her father and all of the Xmas nights ruined, birthday cakes not eaten etc… Be well Doc and carry forth with a lighter heart

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