By Matthew Hennessey
I’ve always been a great believer in “ordinary time.” That’s the church’s term for when nothing much is happening—a time of year that is neither Lent nor Easter, Advent nor Christmas. It’s just plain old, taking-care-of-business, nothing-too-crazy, ordinary time.
But the most extra-ordinary thing happened in my life this year. I lost my mother. She died in the last week of March, shortly after St. Patrick’s Day and a few weeks before Easter.
Now, technically, my mother died during Lent, the buildup to the holiest season in the Christian calendar. In other words, not ordinary time. But I was so consumed with grief that I wasn’t much worried about the “first Easter without mom.” In fact, if I may admit it, Easter has never been among the most cherished of our family holidays. So in a strictly non-liturgical sense, the late-winter/early-spring is ordinary time. To me it is, anyway.
As you might expect, the fog of my grief began to lift after a while, and ordinary things began to happen again. What’s great about ordinary time is that you can focus on the little things: kids, work, weather, the future. These will distract you from the dull ache in your heart and the giant hole in your life.
What stinks about ordinary time is that it’s only temporary. There are mom-less birthdays to deal with. There are milestone wedding anniversaries to glumly observe. There are yearly traditions that must now be reinvented to accommodate the empty chair and the missing laughter.
Moreover, she’s no longer just a phone call away. She can’t explain how a mortgage works. She’s not available to babysit. I can’t send her a picture of her granddaughter’s first missing tooth.
That’s the pain of ordinary time. The pain of the holidays is of an altogether different magnitude. Getting through the holiday cycle in the first year after her death has proved to be a gigantic trial. I didn’t realize that these emotional landmines were scattered throughout the year. I knew I’d miss her, but I thought it would just keep getting easier.
Around the holidays, her absence is impossible to ignore. Holidays often revolve around food. Let me just say: my mother was an adequate, if not spectacular, cook. But to lose the person in our family who was the most facile in the kitchen has been a blow. My mother understood the basics of food preparation in a way that was expected of women of her generation but that, frankly, hardly anyone of either sex—myself included—does today. She knew how to get things done, from baking to broiling, from pastry to pasta. She could make just about anything. I have yet to fully absorb what the loss of all that collected wisdom means for my family’s future.
Mom, how long do you cook a Thanksgiving turkey? And what size should we get? Where does the thermometer go? What’s the deal with gravy again?
Christmas, as the most familial of the family holidays, will naturally be the hardest to endure. Her specialty was cinnamon buns. Hot, sweet, and sticky, these ooey-gooey goodies were the sine qua non of Christmas morning at the Hennessey’s. I don’t know when Cinnabon first opened for business, but my mother’s not-really-for-breakfast treats clearly inspired the food-court staple. Except hers were lovingly made at home, using real butter and cinnamon, and not smothered with a sickening glaze of chemical “frosting.”
The cinnamon buns were prepared in secret a few days beforehand, maybe a few weeks, and then frozen. The first out of bed on Christmas morning had the job of popping them in the oven at a low heat. The morning—if you can call it that, it often took hours to get through the presents one by one by one—was devoted to stockings, gifts, coffee, laughter, and cinnamon buns.
Unfortunately, although my mother only just passed away, it’s been years since I had one of these heavenly morsels. When I got married, my wife and I negotiated a compromise that any youngish couple with a small-but-growing family will recognize. My parents lived in New Jersey—perfect for an early-morning commute on Thanksgiving Day. My wife’s family lived in New Hampshire; as bucolic a setting for Christmas as you are likely to find in the continental United States. So geography made our holiday decisions for us.
I think I may have had my last Christmas cinnamon bun around 2005. But that’s just a guess. The only thing for certain is that the possibility of having another one has been foreclosed on. The good news is that I can still taste them. Proust had his madeleines, I have my cinnamon buns.
I just wish I still had my mother, too.