The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.
In this story, as told by Peter Aguero, we hear a tail about family, and strife, and redemption, all within the context of a difficult Christmas. Not a classic holiday story that is filled with good times and cheer, but one that involves the heart. And a connection to family. And love at its deepest level.
Many personal stories are told from a similar point of reflection. Remembering a time in the past when life was difficult and their path forward was unknown. And how tapping into love was central to that future path. Such stories can help folks who are currently living in tough circumstances, as well as remind any of us who have come out the other side to reflect on, and thus to appreciate, the love and support that we encountered along the way.
(minor edits were made to improve readability)
This is a reading from the book of Peter chapter 19 verse 2. I was nineteen years old and I just finished my first semester at college. And I got home with my bag of laundry, and things weren’t looking too good for me and my mom.
I walked into the house, and she had told me over that semester to expect some changes when I got home, and it didn’t really hit me until I walked in the door and the first thing that I saw was that her upright piano that she had had since she was a kid was gone. She had sold it. And I walked through the foyer into the living room and there was just a broken couch, and a television on top of another television. One had a working picture, and the other had working sound.
And all the other furniture was gone. My dad had taken it four years ago when he had left, and for some reason the impressions from his lazy boy were still there as some kind of reminder of what a dick he is. I walked through the living room and through the dining room, and the beautiful dining room set that had been in her family for generations was gone. It was a dark mahogany set, really ornate, with these beautiful carved chairs and a glass breakfront, and a buffet table, and that was gone.
And I walked upstairs to put my stuff away, and her bedroom door was open, and the only thing left in the room was her bed. Her bedroom set was gone. There’s nothing more depressing than a bedroom with no furniture. You can see all the little dings and mistakes and tears in the wallpaper that are hidden by things.
Then I saw in my sister’s room. It was still a shrine to my sister after I moved in with my dad, with her Pepto-Bismol pink walls and her canopy bed, and her toy box. Like she liked she was gonna move back and become a little child again. But she wasn’t.
My bedroom was just the way it always was. Covered in posters, with broken particle board furniture and water bed, for some reason, with a broken heater, so you had to put quilts on top of it so you wouldn’t get arthritis. She couldn’t sell any of that anyway.
I had told my mother for years after the divorce to just sell the house. It was too big for the two of us after my sister left, and it was especially too big once I was gone, when I went to college. And the bills had to have been killing her. But her stubborn Polish pride kept her in the house.
I guess she wanted to show to the outside world that everything was okay, but on the inside it was just kind of decaying around her. But she wasn’t able to really deal with it in any kind of a real way. There was just selling things and and taking it day by day.
She was a nurse, she still is, and at the time she was working on the weekends doing 24 hour shifts at a dual diagnosis psychiatric drug unit, and during the week she took a job at a perfume counter in the mall to make some extra money. And she doesn’t like people telling her when to take a break, so that wasn’t gonna last long.
This was a strong big-headed pumpkin-headed Polock. She got home that day and she was happy to see me. Not as effusive as usual, but you know, she made dinner. She made a tomato casserole that she always made with canned tomatoes Wonder Bread and American cheese. Like yeah.
And we sat in the kitchen on the two chairs at the kitchen table, because the other chair I broke, and the other chair I also broke. And we ate our food, and we talked about College that semester being over, and she said, “Peter, we can’t really have much of a Christmas this year. There’s not gonna be any presents. I got your sister a little something because she doesn’t live here anymore, but we really can’t afford any presents.”
I said, “Are we gonna have a tree?”
She said, “We really can’t afford a tree. Decorations? I don’t have time to decorate.”
I’m, okay, you know, all right, okay.
So she said, “I got an idea. I thought this would be funny. Why don’t we, over the next two weeks, cut pictures out of catalogs and magazines of things that we would give to each other if we could.”
And we laughed about it, you know, and then we cried about it, and then we laughed about it again. Because if you don’t laugh about it you’re gonna eat a bullet.
So the next morning she went off to work, and I decided I was gonna throw myself into Christmas. And I decided I was gonna go get a tree, and I was gonna make this the best Christmas I possibly could.
So this is down in South Jersey, small town, and this is before Walmart and Home Depot and outlet stores are down there, so there was one Christmas tree farm, the Debolt Christmas Tree Farm. So I went over there figuring they’d give me a deal because I used to date their daughter, but turns out they didn’t give me a deal, because I used to date their daughter.
And a tree was like 60 bucks. Screw that. So I went back home and I got a hacksaw and I cut out a tree from my side yard. And it wasn’t even like a pine tree. It was some kind of stunted maple tree. And I brought it in the house, and I put it in the tree holder, and there it is in the stand.
And I went up in the attic. And I got the box of decorations and ornaments, and I hung about – there were about six branches – I put about 20 ornaments on each branch. And then I just took the tangled lights, and I just threw them on it, and it was beautiful.
It was really kind of nice. She came home, and she was, I guess, happy, and that was how that was. And I just started throwing myself into this project. I’ve given my mother everything I possibly could give her for Christmas.
You know, she always wanted a forest green Jaguar convertible. So I cut out one of those, and then Jacuzzi had a shower called the Jay Dream with about 20 nozzles, and a little dude that made sandwiches. And I cut out one of those, and gold and diamonds and jewelry, and a new vacuum cleaner, and everything she could ever possibly want in the world.
And I really kind of sunk myself into it. I’d go over hang out of my friends houses and take their mom’s Currier and Ives catalogs, and get all these catalogs and magazines, so I could give my mom the best Christmas ever. And I felt like I was in a kind of bizarro O’Henry novel, and one that he never should of written. And that just kind of consumed me over the next couple weeks. And I figured, this is sad, but this is beautiful, and we’re
going to connect over this, and it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be fine.
It was one night, in between coming home and Christmas, and the two of us were sitting watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and one of the TV’s was on cable and the other was on broadcast, so the video was a little ahead of the audio because the audio was on broadcast, but you know, you just pretend you’re in Japan. It doesn’t matter. So we’re watching that, and my mom was so distracted, she was there, but she wasn’t there.
And you know my mother and I were like partners, when my parents marriage broke up. She still feels guilty to this day about maybe making me grow up sooner than I did as being the man of the house or whatever. We were friends, and roommates, and partners. It was me and her against the world. And she was the one I always loved coming home to, and the one that would let me get away with anything, and the one that would always be proud of me when I did something right, and would take a day off from work and drive to the zoo with me when I did something wrong.
And she was not there anymore. This house was crushing her. Just crushing her. And all because she couldn’t see the option of getting rid of it. And it was killing me man. That’s my road dog, that’s my mom, that’s my girl. And I lost her. She just wasn’t there anymore. And it was just killing me. Her eyes were just empty. She was in another world. And she was worried about things that she couldn’t figure out how to fix.
So on Christmas Eve I went with my buddy Brian. We got drunk on a jug of Livingston Cellars wine and went to midnight mass, because when you’re under 21 and Catholic, that’s where you go to see your friends, because you can’t get into the bars yet.
And it was great, mass was awesome. My mom didn’t go to midnight mass anymore, because four years before, when my dad left us, it was during midnight mass. What a dick. As the priest was walking up, he stood up and walked out in front of everyone that we knew. Everyone she grew up with. Everyone I grew up with. Everyone we went to school with, and went to church with, and hung out with.
They all saw our family crumbling in front of us on it so my mom doesn’t… my dad’s a dick… I mean, is he here tonight? No he’s not, cuz he’s a dick, such a dick. So my mom doesn’t go to midnight mass anymore.
I got home that night, and the next morning I woke up late, and I brought my little bundles of pictures tied up with scraps of ribbon, and I put them under the tree, and I waited for my mama come down. And I heard her stirring upstairs, and heard her come down, and making coffee. And she came downstairs in her big red Sally Jessy Raphael morning glasses.
And she came down with a cup of coffee and she looked at the the things I was offering her, and she just like oh oh oh oh oh wait a minute, and she went back upstairs, and she was up there for a couple of minutes. How long does it take to bring down some papers? I hope she’s okay. She have diarrhea? It’s Christmas, I don’t know, post-traumatic whatever.
But any way, she comes back down, and we start to exchange our gifts, and she’s opening up a car in a vacuum in the shower and gold and a brand new piano and a bedroom set and a beautiful picture of a dining room set that would be at home in the White House. I tried to give her everything that she had had to get rid of to keep this life together.
She wanted there, more than anything in the world, she wanted there to be some stability for her kids to have a place that was always going to be home. The home that we grew up in. And it was killing her. And I was trying to do anything I could that would maybe make that better.
So she’s just looking at these things, and just smiling and laughing, and then I started to open up mine. And there’s three of them, and there’s one, it’s a picture of some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and a picture of some Homer Simpson slippers, and a picture of a karaoke machine. All from the same Rite Aid catalog.
It was up in her bathroom, upstairs, because she completely forgot. This thing that I really thought it was a one sided thing, and she’s laughing about it now, over there, that’s hilarious, yeah wave. So she went upstairs to make breakfast in the kitchen and I sat there and it was just kind of, I don’t know, I don’t want to be too silly about it, was I got a needle piercing me in the heart, thank you Madison, it was it was just this life that we had, that was the two of us was, just gone.
She would have done anything for me, and she still was, but it just wasn’t working anymore. And she forgot this thing, because the house was killing her, money was killing her, and everything was killing her. There’s nothing I could do, just nothing.
So I went upstairs, and she didn’t make pancakes. My mom makes really good pancakes. She fries them up in bacon grease, and they’re all crispy around the edges, and she makes me one that’s as big as the frying pan and cuts it out to look like Pac-Man and puts it on my plate, ever since I was a little boy.
She’ll give me a second one if I wanted. But this day, there was no Pac-Man face. Just silver dollar pancakes. And they were all burnt. And we sat there eating these burnt pancakes, wondering what the hell was going on with our lives. Today, 14 years later, if you go to my mother’s house where she lives with her new husband, you can go down in the basement and you can see a million boxes.
And you walk past the Ark of the Covenant and you go over in the back. And if you were an archaeologist you could look at the strata of our lives and pick out which year these things happened. This is when Peter quit football, and this is when Michelle had epilepsy growing up, and this is when their dad was a dick. That’s all of them.
And then there’s one box, if you look at it, in Christmas in 1995, if you dig into it, you can see a little velvet bag with a bunch of small pictures cut out of catalogs and magazines. And right underneath of that was stuff that took place a couple months later.
I got my belated Christmas present. It was a picture that my mom sent me when I was away at school of her standing in front of the house with a for sale sign in front of it. And she decided to sell the house. And she moved into a small townhouse. And she took a little hit on her pride but I got my girl back.
[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]
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