My mum once pierced her ears with a needle and an ice cube.
Well, not exactly. Mum was eighteen, travelling in the US, and it was her American friends who happily volunteered to do the piercing for her; Mum’s friend Lainey who slightly misjudged the needle’s point in Mum’s right earlobe and made the hole a few centimetres too low.
Uneven piercings didn’t seem to matter to my mum. Wearing earrings, like every other form of jewellery, quickly became a decorative statement which she embraced wholeheartedly.
And jewellery is something I ended up loving too.
A lifelong love of decoration
This December my dad and I drove through the streets of South London, our eyes peeled for house-fronts covered with Christmas cheer: blow up reindeers on roofs, Santas perched on chimneys, strings of fairy lights in trees and hedges. As my dad pulled up outside our family house for the holidays, I asked him whether Mum ever suggested decorating the outside when she was still alive.
“Never,” said Dad, checking his mirrors to park the car. “Mum was much happier creating her vision of Christmas inside instead.”
I looked through the windows, remembering what Mum’s vision used to look like. There was a tree of ridiculous proportions, shedding pine needles all over the carpet; cardboard boxes full of ornaments which my dad had to fetch from the dusty attic; a nativity scene built from little red block houses on a side table; sprigs of holly and ivy stuck into every framed picture on the walls.
My dad and I, ever similar, often used to mock her for being over-the-top, but there’s no doubting how much my mum loved creating this fantastic festive environment out of nothing.
So it makes sense that after she died, the idea of decorating for Christmas seemed like a horribly empty endeavour.
Coping with loss through imitation
Losing a parent can provoke the sudden desire to imitate their best qualities, so despite not loving the need to decorate, for the last eight years I’ve tried my utmost to be like my mum in other ways.
Thanks to her good nature, I make constant effort to be more sociable. Her charitable side inspires me to volunteer whenever I can. Because she loved my writing, words have become my primary focus in life.
Yet one of the most challenging parts of this year has been writing a book about our relationship – which proved to be much more complex than I thought. When I handed in the first draft to my tutor, her main critique was surprising.
“It seems to be more about your loss of your mum,” she said. “As a character though… Well, I still don’t really know who she is.”
Later, when I scraped through the text of this newly breathing beginning-of-a-book I’d created, I discovered she was right: out of 120,000 words, I could only find two thousand which actively referenced her.
Mum was barely there.
The joys of long-forgotten jewellery
This year, my dad asked if I could go through some of Mum’s many boxes of jewellery. “It’s a bit silly to keep dusting around all her stuff each fortnight,” he said, knowing without asking that I’d easily be able to identify which pieces I’d want to keep.
It’s something we’ve both learnt – that not all objects are worth the same. While some become talismans, others lose their importance once their original owner no longer holds onto them.
Deciding which is which can take time, though. So on Christmas Eve I sat on my childhood bed and surrounded myself with the physical parts of my mum that still exist.
From a carved wooden box I picked up gold-set clip on pearls; pieced together the hooks of broken earrings; sorted through snapped necklace clasps and the occasional silver charm from a Christmas pudding.
Pair after pair went into a ziploc bag as I imagined myself wearing each set. Not every piece of jewellery had a memory, but many of them did – and yet most of what I decided to keep wasn’t reliant on any association with Mum.
Instead, the predominant memory circling through my mind was one I realise now means more than any pair of earrings can.
Holding on, and letting go
After a lifetime of wearing heavy gemstone earrings which swung back and forth, Mum’s right earlobe eventually tore and had to be stitched back up under general anaesthetic.
A few months later, I sat close beside her on the cushiony grey seat of a beautician’s treatment room, while Mum squeezed my hand tight. At her head was a piercing gun, held by a kind woman who didn’t tell us her name.
“Ready? This won’t hurt a bit.”
I looked at Mum’s face to see her eyes closed: her skin pressed against mine, her pulse racing. I never saw her scared, and suddenly I felt acutely maternal. I squeezed her hand just as tightly, a rush of fierce love pounding in my ears like a shell held up to hear the ocean.
Every Christmas means a period of reckoning, and I grow scared again. How will I feel this year? How will the season affect me? Remembering Mum’s death and the immeasurable ways it influences my life is the worst kind of Christmas tradition, and however much I try to avoid it, the feelings still find me.
I’ve come to think they always will.
Yet even after eight years and even with those feelings, I’m still terrified that I’ll forget her. The idea of losing her edges, her solidity, her vibrancy, is overwhelmingly sad.
But to those of you who are also grieving at this time of year: you know as well as I do that this fear only lies at surface level. Despite the worries, despite the years, the people we’ve lost still appear in our mind’s eye at night. We still hear their voices, unbidden; still see them at unexpected moments in the faces and bodies of strangers.
Too often, I see all the ways in which I’ve lost her with more clarity, when actually I should be noticing the places where she continues to exist: not in the lack of Christmas decorating mania but how I feel when I realise I’m wearing a pair of her earrings.
So, yes: Christmas is still difficult. We still cry, and feel acutely vulnerable, and wish to any possible semblance of a higher power that we hadn’t lost them. But we still know deep down that it’s our loved ones, not these losses, that make us who we are.
And occasionally we’ll see them in the most unexpected places. Even somewhere as seemingly silly as a jewellery box.
For anyone who’s missing somebody this Christmas, this article is for you. Allow yourself space to grieve, to feel and to hopefully heal – and remember you’re loved, even if it’s hard to see it right now.