Christmas is often not a fun time for people. Family challenges, loneliness, financial pressure and alcohol can all take their toll. People who have lost family members often struggle with this event.
Fictions on ABC Radio National recently did a great episode based on singer Paul Kelly's classic 'How to make gravy.' One example of the complexities for some families at Christmas.
What was the worst Christmas you have had?
I had a real doozy of a Christmas a few years back but the worst Christmas ever was when I was 9 years old and family tensions and Cyclone Tracy collided:
The ‘build-up’ that year had been exhausting. Humidity reached 88% and the air was like soup. The sky heavy with angry clouds. I was nine years old and a shy and watchful child, ever alert to any change in the atmosphere of the household. Hysteria had been nibbling at the edges of our family for weeks. Dad was bleary eyed and unsteady on his feet. Mum slunk through the house silent and brooding. My sisters and I sniped at each other if we bothered to connect. My brothers stayed away from the house.
The local aboriginal people had known for days there was danger coming. The ants were scurrying to higher ground, birds had taken flight and goannas and snakes lay in the sun on the same rock platforms in an uneasy truce. Later, warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology were issued. Other things took priority in our household and the threat of Cyclone Tracy wasn't taken seriously. While the rains pounded down, the tension in the house surged.
On the morning of Christmas Eve my mother was winding up. I could hear her footsteps thumping up and down the hall. I hid in the bedroom I shared with my sister and tried to read a book. I was anxious and couldn’t concentrate. I looked out at the sky, violent in shades of purple and green. Rain pummelled the glass and I could feel the house vibrating in the wind.
I heard the rise of voices at the other end of the house. My eldest brother and mother were arguing loudly. I hurried to the kitchen, skidding to a stop in the doorway as a tomato sauce bottle smashed down over my brother's head. Mum stood frozen, the stem of the bottle still in her hand. My brother’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. Tears and sauce streamed down his stunned face in a sticky mess, slivers of glass fell from his hair. He pushed past me and ran from the house. Over the radio the sirens began to wail.
Through the afternoon the winds increased in ferocity and the rain hammered down relentlessly. Later my parents had friends over and were relaxing with drinks. I hovered for a while watching them but soon went to bed, relieved that the day was over. I lay awake and wondered if I would finally get a Barbie doll of my own for Christmas. My friend Karen across the road had a whole suitcase of Barbies and accessories which I had jealously coveted all year.
I tossed and turned listening to the clink of glass and the slur of conversation. My mother’s laughter sounded loud and duplicitous. Someone put the Beatle’s White Album on the stereo. In my head I sang along to ‘Oobladi, Ooblada’ and tuned out the barrage of noises inside and outside. Finally I fell asleep.
I woke in alarm to my father shaking me. ‘Get up. Hurry.’ His voice was urgent. He gripped my hand and we stumbled into the hallway. The banks of louvers were open and with each step the wind threw us against the wall. Finally we reached the bathroom where my sisters and mother were piled together. We lay awake terrified, feeling the house shake and listening to the crashing and banging outside. Eventually everything stopped. The silence was eerie. ‘Is it over?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘No’, my father said firmly. ‘It’s the eye.’ The winds began again at full throttle, roaring with fury, exploding everything in their path.
Daylight was dawning and the wind had finally died down. We huddled in stunned silence, our bodies frozen. I felt confused. Today was Christmas wasn't it? Why weren't we in bed? Finally my father stood up. ‘I think it’s over,’ he said. Warily we began to unravel and move. I stood on tiptoes to look through the broken frame of the bathroom window. I shut my eyes tightly thinking I was imagining what my eyes had seen. When I opened them again the vision was the same.
The lush garden my father had nurtured for so many years, with its tall majestic gums, tropical fruit trees and massive palms, was decimated. The ground was covered with broken trunks and branches. Beyond our back fence, our neighbour’s house had disappeared, only a few lonely stilts still standing. The yard was strewn with the remnants of their belongings; the spinning top of a hills hoist upturned, a dented fridge tottering on a mound of rubbish. Everywhere there were soggy piles of debris; glass, fibro, wood, clothes and toys. Their kitchen table lay askew like a wooden tantrum, legs in the air. I could see their Christmas tree stunted and dishevelled, a ragged clump of tinsel still clinging to a branch. I began to cry.
Each day following the terror of that long, cold night was sensory overload; damp rotting smells, streets full of broken houses and household items, people wandering dazed and confused, queues of people for food and medical treatment. Eventually my mother and five of my siblings were evacuated to Sydney. My father and eldest brother stayed behind to help with the clean up efforts.
A couple of months later we returned to an apocalyptic landscape; streets empty of houses and trees empty of leaves, no birdsong or barking dogs. There were soldiers everywhere but few faces that looked familiar. The handful of houses still standing had been searched and cleared of bodies, rotting food, dead animals and were spray painted with messy pink S &Cs. Back at school vacant desks and chairs were ghostly reminders of classmates absent.
As the years passed, the intensity of the cyclone dissipated and it became a vague and distant memory. I didn't think about it any more. Until in my 30s, I visited the Cyclone Room at the Darwin Museum. I was blasé but as the lights dimmed into blackness and the winds roared through the speakers, a tingling spread over my body. It felt like every nerve ending in my skin was on fire. I began to hyperventilate and gasping for air I ran from the room. My mind may have forgotten but every cell in my body still held the memories of that fateful Christmas.