Jane Christmas remembers in high school carrying the painful secret that she and her mother didn’t get along. Other girls’ mothers “were their best friends. I could never talk about it,” Christmas said in a phone interview last week from her home in Hamilton. “When everyone was saying all these glowing things about their mothers, I thought, ‘Why don’t I have that kind of relationship with my mother?’ ” Thirty-odd years later, Christmas is talking openly about her lifelong effort to win her mother’s approval. “She was always critical. She had a harsh way of dealing with me,” Christmas said.
Two years ago, an opportunity arose to take her widowed mother to Italy for six weeks. “One of the things Mom and I discussed when we first planned this trip was to use our time together to air past grievances and come to an understanding and acceptance of our stormy past. I had asked her to come up with three things about me that had gnawed at her over the years. I said I would do likewise about her,” she writes in her new memoir, Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy.
One night, in the medieval town of Viterbo, “without batting an eye,” writes Christmas, “she snapped open her purse and pulled out a piece of white paper—and plunged right in.” “Your choice of husbands” was No. 3 on her mother’s list of grievances. “You never listened to us. And the result? Well, you made some very poor choices.” Christmas writes, “I glanced at the bottle of wine. I was the only one drinking, but it looked like this discussion could outlast the contents.”
Elsewhere in the book, Christmas writes, “She also thinks I’m too sensitive—and there is no question that I am—but she doesn’t think she needs to modify her tact when dealing with me. ‘You take my words too seriously,’ she scolds impatiently. ‘Really?’ I reply. ‘So when you say that my hair looks like a rat’s nest, I should just laugh it off?’ ‘No,’ she answers thoughtfully. ‘You should go to a hairdresser and do something about it.’ ”
The trip was meant to be “part détente, part deathbed request.” Ten years earlier, Christmas’s father had succumbed to cancer. “I just adored my father so much,” she said. “He acted as this wonderful buffer. I’m sure she was sniping at him about me and I was sniping at him about her, and so he really acted as the Henry Kissinger in the family.” As he lay dying, “He took my hand and said, ‘Please make peace with your mother.’ Of course you promise them anything there,” Christmas said. “But in the back of my mind I was going, well, that’ll be interesting.”
He died in 1999, and Christmas stepped in to help. “I think my mother felt totally lost about what to do. She had this man in her life for more than 45 years and all of a sudden he was gone.” A year after his death, Christmas accompanied her mother to Spain for a three-week guided tour with a group of seniors. Her mother was “starting to falter,” Christmas sees now in hindsight, but at the time she did not grasp the full extent of how her mother’s deteriorating health might affect their lengthy trip to Italy. With her mom pushing a walker, “It was stupidly ambitious of me to think we could go on a trip for six weeks. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
It was in Italy that Christmas noticed for the first time “a shift with the parent-child dynamic. I had never seen my mother as someone who had aged. I was wondering, why is she behaving like this? Why is she not able to get around? Why is she falling asleep all the time?” They were things that “made me angry sometimes,” Christmas admits. “Like the falling asleep. I thought, I brought her to Italy for Chrissakes. Can’t you stay awake for this?” (It was discovered later that her mother’s fatigue was a symptom of a serious breathing problem. “She’s a shallow breather. If you don’t take in big breaths and expel deeply enough, there’s a buildup of carbon dioxide and you start falling asleep.”)
In the end, Christmas finds resolution without airing her three grievances about her mother. “The therapeutic discussion I had hoped to have with Mom in Viterbo was one-sided, and not since then had she asked about my grievances.” In Rome, Christmas had an epiphany, before a sculpture of a mother and child. “As much as I wanted to have it out with my mother, I also wanted a happy peace between us. And you simply can’t have it both ways. I had wasted so many years hanging on to old hurts, coaxing them along like tender plants so that the bitterness would continue to bloom.”
At that point, Christmas writes, “I reached into my purse, withdrew the small sheet of lined paper on which I’d jotted down my three grievances, ripped it up, and tossed the pieces in a nearby bin.”