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The Ghosts of Christmases Past

Since my marriage ended in early December, right before the holidays, certain associations persist. The piano music on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" may always remind me of the day I hung two stockings instead of three.
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Young mother and her daughters by a fireplace on Christmas
Young mother and her daughters by a fireplace on Christmas

I see her there, standing in that New Jersey kitchen, watching her 2-year-old daughter play with toy dishes and fake food on the hardwood floor, the edges of plastic plates and cups clinking like the notes of a song that drifts in the furthest corners of memory.

In an instant, I become her. I see the morning sun glint off the frost that has settled on the front yard. I hear the heater kick on and smell the musty scent of electric warmth as it fills the room. I watch the blinking lights of the Christmas tree and stare down at the child, feeling pins and needles of despair at the prospect of raising her now that her father is gone.

In another flash, I am sitting on an old train caboose, which for some reason is situated in a McDonald's parking lot not far from our house. My child and I have just fled a massive department store where the holiday music was too loud, the fluorescent lights were too bright and the shoppers were too cheery and festive. But on the caboose, it's dark and quiet. We are alone, and I wish we could stay that way forever.

It's been seven years since those painful, confusing days after my first marriage ended. Since then, I've moved on, metaphorically and geographically. Instead of a lost East Coast housewife, I'm a writer and professor in southern California, with a new husband and a healthy, vibrant daughter, now 9 years old, who is almost as tall as me and cooks for real, not just for pretend.

Yet somehow the flashbacks remain. One minute, I'm driving down a Los Angeles freeway on my way to work. The next, I'm in that New Jersey house, pressing "play" on a Winnie the Pooh Christmas movie for the fifth time because it's all I can think to do. In those moments, it's as though time has become a rubber band -- expanding, contracting, snapping me sharply when I least expect it.

As an essayist and nonfiction writer, I've studied memory long enough to know that recollection is largely a neurological response. Enduring memories reside in the parahippocampal gyrus in the brain's inner left temporal lobe, the area behind the ear. Something sensory -- a smell, a taste or a sound -- triggers the cognitive association that created the memory in the first place, and we are transported.

Memories can be muted or vivid, depending upon the strength of the association. And because the temporal lobe is also connected to emotion, remembering can lead to sorrow, fear or joy, no matter how much time has passed since the initial event.

Memories also reside in the body. When a flashback hits, even before I understand what is happening, I feel an immediate and intense despair in my shoulders, around my chest and on the surface of my skin. All of the emotions I felt back then, in my old kitchen and on that caboose, come rushing back. Hopelessness, sadness, panic and dread. As quickly as they come, so do they dissipate, as I remind myself that I am fine. I am safe. I am me now, not her.

Therapists and neuroscientists alike say intrusive snippets of memory are a normal response to trauma, and I tend to agree. Sometimes our minds get stuck in the moment of distress. Since my marriage ended in early December, right before the holidays, certain associations persist. The piano music on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" may always remind me of the day I hung two stockings instead of three. The scent of a freshly cut blue spruce may always send me back to that tree lot in New Jersey, where I told my daughter that mommy wasn't crying. She was just cold.
Perhaps for me the season will always carry some cognitive imprint of those difficult days. Or maybe a day will come when the flashbacks are muted to the point of indistinction. Maybe with time they will be replaced with easier, more pleasant memories.

I also remarried right before the holidays, two years ago on the winter solstice -- a day that signifies new beginnings. We exchanged vows just before sunset at Griffith Observatory, a touristy spot overlooking the city all the way to the shimmering blue Pacific Ocean.

Some days, when the glow of the setting sun is just the right shade of pink, I remember that day. I see the bride, in her green lace dress and her plum-colored shawl. I feel the soft warmth of her daughter's hand. I feel the pins and needles of anticipation and smell the sandalwood and balsam in her partner's cologne as he leans in for a kiss. I hear the applause of strangers as the officiant pronounces them husband and wife.

Time stretches and it pulls, and in an instant, I am her.