The Christmas House
From the memoirs of Alexis Marie Berry
The porch light of the Christmas House crawled up to my room, illuminating the raised structures of the window frame, but leaving its hollows dark and somber. I’ll never forget sitting in the hollowed corner of my window that night. My forehead did not move from the ice cold glass for hours as I looked onto the Antique Mall’s parking lot across the lawn. Rain drizzled slow and steady that night as my dad paced, and prayed, and cried. After another emotionally exhausting night with my mother, he had been pushed to the edge. Torn between honoring his marriage covenant and protecting his children, my father was on the verge of making a decision that would profoundly alter the course of my life.
The longer he persisted in his timid steps across every surface of that lot, the more my heart swelled with pain for him. I wondered if the gentle rain that night was meant to keep the circles he paced from starting a fire. Helplessly, I watched as his body shook and his face gave way to sorrowful tears. He wandered seemingly aimless for hours, begging God for an answer. At such a young age, I understood all too much the reality of sin and the immense burden it heaves on even the most innocent hearts.
No monument in my childhood compares to the haunting encumbrance of the Christmas House. When I was 10 years old “The Christmas Tree Store” was the fifth or sixth or seventh house I lived in (honestly, I’ve lost count). Before we moved in, every room of the 1920’s farmhouse was bulging with Christmas trees, holiday wreaths, homemade candles, glittering snow men, and a myriad of Nativity variations. My brother Seth and I were enchanted with the rich cinnamon and evergreen smell, the red and white lights shining from every corner, and the silver tinsel dripping from each door frame.
Once all of the decoration and sparkling splendor had been removed, though, the true difficulty of its character was revealed. The Christmas House was old and had been without an actual family for many years. It was in need of a modern update, reviving it from the ancient memories that it held in the original wood floors, the brick fireplace, and antique wallpapering. Yet my parents were captured by the potential they saw in the rustic beauty of the house’s original structure the way Seth and I were wooed by the magic that we saw in its decorations. My father identified something special in it. He saw a house that was worth investing his energies toward, no longer a temporary pursuit. He found the potential of calming my mother into a life of satisfaction with the house that she was so enamored with. The hope presented in the house was one that promised the idea of relaxing into a peace that our family had desperately longed for. We were finally out of the city with room to run freely and spread the roots that would end our tireless sojourning years.
The dream life in the Christmas House didn’t come easily, though. To say that we were “roughin’ it” for those first few months would be a callous understatement. The effort required in order to conform the House to our family’s hopes and dreams was absolutely exhausting for everyone. Our first few months there turned into the coldest winter of my life. The plumbing, electrical, and heating was an aged mess. We had no toilet for the first couple of weeks, no refrigerator for a month, and I don’t remember how long it took to get a bathtub. Until we had a refrigerator, milk and dairy essentials sat in a Goshen Dairy crate perched in a pile of snow outside the kitchen door. Chiseling milk over my breakfast cereal was a normal routine in the mornings. I remember my mother would heat water in our giant cast-iron stew pot for the four of us to take turns bathing in. And I can still feel the patterns on the heat registers beneath me and my yellow blankey cloak, as I would try to make a tent of warmth when the heater would kick on. Seth and I just had to learn to adapt without complaint as our family slowly seemed to give in and conform to the burdensome needs of the Christmas House.
During this time, the most pressing responsibilities of my mother were taking her medication and making sure that her children made it to and from school (busses didn’t venture out to the Christmas House). Because my mother struggled with both responsibilities, we were constantly late for class and often waited for hours for a ride home. Many of our late mornings were spent with Seth and I pining away in the Christmas House’s frigid foyer. There my grandmother’s heirloom mirror, hanging crooked on a temporary plywood closet door, had my scared reflection memorized, recalling too many mornings listening to her taunting and discouraging my father. I remember staring at myself, wishing that I could be older and take Seth to school on my own and take care of him when my dad couldn’t be at home. That mirror was eventually shattered during one of her increasing, drunken, manic episodes.
Perhaps the exhaustion of the effort required for her dream life caused my mother’s hopes to dwindle and her mind to falter. Both my mother and the House seemed to cling to the past and refuse the embrace of a hopeful future. It seemed as though the more effort my dad made to restore the hope of the Christmas House and my mother’s sanity at the same time, the more both resisted him. I don’t know if she gave up on us or the house or herself or all of the above. But something snapped within her mind, and she just quit trying to be healthy, hopeful, or loving. In the interest of still honoring her, I will just say that she made enough wrong decisions, succumbing to the pull of darkness, that within four or five months my father was driven to the parking lot of the ‘ole Antique Mall. The decision he made that night to trust God and sacrifice every possession and comfort of his in order to protect his children marked the definite beginning of the most heart-wrenching years of my life.
My vagabond days were far from over when we moved into the Christmas House. In fact, they were just beginning. After the parking lot night, a three-year divorce/custody battle was begun, resulting in too many encounters with police offices, counselors, and mediators. Those years of my life were spent wandering from the security of my dad’s house, to the staggering unpredictability of my mother’s House, to my future step-mom’s, grandparent’s, uncle’s, etc. With every traumatizing visit at The Christmas House and with every potentially redemptive moment with my mother spoiled by some effort of evil, my tears were absorbed by the walls of the house whose charm deteriorated with my mother’s grace. The corners of that house became my hiding places, the furniture turned into fortresses, and the bottomless piles of clothing in the laundry room grew around me as a cradle. I desperately clung to the power that I knew was in the Word of God as Jesus clearly protected me and drew me ever-closer into the fold of His wing. Yet The Christmas House still whined with the burden of evil wreaking havoc beneath its roof.
Each room eventually plundered by the darkness of my childhood, whatever innocent charm lingering in that house was otherwise raped and left a shameful mess. The walls of that house had seen too much, the floors shaken by too much, and for that reason had to be destroyed. The beauty of the historic house was eventually so degraded by the time my mother was removed from it, that it was best for it to be bulldozed into the grass. The abated fragments of treasured moments with my mother were left to fertilize the empty plot of grass where The Christmas House once stood along State Route 250. The only good left at all was from the
The emptiness of that land burrows into my heart as I feel the pain of a life that, even 10 years later, still gives me no peace. In some ways it has made me wiser and in others it has only confused me more. During the time Seth and I spent at the Christmas House for court-ordered visitation, I was essentially mothering him and making sure his needs were met. Gabriella, the baby that my mother had to a man now in prison, also ended up being a deep concern of mine. After 10 months of caring for her when my mother was unable, the baby was eventually taken into foster care. It wasn’t long after my dad was given sole custody and Gabriella put up for adoption, that my mother was torn away from The Christmas House and all of the hope that she found in it. She’s been in an out of hospital care, homeless shelters, and now has been taken into guardianship by her sister, whom I had never met.
The emptiness that my mother feels for the loss of her children and her idea of a normal life causes me deep sorrow. But the loss of my childhood digs even deeper, challenging my ability to care for her even today. I’ve only recently been able to allow God to pick up the broken pieces and offer a new hope with our relationship. After years of adhering to a no-contact order, I’m beginning to speak to her again. She constantly brings up the events of The Christmas House, the dreams that she feels she was robbed of, the family and the home that no longer exists. Moving on is impossible to her. And so, even today, as I make my feeble attempts to reconcile and have concern for my mother, our relationship is trapped beneath the failed roof of that house.
Since The Christmas House was destroyed, I’ve seen it from the road as my dad, brother, and I have driven past it on numerous occasions. It’s impossible to tear my eyes from that land as it drags across the car windows in passing. The fact that my dad has never offered to stop the car, though he knows it pains me to not even slow down, shows how determined he is to move forward from those years of darkness without looking back. And I know that this is what’s good. I’ve always trusted him. So I just keep quiet, my forehead against the cold glass and close my eyes, remembering my life in that house, turning over and over the image of my father realizing that it all must end if a life of new hope was to begin. It’s a cycle in my mind: I try to keep moving, looking forward. But even as I do, my mother always seems to be left behind, just like her Christmas House.