Who will YOU miss this Christmas
Divorce, bereavement, children flying the nest — four writers reveal who will be absent from their festive table this year
Christmas is a time for families, a period we can spend precious time with our loved ones. But, for many people , there will be a space at their dining table this year. Here, four writers movingly tell of the person who’ll be absent from their celebrations.
Sooner or later it comes to us all, the empty places round the Christmas table.
I consider myself lucky that I have had 28 years of joy, beginning with daughter number one, Miranda, and continuing through my other children Harry and Charissa… until this Christmas.
Our Christmas lunch has survived everything from the late arrival of the turkey, through minor illnesses, to divorce.
A toast to absent friends: Not everyone can be with their loved ones this Christmas
I always prided myself that we were — are — still a family despite our divorce about seven years ago, so I have carried on with all our family traditions, the stockings, and my ex-husband at the Christmas, Boxing Day-and-a-few-days-beyond lunch table (I got to his house on Christmas Eve, where Miranda cooks and I have the night off).
We have not suffered the agony of alternate years, of shuttling children between us and pretending the Christmas spirit hasn’t departed early as we tearfully leave our children with the ex. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I felt we needed continuity at any cost.
We were still a family, so birthdays and special school events were better shared than having one parent missing or missing out. Not easy, but then neither is marriage or parenthood!
However stressful Christmas is, I have enjoyed every last second of the planning — from stir-up Sunday through waiting up later than my three to drag the stuffed stockings outside their doors and go to sleep knowing that my barely concealed excitement is every bit as evident as theirs. And since they were teenagers, I’ve had a stocking, too, which they fill with inventive and original presents they’ve made, bought or painted.
Flown the nest: Tamasin Day Lewis with her children, who won”t spend Christmas day with her this year
This year is the first year we will not all sit down together with the old table decorations I inherited from my parents, the crackers and the waifs and strays who have been as important to us as the family, be they children’s friends who can’t go home, the nanny who looked after them for years and her husband, a prisoner in a half-way house or their grandparents who are now dead.
The children have decided that they are not comfortable with their post-divorced parents sitting round the table together any more. It is their decision. Perhaps now they are older they no longer need it. And since my ex and I are both with someone else, they need to keep things separate.
So this year they will go to their father a few miles away.
Next year, they will come to me. Miranda told me: ‘Until there are grandchildren it’s a sort of no-man’s land, Mama, I don’t see the point — Christmas is for children’.
I didn’t argue. My three are still and always will be my children, but if this is their Christmas wish, I consider myself lucky to have held it all together as long as I have.
I have a boyfriend I will be home alone with, so I am in no position to feel sorry for myself, though the pangs kicked in for several days after the announcement.
Nothing stays the same, I convinced myself, life moves on. Christmas, too, is a moveable feast. My three will come to me for Boxing Day and I will pretend, child-like, that it is really Christmas Day. The turkey is ordered and the stockings are filling.
I know I’m not the only mother whose heart will break a little on Christmas morning — so many of us now have adventurous children who have travelled to far-distant lands — but simply acknowledging that you’re not alone doesn’t make the sinking sense of separation any easier.
When we wake up to our holiday festivities, my eldest son Ed’s celebrations in New Zealand — 13 hours ahead — will be almost over.
Happy memories: Jenni with her son Ed, then one, who has now grown up and moved to New Zealand
Christmas used to be so full of excitement. Ed, now 28, and his younger brother Charlie would burst early into our bedroom. There would be the thrill of stockings and pillow cases stuffed with little gifts and then the frenzied opening of the main presents under the tree.
A traditional lunch would evoke incessant complaints. One hated turkey, the other couldn’t stand sprouts and neither of them was keen on Christmas pudding, but they’d plough through it manfully to please Grandma and Grandpa and then persuade everyone out into the cold fresh air for a walk, to build a snowman or to play a game.
This year, there will be just three of us — my partner David, myself and Ed’s baby brother Charlie, 24 — who will, no doubt, be every bit as sad as the two of us at the glaring absence of Ed, now a vet working his way around the world.
We saw him earlier in the year at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, so we can picture where he’ll have eaten his festive lunch and the friends with whom he’ll have celebrated.
“All parents know Christmas must change as their children grow and make their own families”
He’ll have sat around an enormous table on the patio of his closest pals, basking in the sunshine and looking out over a sparkling blue sea, perhaps going for a stroll on a perfect, deserted beach.
And there will have been a phone call — early in the morning for us, in the evening for him — which will have left us all feeling utterly bereft. It’s the distance that makes it all seem so unbearable.
All parents know Christmas must change as their children grow and make their own families. We accept that it may be home for Christmas and the in-laws on Boxing Day, and vice versa next year.
But, knowing my child is having the most special family day of the year with other people, thousands of miles away on the upside-down other side of the world, makes me feel as if a part of me is missing.
Just sensing his presence in the same country would be a comfort and, if he were here, I wouldn’t make him eat sprouts or Christmas pudding. Whatever he wanted . . .
Untangling my Christmas tree lights this year only to find they weren’t working, my hand moved automatically to call my older brother Nick, to ask for his help in the way I always do.
It was a moment or two before I realised I couldn’t. He was no longer there. Nick died in January this year. He was 61.
He’d been admitted to hospital just before Christmas, having been ill for some time — we suspect with cancer although he never told us what it was — but while in hospital, he developed a sickness that finished him off. My sister phoned to tell me he’d died and I wished I’d gone to see him, taken time out from my own busy life and festive plans for someone who had always been there for me.
Family ties: Liz Jones” late brother Nick (front right) with her parents, siblingsand housekeeper in Africa in 1950
While people eulogise the dead, I have to say Nick was always difficult.
When I was little, he was always the long-haired older brother who wouldn’t let me in his room, who shouted at me for tangling the tapes on his cassette deck or not knowing the difference between Bob Dylan and Donovan.
When I had measles, he would walk around with a scarf over his mouth, refusing to use his hands to open doors. He was always afraid of germs, so it’s ironic it was dirt that killed him. As a child, it annoyed me the boys (Nick was the middle of my three brothers) received better Christmas gifts than us four girls.
We lived in a freezing former rectory, and Nick would carpet the empty attic floor with his Meccano and a building set with tiny real bricks.
He bought me my best Christmas present ever, though: the Monkees album, the first music I owned. He was always in conflict with my dad, an old-school, super-disciplined former army officer. Nick was a hippy, with an Afghan coat and a dented tobacco tin.
He was kicked out of the University of Essex in a big scandal involving drugs, which I think was on the front page of the newspapers, although this was kept from me as I was deemed too young.
He joined a band, and when he died I wrote a piece in this newspaper saying Nick’s finest hour was to sing on the Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) record with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.
I got a terse email from Harley, saying Nick had only rehearsed with the band, and was remembered as ‘Shoe Gazer’, given he would never look up from beneath that curtain of hair.
I remember the one time Nick was on telly, playing in the band for folk singer Julie Felix. The entire family crowded round the black and white TV, my brother Tony holding the aerial aloft to get a better picture. Nick never looked up once, but we were so proud he’d arrived.
“Each year a new absence might make your heart a little sad — so there”s only one thing to do: refill the glassesand raise a toast to “Absent Friends””
When I moved to London aged 19, Nick — by then married — was a reassuring presence. When my house in Brixton was broken into, he came and slept on my sitting-room floor, and installed window locks.
He made me laugh when he came to my wedding in 2003 at Babington House in Somerset wearing his uniform of jeans, cowboy boots and roll-up fag. He sent me a note: ‘Beautiful day, beautiful people.’ He was always writing letters.
Our nephew, another Nick, named after my brother, is currently very ill with his third bout of leukaemia. Big Nick, as we called him, was always writing to his nephew, making him laugh. I know that Little Nick, now 21 — and who has just been sent home for Christmas to die, having been told the doctors can do no more — is missing those letters, that kindness.
Nick’s funeral in January was just awful: at a supposedly magical woodland site in the brochure, that in reality was a muddy field off the M25. He was wheeled out to the strains of Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, and as he was lowered into the ground, it made me realise that when people say, ‘Oh, it will work out, you will be happy’, it rarely does.
My mum, now 92 and bedridden, still doesn’t know what has happened to her little boy.
Preparing to write this piece, I got out a big sheaf of files Nick’s partner had given to me after the funeral.
It contains a novel, Universe, mostly written in ink. It is based on his time at university in the Sixties, with 76 chapters and 365 pages. And here, too, are the rejection letters, one after another, dated 1994 and 1995. ‘Thank you for sending the sample material — it isn’t something we believe we could sell in the current market.’
The worst thing about losing him though is not just missing him this Christmas. He became a recluse for the last few years of his life, and I know he felt like a failure.
But I think his biggest success was that he was always kind, always thoughtful.
He never had any money, but he would visit my mum and fix things around her house. At the funeral, I found out when me and my siblings had chipped in to pay for our dad’s funeral, Nick had sold his last guitar so he could do his bit.
This Christmas, I’d like to imagine he’s in heaven, still being told by my dad to get his bloody hair cut.
Occasionally he gets as bad-tempered as Gordon Ramsay, but he never complains about the mammoth task. Every year my son Dan (37 now, he trained as a chef years ago before becoming a TV producer and recently starting his own company) cooks a magnificent Christmas dinner to perfection, while I drift about lighting candles and wait to be called to the table.
But not this year. He will be spending his first Christmas with his in-laws-to-be — and that means that for the first time in about 15 years, I’ll have to tackle the turkey myself. Oh, I will miss him!
At the in-laws: Bel Mooney won”t spend Christmas day with her son Daniel
His way with roast potatoes, his method of keeping the bird moist, his skill with a sprout, — not to mention his careful planning to keep stress to a minimum.
Will I miss him as a person, too Oh yes, I suppose so — what kind of a mother do you think I am Ah, but the nectar-gravy, the cranberries popping in the pan . . . how am I going to bear his absence
My daughter Kitty, 31, has already said she will take over, and she’s a good cook, too. We’ll probably cook together — which should cause some fireworks.
This year, her in-laws will be joining us for the first time, although it was theoretically her turn to go to them (I reckon she knew I’d be bereft without Dan).
Next year, Dan and his fiancee Aimee will be back here at the homestead but where will Kitty and her partner Ed be With us again — I hope. But I have no right to expect. This is what happens when your children are in relationships — changes must be accepted.
We’ve always made much of Christmas in our family and my two adult children love the way ‘we’ do things. Secretly, they think it’s the only way.
But making a commitment to a partner means you have also to accept their family customs. For example, we always have our turkey in the evening, but this year, for the first time ever, Dan will eat the Christmas meal in the afternoon. He’ll be making his signature gravy in somebody else’s kitchen at the ‘wrong’ time of day.
It doesn’t matter. He loves his new family — and, in any case, you should never allow Christmas traditions to become a tyranny. Shifts will happen, and so will the big changes we all dread: I always think of my first husband, for example — even though we are both happily re-married.
Each year a new absence might make your heart a little sad — so there’s only one thing to do: refill the glasses and raise a toast to ‘Absent Friends’.