Until I was eight, all my Christmases were as perfect as any child could wish. Like millions of children, I left snacks out for Santa and went to bed determined to stay awake and catch a glimpse of him, only to wake with a pillowcase of presents at the foot of my bed.
My father was a minister, so he assisted with both the midnight and 5am church services, then came home and launched straight into our family festivities. He must have been exhausted, but I never detected anything less than full enthusiasm from him.
An only child, I was close to both my parents, but I adored my father. He was the playful parent, the one who let me set up a dolls’ tea party at our dining table just before dinnertime, who climbed the monkey bars with me, who taught me to ride a bike, who read me stories and tucked me in at night.
My mother was the organiser, the one who packed my lunches, drove me to and from school, who kept me occupied all day during school holidays, who insisted I pack up my dolls’ tea party so she could lay the table for dinner. Not that my father was at all irresponsible or lazy, but he and I were two of a kind – impractical dreamers, obsessed with books.
A running joke in our family was that once my father and I had each received a book for Christmas, the tree ceremony would grind to a halt as we both lost ourselves in the pages while my mother – a less keen reader – waited patiently for us to resurface.
In November of 1983, my father was killed in a traffic accident. That Christmas, my mother and I were both in the numb, dazed state that follows grief’s first wild outpourings. My only memories of that day take place at my grandmother’s house. Most details are blurry, but my overwhelming impression is of going through the motions – lunch, presents – because we didn’t know what else to do.
At a level I couldn’t articulate, I felt it would have been less depressing to just cancel Christmas that year altogether, but for my mother’s sake I pantomimed happiness as I opened my gifts, knowing how hard she was working to maintain her own false cheer.
This may seem unusually perceptive for a child that age, but the previous month-and-a-half had intensified our already-close bond into an almost psychic sensitivity to each others' moods.
She gave me the nightlight I’d longed for, a Bradley doll lamp with a parasol, frilly pink crinoline and huge, drawn-on eyes. Another prize was a ‘Mr Mystery super-agent spy book’ that came with an ‘invisible ink’ pen.