The scent of Christmas

Every year, as Christmas decorations appear I begin to feel nostalgic about other Christmases, of long ago. If I think about it, it seems I’ve had this feeling during most of my life, as after coming from Mozambique we missed our warm and merry Christmases out there. Only when the boys were small did I recover some of the magic of Christmas and I loved seeing the wonder in their eyes as they looked at the lights, as they expectantly waited for “Santa” to bring their presents, as they came into the kitchen to peep at the turkey that was slowly roasting in the oven. Most of all I remember how they loved a book with Christmas stories that was beautifully illustrated and for years as soon as December began they would ask for that book; I would pick it up and the three of us would sit together in their bedroom and they would lean against me, each little head on my shoulder, and they would listen entranced as I went through the pages that showed snow and reindeer and a big fat old man dressed in red carrying all the gifts in the world…after a certain time their eyes would begin to close but still they would ask “Mom, please read one more story…only one…”. After Christmas we would put the book away only to bring it out the following year. And then one year, they did not want me to read bedtime stories anymore and those magic moments were gone.

Today I sit facing Mom who is dozing in her reclining chair, where she spends most of her time nowadays. I look at her and my heart aches; she looks so old and frail, so thin, so pale. With her eyes closed she looks serene, but I know what storms assail her troubled mind. She knows she is ailing, her body is failing her, each day a little bit more, and it is so cruel because she is completely aware of what is happening to her. Only today she was telling me how her hands – her once beautiful, graceful hands who are now little more than skin and bones – are shaking more and more due to Parkinson’s. “I am getting worse, you know” – she tells me sadly, as if I needed her to tell me, as if I didn’t know she is wasting away, each day a little bit more.

The TV is on, as it is during most of the day in her room, and it shows a huge Christmas tree and festive decorations. I look at Mom and I don’t see her as an elderly sick lady anymore, I suddenly remember her as the vibrant, healthy woman she used to be, and I am transported to the Christmas of my youth and to a Christmas memory I cherish above all others – a memory connected with roasted chestnuts.

I picture us going downtown to do our Christmas shopping. The streets were beautifully decorated and as dusk fell there was an explosion of lights of all colours: golden, silver, green, blue, white, but above all red, because red is the colour of Christmas. Everywhere we looked they would be there, beckoning for us to follow, and thus we went from one street to another, from one shop to another, always surrounded by this magical Christmas scenery, Christmas songs playing on the street and the cold making us shiver – or was it the excitement? Then, carrying many bags – I carried most of them as Mom somehow never took on that task – we would enter Suíça, the famous coffee shop in Rossio, which would be crowded. But invariably we’d find ourselves a table and we’d sit down and order some cakes and hot chocolate and we’d stay there for a while enjoying the moment. After some time, somewhat tired but happy, our mission accomplished, we’d head back home.

As we came out of the subway it would be dark already, and coming up the stairs we were invaded by the smell – and the smoke – of roasted chestnuts, something very typical of autumn and winter in Portugal, where the sellers are all over the city with their little roasting chariots. Invariably, even if we were usually approaching dinner time, we would stop and buy a few roasted chestnuts wrapped in newspaper, and we would find a way to unpeel them – I don’t know how we managed with all those bags, but roasted chestnuts definitely have to be eaten on the street, and while they are warm! – and we would walk the last block home eating and laughing and almost choking while feeling the cold and the delicious scent fading behind us.

Mom utters something and I am brusquely brought back to reality. I look at her and the mother of my youth is gone. In her place I see the old lady my mother has become, a sad shadow of that mother I had just pictured a few moments ago. I tell her about my daydreaming and we laugh together. No matter the sad reality of her present or the fact that we both know we’ll never go Christmas shopping together again in our lives; independently of how desperate she feels about the terrible state she is in, or how unhappy I feel to see her like this, I have this strong feeling nothing can ever take away what we had together; our memories will always be there for us to travel back to whenever we want to escape from the sad reality. For us, there will always be that magical moment when we went up the stairs of subway station and saw the smoke and the little chariot and our nostrils were invaded by the smell of roasting chestnuts. Our very special scent of Christmas.