The unease creeps in around Halloween. The bags of miniature candy, the masks, the decorations box waiting to be unpacked, lights at the front door, goblins to greet. It’s just not as much fun as it used to be . . . when my toddling Peter dressed as baby blue rabbit took the hand of his older sister in pink pajama sleeper, their sewn on ears at a cocky tilt, and headed out with my husband to haunt the neighborhood.

A few years later, he was a curly-white-haired old lady, then in college he wrapped his head in a turban and wore a long saffron-colored muslin gown purchased on travels in Morocco. He wore it on the plane back to Minnesota at the end of his semester abroad, just to entertain us, a practical joke that wouldn’t be funny today.

I used to love the holidays. I’d dress up on Halloween, put on a show for the kids who knocked at our door, until one year my “witchy” behavior scared a neighbor boy. His mom called a few days later, chewing me out, telling me about nightmares in their house, and asking me if she could bring her son over to authenticate that I wasn’t a witch. Next year, that little boy was the first to knock at my door, but I wasn’t in costume anymore.

I used to be very well organized for the holidays. I had a schedule for shopping, frosting cookies and gingerbread houses, putting up a big tree, entertaining, sending cards . . . just about every crazy-making task.

That was then.

In July of 2001, our holidays changed forever. The sheriff rang the doorbell early on a summer morning and told us that our baby blue bunny, now a strapping, handsome twenty-four year old son, Peter, had been kicked to death by bouncers outside a club in Atlantic City NJ where he was celebrating a bachelor party with college buddies. From that morning, the holiday spirit has been elusive.

Getting ready for Christmas is a struggle I’d rather avoid.

In the first holiday season after his death, it hurt to go into retail stores. I couldn’t stand to see the decorations, walk through the men’s department, see clothes I couldn’t buy for my son, hear holiday music. I wanted to hibernate, leave the boxes of holiday decorations in the garage, or go away. But my two daughters were coming home, and they wanted the holidays to be “as normal as possible.” So my husband and I got a small tree and left it bare for days.

Among Peter’s boxes, I remembered seeing a basketful of ornaments I’d sent him at college, mostly Santas on skis because skiing was his favorite sport. I dug out the box and hung Peter’s ornaments on one side of the tree. Then we waited for the girls to help us finish.

In the nine years since that first Christmas, we’ve tried different things. Sometimes we’ve gone away in order to switch up environs. Sometimes we’ve entertained friends or accepted their invitations. We feel more comfortable, and comforted, in small groups rather than large parties. Our ideas of fun have changed. For my husband, New Year’s Eve is especially tough . . . all those dashed hopes . . . no longer an evening to party.

At home, we try new rituals in efforts to include Peter. Now in his room I set up the little artificial tree he used to have as a kid and I decorate it with the little Santas. I hang his stocking on the mantel with the others . . . hang it then sit down and look at it for awhile. For Christmas dinner, we make sweet potatoes with marshmallows and pecans just as Peter used to make them for us. We set the table with candles at each place and take turns going around the table and sharing a memory. We talk about him. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we feel sad.

At our church in the days just before Christmas, half a dozen families who have lost children get together to remember. We bring pictures and candles and take turns standing before the others to share stories about the lives of those beautiful kids. Our surviving children come to listen and participate as they choose. This sacred time set aside during the hub-bub of the holidays, helps us remember and honor our deceased children yet focus on the survivors during the remainder of the holidays.

I’ve learned I feel better during the holidays when I try to be helpful. The second Christmas without Peter, when our younger daughter spent the holidays far-away in Australia and I kept getting her absence confused with death, my husband and I and our older daughter participated in Habitat for Humanity on the Saturday before Christmas. It was amazing how the labor and the concern for the family who lived in that house took the spotlight away from our own sadness.

This year, I helped to prepare Thanksgiving meals for families in need, a small part of a huge operation, which still makes me feel better. And there are always other mothers more bereaved than I who need an ear and a shoulder.

Gradually I’ve learned that the holidays are not about me or my family or about Peter. We will always miss him and especially so at this time of the year. But there is truth in the cliché  — which used to upset me in the days when I could think of nothing but his absence — that Peter would want us to be happy. He’d want us to think about others.

When we think of others, we think less about ourselves. So I’m grateful there are people who need me. Remembering my daughters, our friends and neighbors, and those who don’t have Thanksgiving dinners, and doing what I can to help, does honor to Peter and keeps his spirit alive in my heart.

The holidays are so much bigger than my family or my neighborhood or my world. The holidays are about a power bigger than any of us. It is a season to give thanks, to pray for peace, to love others, to give way to hope for the future. It is a time to be self-less. Then, after all, the holidays are not so bad.

Mary Westra 2010

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Mary Westra

Mary Westra

Mary Rondeau Westra grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. She graduated from Macalester College and taught French for eight years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. When her two daughters and son became teenagers, she went back to work, launching a 10-year career of fundraising for arts organizations. She retired from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2002, shortly after the murder of her son, Peter. She became a Master Gardener and museum guide and started writing. Mary continues to be inspired by Peter. Over the years since his murder, she has reached out to other parents of children who have been murdered — writing them letters or picking up the phone. She stays in contact with a number of Peter's close friends from childhood and Middlebury College. And every year on July 8, she and her husband, and any family or friends who are present, wake up early and go down to their dock on the lake, sitting together to mark the hour that Peter lived after the attack in Atlantic City. Mary and her husband, Mark, live in White Bear Lake, Minn. They bike and hike together, watch birds, play golf, and Mary tends the garden; they spend time with their adult daughters, and Mary has begun to knit for her first grandchild, born in 2010.

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