Posts Tagged ‘holiday traditions’

There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

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A colleague once commented that people learn a lot about family and themselves by sitting through holiday dinners, and sometimes even by sitting through just routine dinners. I ducked my head to hide a smile, thinking, “The only thing I remember learning by sitting through holiday dinners is that one of us had to learn to cook—the sooner the better. And it isn’t going to be the father, so I guess that leaves me!”

Holidays. Food. Traditions. Food traditions. Last week, my fabulous spouse and I were invited to a friend’s home for a dinner gathering. It was suggested that perhaps guests could bring a favorite food item from childhood. First, I snorted coffee on to the keyboard and everything smelled like hazelnut for the rest of the day.

“Listen to this,” I said, reading the email out loud, once I’d recovered. “Whaddya think? Should I show up with a can of Spaghettios?”

Food traditions are a weird topic for a kid raised by a widowed father from the Depression Era. In his mind, there were two kinds of work—women’s work (cooking and cleaning and babies) and men’s work (everything else that was worthwhile). While the mother was alive, she handled all things kitchen, and if my sister was home, she helped. The father steered clear. He was there mainly for decorative purposes and occasional heavy lifting. Except for the last year that the mother was with us for Thanksgiving, as I talk about in Urban Tidepool:

I had spent Thanksgiving with the father and Michael and the father’s new girlfriend, who had gone to great lengths to cook traditional Italian dishes that my traditional Irish taste buds found revolting.  The only things familiar about Thanksgiving were the canned biscuits, burned until they resembled Michael’s hockey pucks, and the fact that the father was drunk most of the weekend. As soon as dinner ended, I ran to Aunt Connie’s house and tried to describe the fiasco of something that looked like seaweed soup.  The whole Thanksgiving charade ranked up there with the year the father, again inebriated, picked up the turkey by its legs to move it to a serving platter and dropped our dinner on the kitchen floor. He stood there, befuddled, with two drumsticks in his hands.

Just a short time after we picked the turkey up off the floor, my sister opened a can of Reddi-Whip and it exploded all over the new ceiling above the dining room table. While that was enormously entertaining to me as a 7 year old, neither of these seems to be the kind of activity one would like to make into family tradition.

Once we were on our own, food became a rather scary topic. Indiana Jones in the kitchen he was not! The father couldn’t find his way around our 9- foot long kitchen with a pile of maps, a guide dog and a divining rod. Occasionally, he worked up the courage to try something new, like the first time he made a Mrs. Smith’s pumpkin pie. I’ll never forget the cute and endearing way he waved his newspaper at the smoke billowing out of the oven door (he didn’t know to remove the protective plastic sheet on top of the pie), as he muttered, “FerChrissakes, don’t tell your brother…he’ll eat it anyway.”

Mostly, if it didn’t come out of a box or a can, we didn’t eat it. Thankfully, I was a child of the 70s, so convenience foods were everywhere. No one thought anything of it…although I’m sure I saw a number of my Italian friends shiver when I mentioned eating cold Spaghettios out of the can. (Another fun fact learned living with a widowed father—don’t make dishes if you don’t have to!)

For the dinner last week, I ended up taking something my sister-in-law made once in a while during my stays with her and the Major. She never described herself as a great cook, though, and I commented on that in Urban Tidepool as well:

I choked back fear and choked down dinner. They may not have been connected.  Jedda was the first to admit she was not a good cook. We choked down dinner pretty much every night, whether there was Legionnaire’s Disease on the horizon or not.

It’s probably not a big surprise that I eventually wanted to go to culinary school and ended up running a catering business for several years with my fabulous spouse. And there was not a Spaghettio in sight, in or out of their cans!

Just a last word of advice—don’t forget that rascally plastic protector on the top of the pie! In this holiday season, whatever your foods, whatever your traditions, whatever your food traditions, may you be safe and warm and full, and let us not forget the folks who are rarely any of those three.

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