I was brought up in the most advertised American Model: husband and wife in a happy, intact marriage with two children, a suburban home with a finished half-basement, no concerns about safety or money, a neighborhood pool, and an extended family within a half-day car trip.
The last detail made the holidays easy and usual. Our traditions were conventional and consistent. My maternal and paternal grandparents lived in the same town in Oklahoma, about a 6-hour drive north from where I lived as a kid. We’d congenially alternate the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays at each home, often splitting the day to travel across town and check out the leftovers.
The food didn’t vary much from year to year, nor did the activities. My folks would converse with their parents and siblings on topics like land value, current events, the merits of their children, church, funny things the pets do, and football. All of the young cousins would revile the banality of these conversations and struggle desperately to entertain ourselves through the meal until it was time for pie. Of course, on Christmas, the entertainment required less effort, with the freshness of gifts to occupy us. Even then, stretches of an afternoon would have to be spent trying to scare up some glee from a dusty list of options:
- Throwing a sports ball;
- A dusty board game;
- Activity books;
- Hide-and-go-seek . . .
The usual. It was often boring but never a surprise.
These reliable holiday traditions carried on year after year, on through high school and the first couple years of college. Then my mom passed away. Something became irretrievable. Something that hadn’t ever been a questionable part of the equation was suddenly gone. I tried to return to the family holiday as a young adult, but it felt awful. There was a sadness about that I couldn’t manage. It wasn’t just my sadness, but a collective sadness. In a family whose progenitors survived the Dust Bowl, sadness—which translated as feeling sorry for oneself—didn’t have a place. I stopped going.
This tradition became a thing of the past. There was no progression into the years of young adulthood, during which I could have slowly become part of the banal conversation, or helped cook food, or understood televised football a bit better. The pilgrimage stopped, and I separated myself physically.
The family has continued to age, as all of ours do. Others have passed, including the progenitors, and the once consolidated hub of family holiday activity has dissipated. I’ve got my own children now. I have a daughter from my first wife, and I have another daughter and son from my second. The holidays have become difficult.
I struggle to discover and maintain cheer. I think of the tradition I was a part of, and it strikes me squarely as an impossible achievement. I question the value of carrying such traditions into my children’s lives even if possible. A large sense of contempt wells up inside me when the holidays roll around again. My world isn’t like that. My family isn’t like that. Mine is not like the families who star in our commercials, the pictures on our food boxes, nor is mine like half the other kids in my kids’ schools. This all brings me right back to the doorstep of the loss I felt when my mom died.
The evening before Thanksgiving this year, I built a small fire in the front yard. My children and my neighbors came over to poke sticks into the coals and enjoy each themselves and each other. For Thanksgiving proper, we visited dear friends and loved ones within easy reach. I won’t yet do with the pressures of my own grand feast, other than to show up at a respectable time, have some good conversations, throw a ball or two around, be grateful for pie, and also for love. The day after, we bought and decorated a small tree. It became evident that traditions can play a scared roll. We mark an event with distinct rites so that the repetition of them will remind us of an important feeling. I have chosen to repeat this year’s rites. I’ve created new traditions. They might not be like the traditions I grew up with, but then again after all these years, they just might.
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