When No One’s Looking
I don’t know if it’s the Covid-19 pandemic or my particular phase of life right now, but I can’t help feeling confused about thanksgiving and Christmas and what it all means. Okay, to be honest, I come up against this quandary every year when the leaves have fallen and the winds begin to blow cold. I just struggle with the how and why of the winter season.
You see, my mother, MaryLee, always did the holidays up right. She decorated the biggest snow-flocked Christmas tree we could fit into the living room of wherever we were living at the time. Several fresh poinsettias sat near the entry and an extravagant wreath hung on the door. One year, I remember helping tie seventeen bags of cellophane-wrapped candies onto a wire mesh wreath so visitors could help themselves to something sweet before they even knocked on our door. It was epic!
Mom always set an enormous dinner table with candles, red holly berries, pine cones, greenery, and thick spools of ribbon twisted into bows and streamers. She spent hours of days wrapping gifts and making everything glow.
And then she single-handedly cooked a golden-crusted honey ham with apples and pears swimming in the sweet oily juices of the roasting pan. She never asked anyone to bring sides so in the days leading up to the big one, she prepped the dinner rolls, potatoes, cranberry mold, green beans, whipped carrots, and apple and pumpkin pies. MaryLee was a holiday hero. There were no exceptions nor time this didn’t happen, not even the year my sister was born on Christmas eve.
As a single mother, I tried to mimic what she demonstrated on a shoestring budget, and alone. I did my best but could never shake the feeling that I was failing. Then my mother died in 2005 a few years after I divorced my children’s father. And all the years since she’s been gone I can’t help but wonder what do I do now? And better yet, why?
My mother set a very high bar for celebrating the holidays and truthfully I’ve never reached it. I’ve come to accept that I probably never will. She would have liked you to believe she was inspired solely by her religious devotion to Christ’s birth. I do think a small part of that was driving the ship, but more importantly, I believe she went to the ends of the Earth to prove her love and to earn a nod of appreciation for having made the journey.
And today I’m curious about that same seed in me. Are the holidays really just an opportunity to make up for all of my shortcomings? A chance to prove my love or shine with generosity, devotion, and goodwill? I wonder how many other people use the holidays to demonstrate what they’re made of. And what happens if for some reason we simply can’t show up one year? What if we’re financially strapped or isolated from those we love? What then do the holidays even mean?
In many cases, my involvement and attachment to what I’ve done around thanksgiving and Christmas were related to being a daughter, a mother, a wife, and a hostess of parties. I guess what I’m trying to say is I always did it for them, my parents, my kids, my husband, and my friends. There are parts of me that don’t want to let go of the holiday traditions even though their meaning for me has dwindled. What am I holding onto?
Although I’ve been asking these questions for a few years now, my disorientation is heightened by not having a place of my own. After selling my house this past summer, I still haven’t settled or landed quite right. My life is up in the air with no tree to decorate, nowhere to run a string of lights. I’m not hosting a party for my friends or family dinner for my adult children.
I’m kind of at the mercy of whoever will have me.
Yet, I’m starting to see the beauty in my situation. I’m culling sweet gems from these moments of emptiness even though they haven’t been entirely easy. Deep down I know thanksgiving and Christmas were never meant to be what they’ve become for many, an obligation to show up big and bold in the lives of our loved ones, to go above and beyond, to create a perfect wonderland of food and fantasy…making all of their dreams come true. I’ll never re-create the pictures in magazines. Although I find it all so attractive, it’s just not in me to try. And this year, I can’t, even if I wanted to.
And so I sit with this thought: Moving forward what do I really want and why?
I’m not religious, or righteous about holding onto things that don’t have meaning. The sentiments that the holidays endeavor to create I want to cultivate all year, not just a month or two at the end. I don’t want to make up for all the ways I’m failing by putting on a show or showering others with gifts and gold. But at the same time, what else can make wandering adult children return to the family dinner table or long lost aunts and uncles come home?
We’d like to believe that the holidays and traditions we hold dear anchor us in this world, but they don’t. Take away all of the pieces, the brightly lit home, the ornaments and trees, the people who sit around the table, the songs on the radio, and the gifts under the tree, which, by the way, will all be gone eventually one way or another. And what remains?
My intent is not to be morose, but to point out the freedom we have to define our lives and the moments in it when we let go of needing things to be a certain way. A close friend pointed out to me recently, “when it comes to the people in our lives, (specifically adult children) we take the moments we can get and enjoy them.” And I think she’s right. And in doing that we have to let go of control and in many cases, the traditions and customs we borrowed to make ourselves feel whole.
Maybe it’s my age (55), but I can feel my life transforming all around me now. Things I once held to so strongly are leaving me. I can’t force things to stand still even though I’d like to sometimes. I can’t use external things to prove my value like I once did and that feels scary as hell.
I’m starting to believe that this is the place where my mom arrived mentally when she gave up on life. She never said as much but I can see it all so clearly now that I’m here and looking back. She struggled to hold onto things of the past even as they were slipping away. When we were grown adults with lives of our own it became harder to attend the holidays with her as we did before. And that left her alone. I wonder if she ever sat on the floor at the base of a bare naked tree with an open box of ornaments wondering why she even bothered?
So this is where we part ways. Because I have and I’m not about to give up on life just because no one’s looking. There is a bigger story for me if I’m able to shift gears and find a new way of being. My feelings of confusion and ennui are telling me to let go, to get up and move into something new.
I, for one, love opportunities to get together with friends and family. I don’t need an excuse. I don’t care about the past or tradition, per se. I just want to celebrate US! I want to hold dear our connections now before they’re gone. I want to honor our lives as they unfold, as we face struggles and successes day in and day out. Celebrating life matters.
I understand that these holidays still hold a lot of traditional meaning for a lot of people. I’m not discounting anything, I’m just embracing the freedom and permission to stop trying to recreate the past or live up to a standard that I don’t keep for myself. So I’ll be with you and yours anytime, doing whatever it is you do because you matter to me, not the day or the decorations or the stories of old. If you invite me, I’ll sit there happily at your table celebrating our connection and the miracle that brought us together to love and support each other in this lifetime. Nothing more and literally, nothing less.
Merry, happy, and joy because life is beautiful!