***After publishing this blog entry, I thought more about what I had said and what I hadn’t said. This became a very personal and melancholy post because that’s where I am right now (depression is a bitch—even when you are aware and striving to overcome, she’ll still knock you off your feet sometimes). But I want you to know that I specifically wrote it NOT to get pity or concern but so that others will recognize that they are not alone. We all have ways that the our real lives don’t measure up to what we expected, and with the levels of anticipated ecstasy hyped by our culture, we all know that everyone has times like these. Friends, your aren’t alone and neither am I.***
The holidays are upon us, not that you could ignore that fact even if you wanted to. Thanksgiving is a week from today, and then there is the all-out sprint to Christmas — scramble to make the perfect dinners, spend time with family and friends, find the perfect gifts, wrap them beautifully, bake cookies, send out cards, sing the carols, and keep the yuletide spirit is all part of the deal. Except that I want out.
I loved Thanksgiving as a child. Multiple generations gathered at my grandparents’ home. We were there with my mother’s aunts, uncles, cousins as well as our aunts, uncles, and cousins. The bachelor uncle came smelling of whiskey and cigars. The crazy great-aunt who told the same stories over and over and over held court. There was a huge table, the longest one I’ve ever known, and we still needed a kiddie table. Grandma and Grandpap rose early and started preparing the huge turkey. Eventually people arrived, not carrying a contribution to the dinner but ready to jump into the preparations full tilt. There were stories and laughter—much of which was shared as we washed dishes for what seemed to me like hours while the men went off to play cards. In my mind it is an odd mix between Roseanne and a Norman Rockwell picture, but I loved it.
As much as I loved Thanksgiving, it was a mere warm-up leading into the main event the following month. My family made a production of Christmas. It was wild and loud, overdone in decorations and baking and gifts. My mother started shopping for Christmas in January! Every year she told us that we were going to be disappointed because she was cutting back. When she told us this, we laughed and cheered and rushed to the phone to alert the others that the annual declaration had been made. We knew it was going to be the same as always—way too much! The year I took over much of Mom’s shopping as her health waned, I asked her how she could have possibly been so cheerful and enthusiastic with all of that work! But she loved it.
My friends will tell you that my enthusiasm for the holidays never faltered. Ah, but they would be wrong. Depression and celebration don’t always play nice together. Many years I anticipated the holidays and experienced the joy of the season only to crash and burn at some point as stress and reality took over.
The Thanksgivings of my adulthood are a series of nothing. No grandparents, no siblings, no aunts, no uncles, not even a drunken old bachelor uncle showed up. One year it would be Mom, Dad, my son, and me. The next it was Mom, Dad, and me. Then Mom and Dad started spending the holiday in Florida, Travis added in-laws into the rotation, and I thankfully found a home with my family of friends and the extended family they brought to the table. It’s fun and filled with stories and laughter, but it isn’t the traditional Thanksgiving. In many ways it is better, but it is also not what I think of and what tradition tells us the holiday should be.
And then there’s Christmas. The changes that came to my Christmas celebration came harshly and decidedly. First my mother’s health failed and the extended family stopped coming. My sister stayed at home with her children who were growing up and coming home for Christmas. My brother, who had barely shared the holidays with our family for quite some time, stopped coming. Mom was saddened that her children weren’t there and couldn’t rise to the occasion. She fell into a funk. She hadn’t been able to do the decorating, shopping, and wrapping herself, and now there was barely a celebration.
The following year, the celebration was even smaller and the funk was deeper. I tried to encourage her out of it. My parents had moved permanently to Florida and couldn’t travel to be around any of us. Our lives prevented us from traveling to Florida, and so my parents spent that holiday having dinner with friends.
I reminded her that we were extremely lucky to have had 60 years of Christmas with the whole family together. Most families don’t maintain that! And so, for the first time, I didn’t celebrate with my parents or my siblings at all. I had the thrill of experiencing my two-year-old granddaughter’s visit from Santa—a magic that passes by so quickly. I have to admit that my funk came close to matching Mom’s. But it was nothing compared to what was to come, because that was Mom’s last Christmas.
And so our Christmas was shrinking again. Nothing is the same. And it wasn’t that the overabundance of gifts and food or the noise and work and commotion went missing. They did, but for some of that I’m glad. It’s the spirit that is missed. My mom embodied that spirit in our family. Without her, the love and joy have gone leaving a hole in my heart and soul.
I didn’t even want to decorate the first year but decided I would not be honoring her in any way by not celebrating. I decorated and did everything I could to be in the moment. But the grief came out and in my effort to swallow it, I was sick when the day finally came.
The holidays are no tableau of wonder here. My son owns a grocery store. From the beginning of November through New Year’s Day is a marathon of busyness, cranky people, extra work and hours to be endured for him. He doesn’t like the holidays even a little bit. The years after losing Mom, Dad was, of course, devastated after the loss of his high school sweetheart and wife of over 60 years. He was just going through the motions. Now he has moved on and spends the holiday in Florida with his new girlfriend and their friends. Retirement has put a damper on my ability to gift as I love doing. And the last couple years our Christmas dinner was a deli tray from the store.
Two years ago I went all out. I got out every Christmas decoration I owned—mine and the ones I inherited from Mom—and turned the house into a Christmas wonderland. I invited friends and family for a Christmas tea with their children and grandchildren. We had food, stories, and lots of fun. Life conspired to keep some of the people closest to me away, and so it was still a little disappointing. Last year, I put up the decorations and then took them down after the holiday knowing that no one had seen them but me. I went to other people’s houses, but for one reason or another, no one came here. I enjoyed seeing them but not enough to justify the effort.
I still have things about Christmas that I love. First and foremost, I love the reason for the season. I love rereading the Bible story of the birth of Jesus. I love the sacred carols and secular songs of the season, the television specials, movies, and stories. I thrill at seeing my granddaughter open her presents and the light in her eyes as she tells me what Santa brought. Last year she proclaimed, “He brought me everything I asked for! I got the stuffed Grinch doll and three books!” Her joy at the gifts she wanted warmed me immensely. She got lots of things, bigger things, from the family, but those little treasures from Santa made him real and made her joy my joy too. I spent time with my other family in Carlisle. Granted a lot of that looked like work since they were moving into a new home, but it was wonderful as we celebrated that home and adopted a wonderful teenager into the fold as a new member of our extended tribe.
As the holidays approach this year, I’m finding myself not being so much ho-ho-ho as bah-humbug. I am working hard to find my spirit. My challenge is to let go of the Hallmark-Rockwell holidays I wish I had and embrace what is left that I still love. I’ll do what makes sense for a retired woman with my income who has to finally admit she can’t do all that she wants. Most of my beloved decorations are staying put in their boxes. I’m putting up my tree and hoping my granddaughter will enjoy helping me decorate it. I’ll put out a couple things and just rotate others out next time. I’ll listen to my music nonstop, but I’m listening to my own playlists on Spotify so I don’t have to endure “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Blue Christmas,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and any other song that stomps on your heart. I might bake. I might not. I’ll spend some time making gifts that I hope people will love. I’ll volunteer at New Hope Ministries to make sure others have both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners as well as Christmas gifts. And I’ll take my meds, see my doc, and get through.
What about you? I know I’m not alone. What have you done to get through a tough season?