The holiday season is barreling down on us. In a few days here in the States, families will gather together to gorge on a dry bird doused in fattening gravy with a plethora of sides and a healthy dose of football games and conversations. Never mind that the roots of Thanksgiving should give us all a healthy case of heartburn; no matter what, it is accepted as a cultural norm that from now until the end of the year, we will come together, eat too much and hopefully have a groovy time.
Except that for millions of people, the holidays are anything but that idealized dream that is served up as a societal norm, so much so that we feel perfectly comfortable asking people we barely know about their holiday plans.
Until 2001, every Thanksgiving in my life was spent with my family of origin. Some years it sucked, some years it was great but until 2001, that was my norm. Then I moved to Maine and the first year in Maine, traveling home to Chicago for the holidays simply wasn’t practical and then in my second year in Maine, my mother was ill and we put a hold on turkey day so that my mom could recover, never realizing that in a few short months, she would be gone…forever. In fact it was on Christmas Day 2003 that we would learn that her cancer had metastasized to her brain.
Thanksgiving 2004, my dad and brother made the trek to Maine and I attempted to keep the family traditions going but the truth is that for our family, the winter holidays would never be a joyful affair. The loss of our leader combined with the fact that her last holiday season on earth had been our personal hell just took the joy out of the season.
I would later attempt to create my own traditions as is often suggested especially after my daughter’s arrival. But being a tiny family in a place with no family and not really any close friends either often meant the holidays for us didn’t feel much like any other day except that I was worn out by a day of cooking and cranky as hell, so much so that we all agreed that my cooking the holiday feast was a bad idea. Thus the tradition of gussing ourselves up and going out to eat on Thanksgiving was born. The first year it felt strange but with each subsequent year especially after the eldest child went off to college and couldn’t always make it home, thus reducing us to a trio, it made sense. For Christmas we decided to opt for Chinese for dinner with me preparing a reasonable brunch with homemade cinnamon rolls during the day.
Yet in choosing to find a way to get through the season of joy while not entertaining the ghosts of a life long gone, it is has been interesting to see the reactions of others. Yet I am interested in why we assume that everyone approaches the holidays from the same paradigm. Considering that families are getting smaller and more spread out, why does this notion of a picturesque holiday season loom so large in our collective thoughts? Why, in our attempt to connect and make conversation, do we feel it appropriate to ask people we barely know about their holiday plans? I suppose one could say that I may be thinking too much on the subject but after finding myself engaged in one too many conversations about my own upcoming holiday plans, I was reminded of conversations with a dear friend who is almost 50 and single by choice. He has no kids and isn’t particularly close to his family of origin. Some years ago, I admit to being baffled by his comfort at what seemed at that time “odd” to me only now to realize that perhaps it was odd of me to bring my baggage to his door on holidays.
The truth is that growing numbers of us are living lives that fall outside of the Ward and June Cleaver dream. We live in an era where family relationships are destroyed or altered over Facebook postings yet we cling to this idea that we will get together, break bread and it will be joyful. But at the same time, it makes us uncomfortable with other people’s comfort at accepting the hand that they have been dealt when it comes to family.
Early in my career, I worked at a homeless shelter and homeless shelters don’t exactly close for the holidays…hey homeless person, go back out on the streets today so that we get the day off…nope, it doesn’t work like that. Being the low lady on the organizational totem pole, it meant that I had to work holidays, which meant a few years of truncated visits with my own family on the holiday. My mom, bless her heart, was pissed but she understood. Yet seeing people in the world who truly were alone and reliant on the kindness of strangers in many ways has served me well as I navigate a life that falls outside of the norm. I am comfortably uncomfortable with the remains of family that I have; after all, what are my options?
While I may be comfortably uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that I want the pity of others just as my old friend didn’t want my pity. Instead we ought to do a better job of holding space and accepting that we all walk different paths. For me, it’s the pitying tones that just set me off because it’s in those moments that I feel like “other.” Gee, I am a Black, middle-aged woman in Maine, newly separated and I have virtually no family aside from one sibling and an aging father…can you say: Stands out like a sore thumb? I can’t raise all the family members lost to early death up from the dead. I cannot manufacture a life that does not exist. Instead I wish that we would make room for everyone’s realities and experiences. In fact I am convinced that if we did this in all areas of life, perhaps we would all be a little better off on this dusty rock. So enjoy the start of the holiday season if you are in a place that celebrates Thanksgiving Day and if you are alone or in a space where you aren’t celebrating the holiday, may you find a moment that feels right to you.
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