I tend to ruminate, mull and ponder. Subject matter can be almost anything, but I think I spend the bulk of my time examining relationships and emotions. I wonder about my part in them and am always trying to get to their real truth, whatever that means. During the winter holiday season, which I’ve always abhorred, I tend to go deeper into myself. After Thanksgiving, which is at least gift and religion neutral for the most part, we enter that period where the pressure really builds on people. This time of year is particularly difficult for those who aren’t leading the lifestyles portrayed to us by virtually all media outlets and the retailers who affirm them with the excessive Christmas decorations that appear earlier and earlier every year. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, daily specials, all beckoning us to buy that magic something which will be the perfect thing for the perfect people we love in our perfect worlds. Everyone has someone. Everyone is in a relationship. Everyone is having a great time. When you don’t have what you’re made to believe everyone else does, life can feel very oppressive.
My personal life is very far from perfect and has always been flawed, even at its best. I suspect that most people feel similarly and that except for rare occasions, they feel more like imposters than genuine individuals, trying to stay balanced while navigating these commonly held societal traditions. I’ve been trying to demystify some of these iconic days and look at each one as precisely that – a day. I started working on this when Michael and I were living within minutes and hours after his diagnosis. Such a challenging way to be even after practicing really hard.
But practicing helps so I was mentally better at this second Thanksgiving without Michael than I was last year. I guess I’m emotionally healthy enough to adapt to what I have to accept, as long as I’m alive and cognizant. I realized some other things as I thought my way through the beginning of what is a holiday slog for me. There are demarcation points in my life, points at which what were the secure, repetitive, homey traditions changed.
As a young kid, my life revolved around my family of origin. My family had complex problems, as do so many, but there was a stability about holiday events, when comfort foods were cooked and everyone came together with the group members being the same for a very long time. Some relatives lived far away but there was a central group which was intensely bonded. Eventually, a few people moved to different parts of the country. But I had parents and grandparents, siblings, an uncle and aunt and some cousins with whom we shared the holidays for quite a long time. One year, my brother had a terrible argument with my parents and they cancelled Thanksgiving. I was hurt and angry and felt frustrated and inconsolable. My approach to that situation was taking over the holiday myself. I was thirty, a new mother and I realized that I could carry on the good traditions, while eliminating the random, unpleasant choices that other family members could thrust on me. I essentially assumed the role of matriarch. I hosted my parents and different siblings along with their kids. We added cousins and their families, and friends as well, especially those who were sorely missing a place to feel included and part of a festive time. For thirty-five years, that tradition held. I let it go when Michael died and that is ok.
I contributed to both last year’s and this year’s meals. It felt mostly normal. I thought about my mom, who, almost without exception, would announce every year that she loved Thanksgiving and wished that she could still prepare the meal. I don’t want to be that person.
Although I have an occasional urge to throw a big party, it was getting harder every year and now lacks that special luster that glowed out of Michael and me. I want to be present, in my current place and not wishing for what is past.
As I looked around this year’s dinner, I realized how much smaller these family events have gotten over time. My dinners were usually for 20-25 people. Once I think we squeezed 27 into the dining room. But this year, we were 12 family members and an extra friend. I realized that my children’s generation, at least those who are geographically close to me, have only produced 2 kids. Maybe there’ll be more or maybe not. I am now the elder. And there are more absences around the table. I don’t feel like the oldest person in many ways, but the numbers don’t lie.