Family Gatherings of a New Kind

Well, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Mom’s already worrying about where we’ll find room for Auntie Sue and Cousin Bill when they fly in for Thanksgiving, commercials are beginning to boast Black Friday deals for gifts to make Junior light up with joy, and you are busy wracking your brain for the best (and in my case as a broke recent college graduate, the cheapest) holiday presents for all the loved ones on your list. Each landmark of the season emphasizes the same message: the holidays are a time for family. Yet in spite of these same old indicators, this holiday season isn’t going to be quite the same for mine. These past few months I’ve lost some of the most pivotal and, to be fair, completely kooky figures in my life: my headstrong grandma, her kleptomaniac sister, and a fiery aunt. It has been a disturbingly unbalanced year of grief-stricken moments, with the loss of one family member hitting right after the other like a terrible game of dominoes. So at first, this impending family-focused season seemed like nothing but a looming reminder of those I had lost; of how our holidays, our traditions, and our whole family had changed forever

Growing up, I was never much a fan of change, and so the holidays each year were my heyday; it was a time of year I could always count on, with the same old traditions repeating in their perfect pattern. Every Thanksgiving I could expect loads of mashed potatoes prepared by my all Irish-blooded grandma, a plea from my dad to get a potato pot that wasn’t missing a handle (and threatening to topple boiling water all over him), and the mandatory pumpkin pies that no one ever touched. I knew there would be secret-family-recipe-stuffing made by my aunt, which we only discovered years later was taken straight from the back of the Pepperidge Farm box, and a bowl of it prepared for both the “kid table” and the “adult table.” I knew my grandma would grumble when she realized we’d forgotten to put the cranberry sauce out yet again this year and that there would be the frenzied drawing of the Secret Santa before relatives began to depart. I knew my cousins would leave before dinner to make it back home in time to greet their opposite side of the family, and that my uncle wouldn’t pay the pricey airline fees to attend Thanksgiving but would sure as hell be up for Christmas. And all of these nuances—the loving, the nit-picky, the bizarre—they were all A-Okay by me because I knew them. They all made up a collective signature, signing off on another successful family Thanksgiving.

Christmas was always packed full of sacred traditions in much the same way. Each Christmas I could bet there would be buttery sugar cookies baked to perfection by my mom and topped off with festive red and green sugar. I knew my brother would guess at each present before he opened it Christmas morning until my parents decided to start placing rocks inside the packages so he couldn’t decipher the gifts with a simple shake. I knew my grandma would protest if we didn’t save the wrapping paper or blacklist you if you dared throw away leftovers from Christmas dinner (she was not one to waste anything, even the watery remnants of an old Caesar salad). I knew we’d pass around the phone taking turns saying “Merry Christmas” to distant relatives who couldn’t join us, and that my dad would offer me a taste of the Christmas ham before it was served to anyone else. These were the facts of my life.

Even the get-togethers that didn’t go quite according to plan still somehow squeezed themselves into the label of a forevermore family tradition. One year, for instance, my dad chopped his finger nearly clean off while grinding coffee beans for Christmas dessert; now, each Christmas is not complete until someone calls out “And don’t let Glenn make the coffee!” and the room breaks out in laughter as we retell the story yet again.

christmas-ham

You get the picture: the traditions of our annual family gatherings are essential to me. But I’ve been scared about how these get-togethers will change. Will all the grandchildren still go to the movies on Christmas Eve now that our grandma is gone? Will the rest of my aunts and uncles still come to Thanksgiving now that we have lost one of their siblings?

holiday-movie-tradition

But in all my worrying and pondering and plotting about how to preserve our traditions, I’ve realized something: our traditions were always in flux. They’ve always had to morph to fit new circumstances as our family has grown and changed. When my great aunt became too frail to leave her nursing home to join us for Christmas, a new tradition emerged of a small group of us going to visit her each year. When my grandma’s arthritis got too bad for her to peel and mash potatoes anymore, she taught me how. When my brother went off to college, we rescheduled our Christmas tree picking for Thanksgiving weekend so he could be home for the event. And when he got married, his wife joined us in the tradition. When my cousin had kids of her own, we added new stockings with their names on them to the wall and readjusted the Secret Santa accordingly. When cousins grew older and had to work through Christmas Eve, we set aside a plate of food for them and saved present opening until they got there. When the grandkids got too old to be amused by Christmas caroling for grandma, we developed a new tradition of taking grandma to play laser tag. And when she got too old to run around the course with us, we put a chair in the arena so she could play from the sidelines.

laser-tag

You might rail against the change like me and struggle when those kooky traditions you count on one year are gone the next. But change isn’t all bad. It’s inevitable. And it leaves room to create new traditions. Cherish those long-held family traditions while they’re still around, and when they have to change—because now you’ve got to split time between the in-laws, or divide holidays over a set of divorced parents, or account for new grandchildren in your Secret Santa, or even recalibrate after a death in the family—cherish those new traditions too. They’ll be the ones you’re looking forward to at next year’s family Thanksgiving.


 

**Erin Kane is a graduate of Marist College where she studied English, creative writing, theatre, and social work as well as a recent graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course. Published in both the academic and creative writing fields, she is thrilled to now be pursuing a career in the publishing profession.

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