Living Grief (and Love) During The Holidays

BlogHer Original Post

We did our best, my brothers and me, but even though the house was full it felt empty. I made Christmas dinner, and we took a picture of us all at their dining room table, and we toasted them, of course -- the juxtaposition of toasting their lifetime together just a mere year before almost too tart to bear -- and we stayed away from the words that could bring tears. Grief isn't what I remember from that day, but truthfully, I don't really remember much at all.

This year as the holidays started their early and unsubtle descent, I felt the loss of my parents all fresh and new, as if the protective bandage of time passing by had been stripped away. Because the holidays mattered so much to my family, they now matter to me more than ever. But I don’t want this to be my sad season, year after year after year. This cannot be the way I honor their memories, I thought to myself. So this year I chose change. I decided to head to a different kind of Christmas wonderland, Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, a very special place for my son and boyfriend and me. I scaled down my plans for Christmas dinner, settling on simpler dishes and less preparation, which both my son and my boyfriend prefer to my momentous meals of much and many. I am making no Christmas cookies, since there's no mother to call when one of the recipes invariably goes wrong, her amazing knowledge of baking saving any mishap.

This paring away of this many family signposts of the holidays may seem like a kind of denial, but to me it's been a beautiful acceptance. Life is different now. Very different. I want to keep my eyes focused on creating new gifts of the holiday season, for me, for my family, lest they always be filled with tears this time of year.

And also, this: I didn't give up everything. I kept one family holiday memory to treasure, and focus on it like a prayer; the annual ritual that brings my parents close to me, so close I can almost sense them in the room: the tree.


This year I my boyfriend and I carried home an eight-foot-tree, a gorgeous Douglas Fir from Canada. We got it in the doors and up the stairs (apartment life), got it situated in its cast-iron base, went to the basement to bring up the six or seven boxes of decorations, and then I went to work. First, the white lights, carefully and slowly wound around the tree trunk, nestled deep in the inside branches. One, two, three, four, five strands. Next, the colored lights, placed around the outside, up and down the stepladder I went, spreading the bright jewels of color just so. My boyfriend and son had disappeared into their own entertainments, leaving me to my meditation. I put on Handel's Messiah, and sang along, hearing my mother's voice as she sang the same words. A friend stopped by and marveled at my precision, saying, "You sure know what you're doing there, don't ya?" I laughed and answered yes, and explained I was following an ancient bit of family wisdom, and that my father would approve.

Opening every box, lifting out every ornament, adding to the mix this year many ornaments I brought home from my parents' boxes -- it was the happiest grief I have ever felt. And I knew that this is what I will do, for as long as the forever is that I have, to keep my parents with me at the holidays.

After my son, Zack, had come into the living room to flit around the tree and hang his tin airplanes and trains, and the wooden fish from St Croix and the birch canoe from the Adirondacks -- creating memories that are both new and familiar to me -- we turned off all the lights and gazed at our sparkling, towering talisman. "It's the most beautiful Christmas tree, ever, mama," he breathed. And I had to agree. In this tree I see the everything in life -- the shine and the sparkle, the memories and history, wonder, nature, life, then death, the fleeting beauty of so many of life's resonant moments. And since these moments are fleeting, I made the executive decision to put up my tree well before Christmas Eve, so I can think about life and love and grief and my family and my future for many, many nights in December, sitting quietly in my living room, the sparkle of the lights glistening in my eyes.


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