Many years back, when I was still single and engaged in a long distance relationship with the woman I’d eventually marry, we ached to be together during the Thanksgiving holiday. She flew out to Philadelphia where I’d been sent on a job transfer and we made the best of it. I grabbed the literal last turkey in the grocery store and we baked it in the oven. Then we parted ways again until Christmas.
We’d only met the previous year in October. Any plan of being together long-term was just formulating. Early the next year, the company that moved me out East dumped the entire marketing department. I was left trying to decide what to do next. Stay out East, or move back to the Midwest?
I moved back to live with a friend in downtown Chicago and spent the next couple years living a dual life between the city and suburbs. That was a period of great change and experimentation. After a couple of years, I’d had enough of the Bohemian city life. We got engaged and married the following year.
From there, it felt like a blur of events as our first child came along, then another. We celebrated holidays with our respective families. Those days of celebration together rolled on. Mostly we got together at her family home where her parents were always wonderful hosts. Sometimes my parents would join those festivities. Over the years, we also invited friends to add to our joy.
Our Christmases were filled with family togetherness. The anticipation of opening presents with the kids was so high some years we had to let them open a small gift before the rest of the family got up so they wouldn’t burst from the pressure of expectation. Our kids were always respectful, but when they had a hint of the goodies to come, it was cruel to make them wait several hours to open the “big gift” that they’d requested.
Early on, one of those “big gifts” was the Red Ryder BB Gun from the movie A Christmas Story. It became a new tradition in the annual celebration along with watching the movie umpteen million times.
My father-in-law loved those Christmas mornings more than anything on earth. He also made a big deal out of Easter joys and the annual Easter Egg hunts as well.
His birthday was on the Fourth of July, so that day was always filled grilling steaks and setting off backyard fireworks of the milder kind, except the year that his son and friends loaded up with a stash from across the border in Indiana and blew off so many fireworks the police showed up to confiscate many of them. When the cops arrived, my father salted away the major part of the fireworks stash in the garage. He was a conservative guy by trade, but he also loved a bit of fun. That’s how they did things out in the Nebraska hinterlands where he grew up. You had fun until you got caught. Most of the time, you still got away with it.
These days that father-in-law is gone. He passed away during leadup to Christmas 2012, the year before his daughter, my late wife, passed away after eight years of ovarian cancer treatments. These days, my mother-in-law is quite alive and doing well. But we’re cautious with our visits given the Covid-19 pandemic. My own mother and father passed away in 2005 and 2015, respectively.
So we’ll be apart this year on many fronts. My son lives in Venice, California and the state is rife with Coronavirus, so he’s sitting tight. I cancelled a planned visit with him earlier this year over concerns of infection myself. This will be his time in 34 years that he’s not in company with direct family during the Christmas holidays. It hurts to be apart. But there also comes a point in everyone’s life when circumstances or other interruptions place things out of our control. This is an inside joke with my children, but those changes really do “build character.”
My daughter and her boyfriend live nearby, and we’ll likely see each other. But they’re cautious about the Coronavirus too. Even more than I. So we’ll all Zoom with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and make the best of this holiday the way we have always done. That’s what most families typically do during the holiday season anyway. We go through the motions of opening presents, but to our group’s credit over the years, we dialed that down quite a bit, choosing one person to “gift” each year, and we’d buy or make small themed things for the rest of the family. That took the pressure off the shopping. We could all focus on the joy of appreciation instead. I’m always grateful we did that. It was the right kind of pride to turn our attention away from the presents and toward the relationships.
Our holiday get-togethers were always mixed in with long naps from food comas and other indulgences. For many people, that’s a big part of being together. Letting everyone have their time and space. Sometimes, it’s the unchanging nature of the holidays that makes them special.
We’ve added some critters to our celebrations over the years. This little dog Chuck is a rescue that is now almost fourteen years old. My son has a dog named Luke Skybarker that he’s brought home from the holidays. This will be the second Christmas with our dog Lucy for my wife Sue and I. We’ve all adopted these pups and some cats because they bring change (and joy) into our lives each day.
It’s also true that life’s changes come along whether we like it or not. That’s why finding joy amid the changes in the moment is important. The ache of times past comes from the happy remembrance of shared celebrations. That is the inseparable bond from which we can draw strength. When our hearts ache from being apart, we turn to that. But there is also the joy of creating new traditions, celebrating with newfound connections as well. Over the years, we brought people into our circle to share those bonds. That’s a tradition we should all embrace. Make the world our family.
If this year has proven anything, it is that increasing the breadth of that “circle” is the reason we’re all here. Reach out. Make it happen. The world needs you. Celebrate Christmas or whatever you do by connecting in new ways and old. That’s what this is all about. Peace. And joy to you.