Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Christmas ghosts that haunt me (past, present, future, never)

My mother once said something, when we were talking about trying to get time off for Christmas, that struck me. She didn't say it in these words, but this was the implication, & the meaning I took from what she had to say:

Perhaps a family like mine -- where there are now just the six of us (my parents, me & my sister, her longtime boyfriend/partner & my dh), where I grew up without a large extended family close by to celebrate with, where there are no grandchildren on whom to focus the celebration now (and never will be), and the grandparents who used to be with us every single year for Christmas are with us no longer -- perhaps a family like mine needs all hands on deck, even more so than families where there's always an abundance of people underfoot.

Yes, it's great when the whole family can get together, regardless of size. And I know that the day comes for every family when certain key members are not going to be around -- because of work or the kids getting sick or inlaw obligations. Or death. And most families come to terms with that, & accept it.

But when there's only a very small group of people to begin with… and you've managed to spend every Christmas together thus far… I think it hits that much harder when someone isn't able to be there. Especially after a loss, when you know they're not going to be there, ever again. There's just not as big a pool of people around to fall back on for support.

I know that last year, when my sister unexpectedly wasn't able to come home on Christmas Eve for the first time ever, was a bit of a revelation for me. Yes, we don't have any little kids running around at Christmastime -- but we haven't for a very long time. (Even the neighbours' daughter, who still comes over ever year at Christmastime, is now almost 24!). Things have been more or less the same for so very many years, it's easy to sort of lull ourselves & fall back on old roles & traditions. But when someone who's been part of that tradition for so long is no longer there -- my grandparents and, last year, my sister -- it's a real jolt to the system.

Last year, I wrote about one of those revelatory moments, a year or two after my grandparents had gone:

…. we were all sitting down to Christmas dinner, and my father went to get the camera to take a group shot of us seated around the table, as he often had in years past. He stood there looking through the viewfinder and as we all looked back at him, a strange thing happened. He set the camera down without taking the picture, turned and went down the stairs to the basement family room. Everyone looked blankly at each other. My mother got up and followed him down the stairs, and I bowed my head & struggled to hold back the tears. I knew exactly why he had to put down that camera & hide the emotions that had hit him unexpectedly. Instead of growing, our family was actually shrinking -- so many people we loved just weren't there anymore (or, like my daughter, never made it there to begin with) -- and I knew instinctively that he had realized that as he looked through the lens of that camera.

After a few minutes, he came upstairs & took the picture. I love looking at pictures, but this one gives me pain to see. None of us are smiling in it.
My parents, now 67 & 69, are still relatively young… but they are growing older (along with the rest of us). Someday, I know, the dinner table will become smaller still -- until perhaps it's just my sister & me and our respective partners left.

And then what? That's the part I don't like to think about. I dreamed about bringing my children home to my family for Christmas, & passing along our family traditions to them. And it's hurt to watch that dream evaporate.

But it was still just a dream. It never became a reality. I hurt for that unrealized dream. But I still take great pleasure in Christmas as it is right now. When all things are considered, the present is not a bad place to be.

What I love about Christmas present is that it's (still, for now) so firmly rooted in the past -- in who I am, and what my family is about. Christmas has always been the one holiday that was about me and my family's traditions. When I married dh, I left behind my Ukrainian-Canadian/Irish-Swedish-American family and my Prairie roots, and moved to the big city and into his family's welcoming but unfamiliar Italian culture. I told dh then that, since we were living in the same general area as his extended family, they could see us anytime they liked during the year. Christmas has always been important to me & my family, & I wanted to go "home" for Christmas.

He agreed, and that's what we've done for the past 23 years. Our traditions have evolved over the years, of course, and as I said, we've had to adjust, as we moved from town to town & my grandparents grew older & then passed away. But I love the overall continuity of my family's Christmas celebrations, of the rootedness I feel when I'm with them at this time of year. And I dread the erosion, and possible eventual disappearance, of those traditions.

There were big chunks of my Christmas experience that dropped away after we lost Katie & my grandparents died. We adjusted -- but I dread the adjustments that I know will come in the years further down the road. What will I/we do when my parents are no longer here, & it comes down to just me & dh, & my sister & her partner? Will we still try to spend the holidays together? Will dh & I stay here, & try to wangle an invitation to be part of his brother's family's celebrations? I dread the thought of people (once again) feeling sorry for us, & extending invitations to us out of pity.

On other holidays during the year -- Easter, Thanksgiving, etc. -- dh & I are often at loose ends. My MIL died before I ever met her, & the holidays have not been the same for dh & his brother since then. FIL often winds up spending holidays with stepMIL's extended family, and BIL with SIL's -- leaving dh & me at loose ends. Sometimes, we'll get invitations to join FIL at one of stepMIL's relatives' homes, or to go to BIL's to celebrate with SIL's family. Sometimes we accept, more often than not we don't. They are all very nice people, but they are not OUR family.

Is this the shape of Christmases yet to come?

*** *** ***

For now, I will head home to my family for the holidays with an appreciative heart, & count my blessings while they still abound. This morning started out cr@ppily -- 10 cm (about 4 inches) of snow overnight, which wreaked havoc with the commuter train schedules. Which normally wouldn't be such a bad thing, but we had 8 a.m. dentist appointments, & wound up being half an hour late. My dh HATES to be late (or to be kept waiting himself) for anything, & so was in a lovely mood all the way there.

And then I got into the office -- & saw my family doctor's name on the call display of my phone. I just about had a heart attack. I went for my annual mammogram on Monday, & was told they would call my dr with the results within a week or so (which is par for the course). I figured a call just two days later could only mean one thing -- something was wrong. I started hyperventilating & my fingers were trembling as I dialled into my voice mail… only to hear the receptionist's cheery voice telling me the mammogram was NORMAL. Which is spelled R-E-L-I-E-F, lol.

After that, my morning continued to brighten:

  • Dh apologized for the morning, & has been sucking up to me ever since. : )
  • We had coffee together this afternoon, a rare treat during a busy workday (we work in the same office tower & usually commute to & from work together, but rarely see each other during the day).
  • Someone sent us a box of Laura Secord chocolates at the office, & I got to eat both the chocolate-covered cherries as well as the maple creams. : )
  • The cafeteria was serving its annual holiday turkey dinner today, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatos, gravy, vegetables, buns, cranberry sauce, a little cup full of candy & nuts, and your choice of dessert & beverage -- all for $7.75. (Granted, it's not Mom's -- but it will do until I get there, lol.)
  • I went to a noon hour concert in the concourse by The Barra MacNeills, a Celtic-flavoured musical group of siblings from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It was mostly Christmas music, including a high-spirited rendition of "Christmas in Killarney," some step-dancing, beautiful harmonies, an audience singalong to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and an achingly beautiful version of "O Holy Night" that gave me goosebumps & brought tears to my eyes. (I love Celtic/East Coast music. I grew up on the Prairies but, with only one television channel -- the CBC -- watched a LOT of Don Messer's Jubilee, Singalong Jubilee, The Irish Rovers, John Allen Cameron, etc.)
  • I have 1 & 1/2 days left to work before vacation (part of which will be spent at home with my family, the rest around the house).
  • The weather forecast is calling for more snow on Friday & Sunday -- but Saturday is supposed to be clear & good travelling weather. Fingers crossed!!
Who knows what the future will bring? But for now, life is (mostly) pretty damned good. As one of the songs at today's concert went, "Now's the time to have good cheer/ Pass the punchbowl round the table/Christmas comes but once a year." (Or something along those lines. You get the idea.) ; )
Merry Christmas to all of you out there in blogland. I will be checking in from my parents' house (although I may be fighting for computer time with my sister, her partner & my dh, not to mention my parents!).


  1. I think you have nailed down why I am so blue, it's not just that Gabe isn't here, but that with such a small family, it feels very lonely.

  2. Sounds lovely - I am choosing to retreat under my covers this year, so I'm impressed you are full of the holiday spirit.

  3. Loribeth, this is definitely one of the most difficult things for me about being childless after IF. We are fortunate for now that we get together with our parents and sibs and their families for the holidays, but I do wonder about the future and what will happen when our parents pass away. Will we still get together with sibs and families? Will they want to do that, or will they want to celebrate with just their immediate family? It's hard to think about what it would be like if it were just dh and me for the holidays.

    For now, I just appreciate what we have, like you said, and try not to worry about the future. Hopefully if/when that time ever comes, we will find a way to celebrate in a way that still seems special and not like a consolation prize.

    Anyway, a very merry Christmas and safe travels home to you!

  4. Life is all about savoring the joy that's here, while acknowledging the pain that will always be there. You are doing that very gracefully this holiday.

    Many warm and happy moments this Christmas to you and yours!

  5. Merry Christmas to you! Have a safe journey.

  6. Merry Christmas, dear Loribeth!

  7. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Loribeth.

  8. Merry Christmas to you! And safe travels!

  9. Poignant post...those photos can transports us back to difficult or joyful days, depending.

    Merry, Merry Christmas to you, too. The card is in the post ;-)

  10. Wishing you perfect traveling weather and a cozy holiday with loved ones.

    This is a very potent post Loribeth, I know I am going to be thinking on it for quite a while.

    (And I totally agree with shinejil - you are one of the most gracious people I know.)

  11. I know exactly how you feel. I am the only one left of my family, all others have passed. All the traditions with them. Now, I have new traditions with DH's family, which in turn has become my family. They are fun, I enjoy them, but the Christmases of the past are just that and never to be duplicated again. I miss it, I miss my family, but life goes on.

  12. I wonder if I will feel the same as you after 10 years have passed - that apart from losing my baby and the intense heartache I feel that I'll actually like my life. It's inspiring, Loribeth. Absolutely.

    Have a wonderful holiday, Loribeth.

  13. Thanks for this post. I think it helped me understand a bit more about my husband's family which is very, very small...and getting smaller. It is different for me, for sure, where my immediate family now numbers 50...and I'm sure there will be at least one pregnancy announcement as there always is at family gatherings these days.

    Hope your flight got out to wherever you're going and that you revel in the joy of your family.

    Happy Christmas and many blessings for 2009