November 25, 2021

Holidays, Traditions, and Grief

When it came to writing an obituary for my mom, I was at a loss.  How does one sum up the aura of a person? The totality of who she was, from her outlandish sense of humor to her strong opinions, artistic skills, and varying roles as mother, wife, friend, daughter.  It was an impossible task complicated by the not-so-subtle reminders from the church that the priest had somewhere to be after the funeral, so we needed to be mindful of time.  When we decided that all four of her children would deliver the eulogy, I could see the woman squirm a little.  The priest is busy; the church is booked; this worst-time-of-your-life is just another business transaction, so please be quick.  


Her life and our grief were so large they felt like the ocean.  They were vast and impossible to condense into our allotted three or four minutes.  Any attempt would fall short, so we didn’t even try.  Instead, we thought about our traditions with her.  


Every holiday that we were all together as a big extended family, she would set the table with a set of plates that she had made in a ceramics class.  I was there when she made them, an awkward middle-schooler with no artistic talent taking a class with her mom who could paint an entire oil painting of two people in love in just one night.  I made ceramic snowball people with pipe cleaners for arms and legs and tiny ceramic ice skates and mittens.  As I worked on these, she painted an intricate ceramic chess set and these plates.  The plates are relatively simple, cream-colored with ancient runes painted around the edge and handwriting in the middle.  She used the Corinthians “Love is Patient, Love is Kind” passage and split it between 12 plates. 


They would line the table’s perimeter every holiday, each covered by an ornate-looking holiday popper.  We always dressed nicely for these occasions, and when it was time to eat, we would all sit around the big table, and everyone would pop open their holiday popper at the same time and dig out the paper crown and other goodies hidden in the center.  After the commotion settled and the mess of the poppers was cleaned, our crowns in place on our heads, we would go around the table and read our plates before we began to eat. Of course, as kids, we would grumble and complain. I can still see my brother James purposely choosing the plate with the shortest message and slumping his shoulders, mumbling his turn to make it clear that this was annoying.  Annoying or not, it was our tradition.


When we were faced with a church full of people and the black cloud of our grief threatening to suffocate us, we decided to carry on her tradition.  We were dressed up like we always were on holidays with the unwelcome addition of red puffy eyes and hearts that were broken and beating too fast.  We asked someone to bring the plates to that big beautiful church with its vaulted ceilings and good acoustics.  The entire church was silent despite every pew being full.  In true form, we were unorganized and running behind.  Someone from the church approached us to politely ask us to hurry it up.  In the silence, you could hear the clanking of the plates as we frantically tried to arrange them in the correct order, the sound reverberating through the silence.  The four of us went to the front of the church together, each with a pile of plates in our arms, and we read them for our mom one last time.  


That was 12 years ago.  It is now November and the holidays are once again barreling towards us at a speed I am (always) unprepared for.  Thanksgiving is here again.  It is now one of the holidays that I look forward to the least.  Since her death, our family tradition filled with extended family and a large meal, paper crowns, and chaos has also disappeared.  Sometimes it really is one person who is the center of family gatherings. In the years since, we have been like leaves detached from its tree, floating through the wind without the roots holding it in place.  Every year we attempt something different, desperately wanting some sort of tradition for my own children to look back on, but nothing has stuck.  We have tried traveling and having some kind of adventure with our kids, we have tried eating with friends, and we have spent years like this one at home, just us, hoping they will look back at the common thread of us just being together.  But my heart still aches for those big meals with family we don’t see often enough and traditions that repeat and become locked in your memories like we had with my mom’s plates. 


If this is your first holiday without someone special to you or your twentieth, it’s okay to feel that constantly changing mixture of gratitude and nostalgia for what was. It’s okay if you don’t have the same traditions anymore, or if you don’t have any at all. It’s okay if you choose to create your own or if you throw up your hands and decide that this will just be another day for you. It’s okay if you cry, even if it has been years. It’s okay if you laugh and enjoy all of these new memories you are making.  Whatever you decide to do for the holidays is okay; all of the love that used to be there for these holidays is still there in some form or another.  Mine is in the stack of plates hidden away in a cabinet above our refrigerator, there for when I need them.  


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A place to honor those who have passed away by continuing to share their memories and stories, and to provide comfort and support to the families and loved ones who miss them.  Moving beyond traditional sympathy cards and societal norms to encourage more dialogue, acknowledgement, and acceptance of grief and loss. 
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