December was a hard month for me. It was the culmination of my grief, not just of losing my mother, but of losing my whole family, really. Technically I have family still, but they are far away, literally and/or metaphorically. Growing up my family was the center of my world, and, while it wasn’t really a huge family, it felt big for all the love that was there. Holidays, birthdays, other events or not-even-really-anything-in-particular throughout the year, my family would gather and we’d laugh and fight and hug and make memories.
And then my grandma died. And we tried for awhile to stay close. And we did. For awhile. But then my grandpa went into a home and everything was different. And then there were various fallouts with various members of the family. And then my grandpa died and he was the last thing holding us all together. I am close with some members of my family, but it is a friendship in some ways, not a familial relationship. Really, I am on my own in terms of holidays and birthdays.
The holiday season has always been my favorite time of year. The lights in the darkness of Winter, the warm homes in the coldness of the night, the entire world celebrating together. It is still holy to me for all these things.
For all the turmoil of my childhood, we had a solid holiday routine. We went to Christmas on the Prado every year at Balboa Park. We visited the Gem & Mineral Society where my grandpa often worked, we saw the tree display that my grandma had helped the Garden Club with, we visited all the free museums, we drank hot cider, we listened to the choirs. We’d go see our city’s Yule Parade. Us kids counted lit-up houses anytime we drove somewhere. My grandparents would haul the boxes and boxes of decorations out of the garage and my grandma would sing “It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas,” at us while we figured out where to sit the elves and the nutcrackers. Christmas Eve was our big celebration. My grandma’s house smelled different on Christmas Eve; it smelled of warmth, of food, of coats piled on the couch, of branches cut from the coniferous tree in the back yard and trimmed with decorations and lights. We’d spend all evening pestering the grownups about presents even though we knew we’d have to wait until after dinner. At the end of the evening we walked a block to Christmas Circle to see the houses all lit up. Christmas day was quieter, just my mom and I. It didn’t feel as celebratory. I wonder now, if that was my mother’s own self-esteem, and anger at her life? I wonder now if I internalized that attitude and now need to reconsider it?
At some point in the last seven years my family stopped doing Christmas Eve. It was very painful for me, and I tried to fill it with a new tradition. I never really found one, but the pain dulled as time went on.
But I’ve tried to keep my family of origin alive all these years by holding on to the traditions I can hold on to. The kids and I go to Christmas on the Prado every year, we watch the parade, we still visit Christmas Circle.
As this year went on, I began to feel, more and more, as though I am the last. My kids don’t know my grandparents, and they, frankly, aren’t really interested in learning their stories. But even if they were, or grow to be someday, I couldn’t stop wondering what the point was, anyway? What is the point of passing on stories that will, eventually, be forgotten? Is it an attempt to keep my grandparents and family close to me? Is it a primal fear that someday I will be forgotten by my descendants as well? Is it a desire to have someone to share my history with, so that I am not as alone as I feel? I don’t know. I just know that it hurts to let go. And that I have a desperate need to not let go.
So December hit me hard. The kids and I went to Christmas on the Prado. And it was OK at first. But it is so very different from what it was when I was a kid. It’s far more crowded. There are lines to enter the museums. There are vendors selling crappy merchandise and scammy vacation homes lining all the walkways now. We pretend not to notice the carnival that sets up every year. So it was OK at first. But then we went to the art museum. And I’d told my kids before we went that I really wanted to enjoy it with them. But then they didn’t enjoy it at all. They sat on the benches to wait until I was finished. And that wasn’t what I’d wanted at all. What I wanted was for my family – my childhood family – to be there with me. It was unfair for me to expect that from my kids, from my life in 2012. But I expected it. And when I saw that I wasn’t going to get it, I left the museum. The kids were upset that they had hurt me, but I knew it wasn’t them. I wasn’t able to put my finger on it, though. Not for a few minutes. And then I named it: grief. I was alone. My family, at least metaphorically, was dead. I was an orphan. I couldn’t handle the heaviness, and I sat down in the place where it hit me, just across from Santa Claus in his sleigh, and I wept bitterly. I cried like someone had just died right at that moment. And when my tears were spent, the kids and I got up and did a few more things and I think they had fun. But I felt dead inside. And I realized that I have to let Christmas on the Prado go. And maybe everything else that ties me to my childhood.
And that was how December went. As with grief, some parts were darker, but others were lighter and filled with real joy. Last year I wanted desperately to have my home filled with people for our holiday, but this year I was content to make it a celebration with just us. And it really was beautiful; even if it was small, it didn’t feel empty.
I wonder if I can find a line between remembering where I came from, and living my life for what it is now? I don’t know what that might look like. For now I am sitting with the idea of my Alone-ness, and what it means for who I am and who I will be, both the positive and negative aspects of that. I feel like, as usual with grief, December was transformative for me. I am seeing things differently, and that means operating differently. I’m letting go, at least of some things, and that can be freeing and can provide a fresh start. Maybe 2013 is the year my life begins?