My recollection of my own childhood is an unusually hazy path, punctuated by a handful of clearly defined memories– the frightening or embarrassing or worrisome that stand out most likely because there were accompanied by a rush of adrenaline at the time. There are some memories however that don’t carry such a negative flavor and those are ones which center around the holidays. Thinking about those moment have always brought a mental montage of me proudly buying cards and gifts with my allowance money at my elementary school fair, rushing to complete holiday assignments so as to enjoy the full expanse of the vacation, traveling to Prospect Park to go sledding for a momentary escape from the constraints of urban life, explaining to my classmates what Kwanzaa was despite my own limited understanding, singing Christmas carols in my choir and later, soaking in Motown versions of those same classics at home.
I don’t have any strong memories of any particular Christmas day or Kwanzaa evening but all of those scenes etch together to form a quilted picture of why I’ve always loved the holidays. In fact, for me the season was never about the action of unwrapping presents or sitting down for a formal family dinner or even about sledding down the highest hill. It was always about the feeling that each event carried, and the anticipation of the what was next: Thanksgiving meant Christmas was around the corner, Christmas eve meant that Kwanzaa was up next, Kwanzaa was a harbinger for the new year and so on. Most of all though, I relished the fanfare and the collective effervescence that swept us up into a sea of unadulterated happiness– if for no other reason than it was the holiday season and that’s what we were supposed to feel.
As I am sure it is for most, overtime, some of that innocence faded. Traditions that used to be staple gradually disappeared or lessened in fervor as people grew older, family moved away and finances fluctuated. Not to mention that the personal struggles that we tend to accumulate between January and November made it increasingly difficult to manufacture joy simply out of obligation. If anything, the end of the year was looked forward to as a chance to get some time off, press reset on our lives and convince ourselves that next year will be better.
2015 was different though.
When my aunt was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer we knew things weren’t going to be the same from there on out– we never openly discussed it, but we knew it. We spent Christmas at her house that year, an unspoken but unanimous decision given her friendship and eventually sisterhood with my mother and the understanding that fictive kin is kin all the same. There was a hovering understanding that this would be a holiday that was the first of its kind and the last. The week redefined my understanding of not just the holidays but of the concepts of ritual in general, and it stirred up questions like why do we do things out of custom even when they are fiercely at odds with our current circumstances? And how do you allow yourself to savor time when expiration dates are fast approaching and what mental acrobatics must we perform in order to dive into a moment– knowing that it will be a fleeting one- without completely falling apart?
I was struck by how easily everyone around me created normalcy in the midst of something so profoundly frightening. We shared laughs with visitors and politely teased her about how she wouldn’t let us style her still long and thick plaits of hair. We resurrected the traditions of my childhood and managed to put on one of the most well executed Christmas celebrations I’ve experienced in a while. We tried to make light out of darkness but it felt to me as if our attempts to do such only pronounced the gulf between where we wished we could be and where we were. The juxtaposition between the decadence of the decorations and the fragility of her body was at times, almost too stark to bear. We made decadent meals, per her request, of foods that her body wouldn’t be capable of handling and we bought gifts of all kinds- each thoughtful and well intentioned– but somewhat hollow when it was clear that deep down what we wanted most was simply more time. Its interesting how we do that- how decorum leaves things unsaid, and how that silence makes us feel alone at the times when we need each other the most. All of a sudden, the opulence, the innocence and most of all the anticipation, that I had long associated with this time of year was gone. But the desire to cry and be afraid and grow angry at how unfair life can be was stifled under artificial holiday joy.
Perhaps I ought to be grateful though for that artifice in that it allowed us to show our love, to share our favorite stories about one another and to shroud our final goodbyes under the cover of routine holiday activity. In some ways, it made dealing with what was inevitable a little easier and it gave us permission to express some of the feelings we hoped to leave her with through performance as opposed to direct pronouncements. In fact, most of those things that we do around this time of year, the things that become ritual and regimented, felt genuine for the very first time.
It’s easy as we grow older and develop ourselves to become estranged from the relationships that we have with our families; both the kind that we are given as well as those which we create. Rituals like the holidays then become odd periods where newer, more complicated versions of the people we grew up with reunite and attempt to fit themselves into customs that look familiar but all of a sudden fit a little differently, sometimes too loose, other times too snug. Maybe sometimes we need those things, and we need to work a little harder to redefine them and make them fit our current circumstances because if we use them properly, they can help us articulate how greatly we care, how much we forgive and how deeply we love even when it’s hard or painful –or final.
If the holidays mean anything to me anymore they aren’t check marks on my express journey through life where I’m eagerly awaiting the next stop. They’re a much savored pause- an opportunity to stand still in the moment, to parse out what is real and what is rote, to examine what parts of our traditions remain relevant and which need to acquire new meaning, to hold space for both melancholy and joy, and in the midst of all of that, to create moments as if they were the last of their kind.