Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Unplugging Christmas: The Story of Threes

When I was a child, we always celebrated Christmas three times.  The first would be our traditional visit to my mother's parents for Christmas Eve on the farm at Elbert.  My uncle Jimmy always had to work until noon, so we would impatiently wait for their car lights to turn down the lane to Mama and Papa's as the arrival of my city cousins signaled the start of Christmas.  After a big dinner that evening, we would open the presents. I remember one year sitting on the couch and reaching across to plug in the lights to the tree while Papa took movies.

Sometimes we would spend the night at Mama and Papa's and go the next morning to my dad's parents--about 10 or so miles away.  I only remember spending Christmas Eve at Grandma's once.  At times, we would drive back home to our house and spend Christmas Eve.  The routine was Daddy would go in the house to "light the fires" and we waited in the car with Mother.  Amazingly, Santa Claus had come while we were gone to Mama and Papa's.  Of course, it would be many years before we would catch on that Dad was doing something other than lighting the fires--which of course, he never did any other time of the year before we were able to go into the cold house.  So Santa coming was the second time.

Christmas Day was always at Grandma and Grandpa's.  Christmas at Grandma's always seemed full of tension, and often one could count on something unpleasant happening.  Some daughter-in-law would get in a tiff over something Grandma said that upset her, or there would be some kind of issue over a present, or an unflattering photograph would end up in the family album.  Personalities were strong-willed in this side of the family, to put it in the kindest way.

In later years, we would have Christmas Eve at mom and dad's and both sides of the family would be there.  As our family grew and our grandparents aged, it was a solution to the need for a larger place that was central in location.  One favorite memory was the year we decided to have Christmas night dinner and make Mexican food.

The first year we unplugged Christmas at mom's was the year that my aunt, my grandmother and my sister decided the celebration should be held at my aunt's house in Abilene.  They called to tell my mother and she said she and my dad would not be able to come; if they left, my dad's parents would be alone.  They thought she would relent at the last minute.  Instead, she took her Christmas tree down, deeply hurt, and vowed it would be the last year she put it up.  For over 20 years, there has been no tree in their house.  Though presents may have been exchanged, it was never the get together that it had been in the past, with everyone there.

This year, Mom made plans for a big family get together and everyone planned to come.  It would be a long (12 hours) drive for me, and the timing was terrible with my work, but I thought it important to go.  I said I would, if we could put up a tree, and a real one at that.  After a very pleasant and fun 4 days with my parents, shopping, going to the grocery store, taking pictures, having coffee with dad each morning, watching movies, and just hanging out, I went to get the Christmas tree.  It was fun with my dad and my brother and I trying to get it to stand straight--we never did, and my brother impromptu singing a song about 'westward leaning' and we all laughed.  We put it in the breezeway as there was really no room for it in the den, and the smell filled the little room.  I sat out there a while and enjoyed the lights.  Though it was not Christmas Eve yet, I was excited about the next day, which would be our pseudo Christmas Eve, and after all, what difference did the day make?

There seems to be something about anticipation of big events that triggers the emotions of families, at least in mine.  And these days, with divorces and remarriages and split families, it goes without saying that holidays can be trying and difficult, in spite of our desires and hopes.  Friday night, I unplugged the lights on the tree, picked up my bags and headed home to Mississippi.  The whys are not to be shared--nor would any one really care--but it was a symbolic moment for me.  It was one of those things that leaves you wondering "how did this happen?" and feeling lost and bereft.  I understood how my mother could have chosen to take her tree down 20 years ago, and never put it up again, even though her mother and her sister have been gone from us for a while now.  She understood their decision to do that, but was wounded by it none the less, as it felt to her as if her presence and her wishes did not count in the decision making.  I suppose that is something of the feelings I had that prompted my decision to go--the feeling that the hurt that ensued would be insurmountable by the next day.  The unplugging of the lights was really about safety more than anything, but I kept thinking during the long drive home about unplugging Christmas.

I had unplugged Christmas--so to speak--many years prior when I stopped celebrating it either religiously or secularly.  After our son was born, we did begin to celebrate secularly, but we always told him his presents came from Mommy and Daddy, and that Santa was a pretend person for fun.  We also explained that some children thought Santa was real, so he should respect that belief and not say anything to them; that their parents would tell them when they were ready for them to find out.  He always seemed okay with that, and it was never an issue.

So, here I was, repeating the story of the threes at Christmas.  For the third time since I became an adult, here was a hurtful Christmas, coming unplugged, marring my deepest desires for a meaningful connection that apparently was not to be.  What could or should I make of it?  
When I was planning for the trip, I ran across some ceramic ornaments.  They struck me as significant for the way that I was feeling then and my desires for the coming trip and coming year.  The three ornaments (there are those threes again!) said hope, peace, and joy.

I do have hope, and I want hope in my life and hope in the world.  Hope is the first of the ego qualities we need to master as an infant.  Hope, that our needs will be met, and that the world will be a safe place for us.  I have always had hope, even in the worst of circumstances.  My brother commented on my "Obama ornament."  I did not realize what he meant at first, and when I did, I said, "Hope has been around long before President Obama was elected."  He made some comment that I don't recall at the moment about not seeing it where he was or something, and I replied, "then you are clearly not hanging out with the same kind of folks as I do."

The second ornament, peace, is my hope and prayer for the world, and for my family.  Now cognitively, I know peace will not come--period.  We are just too stubborn a people and too embedded in our sense of what is right to ever do the hard and necessary work involved in peace making.  But again, I can hope for it, and do some of the work in achieving it, and stand in solidarity with others who are engaged in peace work.

And, I wish us joy.  That in spite of the lack of peace, that hope seems sometimes an impossible and distant future, that I want joy in my life.  I want joy in the lives of the people--those I know and those I do not.  Somehow, the ability to have joy and to express joy in the face of the world today is essential.  How does one have joy in the midst of a war-torn country where you don't know from hour to hour if you will survive?  How does one have joy in the midst of a refugee camp where you don't know if you will be raped or killed or go hungry or watch your children die?  How does one have joy whilst lying on a cot or a rag of a blanket dying from AIDS or malnutrition or any other malady we can imagine? And how do you have joy when families sometimes say and do hurtful things out of their own hurts?

I find joy in my work, my family, and my friends.  Those are the things that sustain me, give me hope, and a sense of peace.  Yesterday, I walked through my yard, looking for a pine tree that would do for a Christmas tree.  I wanted to put one up, somehow symbolically signaling I would not let go of my hope.  But the more I looked, the less important the symbol became.  I called my mom, and talked to her and dad.  I cried; we acknowledged the fun of the few days I was there.  I said I knew the hurt was real for all of us, and that I had chosen to leave to avoid deepening the hurt for all of us as well.  I said I loved them and that I loved my brother.  

In due time, hope, peace, and joy, and an end to the threes.


Gigi said...

This is beautiful and I love the symbolism throughout. I, too, wish for hope, peace and joy for all of us, and believe that they may be difficult to achieve, but not impossible. I certainly wish them for you through the struggles and difficult times.

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

Boy, was this a journey through time and space for me. Christmas can be challenging for all, but one thing to be disspelled: it is NOT true that there are more suicides this time of year. And there can always be hope.

Years ago, my family had two Christmases; the one at home, and the one with the rest of the family at Grandpa and Grandma's downtown. What wonderful memories. Thanks for bringing them back for me.

These certainly are, ahem, "challenging" times indeed.


Suzassippi said...

Thanks, BZ and Gigi. May we all find some way to come together in recognition that there is room enough for all of us, and that a challenge is just that.

Alaska Steve said...

That is a story that I think everyone can relate to - I certainly know I did. My family back in Maine is so sensitive and it seems that someone always gets their feelings hurt, despite best intentions. Sometimes I wonder if I'm a bit of a coward, "hiding out" in Alaska for 20 years, my feeling safe and sound, despite my frequent trips back to the east coast.

Happy holidays and thanks for sharing with us! Hope you can make it out to the island again sometime.

Suzassippi said...

Sometimes living on a island in the Bering Sea sounds like a great plan. LOL

Happy holidays to you as well. I'll be dropping in from sunny Belize on Friday and see how things are going in Dutch!