What do carved pumpkins, specters lazing on porches, rustling cornstalks and twinkling orange lights do for you? Bring a robust cheer to your routine day? Provide inspiration for your own DIY frenzy? Or do they trigger a mixed response– as they do me?
Creative Halloween decorations make me a bit nervous. It’s like being pleased by something that also provokes wariness: what is behind this rampage of homespun design? The first displays of skeletons and gargantuan webs stretched across porches and climbed by black spangled spiders are fun but don’t seem entirely benign. And it’s not that I have an abhorrence of Halloween. As a kid I had a blast running (gently) amuck in energy-charged neighborhoods in my funky costumes, thrilled as my hand-decorated paper bag filled with cavity-inviting, scrumptious treats. For many I years enjoyed going out with grandchildren, though times changed and everyone is more cautious.
But these fanciful decorations are a precursor to all that follows–Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sure enough, as I wander the neighborhood chuckling over decor, I’m trapped, thinking of holidays when I prefer to not be. It’s October. Bring on bonfires, hot mulled cider and apple strudel, crispy vibrant leaves, that shock of wind with a hint of an edge. But please hold the smorgasbord of Thanksgiving displays and those creeping signals of impending Christmas hullabaloo.
Lest you get the idea that I don’t enjoy a redolent spread on our old oak dining table or getting a fresh-cut fir tree from foggy country acreage–I do. And this year is no different. I am also a Christian so Christmas narrates events that resonate deeply. But all the holiday celebrations that are touted as essential to my well-being take a low spot on a list full of other things. That is part of the problem: I don’t really have time for all of this. It matters little that I don’t work for a paycheck now. I’m more than busy with what matters–plus a fair amount of frivolity tossed in daily. Why mar it with mad pressure to make these holidays jollier than last year, expectations of “hostess with the mostest”? And a panoply of gifts? We have five adult children and their partners; five grandchildren and additional folks. I love to give interesting items to others, do so any old time of the year. I don’t so appreciate hunting and foraging amid throngs for stuff trotted out and designated for commercialized holidays. Gifts that may not click with me or, likely, the giftee.
And I don’t crave a lot of visual stimuli to remind me of holidays. My home doesn’t need to be orange pumpkin-marked, scarecrow-adorned–nor cheaply tinseled, swathed in massive red bows, fake snow sprayed in clumps and bits. I do like baking my few favorite holiday cookies and treats; we all love eating them. I am no longer truly cooking–I gradually opted out–so you can’t count on me to stuff and baste that turkey in November, though my spouse will (and enjoy it, too). I’ll make hearty salads and cut up veggies for steaming. And enhance the table with a variety of candles, a centerpiece and my good yellow (or pine-green or deep burgundy) tablecloth.
I can assure you I’m not stingy or curmudgeonly. In fact, as others grumble about the holiday season, I’ve tended to anticipate the fun, richer moments it affords. But the last few years we’ve privately said: “Let’s skip the holidays–maybe go to Hawaii!” as if we mean it a little. We’re a little older, and perhaps less enthused as well as underwhelmed by commercial overkill. Plus, let’s face it, there is no sprawling country domain to which our family comes to gather–the one adorning Christmas cards or gazed upon in movies when a child. No bell-ringing sleigh ride over hill and dale to Grandmother’s (our humble, cheery) shining bright house.
But it’s more than that for me. And I am trying to sort it out.
My niece and nephew-in-law are moving today, all the way to Texas. This may seem irrelevant but they are two more whose exodus changes life’s greater landscape. I didn’t see them often over the twenty-eight years my niece, Lori, lived there–they resided in suburban Seattle. I saw them more at Lori’s mom’s, my oldest sister’s home, whenever I visited her and my zestful brother-in-law. I’m wondering why now–I could have made even more of an effort. We could have made more memories–I enjoy being an aunt and I don’t only like my handful of nieces, I love them, of course.
Last week we got together with much of the Portland family in attendance to send them off. But she also wanted to bring items she had sorted from her mother’s last home. Because my sis, Marinell, passed away a year and a half ago; her well-loved husband, six months later. Still, I hummed as I shined up our apartment and put on an outfit that reminded me of my sister and our gabby shopping trips. Recalled the good times Lori and her husband and we have shared in the past. We would be a small, chattering, motley group. I made coffee and tea, assembled shortbread cookies on a floral glass serving plate. Lit two small candles in amber owl holders as a nod to October’s wiles.
We assembled: my remaining sister, my oldest brother and his wife, a niece and her guy, Lori and her husband and my spouse and I. Lori opened an photgraph album. Family energy seemed to spill from pictures, those noteworthy or ordinary moments created by siblings and parents, our large extended family. A faint shiver fell upon me–those gone were with us. As we reminisced, I thought of the remainder. Moved to different geographies if not in the land of the sentient. My other brother and sister-in-law are in Virginia; most of our grown children thrive in other states.
This is the way it goes, I well know, and want to believe I accept: we are born with fanfare; hopefully live to the fullest and the best we can; exit the world alone or surrounded by whomever cares. We make our transitory marks in the world, are forgotten. We come together, are broken apart, share joys, sorrows and countless mundane moments that structure our lives.
Lori unwrapped from tissue paper some hand-sewn clothing belonging to Marinell, and preserved for fifty years or more. Dresses and a blouse and skirts my mother had once expertly made. As she held them each up, I saw Marinell once more in her features and mannerisms. My hands smoothed the taffeta and polished cotton, lace and netting, examined the interesting old buttons. Lori offered any my vintage-loving daughters (or I) might enjoy as a gift. I chose ones that seemed suitable and knew how pleased they’d be pleased to keep and even wear, finely made one-of-a kind pieces by their grandmother. (For more about her creations, please see this post: Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter)
Suddenly fresh sadness caught me off guard. I looked at Lori. Saw it in her eyes, too, but we decided no, not then, not such tender sadness to complicate a last visit. I appreciated the past but wanted to celebrate her movement forward, toward new possibilities now that her sons were grown and her mother and stepfather (really her second father, she felt) gone. We all went off to an Italian restaurant, filled up with good food, stories and debated ideas, then pffered a delayed Bon Voyage. It was hard. I wondered what Christmas would look like in Texas for Lori and her husband, prayed it might be imbued with times of ease and joy as well as any fanfare they desire. I want you to be truly happy I thought as we blinked back tears, exchanged warm hugs.
So when I think of the holidays, I also think of this: how many have gone on in one way or another. Family has always been a high priority. I was the last born, a surprise to a woman who was already swamped with four close in age and teaching other children, as well as my father’s more public career. Forty years old at my birth (five years after her last), I never knew her as truly young though her spriti was bright and strong. I grew up with an overachieving, colorful family and then, at age 13, my siblings were no longer present. They were all college students and after that, they followed their careers’ paths. Two remain in the Pacific Northwest and are in their seventies, both engaged in full lives. (And we remain here partly because of my husband’s career–perhaps we’ll away, who knows?)
It is now much the same with my children’s situations. One, an arts center outreach and marketing manager, lives in California with her husband. Another is a chaplain/minister in Virginia. A third is an associate art professor/sculptor in South Carolina. They are working where they have jobs and count their blessings. They are, excepting the California offspring, very far from here and she is unable to get away from work around holiday seasons. Two more reside in our city; three grandchildren are also here. But the crowd around our table or living room is becoming smaller than I’d like it.
My parents passed away decades ago. I think often of visiting my mother-in-law, in her late eighties, in Florida. I bring it up to my husband often, with a growing sense of urgency. I so appreciate Beth’s inquisitive mind, exacting language and positive attitude. Her faith and will to persevere. She’d be so pleased to see us again. So tonight he is researching our options. It’s possible we’ll go before or after Christmas. I’m getting excited by that idea. Hawaii can wait–maybe next year. Maybe not.
Suddenly the holidays are feeling more enticing. I don’t have to worry; I can take it easy. Keep my priorities clear. Who needs what will be put aside or eventually tossed away? It is family, always family that sings to my soul outside my individual creative endeavors. I don’t need fancy or unique or glittery or snowy. I’d rather give and receive love, time, talk, a variety of activity. I vow to stay well focused on the essential core I value. Whether a small grouping or bigger one, whether family and friends or others in need: I want to share myself. Kindly, wisely, with laughter and hugs. Even without splendid trimmings which can distract too much. Alright, I do admit one small orange straw pumpkin and a white ceramic one came out for my niece and all. Just for the table centerpiece. And there will be an evergreen (with berries) bough or wreath on our door. Meanwhile, it is still October, the days shaped by brightly drifting leaves and the musical rain, evenings made better with a big cozy blanket and fragrant mugs of clove and cinnamon tea. I’m keeping it simpler from here on out.