Thursday, December 3, 2015

Writing Lab: On Traditions, Family, and Filling the Void

I don't actually have children, nor have I ever wanted any. I've never developed even a hint of a maternal instinct or thought I would make a good mother. That said, I guess I'm realizing I've never really thought about anything to do with the holidays (or life in general) from that particular angle -- what it would all look like as one of the heads of a family.

I've never daydreamed about having someone to mentor and teach things to someday. I've never wondered what it would be like to have somebody else to inherit my traditions and keep them alive after I'm gone. I have no idea if it's odd for a 39-year-old woman to literally never have considered those things, but there it is just the same.

Seth has three children from his previous marriage. Back when we first got together, I assumed that sooner or later I would wind up developing some form of stepmother relationship with them at some point. But they're older now and seem to have little to no interest in either of us, so at this point, I pretty much just take it for granted that such relationships weren't part of God's plan for me. It's not even something that bothers me. It seldom to never crosses my mind and I don't feel like anything is missing from my life because I'm not really a parent in any capacity. It just is what it is like a lot of things in life.

........

I'm not even sure there are that many honest-to-God traditions that were passed down to me by my family or anyone else, for that matter. My parents no longer cared about each other or got along since as long as I can remember, so while they certainly went through the motions of trying to give us a nice Christmas every year, I was very intuitive even as a child. I knew my parents weren't in love and were only still putting up with each other "for the kids". I know I felt like an obstacle that was in the way because of that as well -- a being that was supposed to have been part of another version of a relationship that just didn't work out. Not exactly like a mistake, but close.

Also, not only were we a military family that moved around constantly, but neither of my parents seemed to think it was terribly important that my brother and I form truly close relationships with extended family. For instance, my dad has two kids from a previous marriage that were and still are pretty much strangers to me. I apparently have cousins, uncles, aunts, and so forth living in various parts of the country, but I couldn't even really tell you who most of them are, how many there are, or what they're like. 

To my parents, a greeting card -- or possibly a quick phone call -- on important dates like Christmases or birthdays is enough to justify saying you're close with a given person. But the problem with that is I don't form bonds with people that are nothing but names in an address book -- people I've never met and don't spend time with. I need shared experiences, and deep conversations, and quality time spent living life together on a regular basis. A card or a token gift on Christmas isn't really enough to make up for the lack of those things.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that nothing about the dynamic I grew up with was exactly fertile ground for the development of lasting traditions. We did the things my parents thought were important and we did them the way they thought they should be done. Sometimes that was fine, but other times, it just really left me wanting and unsatisfied on some deep emotional level I didn't understand at the time.

........

As far as tradition fragments I probably did take away from my childhood, there are a few. 
  • Having a faux tree that my dad, my brother, and I would assemble each year. My brother and I would sort the branches, we'd all attach them to the trunk, and then my dad would put on the lights. After that he'd leave to go see his mistress, or hit the gym, or go to work and my mother would put the ornaments on with us later. To this day, a real tree just doesn't look, feel, or smell as much like Christmas as the fake ones do. I've preferred fake trees all my life for that reason.
  • Making Christmas lists of the things we wanted "Santa" to get us for Christmas. I'm not a big fan of Christmas gifts anymore, but when we were kids, we were rarely to never allowed to get new toys, or games, or anything during the year. We were always told we needed to wait for the next gift-giving occasion, so Christmases and birthdays were big deals to us for that reason. They were the days you might actually get that new She-Ra doll or My Little Pony you'd been dreaming about for months.
  • Watching my favorite Christmas movies, listening to Christmas carols, and reading Christmas stories like A Christmas Carol each and every year. I especially used to like to read on the floor under the tree and enjoy the lights while I soaked up my favorite stories.
  • Counting down the days until Christmas on an Advent calendar. There wasn't much attention paid to religion in our home growing up. We did have a nativity scene that used to belong to my grandmother though and we did hear the term "Advent" in conjunction with the calendars. 
One thing I remember incredibly clearly though is feeling like Christmas stopped short of being what I wanted it to be when I was a kid. I'd watch the Cratchit family, and the Griswolds, and all of the sitcom families on TV celebrating together and feel like there was a lot missing in our home. (I felt it every day, but especially strongly at Christmas time.) 

I craved the togetherness, and loyalty, and acceptance that I saw. I longed to see my family come together the way all of those fictional families always did, even when they bickered. I wanted Christmas dinner to be a big deal instead of just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because no one wanted to bother cooking. I wanted my family to sit together and sing Christmas carols. I wanted my dad to choose us instead of whomever else he was openly dating in front of us at the time. I wanted my mom to smile, and laugh, and bake piles of homemade Christmas cookies, and pies, and cakes like my friends' moms did. I wanted to know more about Mary and Jesus (because I already knew at a young age that Santa Claus was a load of bull). I just wanted... more... substance, maybe? Like "Christmas plus" or something.

And that's something I've had a lot of fun doing as an adult, especially since I met Seth. We roast the fancy bird and have the big, yummy dinner on Christmas Day. We don't just do an Advent calendar. We observe the actual season of Advent and do things like celebrate Vigil Mass and sign up for seasonal Bible study plans as well. We calorie-splurge on treats together -- candies, cookies, and Hickory Farms. We've undertaken fun projects that are vaguely Dickensian in nature like roasting chestnuts and making Smoking Bishop. We don't just watch movies or listen to Christmas music. We do those things together

And I finally feel like I've found my own version of what I felt was missing, not only when I was a kid but when I've been in past relationships as well. Christmas has always been special and fun in one capacity or another... but now it feels whole as well.