Sunday Morning ~ Holiday Hangovers
Mbumba ndi anthu onse. ~ A family is made up of all its members.
~ Chewa proverb
December 5, 2021
I grew up with very conflicting notions of family. “Family” behavior was somehow exempt from norms for individuals. “Family” could do no wrong unless it involved disrespecting elders. The concept of “respect” was vague and undefined. It doesn’t take Freud to analyze how our adult behavior and expectations are muddled, to say the least. “Respect” often meant never questioning authority which was fertile ground for flourishing guilt and self-loathing. I know some in my culture blame Catholicism for this, but I don’t. The culprit was very much my immediate family. My siblings and I were loyal comrades. As mean as we were to each other as kids, there was a deep and abiding commitment to banding together and having each other’s backs, a bond that eerily persists through opposing political ideology. I’ve spent many years sorting out what “family” means. Loyalty and love transcend genetics. I think about this a lot around the holidays when the focus on “family” can be harsh.
I married young into a large and loving family and it felt wonderful to be absorbed into this funny and fun clan. Then, a family tragedy on Christmas Eve molded their holiday traditions into a rigid pattern, as if doing the exact same thing every year would bring her back. When we had children and moved far enough away that winter travel was difficult, this caused a big rift. We tried to comply but there was resentment and angst. I look back and it seems so ridiculous now. I referred to it as a forced march, which, I saw as disrespectful. This was well before grief counseling existed and their emotional lives depended on their tradition, so my response was hurtful to them. It was stressful and unfair. I thought it ironic that my family, who was so rigid in other ways, was fluid and accepting about the holidays. “Come whenever you can! Be safe! Don’t worry, we’ll be here whenever you get here.” was to me a loving sentiment in what was an unloving home. While the home that was supposedly loving shunned us if we were not there on time with the children. It was so strange and confusing. We fought about it a lot. I began dreading holidays until we stopped going to “family” altogether. Moving to another hemisphere helped.
When our own family unit changed with the departure of the father/husband member, I grasped, in my grief, for some tiny silver lining. It crossed my mind, that holidays might be less stressful without him. Yes, there would be a big hole, but maybe we could reimagine a season without forced good humor and thinly veiled, unresolved, grief. I used to say, “No amount of presents will bring her back.” He’d get angry and buy more. Tension grew and the thought of holidays without this struggle was a strange balm. I grappled with reimagining what “family” would be. I had dinner at a friend’s house with a scholar who had written a book about the history of family. That chance meeting uncovered a new path forward. Fate, coincidence, energy put out to the universe, whatever it was, during my time of desperately reimagining my family I learned that our concept of this nuclear unit is quite recent. Historically, “family” was whomever was nearby. This opened a whole new way of looking at life and certainly holidays. A letting-go of expectations, competition, and obligation was possible.
As my family spread out and elders passed on it was less and less common for us all to get together even for Thanksgiving, the holiday to which I clung. Among my own children a combination of bad behavior, bad memories, and unresolved conflict clouded the idea of being together. I’d sadly let go the idea of everyone enjoying each others company again. I’d given up it was ever possible to laugh and tell stories like the old days. This year, however, there was a shift. i’m not sure if it was maturity, the pandemic, the state of the world, or sheer loneliness, but it happened. My expectations were low and I prayed only for open hearts and minds. I didn’t expect any breakthroughs or apologies, no views being forced fed along with the turkey. It was simple and loving. It was loud with talk and laughter. It was quiet with sated bodies and muddled minds. It included family who were not related but equally loved and connected. I surprised myself by staying present, quietly thinking, “Wow, this is really happening.” The food was not spectacular, but good. The house was warm. The grandkids learned more about their heritage, and I am grateful. It may never happen again, but we had that day. I stop thinking about what has been lost but appreciate how much I’ve had. More than many. Again, I am grateful.
Wishing everyone a safe and simple holiday season, whatever it may be this year. May it be filled with love and gratitude.
Love to all,