I am home alone gathering extra holiday items to take over to Eros’s parents’ beautiful AirBnB apartment to decorate for Christmas. (The place has a giant kitchen in which Mama Jen is going to do her cooking magic with duck and calamari!)
In the process I am reflecting on how my experience of the holidays is changing. It’s been in transition for six years – since my mother died, my marriage ended, and my first child left home, all the in the same year.
Until my mother died Christmas was always spent with my family of origin – my mother, my adoptive father, my sister, my children, my stepfather for the 10 years he was with us, and later my ex-husband for the 8 years we were together. As an adult, it often felt obligatory rather than inspired by genuine connection. Sadly, we never reached the status of healthy family, as evidenced by the last Christmas we spent with my mother. And the fact that we haven’t had a Christmas together since the one after her death, when we buried her.
In the last years of her life my mother was a mess of pain and medications with terrible side effects. She took Ambien to sleep and was one of those people who did things while sleeping – cooking and eating, shopping at Walmart (can you believe we have sleeping people driving and no one’s doing anything about it?!), and taking too many pills because she wasn’t awake to realize she already took them. I’m pretty sure that’s how she overdosed. And I know that’s what ruined our last Christmas together.
I woke up in the middle of Christmas night to the sound of the Christmas tree crashing. I went out to the livingroom to find my mom in an agitated state. She was confused. She was trying to find something. She knocked the tree over and shattered several special ornaments in the process. She was technically asleep, yet she appeared conscious and was trying to find more pills to handle the side effects of other pills. I had to babysit her for the rest of the night, continuously talking her out of needing to find more pills, sometimes restraining her to keep her from wandering the house and waking my children. I didn’t want my children to see their Nana that way. I didn’t want it to be happening at all. It was heartwrenching. And maddening. I couldn’t believe that I was in the same position again, having already put my mom to bed after she got too high on street drugs when I was in middle school.
That experience and her death eight months later changed Christmas forever. The following Christmas was our only opportunity to get together as a family to bury her. My sister came to Humboldt and we drove down to San Diego with the kids, stopping in North Fork to spread some of her ashes on her father’s grave. We buried the rest of her remains with her mother on the day after Christmas. We knew she would have wanted to be with them both.
Christmas at my father’s was strained and weird and cheerless. It was our first year without a tree. My sister and I made a light night shopping trip on Christmas Eve to gather some things that would make it bearable. I found a little wooden Christmas tree with ornaments that sat on a table top (I still have that tree, but don’t put it out because of the memory associated with it). We bought fun gifts for the kids. We did what we could to invoke some holiday spirit. But ultimately it was a shallow veneer over a pit of grief.
I’ve only seen my sister and my father once since that Christmas, at my son’s college graduation. In the years since, contact between us has become almost nonexistent. It’s as if the challenges with my crazy addict mother were the twisted threads that bound us and once she was gone we no longer had any common ground to relate from.
This is when Christmases with my chosen family began. I recognize that I am tremendously blessed that the Imps – and the resulting partnership with Jen and Camille – came into my life the same year I lost most of my family of origin. I am grateful that Mama Jen always hosted an Orphan’s Christmas during the years we were leading the Imps because it meant me and my kids always had a place to go. Good food and friendship is really all that’s needed to make the holidays feel special. A couple Christmases in the middle were spent with a lover and his daughters in a more traditional family way. And I was always invited to at least one additional fun holiday gathering by others in the Imps tribe (I’ve attended a Spanksgiving and a Sexmas!).
The year before last was my first Christmas without my family and without an orphan Christmas to go to. I was home with Eros and six months pregnant, having just found out about the pregnancy and deciding on adoption the month before. My daughter went to NYC with her girlfriend to spend Christmas with my sister and son, with my blessing as I had no idea how hard it would be. The Mamas had already moved to Portland. It was lonely and full of grief for my mother, my family, my children, and my friends. (My daughter had a tough time being away from me, too, and we’ve vowed to never spend Christmas apart again if we can help it!)
Last year we weren’t able to be with the Mamas and Lake at Christmastime. We had a small Christmas with our little family, and visited with some friends. My need for community was mostly met by throwing the holiday party for my coworkers.
This year everything is different again. This year starts a new family tradition. We are in Portland. We are having an Italian Christmas with our new family – Lake, the Mamas, and Chris’s parents. I hope in future years, when we have the big beautiful house, that we will be able to expand the circle to include others from all four of our families of origin.
I hope this is just the beginning of a family holiday tradition in our lives. I hope that no matter what comes, my chosen family can keep the threads of love between us strong and vibrant so that we continue desiring to spend the holidays together, rather than feeling obligated to because of our connection through our son. I hope that every year they cannot be here, my other children will know how much I want them with me and miss them when they are not. And most of all, I hope that we continue growing in our emotional health so that we can deepen our loving connections as the years go by and deepen the sense of belonging each of us feel.