Early autumn, chilly morning, I search in the tumble of closets and drawers for a fleece hoodie, socks, gloves. Later that day, I banish shorts and swimsuits and straw hats from my bedroom to what I euphemistically refer to as “the guest room,” which, to be honest, can only accommodate one small guest with no suitcase and modest expectations of a pre-war New York City apartment.
Anyway, here we go again. Seasons change. I realize with some dumb surprise that soon, too soon, it will be leaf-peeping and pumpkins and tricking and treating. And then…the rest of it. The H word.
The Holidays. Grinch me, baby, one more time. Dread spreads through me, a warm suffusion, like shame or embarrassment. Every morning from All Saint’s Day until New Year’s Day, I wake up and wish it were over. Every excursion into the wide world becomes a denial-fest through terrible Muzak, past junky décor. It all feels rote and sad and exhausting and I can barely participate anymore. So why, when I stand behind a woman in line at HomeGoods, her cart stacked with matching Santa Claus pajamas for the whole family, do I feel envy?
I have family and friends and work and play, all the good stuff, and I like gatherings, I like cooking, I like wine (which I may have mentioned previously), I like pajamas. Sure, the last few years of divisiveness and discord have left me a little bit gloomy and a little bit cynical about consumerism, about existing as part of a target market, about the Hallmark channel, but not gloomy or cynical enough to opt out of either retail therapy or pop culture.
Maybe I’m envious because my children are grown women now, busy with work, in committed partnerships, not parents (yet!), and not invested in the traditions with which I grew up. I struggle with my obligation to revive them – the traditions, not my kids – that were such an enormous part of my childhood and my young motherhood. The menu-planning, the shopping and wrapping, the crowded tables and noisy conversation, the music and lights, everything homemade or chosen with much care to suit a house full of messy love, the house I grew up in. And in the early days of my own homemade family, my beautiful house too.
Quite honestly, I don’t have the money or the energy or the interest to re-invigorate those traditions ever again. I don’t. I’d love to pass the torch, or more to the point, the shiny star tree-topper, but there are no little ones in the mix and my kids aren’t interested yet. Sure, we get together, we cook, we laugh, we eat and drink and play games and sing and make modest merry, but it’s…quieter. Where did everybody go?
My parents died when my daughters were little. My marriage died three short years later. I got sick three years after that. People moved away, made distant plans. Holidays tables were less crowded, and not much was reflected in an ornament’s gleam. Nothing inside a wrapped gift could make me happy. The future I thought I was heading towards was no longer there.
I’ve written previously about wisdom as an unheralded side benefit of aging. Mini-epiphanies and sneaky guides show up a lot, and if you’re paying attention, they help nudge you forward. Here’s some post-60 wisdom at the top of my benefits list: the stories I tell myself inside my head about who I was and who I am, what happened then and what might happen next are just that: stories! I am telling them to myself. I am in charge and I can damn well flip the script. In the midst of this year’s annual anticipation of my unpleasant Grinch-yness, I pushed myself to do just that, and I’m not sorry to say, writing it out has helped.
And wham, as I write this, I see it. The exhaustion, the envy, wishing time away (at my age!), the dread, all of it. That’s grief. Regular old grief. It lives in the body, it is always there, blurry, sepia-colored, ready to be lit up like a Christmas tree when it’s triggered by scent and memory and weather and the taste of candy canes. Ready to rise like the cold season I tumble into every year where I must count the traditions I’m not upholding, where I envy the matching Santa-pajama family. I’m no Grinch, I just can’t bear how much I miss everybody.
Recently, I listened to the artist and composer Laurie Anderson talking with Anderson Cooper, in conversation about grief. (The podcast, All There Is, is here.) One of the Andersons (pretty sure it was Laurie) said, “You can feel sad without being sad.” Meaning, I think, I don’t have to wish an entire season – my life – away because I miss what’s gone. Maybe “dread” has sort of been me protecting myself, keeping me from uselessly trying to capture what can’t be captured. Going quiet, smaller gatherings, less decor – maybe that’s not destroying tradition but clearing space for new ones, when we are ready for them. (And yes, I am not-so-subtly hoping for grandchildren.)
As I’m writing this, the phone trills. I whine to one daughter about the H-word, all that I’m not doing. She responds, slightly bewildered by my rant, “I love our do-nothing holidays. I really look forward to them.” After I write this, I’ll spend the week readying the “guest room” for my other daughter, who has a suitcase and high expectations of homes: being together, size of the guest room notwithstanding, holidays or not.
Now, it’s the week before Thanksgiving. I’m in the CVS. There’s my favorite Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I get misty when I hear the word “little,” which I never focused on, although it’s been right there in the title all along. Thank you, Muzak! Thank you, Universe; thank you to the two Andersons; and thank you to the lady in HomeGoods. Thank you, my daughters. The shining star tree-topper is still mine to place upon the highest bough, for now. Modestly merry feels right.
Share what you’re thankful for during the holidays in the comments!
About Stephanie Gangi
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Carry the Dog is her second novel. Her acclaimed debut, The Next, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gangi’s shorter work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Catapult, Dame, LitHub, Hippocrates Poetry Anthology, McSweeney’s, New Ohio Review, Next Tribe, The Woolfer. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on The Good Provider, her third novel.
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