The Holidays or Who Makes It Happen?
It is love that moves us. For want of money, always sparse, it is love that brings the happiness and glow to the holidays. From this love we distill the essence our happiest and most cherished memories to carry forward. This essence of love becomes our own personal base of how we see and feel the holidays, and how we eventually celebrate them as adults. Since life is not stagnant, neither is the essence of what we bring to our celebrations of life, love and family. It is ever changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes not – we learn in time. This is who we are, and often we do not celebrate life daily, as some very rare few do. We tend to be more involved in day to day living, and so, we save it up, all those things we feel but never say aloud, all those un-broached words of thanks, those tender moments we felt but did not openly express – we express them in our celebrations. This is not to say that we always miss tender moments or opportunities to slow down and say what our hearts feel. We often do. We always mean to express it more often. Our holidays give us pause to express our happiness, our love, our hopes.
I was a child of divorce. When it finally stormed into my thirteen year old life, it was a relief, not a disaster. That it had taken so long in its post-mature arrival was not a bitter disappointment. Once it arrived, the bitterness for that young lady evaporated like a gently clinging dewdrop on a hot morning. Witness to the final fight, I drew in a huge breath of pure relief, and of hope that this wasn’t going to go away – that it would happen, whatever else may come up.
In September, he moved away. He moved so far away, from our home on the East Coast to his family on the West Coast, that I had no longer a cause to worry. That year Mother had no money for Christmas, and little for Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving a fire truck showed up outside our front yard and delivered a turkey, all the trimmings, and two wrapped gifts; one each for me and my sister for Christmas. Our supper, a baked chicken, was already in the oven, and Mother dressed up the meal with some favorite foods. The turkey and trimmings had to be prepared another day, but it was a welcomed gift. That year we had two Thanksgivings.
A half a year later and across the country at another Coast, I cried. My father’s family had so much. I had never fully realized the disparity until the turkey dinner in July that my up-until-then unknown Aunt Betty prepared when we came to visit. There was so much…so much.
I sat at the meal, met cousins I had never known, and heard all the remarkable stories, saw that they wanted for nothing. At fourteen I cried because they could not know. They had never known want, and could not know that on Thanksgiving, we had baked chicken, and made the gift of a turkey another day. And we were thankful for each other, and for our freedom from what had been a form of oppression. How does a fourteen year old express this to relatives she has never met? I didn’t. Instead, I cried.
Adults have their own perspective, and often these are self-serving to their own agenda. It was at this meal that I learned to be silent. No amount of that trite old song, “Little one’s should be seen and not heard.” ever connected in the way that the conversations of the family I never knew, connected, on that day. Of course, I was meant to hear it all. As an adult, I do not see it as pre-planned, but it was human nature at its most predatory, towards the weakest, and least able to deal with it. The July celebration was to make up for all those Christmases and Thanksgivings we never had the chance to share. It was also a display put on by relatives grasping for the leverage to have their brother’s children come live with him, instead of across the coast with their mother. Back then, there were no laws preventing one parent from having custody in their state of residence while the other achieved custody in a different state. As with inanimate things, possession was nine-tenths of the law when it came to custody of the kids. And so, the manipulation game began.
I suppose I was a bit lucky, because, although she was expert at the game, my paternal grandmother did not really want us there, complicating her life. Father had always been the runt, the least favored son, and his life was so wonderful that he ran away at sixteen to join the Navy and go to war. He was “found out” at nearly 18, and the Navy discharged him without recognizing his service. He walked out of Navy service and promptly signed up for the Coast Guard. After all, by the time they caught up with him, he would be eighteen, and of age to serve. It would be nearly a lifetime later that the United States of America finally recognized both his Navy service and his Coast Guard service.
At this time in his life, Father had returned to his mother’s house, and those 14 year old eyes of mine were witness to the snide, curt way he was treated, as if of a lesser class, perhaps there to serve. This attitude was extended to me and my sister. Father would go to work, we would be awakened, made the bed on command, and told to sit on the bed without moving, for hours. It was nearly impossible for me, and quite impossible for my five year old sister. It took only a week of this for me to protest to Father that if he did not move us out of that situation, when I spoke to Mother, she would arrange for us to be on the next flight home if she had to come get us herself. It was the most frightening thing I had ever had to do, for fear of Father’s wrath. It was only through mature eyes that I realized much, much later in life that he, too, wanted to manipulate the situation until he could get custody, and Grandmother was tipping the apple cart.
That summer, whenever and wherever there were aunts, uncles or cousins, the California lifestyle and how beneficial it would be for us to go to school there was always worked into the conversation. There were gifts, grand at first, but later we travelled to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Clothes were the gifts then; amusement parks were expensive. Father’s way of getting us out from under Grandmother had been to put us up in a week-to-week efficiency apartment at a motel. He also purchased a camper truck, which is where we stayed at night when we went to amusement parks, and when he was in the casinos in Reno. Father always had enough money for what Father wanted and what Father wanted to do. Everyone on his side of the family seemed to be able to afford a wonderful lifestyle. Mother was a waitress. Of course life would be better in California. Father had to supply medical coverage, and he was on the Kaiser plan. This meant that if we needed to see a doctor, we would have had to go to California, from New York to do it. Whatever was Mother doing wrong? Father’s family knew, and made sure that I knew, too.
Summer could not end soon enough. The summer of going to great places, doing great things and being the subjects of a family movement to convince me to tell some lawyer or judge that we should be with Father and that Mother was not good for us had its low, dark sides, too. Shoeless in a Reno campground while Father gambled, I ran to the office building to get a deck of cards. Back then, they gave them out like free mints. Another girl in the campsite told me, so I ran over. I never made it to the office. A fallen tree branch I jumped over had a hidden branch on the other side that caught my little toe, and pulled my nail so badly that it damaged the nail bed. When Father finally came back to the camper, I had washed it with water, and wrapped it in a facecloth. Did I see any doctor? Nope. In the efficiency apartment, my sister slipped in the gunnite pool and chipped her permanent front tooth. We both bear marks of the summer on the West Coast. Those physical marks are small. The damages from helpful relatives left scars no one can see. They all meant well.
In a way, I was lucky again. I did not have to go through the routine I went through with Father before he moved away – when he would pick me up on Saturday for visitation, and he would say horrible things about Mother and, in my first recognizable tutelage of Revisionist History 101, would always make proclamations of how good a Father he is, a provider, how much he loved us. Mother asked for this divorce, Mother wronged him. He was just an innocent husband, and blindsided by her.
The California Celebration meal, the family, the manipulations, even the trips to the amusement parks, San Francisco’s fisherman’s wharf, the love-children of Haight-Ashbury, all lacked the thing that would have been the hardest for children to give up. You see, it is love that moves us. There may have been some heartbreak, even that inside, backdoor glance into love would have been welcome. This was not a summer of love, as the signs in Haight-Ashbury had espoused that year. It was the summer of winning. And they so wanted to win that they forgot that love, pure and unconditional, is what children want. By the time I was past the fear of being with Father, without Mother to protect me, I knew the score. I had not words to express it back then, but I knew. It’s a funny thing, a child’s love of parents. Regardless of good, bad or indifferent ones, all they want from their parents is to be loved.
I never had another celebration gathering so complete and so beautiful again. I had holidays that were not so opulent in food or gifts or accoutrements, but gatherings that I remember fondly. And, in later years, I made it happen, even when times were rough. This was the difference. It wasn’t about having a nice holiday, so much as having a holiday that was nice. Anyone can go through the motions, make a child want for more, especially with that double-punch of manipulation that tries to convince a child that this is good, and the other parent’s ways are not. Whatever the equation, it was about making it happen with and for the children, not as a show, not an inducement, not a manufactured manipulation, and the passing on of secrets to weigh upon a child until he cannot breathe. We spend this time together. Once or twice each year – so how many do we really get to have when our children are children? When the magic is in the love, not in the effort to prove who is better? My daughter knows. You see, SHE is the one who makes it happen. Even before the split, before she took the weight upon her shoulders without the relief of knowing how much it is, and how long she can keep shouldering it. She makes it happen.
I see children in my life, one so close in age and going through what I went through at fourteen, fiercely intelligent, and caught, even when he has removed himself from actively participating, in a web of deceit and pain. Another, always so loving, is changing. Every week he changes from who he is to someone sullen, someone silent, someone who does not know what to believe, and who cannot hurt those he loves by delivering the hurtful messages that were handed to him, implanted in his mind and shakily borne by a psyche that had not been given freedom from oppression. It takes sometimes hours, sometimes days for his recovery after his visits.
It is a theft, a robbery, one supported by the legal mores of the times. It hurts him, and in turn, we who love him feel our hearts break to see it. We can only hope that the love we feel for them – you know – that unconditional love, gives them the soft landing they need to recover, gives them the perspective they need to see the difference between having that nice holiday, and having a holiday that is nice – one filled with love, laughter, and happiness. One without placing a weight upon a child’s shoulders to take with them, but rather a pile of simple leftovers, or even better, a good day that comes to an ending with that happy question: Grandma, can we sleep over?
I suppose, as an aside, I should underscore the point of view here, as well. It’s about spreading the love and in particular that essence that is the wealth of holidays. When there is little or nothing physically there, someone “Makes it happen.” It isn’t about how nice one’s house is decorated, or how beautiful the tree. Nor is it about the number of gifts or if they were the best money could buy. It’s really about bringing it to the children. When there is little to spare, what makes the difference, and what stays in memories are the kindness and the love. It’s not “Come here and celebrate.” It’s “What do you need at home?” It’s not that $30.00 bakery tray of cookies that are remembered, so much as that cookie recipe mom made with the kids on Christmas Eve, and how everyone created their own cookies, everyone decorated their own – which became both memories, and gifts for all to oooo and ahhh over. It’s the sharing, the doing, the little things like food coloring on the fingers, and powdered sugar in the hair. It’s not about the new camera. It’s about a picture no camera can capture, and memories that sustain and refresh love every time we remember. And, it needs to be brought to them, not them to it. The cure should not be – if you don’t have it at home, you can come here and enjoy ours. The cure is, if you don’t have it at home, dear loved ones, what can I do to help? Let’s find a tree, even if it’s little and scrawny. For children, moreso, I think, than we adults, beauty truly IS in the eye of the beholder. There’s more love in one day of making it happen than in a year’s worth of shopping and decorating. It’s our love and sharing that enriches us. This culture of ours is one of top-heavy consumerism. A child’s inheritance should not be the dismissal of the spirit of the holidays in exchange for the monetary value of gifts nor the goal of always having the newest and the best. A child’s inheritance should add to their lives, in ways that the acquisition of things cannot. The true inheritance will show itself, one day perhaps far into the future, when two brothers celebrate and remember that year, that time, that holiday when “we baked cookies for everyone, and mom got red food color on her face and the dog knocked into the table and there was flour everywhere!” It will not be carried forward on the memory of getting the latest game console, or an ever smarter phone. One day, around their own family table they will say, simply and in soft tones, “Remember how Mom always made it happen?”