Quick note: These are some of the things I do to stay sane during the holiday season. While this isn’t a “challenge”, feel free to write your own post of safe and sane ideas, and add a link to it or ping back in the comments section. Maybe we can help each other have a happy winter.
I started this post on Thanksgiving. In the hot living room at Dad’s, football playing at a ridiculous volume because Dad is a bit hard of hearing, but he is also trying to drown out the shrill voice of my sister, who never stops talking. I was exhausted from prepping, setting out (we do self-service), then cleaning up the big feast, and my head was starting to throb a bit.
Since Grandma passed away this year (one of six major deaths of people we know since the beginning of April) the holiday ads designed to evoke an emotional response had worked their “magic”: I was emotionally raw and spent most of that tiring day on the edge of tears. Combine that with a slightly throbbing head and I couldn’t think straight.
What better time to try and advise folks about the holidays? “Do as I say… not as I do?”
Really, this Thanksgiving was an aberration. Usually I am not such a mess, and I manage to manage and still enjoy things on the way.
Approaching the holidays, the first question is: How do you stay sane in this crazy world?
“We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
Eeyore (A.A. Milne)
My family has never pulled off a Norman Rockwell/Martha Stewart/Rachel Ray sort of holiday season. We are a lot more like National Lampoon Family Christmas. A whole lot more: one year we had a water spout from a broken pipe and a dog die. Grandma was our Chevy Chase: she wanted it traditional with all the knick-knacks and whistles that would fit on her window sill.
At this point we are a motley crew of a family. Kluged together from the bits and pieces that are still alive and care enough to tolerate the quirks and imperfections of each other. Who from this elite group actually shows up varies from year to year. The dogs always show up, and sometimes we have as many canines as humans.
Things changed with time
Before my grandparents moved to California we always spent Christmas Eve with my father’s family, Christmas morning at home then went to Grandma’s for Christmas day dinner.
Of course that changed when they moved to California. I mentioned in a previous post that we took a car trip down to spend Christmas with them the first year that they lived in California. Mostly we didn’t do that. I’m not sure we would have all survived to adulthood if we had. One year they came up but, because we lived down a steep trail, they couldn’t stay with us so that wasn’t repeated.
After my parent’s divorce we rarely spent the holidays together with my grandparents. My mother inherited their love of the holidays, but not so much of the spirit of sharing. So our holidays were centered around her home and my grandparents would send a Christmas in a box with everything from oranges and cookies to gifts.
The next major change for me was when my son was born. After a disastrous Christmas trip to Texas where my poor child wound up wearing a soiled diaper for several hours because of weather related travel problems and turbulence, I declared that I was going to stay home for the holidays and people could come to my house or not. My grandparents started coming up for Christmas. We did go down once when James was eight or so.
With no young children in the family Grandma became the focus of our merry making. As grandma got older I was the one who wound up trying to make the merry happen, often to strict orders.
Fortunately, I had a great deal of catering experience from doing events at church, I have organized elaborate events for a hundred people several times, so the food, always critical to having a good time (or at least good memories), doesn’t feel like a burden. Managing the herd of cats that is our family was tougher.
The burden was the expectation that I could both produce the party and, at the same time, sit patiently and be present. Since I made an effort to be calm and pleasant in the face of a long to-do list, even when I had a headache and wanted to crawl into a hole, she seemed to think I wasn’t busy and asked me to arrange knick-knacks, find batteries for her Santa House, procure eggnog, not forget to pick up the type of tissues she liked… At times I felt like I was being punished for being nice.
I know this is wrong. I know that she really just wanted us to be with her, to have reasons to stop by. But it was how I felt at times, especially when she would ask what I had been doing, as if I was, in addition to putting on the party, running errands and being there, supposed be out doing things and having fun so I had stories to tell as well.
Fortunately, I have a sister, who was able to come and help Grandma decorate and arrange her knick-knacks the weekend after Thanksgiving the last couple of years. I generally “celebrate” Black Friday by hiding.
I do it my way.
I’m actually not the Grinch you might have thought from the rant above. I like the holidays, in my own way. I space things out. I finish with Thanksgiving before I think about Advent and Christmas.
I’m not real big on the whole Christmas morning thing. I call that “consumer-fest”, honestly it has always seemed like nothing could be less Christ-like than the “traditional” Christmas morning scrum under the tree. I used to have a St. Nicholas Day tea party for my son and nieces. My nieces father’s family did Christmas big (I never understood why since they are Buddhists and atheists) and I wasn’t going to compete.
I celebrate Advent, lighting a new candle each Sunday, decorating for Christmas a bit more each week and doing one or two seasonal things that I enjoy each week.
COMING SOON: Aunt Kate’s Safe and Sane Guide to the Holidays.
My family trends toward the hoarding side of the spectrum. Grandma was not a hoarder (Gramps was). I like to think I am moderate, but don’t we all? I keep things I am fond of and things that I think will be useful. My greatest weakness is being optimistic about what I will actually use. Now and again I do a purge…and get motivated to do projects. But mostly I don’t think too much about stuff.
The big move brought stuff to the front of my mind.
When I went down to California to help Grandma pack for the big move to Seattle I packed a whole lot of things that I knew would not see the light of day again until they found new homes. A whole lot of things.
Before heading down to help pack, I had cleared away a lot of our life “savings” and had the garage pretty nearly empty (the first time in years we could have even considered putting a car into it!). After being so ruthless with our own belongings I had to make an effort to turn off the purge switch when I got down to the desert.
In continuing to try and explain (mostly to myself) about my grandmother and how the relationship has changed and affected me, politics needs to be mentioned. Because of the wide disparity of views, and the way they have caused animosity, and, at times, complete ruptures within the family.
My grandparents liked Ike, and tricky Dick (a misunderstood soul), and absolutely adored Ronnie. Any tax was too much…but why should the government be so stingy with social security benefits, and the roads sure need fixing. Their loyalty and belief in the Republican Party was greater than their loyalty and belief in God, if actions are any guide.
My uncle didn’t serve in Vietnam because of a bum knee (I was pretty young when this drama unfolded, so I may be off by a few inches about the body part). That was a disappointment to my WWII veteran grandfather, and I think also, on some level, to my grandmother, although she probably had mixed feelings.
Note: I started this post on Veteran’s Day, but struggled with it.
I always think about Grandma when I see veteran’s memorials…
In her later life Grandma always sold poppies, until she couldn’t drive any longer (due to the diabetic ulcers mentioned in Carpe Diem).
She was a die-hard VFW Ladies Auxiliary member. She ran her local group with an iron hand from the secretary-treasurer position that she held for probably about 20 years. I still have several photo albums and a rules book somewhere in the garage. It’s hard to know what to do with them.
Within the VFW her particular cause was disabled veterans. She put on many a spaghetti dinner to raise money to help them.
I am a rather intense person. I like to focus in and do things from beginning to end, and I really like to have a final product. Elder care does not lead to that.
When I realized how much of my life was being there for people, I knew I needed to have something other than “fixing things” or I would either go insane, get very mean, or both. Also, it is very hard to live a depression-free life when anything you want to do is less important than a dog sniffing a light pole.
I decided that I was not going to wait for grandma to die to live my own life. I didn’t want to poison our relationship with that sense of waiting. I did a few things that I really think helped me.
You can’t ever do everything. Sometimes it is too easy to decide that at some future point you will have it all together then you can start doing stuff. Being in relationship with the elderly you learn to let go of that. Tomorrow won’t necessarily be better than today.
You have to learn to do what you can when you can, and take the joy in those things, not regret what you can’t do.
My grandmother passed away this year, the day after my 57th birthday. It is a rare gift to have a grandparent in your life for so long. I am going to do some posts this month trying to put some of my lessons from that gift into words, not my best thing.