Yesterday I was visited by the ghosts of Christmas past and present. My three sisters and portions of their families gathered at my “baby” sister’s home for dinner. Of course, we weren’t all there as we would have been in the past; but enough of us were together to remind me of how it used to be. Christmas is the one time of year that I regress back to childhood. Not the usual childhood thoughts about presents and Santa Claus (for one thing, I don’t think I believed in Santa Claus except as some mildly interesting fictional character from stories and books), but the child who loved the chaos and bluster of being part of a large family and the hubbub surrounding Christmas Eve and Day. Such was the chaos and hubbub yesterday.
The spirits of the past were there in the laughter, conversation, and of course the food. And I found myself wishing, for the umpteenth time, that my whole family could be together—all five of my siblings and their partners and offspring, and, of course, both of my children, who haven’t been together with me at Christmastime for some years now. Conflicting job hours, the hassles of travel, bad weather, illnesses have all confounded our ability to gather over the years. Those things are unavoidable. But over time, particularly after our parents died, it seems as though the hassles and expense of travel and other such impediments have dampened the desire for us all to be together. It’s simply too much of a pain to undertake it.
My own heart cries out in protest, “What could be more important or fun or meaningful than to gather with your loved ones each year, at least once per year?” Through good times and lean, truly in sickness and health, in poor weather and good, I traveled every year save one to join my family for Christmas. Sometimes with partners, many times solo, with one or both children in tow, I hauled myself hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of miles to get “home.. And I will continue to do so to the best of my ability for as long as I can. But each year I have to choose which portion of the family I will join for the holidays, as the two geographically separate clusters of family no longer seem inclined to travel to join up as a larger group.
Lest this seem like a complaint or some kind of desire to be acknowledged for my martyrdom for traveling each year, let me clarify: each person in my family has their own reasons why they choose to spend the holidays the way they do that are equally legitimate to mine. What I am expressing is my own personal grief that we no longer spend the holidays or any other annual event gathered in one place. It is particularly poignant for me during the Christmas holidays because this is the one time each year we actually did gather. I grieve afresh the loss of my mother who, in some ways, was the glue that held the holidays together. For me, she was a North Star, guiding me home each year like a beacon. Her passing dimmed the glow of our holiday gatherings, though we still doggedly gathered for a year or two after her death before people began peeling away. And when my father passed, 15 years after my mother, the holiday gathering fragmented even further.
In 1972, my parents, my younger sister and I spent Christmas in Uganda—the first time we’d been separated as a family for the holiday. It was an odd and quiet celebration, but we got through it. When we returned from Uganda in January of 1973, my oldest sister welcomed us home to her and her husband’s apartment with her Christmas tree still standing (it was very tired!) and presents for the four of us under the tree. It was a beautiful acknowledgment of the importance of the holiday. I was grateful to be back with family and wrote a simple song with the following refrain in recognition of my sentiment about the holidays:
Christmas is better when we’re all together
Instead of alone when there’s nobody here.
Yes, Christmas is better when we’re all together
And we’ll be together for Christmas this year.
Such is how I have always felt about Christmas—it is better when we’re together. But truly, just about any time that we’re together brings a sense of satisfaction, joy, and “rightness” to my heart. I am complete.
From the time I was a young child I’ve dreamt of having a big farm compound large enough that all my family could come live there in a time of trouble. This dream has never gone away and has not diminished in the 50-plus years I’ve held it. And while it might not become reality in this lifetime, I will nonetheless hold it dear, guard it, as I have all these years.
Let me conclude by saying this: I am keenly aware of what a blessing it is that my siblings remain among the closest and dearest people in my life. I know many, many people who have not spoken to their siblings in years. I can scarcely imagine this and remain deeply grateful for the certainty that if I need help or simply connection, I have only to pick up a phone and connect with one of my sibs. Equally gratifying is the connections I have with many of my nieces and nephews. The love of and connection to family is strong between the various generations, and for that I am heartened beyond measure. It means my family compound will need to be that much larger when I finally build it. Anytime is a good time when we’re all together. In the coming year we have some upcoming events—a wedding and my own 60th birthday party—that will bring a bunch of us together. My heart will be wide open and ready.