This piece first appeared on the Mala blog on December 23rd, 2011. But it’s great. And it’s that time of year. So we’re bringing it back. Almost like our own little Christmas tradition. Enjoy!
by Steph Creaturo
My grandma supposedly hated Christmas. According to my family this wasn’t always the case, but after her parents died in the 1960’s and her brother died in 1981, that was it. She caught a case of the bah-humbughs that never left. Of course, my grandfather loved Christmas with every bone in his body. For every dancing-singing Santa he brought home from Caldor’s, she’d throw a fit. The more of a fit she’d throw, the louder he’d turn up the Christmas music.
Of course, my extended family had a field day with this. We had tons of jokes about how Scrooge had nothing on Mary, and came to expect the bah-humbughs to start as soon as the leaves on the trees turned colors. Even my husband, whom she adored, got in on the act. One year, we bought my grandfather a tree because she forbid him to have one. We made Jeff carry it in the door. As soon as she smelled the pine needles, she threw up her hands and shouted, “even you have betrayed me!”
But, I never got it, nor bought it. Her hatred of Christmas wasn’t congruent with who she was as a person, or how she was raised, or how she raised us. One of our students, who was also raised in an Italian-American home, called it the spirit of “abundant generosity” that permeated those first-to-second generation households in the New York City area. And it was true – there was always room for one more at the dinner table, there were always extra gifts in the grab bag in case there was a guest, and Grandma was the one who always, always made this happen. She always made sure everyone was fed, clothed, hugged – whatever needed to be tended to on the caring for people side, she did it.
She was our Top Chef for the huge Christmas Eve dinner my mom hosted each year. My extended family came together in our tiny house, with people sitting all the way up the steps, plates perched on the gauchos and bell-bottoms, to eat my grandma and Aunt Foo’s legendary, traditional seven-courses of fishes. Grandma would don her best brown slacks and a new apron, unload her pots from the back of the car (the older the pot, the better the sauce) and cook for hours on end. My aunts, uncles, and cousins would come greet her in the kitchen with a peck on the cheek, then linger to watch her wield her spoon over the same pots that made the best gravy every Sunday. For someone who hated Christmas, she was all belly laughs in that brown and orange kitchen on Christmas Eve. She loved feeding people, but especially her people, and even more, she loved having her people around her.
But, as the generations become assimilated, and families shift and change, so do traditions. Our Christmas dinner slowly faded out as people moved, got married, got divorced, got sober. And, just like that, another cornerstone in her world was gone.
As she got older, Grandma’s scrooginess mellowed to deep sighs, head shakes, and a wave of the hand. The more I sat at the kitchen table over a cup of Sanka and Entenmann’s cake and talked with her, the more I got it. My grandma didn’t hate Christmas. She hated change. She hated cable TV and her family moving away and people she loved being gone. And that, understandably, made her sad. She just felt that sadness of loss even more at Christmas. She missed the huge Christmas Eve dinner, and the massive picnics in the back year. She missed the people she loved and the way of life she knew. It was understandably human, to feel loss that deeply. But, with no framework to talk about it, the heaviness in her heart manifested into being Scrooge and that was that. It wasn’t that simple, but oftentimes in families, it is simply enough to reduce the complex business of feelings of loss to something simple like a stereotype or a storyline.
Family was her religion and that made sense. My grandmother liked to be around the people that she loved. She loved when people stopped by and visited her, had a cup of coffee, and “made the rounds” on holidays. Did she hate the holidays? It reminded her of the old days, but it also reminded her of the people that she lost. And that was a double-edged sword. And as the world changed around her, she had no framework or vocabulary to talk about that. There’s a vulnerability to that sort of work, those dialogues that make many of us uncomfortable, family or not. So, it simply was reduced to being Scrooge.
Grandma actually died on Christmas Day in 2002. She went into the hospital on Thanksgiving and died on Christmas. After that, there were no more dancing Santas in their house. It just wasn’t the same without her, Grandpa would say. He loved the banter, he loved her Scroogi-ness, because he loved her so much. While the first thing most of my relatives said was, “of course she died on Christmas,” but it was the first time in a long time that the whole family got together.
I’m as grateful to my yoga practice as I am to my grandma. As my thoughts drift to her this time of year, I am reminded that the framework is as important as the content. Yoga provided me with a framework and a language to track and manage the inevitability of change. My grandma instilled in me there’s nothing beyond this moment at a table with a good cup of coffee with someone you love. However, that moment – no matter how perfect – always passes. Thanks to yoga and Grandma, I’m reminded it’s not enough to count my blessings if I don’t show up for them in the first place.