It is at the same time a profound and a silly thing, both theater of the absurd and nursery of things beautiful and tender. It can delight and elevate, irritate and exasperate all within the space of a few hours.
It is messy, and when lacking honesty becomes perfunctory. Its darker side breeds obsession and violence. Much like sex, the one place that ought to be an Eden of unconditional acceptance is often a minefield of expectations if not mortal wounding. Even when expelled from Paradise its seeds germinate within us for a lifetime.
I speak of the magical, mystery cabal otherwise known as the family.
The holidays, like it or not, most often mean the family, such as it is, will convene. I do not doubt that is the source of much of the depression and ambivalence surrounding the end-of-the-year festivities. Either we miss someone sorely who may have been with us in celebrations past, or we may jolly well wish someone still with us were not.
In this time of love and grudging good cheer we cannot admit our discordant feelings without a several sleighfuls of guilt. Who wants to be the one who says that life sucks at the Thanksgiving table or that big guy from the North Pole has no clothes?
Just back from the Thanksgiving trip north to see my own cabal, I notice that something has changed. While I used to be drained after seeing them, often suffering a migraine within 24 hours of the visit, now I am headache-free. I feel an odd sense of happiness, groundedness and true thanksgiving that quirky as we all may be, we are still alive.
I am not sure who changed. Did I? Did they? Maybe as Mother gets frailer and less demanding, brother gains humility while losing his hair and sister-in-law is no longer the Latino version of Martha Stewart. The Bombeckian “ties that bind – and gag” have been loosened if not released altogether.
Maybe I am not so judgmental, maybe my resentment about the hairpin turns of the track these last few years have diminished; maybe my hard edges have eroded as I’ve gotten ground into the pavement of life, gotten “fubar” in the winepress of middle age, gotten bludgeoned – oh, sorry. But maybe it’s me who’s not so high and mighty anymore.
All I know is that the very things that used to drive me into an absolute lather, like mother’s hyper-politeness to everyone while ignoring me, my brother’s bombasity and my sister-in-law’s perfections and cloying religiosity, all seem endearing this year. Poised as we all are on the precarious, even faults seem precious. Maybe it’s just that we consumed more alcohol during the holidays, but I don’t think so.
Something has happened. I think we’ve forgiven each other for being human, for the countless misunderstandings and hurt feelings, the disappointments, betrayals and times when we just didn’t care. Jeff and I, pushing 50 with teenage children of our own, understand now just how difficult and fragile this wild and crazy life is. We understand just how wonderful it is to have a family to share laughter and a peculiar history with; a turkey we almost couldn’t get out of the oven, a few bottles of Korbel and Lord willing, a mere five weeks from now, a Christmas tree with at least one bad side, colored boxes underneath full of … well, thoughts that really count.
What an amazing grace. We have moved past demands and expectations into gratitude for the simple and flawed grandeur we’ve already been given.