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Our Holiday Tradition

The death of my mother is too final. Grief hates finality, and finality is grief. I attempt to make my loss less final by keeping every video and photo of her on my phone, for scrolling, remembering, and crying. My sister and I haven’t moved any of our mom’s belongings from our parent’s home. Her clothes hang in the closet, smelling like her, but not for much longer. I don’t know why smells and people have to fade. Her shoes are in the entry closet, the snacks she loved most are in the pantry. It’s been months, but my dad, sister and I haven’t wanted to finalize the finality by letting her things go.

My mom’s special fancy dishes are still in the kitchen cupboard, of course. The ones she only took out for special occasions. She created holiday experiences filled with warmth and a ridiculous amount of food. She worked and worked in the kitchen, the day before, and from before the sun rose until everyone was served and seated later in the day. It was still difficult to get her to sit down at that point, but with some cajoling she found a seat at the table filled with family and ate her hard-earned meal.

My mother was a bit of a martyr if I’m being honest. And if I’m being honest I would have to tell you that “a bit” of a martyr is downplaying it. There were layers of stress on top of the good things during these gatherings, which I suppose is true for every family. Things were pretty low-key for us, except for mom’s frantic ways at times, and her unwillingness to let go of the reins even a little bit. There was a lot of sighing and muttering as she worked.

“Can I help you with something, Mom?” we would ask, after hearing all the huffing and puffing meant for us while we chatted with extended family. “Nope,” she’d say, with more than a touch of passive-aggression to the lilt of her words.

It was a tradition. We didn’t have any other traditions besides eating and gathering. This accidental tradition was often frustrating, so we would insert ourselves; butter the buns, cut the pickles, set the table, and we would do it wrong. She never failed to correct something, meeting her need for perfection rather than her desire to be easy-going and grateful. I know easy-going and grateful are what she wanted to be, even what she really was, but it’s hard when your lifelong coping mechanism has been to fight for control. Most of us live this fight. It comes out in all different ways.

This year, as we enter the holiday season, I want my mother to stand in the kitchen sighing, deflecting attempts to help and correcting how I butter the bread. “That’s too much.” The truth is that the perfectionistic mother I once had has been gone a long time, pummeled below the folds of an Alzheimer’s mind. Before her death at age seventy-three, it had been many years since she prepared, cooked, and served our holiday meals. Thankfully my sister was an expert, having been raised as the “domestic one” for all her years, taught under our mom over and over again.

We ached for her to be who she once was as she watched, standing sad at the counter. She had been smart and capable, conversational and sometimes silly, despite the moments of overwhelm that triggered the passive-aggressive coping. Suddenly we had the control we thought we wanted but never did. And this was all we had control of now, the doing of things for her that she once did for all of us.

When our mom died on a hot July day, we didn’t think about the holidays arriving. Now we’ve blasted through August, September and October like we’re jet fueled by grief. Here we are, looking at Thanksgiving and already prepared for more pain. But we stop, we remember everything she would want and know that she would no longer care how things are done and it frees us to simply enjoy the company of every beloved person we have left. That’s all she would want now, as whatever spirit thing she is. She is everything she wanted to be, and nothing she fought to overcome. So we’ll cut the pickles and butter the bread and feel her there, only loving us.


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