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Challenge: Life Changes

When the Holidays look Different

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As my husband, Rich, had his arm halfway up the business end of a turkey this morning, he took a pause, shook his head and said “what am I doing?” Being the ever present person available to offer ways to do things better, I jumped in with a quick what’s wrong? while googling How to Turkey. Turns out, it wasn’t that easy. Turns out, it wasn’t turkey advice that was needed, which was lucky, as I really have no idea How to Turkey. In my opinion, turkey is only acceptable if it’s in the form of shaved and within the confines of a soft hoagie roll from Wawa. Thanksgiving is super tricky for me as I also don’t like ham. My forever favorite dish of Thanksgiving Past was my mom’s Turloaf. When the holiday guest list was pared down to only include my parents and I, Mom would fashion a meatloaf with two turkey legs coming off the sides. Perfect, delicious, and something for everyone.

I miss Turloaf. I miss Thanksgiving Past when life was simpler. I miss when the changes of growing up didn’t start fast and furious.

But, yes, back to my husband.

What am I doing?!?

Rich didn’t need help with the turkey. His question was actually one put out to the universe. That moment of being elbow deep into the nether regions kicked off a moment of unexpected nostalgia, a flash of a memory as his brain reminded him that it was always his grandmother’s job to make the turkey. It was also Grammy’s job to summon the family to her house for Thanksgiving. And Christmas. And Easter. And birthdays. The unwritten rule was that if there was a dessert worthy event, it would take place at Grammy’s.

When Grammy passed, she snuck out in the middle of a random night when no one was expecting it. I like to think she did that with a smug look on her face after spending the previous half dozen years assembling the entire family at her side for every dessert worthy event as it would probably be her last. We celebrated her last birthday, her last Christmas, her last Memorial Day…over and over, by her side, for years. We took pictures each time to memorialize the moment. We were even summoned on a plain old regular day early in that final year as Grammy declared it to be her last and wanted to say her goodbyes. When she did pass, months later, we still weren’t ready.

What we didn’t know was that our last dessert worthy gathering at Grammy’s home would be the gathering that followed her memorial service. While we knew that Rich’s Aunt Cathay (Grammy’s eldest daughter) would eventually have to move out of the house they’d shared, I don’t think any of us let the actual missing of the house creep into our future reality. And, really, none of us were sure when Grammy’s house would no longer be Grammy’s house as the pandemic kept giving us bonus time before we would have to close the door on that chapter and prepare the house to go on the market. Though the house remained in the family through that first Grammy-less Thanksgiving (and Christmas), we did not gather there out of respect for it being just a bit too emotionally much and too emotionally soon, for Aunt Cathay.

The holidays were starting to look different.

We limped through that first Grammy-less year making guesses at the right way to celebrate. As the holidays came back into view this year, we thought we had a shot of one last push for holidays at Grammy’s house. It was not meant to be. With the various Pandemic Pauses lifted, we learned that the house would have to be emptied prior to the end of October. This meant that Aunt Cathay would have to move and, for the first time in her life, live on her own. We knew it would be a difficult transition, but we hoped that the small carrot of the upcoming holidays and involvement in creating new traditions might calm her nerves.

What am I doing?!?

Sometimes, life sneaks in and grabs things from you that you aren’t ready to give up.

As it happened, Aunt Cathay would spend Thanksgiving with Grammy this year, rather than with us, making it two years in a row that we added an empty chair to the table. We weren’t expecting this one. Cathay passed away a few weeks prior in an odd turn of events that no one saw coming except, perhaps, Cathay herself. While the sisters and cousins and nephews and nieces took on the huge job of moving her out of Grammy’s home and into a fresh apartment, Cathay began dropping hints. I’m probably not going to survive this move. And she was right. It was as if she just needed to know that all of the important pieces of her life had been rescued from her home and then, then she took her leave. We had yet to unpack a box before Cathay began to fade. It was the first time in my life that I saw someone just give up. And I don’t mean that in a quitting way. Cathay had a life full of crazy stories. It was like she knew she had lived all that she could and that was that.

I loved my relationship with Cathay. She was the first one in Rich’s family to open her arms to me during my first experience (ever) of Christmas with another family. It was mostly a snubbing. If it weren’t for Cathay, I might have left the crowd assembled at Grammy’s house and headed straight to my storage unit to start packing for a return to North Carolina. I had come to Grammy’s full of excitement for this epic gathering that I’d been hearing about for two years while dating Rich. Minutes into the epicness, as I hid tucked away in a corner, I started wondering how I could get out of the next epic gathering.

But then there was Cathay.

Cathay was the first one who was nice to me, I blubbered into Rich’s shirt while soaking it with tears. We were standing by her hospital bed a few weeks ago, gathered again to say our goodbyes to another one that we loved. That first Christmas, while I tried to stay hidden and adjust to being the out of place new girl, Cathay checked on me often. She knew I felt completely looked over, lost, and lonely. In between passing out present after present after present, she would swing by me and offer kind words. It’s a little crazy, you’ll get used to it. Hanging in there? I’m so glad to finally meet you. We’re a wild bunch, aren’t we? I know this is a lot, you’ll get used to it. Don’t mind us. That is still my best memory of Cathay. That is the Cathay I miss.

The holidays were starting to look different.

In the years since, Cathay and I kept a communication string going between us, as she insisted. Not because the rest of the family didn’t eventually come around to welcoming me (they did), but because after that first Christmas, she reached out and kept tabs on me regularly. I did the same for her. From day one, she encouraged me and praised me and thanked the stars for sending me to care for her Richie and for her Zoe and for her Zack. She would note the moments of awkwardness at the dessert worthy events and send me kind words after. Don’t worry about so and so, he/she just isn’t your kind of people. I remember thinking, tough crowd but maybe this nutty woman is my way in. Yes, she was nutty. No, she wouldn’t be offended. Even in starting this blog, Cathay was my lone supporter from her side of the family fence. From everyone else I heard whispers of you should keep that stuff to yourself (they’re still whispering) but from Cathay I heard how much she enjoyed my writing and how talented she thought I was and how she couldn’t wait to read my book. I’m sad that she won’t get to.

What am I doing?!?

Is this growing up? Starting to mark off a sad list of participants who are no longer participating in our epic gatherings? Are we now responsible for assembling and organizing and adulting? How are we supposed to manage this?

One of Grammy’s traditions was the giving out the Annual Ornament from Danbury Mint to each household in the family. When she passed, one of Rich and I’s first chats were how we would be carrying that tradition on. We felt a little odd, last year, passing them out, worried as to how people would take it. We didn’t hear right away whether they were received with happiness or something else. Just two months ago was actually the first peep in the form of a phone call from Cathay letting me know that she’d gotten the packet from Danbury and would be sending it to me so that I could be sure and get this year’s ornament ordered. Her voice was excited as she promised to pretend she hadn’t already seen what the 2021 ornament looked like.

I’m not sure why I went ahead and ordered the ornaments that very day. I was less sure why when the boxes arrived and I had to find a place to store them. When we were summoned to say our goodbyes to Cathay, it became clear. Before I made the hour-long drive to the hospital, I asked Rich’s mom to please, please, please wait for me to arrive before Cathay was moved anywhere. As Rich and I approached her bedside, the wave of emotion plowed into me. Cathay was the first one who was nice to me, I blubbered into Rich’s shirt while soaking it with tears. I know, he said, she loved you.

You were the first one who was nice to me, I whispered into Cathay’s ear as I placed the ornament in her hand. Medically, it was probably a reflex, but she gripped the ornament. I believe she gripped it because she knew it was there and that she’d been waiting for it and that it was just the thing she needed to move onto join Grammy.

Remember, I whispered, you promised not to tell anyone that you’ve already seen it.

The holidays are starting to look different.


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