Aunt Gerry’s house on 10th Street was always decked out with a glorious tree that nearly touched the ceiling and my Uncle Ross used to spend hours stringing outdoor lights, clearing mounds of snow from the sidewalk and adorning the lamp post in the front yard with a red velvet bow and ribbon.
There was only one way to describe our family Christmas celebrations: We did it big.
Inside, the freshly polished mahogany balustrade along the red carpeted stairway was wrapped in garland. A mistletoe hung in the archway leading to a formal dining room appointed with my great Aunt Josephine’s antique furnishings, including a lace-topped table filled with every homemade delight your heart could imagine and a China cabinet stocked with plates and silverware that we only used three times a year: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. An outsized wreath on the front door welcomed every soul in the neighborhood—perfect strangers, old friends and “claimed” cousins alike—as the Temptations streamed from the floor-model, mid-century Zenith console that housed a television, record player and an 8-track tape deck.
Family is what you make it.
We didn’t have a lot, but somehow Barbie dolls and their Dream houses, glow-in–the-dark Tyco race-car tracks, Easy-Bake ovens, and piles of new clothes and shoes found their way underneath the tree. One year, my Auntie Doris Jean gave me a golden watch that she’d resized by wrapping it around two broomsticks to fit my bony wrist. No matter how thin our pockets, there was always enough to go around.
Make no mistake: Things did not always unfold smoothly. In a family replete with both in-laws and outlaws, there were liquor-infused fist fights that no one wants to talk about, tears for reasons no one can explain now, and emotional fractures that eventually set on their own for better or worse.
There was that year in the late ’70s when Auntie Gerry got upset and crashed a pan of macaroni and cheese on the dining room table after a brouhaha broke out over a card game. My second cousin Caroldonia, a beautiful brown girl who was especially good at Spades and could trash talk with the best of them, got into it with a cheating relative who was discovered slow-cooking the books like a well-seasoned rack of pot roast. My mother’s Bible-toting sister never drank and almost never uttered an expletive, but that night she unleashed a flurry of “goddamns” and “sons a bitches.”
Grandma Alice sat over in the corner and wept.
And I’ll never forget that Labor Day melee in 2005, during which an older cousin wielded a claw hammer at a former brother-in-law. She missed, thank goodness. The police showed up, but nobody went to jail—at least not that night. We parted ways, ruefully and tearfully, promising one another we’d try again next year.
But, for some of us, there had been too many holidays fraught with petty annoyances and heartbreak, too many bruised feelings and black eyes. And now that those fresh-faced children are adults, we are out meeting the world on our own terms, paying mortgages, working second and third jobs, marrying and divorcing, and raising children of our own. We’re still trying to salvage what was good, but we now celebrate the holiday season apart. If not for Facebook, I’m not sure we’d be speaking at all.
Excluding our mother’s emergency surgery some months ago, I haven’t spoken to my sister Lori Ann since last spring. There had been another family fight—between her child and mine—and we said things to one another I’d like to think we both regret. I guess it’s been easy to avoid one another. She’s lives with her husband in Tampa and, these days, I am making my home in New York. We quietly check-in on social media, mutually “liking” photographs of our children and grandchildren, but saying little.
As our extended family splintered over the distance between us—measured in miles as well as old physical wounds and emotional scars—I’ve spent years trying to recreate those glorious moments for my own family. Thanks to Martha Stewart, I learned to roast a turkey, whip up my Auntie Gerry’s always-perfect lemon meringue pie, and stew a better than decent pot of collard greens.
Still, I miss those Christmas mornings with my siblings and cousins—the laughing, the dancing, the love that flowed through and among us. We were a singing family and I still long for those Sundays in the choir stand, as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder, belting out one tune after another.
But nearly four decades, three grown children, a stepson, two grandchildren and 32 Christmas trees later, I’ve decided to katy-bar the door, slip on some warm flannel pajamas, pour myself a snifter of mediocre cognac, and let the holiday season pass me by. This year, I am craving solace and there are several unwritten novel chapters calling my name. Call me a coward, but I enjoy my sanity and I don’t miss hovering over a thankless skillet of popping bacon grease to bake the cornbread I always seem to burn.
All I really want for Christmas is some time alone and I am taking it.
Sequestered in a Brooklyn loft high above a busy avenue with Buddy, my best friend Lizz’s adorable 12-year-old pooch, I cancelled a trip to Costa Rica. Plane tickets and hotels are too expensive this time of year, I told myself. There are no decorations in the house, no ornaments, no garland and no lights in the window and that’s fine by me.
Besides, last year it took Lizz and me until Easter to take down the last tree and haul the accouterments back to the storage bin in Red Hook. Lizz is off to Minnesota again but, months later we recycled the tree-fire-in-waiting, we still break out into spontaneous laughter when we tell other people that story.
Family is what you make it.
I did not have the heart to wrap and ship gifts this year and I am too much of a procrastinator to address a load of Christmas cards and get them to the post office on time. Instead, I sent some “holiday cheer” to my grandchildren. (And by cheer I mean that I e-mailed some department gift cards that “Santa” can put to good use.) Four-month-old Brandon and 3-year-old Taylor-Marie are the light of my world.
I also emptied my annual holiday savings account and sent the proceeds to a family in need. There’s a young mother in Atlanta who is raising three kids on her own, and I know—like I did when I was 25 and struggling—that she could use some joy. I figured the beach chair and a few nights under the moon in Guanacaste could wait a few more months.
Caroldonia suffered a stroke this year and Auntie Gerry just celebrated her 84th birthday, so I imagine there isn’t a lot of time left. So there is some risk to stealing these precious moments for myself, engaging in the kind of self-care that I typically forego—a home-cooked meal made just for one and a little Luther Vandross to remind me that there is a budding, new love on the horizon with a man I never expected.
Despite the oceans of deep love I have for my family—and them for me—selfishly I have carved out this space for myself. I hope it isn’t too much.