Thursday, November 28, 2013

Holiday Essentials

Every family develops traditions, in my experience--and mine is no different.  The one that's upon us as I write this is Thanksgiving.  It is traditionally the one my household spends at "our house," with a cherished circle of family and friends gathered around the Thanksgiving feast, or joining together for a walk to our local-but-internationally-famous event, the Plaza Lighting Ceremony.
A view of the Kansas City Country Club Plaza Lights and the crowd in 2009
Lately, my family's holidays seem to have been anything but "normal," however. Last year we spent a bittersweet Thanksgiving at my father's lake house in Arkansas, which we knew would probably be the last, and it was.  Dad sold his longtime home (our cherished relaxation retreat) in April, and moved to a much-safer-for-him retirement community.  It was a necessary change, but none of us was happy about the necessity.
The view of the lake from Dad's wrap-around porch is one of many things we miss about his former home in northwest Arkansas!
This is my daughter's motto.
While we were in Arkansas, my aunt in the San Francisco Bay Area suffered a health crisis that set us up for many changes in 2013. She was hospitalized the day before Thanksgiving--we got the news while we were on the road south--and unfortunately she has been unable to return home since. 

My son and daughter traveled to California in December to evaluate the situation, and my daughter moved there "for as long as needed" in January, to be my aunt's household manager, "dog Mom" and much-needed patient advocate. This will be her first Thanksgiving and Christmas away from us.
Part of my daughter's duties include caring for my aunt's Miniature Schnauzer Fritz (L), as well as her own pack: (center-to-R) Border Collie Cole, Toy Fox Terrier Luna, and Rat Terrier Anika.
A small glimpse of former Christmas glory.

My mother-in-law has had even more wrenching changes to deal with.  For decades she reigned as Queen of the Family Christmas, but as she and my father-in-law have fallen into ill health, and especially now that she is a widow, Christmases have become a pale shadow of their former selves. 

She marked last Christmas by spending a final night in her home on Christmas Eve, and moving officially into a nearby assisted living facility on Christmas Day afternoon.  I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for her.

Wine and memories.
It's hard not to see all the changes as losses.  But if we live, we see changes.  My family currently includes three octogenarians, the youngest of whom is 85.  Both of my children are young adults, of the age when people usually marry and have children if they are going to.  More changes are inevitable.

Traditions and cherished rituals may seem like the "meaning of the season," but they, too, eventually either morph into new versions or fall away as they become impractical.  It's another category of changes that can seem like losses.

The challenge lies in finding the essential, eternal goodness at the heart of the holiday, that which remains in place, no matter what else changes.  We are thankful for recent blessings, for memories to cherish, and for the persistence of love between family and friends--whether they are near or far away, living and drawing breath, or living in memory.

At their heart, holidays boil down to love--or they don't boil down to anything at all. 

PHOTO CREDITS: I took the Plaza Lights photo in 2009.  My husband Pascal Gephardt took the photo of Beaver Lake from Dad's porch during the Thanksgiving visit in 2012.  The little "Lilo and Stitch" image and quote is from the Facebook page of my daughter, Signy Gephardt (currently her profile picture). Signy took the photo of the "California Canines" in the loft at my aunt's condo in Daly City, CA. 

Either my son Tyrell Gephardt or I took the photo of my mother-in-law's Christmas decorations in 2006, one of the last really "like-old-times" Christmases there, but already shadowed by my father-in-law's ill health. My son Tyrell took the final photo at Dad's lake house last Thanksgiving: A favorite wine (Stonehill Norton) and one of my dad's glasses, commemorating his ship the St. Lo, sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.  The survivors still hold reunions, but those traditions are necessarily changing, too.

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