A GOBLIN, A TURKEY AND AN ELF WALKED INTO A BAR……
By Kim Mooney
A goblin, a turkey and an elf walked into a bar……. Ok, it’s not a bar. It’s Walmart in October. Rows and rows of holiday bling. I mean holidays plural. Slim aisles split by honeycomb displays of chachkis, almost separating one holiday from another. Almost. The entire ‘holiday department’ drawing you in with the soft haze of thousands of tiny white lights. A village of laughing skeletons in bouncy houses, screaming witches stirring boiling cauldrons, bats that fly, hands creeping out of graves and crawling across the shelf on their own battery power. Giant snake sleeping bags, paper plates and cups and napkins starring various monsters, costumes and masks and tubes of fake blood. And a partridge in a pear tree. With glowing red eyes. Giant blow-up turkeys gobbling right at you, plastic pumpkins carved to smile or stare or scare, cornucopia, more paper plates and cups and napkins starring autumn leaves, and plaques announcing the joys of hearth and home. Tinny Christmas music boxes, and the usual suspects: cardboard fireplaces, mistletoe, lampposts, mailboxes, wreaths, snowmen, animals wearing Santa caps, rooftops, elves, Santa riding in a giant inflatable sled pulled by giant inflatable reindeer slowly riding the air waves, stockings, of course paper cups and plates and napkins starring jolly sayings, jellies, sugarplums, tinsel, ornaments, boxes of fruitcake, a forest of life-sized trees sprayed and scented, and sweaters, ugly sweaters.
And tucked away in plain sight the bastard child of this interbreeding: A giant unsteady Mickey Mouse with fangs. I am not making this up. All overwhelming, mesmerizing and will-sucking. And sparkly, animated and inflatable. Like a block of hookers on an Amsterdam street.
Our holidays are served up with obligations and expectations. We fill our calendars and empty our pockets. We eat until we’re stupefied and then set about to starve ourselves two weeks later. We get giddy on being with those we love, with celebrations, with music that has subliminally owned us for our whole lives. And in our best times, we have chairs at the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving table painting.
But what if we don’t?
For most of my adult years, I was single. The holidays were OK when I had them and OK when I didn’t. I’d sometimes work Christmas because the office was empty. Our small scattered family flew to be together mid-December to avoid the ticket prices and lines and headaches. Then I got married. To a man who loved Thanksgiving and Christmas and especially Christmas Eve. Kevin had grown up in a small poor family and his mother always waited until late Christmas eve to get the last tree. The first year we lived together, we put our tree up the day after Thanksgiving.
We bought a pretty box of ornaments and as I started unfurling the tinsel strand, he brought out a small box of his own ornaments. Lifted out of the box with care was a four-inch sparkly dancing Santa. He turned to me with a smile and said, “I’ve had this Santa since I was 3 and it’s always the first thing on the tree.” He had me at Santa.
Our tree is now resplendent with happy moments of our life together, one ornament chosen together and added every year. Little scuba diver ornaments. Goofy penguins and dinosaurs wearing holly wreaths, globes and stars and lights, and pictures of our families and animal friends. We hide things in the branches and wait until the other person spots them. We make doggie bags for our doggie friends. We laugh a lot.
But our best gift has always been our friends. His friends and mine bundled themselves into our friends, and like the best of intentional family, they gathered with us every year, sometimes missing a year, sometimes bringing an extra relative, for Kevin’s gourmet feasts. Some came for both Thanksgiving and Christmas but the most intimate came for Christmas Eve, when we made pizza dough as Kevin had since he was young, and everyone brought toppings. Tried bizarre combinations. Laughed a lot.
It was as much the making as the eating. Much like a holiday cartoon, as he and his foody friends created masterpieces, the kitchen was covered with flour and cutting boards and mixing bowls that we unabashedly licked clean. We all took a turn washing a sink full of dishes several times in the afternoon. We turned into a Norman Rockwell painting with an attitude.
I don’t like the word ‘drift’ because it seems lazy, but that’s what started to happen. It took a couple of years. One couple had their first grandchild and moved their holidays to the kids’ house. Another friend started going east to spend Christmas with her now parentless siblings. One friend dropped away into her own life. Another had another family set in Denver that needed them so they started coming by for a couple of hours. All with torn loyalties and deep apologies they said they’d miss our grand parties, but the truth is, we did see each other a lot the rest of the year. So then, what’s the big deal?
Last year, when Kevin’s best friend and culinary co-conspirator said his fiancé wanted him home alone with her for Christmas, we were hurt. But we still had him for Christmas Eve. When he dropped by on Christmas Eve but said he couldn’t stay long, Kevin was heartbroken and I was too. Kevin decided a few days later that from then on, we weren’t going to host anymore.
I’ve been running grief groups professionally for decades. I’ve heard hundreds of people deal with sorrow over the holidays — always missing the personal connections, never the bling. I know how to offer good suggestions and to help an online group help each other. I know how important it is to be able to listen to people with a tender heart, especially when they can’t find their own. I know grief is complicated. But as is often the case, I just hadn’t seen my own.
My grief was for the disappearance of our Thanksgiving tradition, the absence of the hustle and smells and flour footprints, the toasts of gratitude that meant a ridiculous smidgen more because they were on Thanksgiving. It was for the way the tree seemed neglected with so few people to show it off to. For the snacks that came on the paper plates starring jolly sayings. It was for the loss of pizza night. It was for our silent house. It was for the naïve promise of family forever.
It was for knowing that we’ll never have a new group of old friends. It was for Kevin. For his disappointment. He was still willing to make a feast for me, but well, you know. Feasts are really made for crowds.
It was for aging without children to come here or have us over. Then it was for not having children at all. And for not being able to give Kevin children. And my grief tripped over and dislodged many things that hadn’t been up in a long time. Missing our dead parents in a new way. Wishing my own sister lived closer. Wishing she hadn’t been going to her husband’s family every year.
I wasn’t just sad. I was scared that we are heading into a grayer, more isolated future. I was angry at our friends because it was easier to be angry than deserted. I was inexplicably embarrassed about not having a place at the table. Ours or anyone else’s. I was surprised at how deeply it broke me. I pretended it didn’t. So much is good in my life, I chastised myself for feeling self-pity. I was mother-bear protective of Kevin and heartbroken that some of the things he looked forward to the most all year were over.
I got out my own group materials and rethought what we needed. I was embarrassed to see how vulnerable it made me to consider reaching out because it felt like asking for help, which meant something was wrong with me. I admitted to several of my friends that we were alone this year for Thanksgiving and they immediately invited us to their homes. I called my sister in California and she invited us to be with her husband’s family.
We’ve reframed what we can have and what the advantages might be. It might be nice to simply bring a gourmet dish rather than make the whole dinner. We really like the friends we’ll be seeing and we’ll get to learn more about their families. I haven’t spent Christmas with my sister for decades, and that part will really be good. And we decided to have a party in early December, when both of our birthdays are. And we’re getting closer to getting another dog so the house doesn’t seem so stiflingly quiet and adult.
I will have some strategies for the people in my online grief group this year that I didn’t have before because this time they’re coming out of my hide. This year I’ll remember a little bit more how challenging it may be to consider even doing one thing differently.
Being of good cheer is going to be a little more intentional than it has been. Kevin and I have decided this year our theme is going to be Absurdity. I may dig out the ridiculous headband with the reindeer ears and wear it while I’m driving. I’ve always threatened to follow him around in Home Depot shaking jingle bells. This year he said he won’t even let me in the car. I’ll bring him his coffee in the morning wearing the Janet Reno costume I made decades ago (assuming he doesn’t read this). We’re putting the tree up a couple of days before Thanksgiving even though we won’t be here and I am quite sure Mickey Mouse with his fangs will show up under it.
Kim Mooney, with Practically Dying, LLC, works with people helping them to rethink life and death and to get through some of the toughest times of their lives.
WHEN YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPY BUT YOU’RE NOT. Surviving Grief in the Holidays. November 7, 6:30 to 8 pm, and November 10, 10 am – 11:30 am. ONLINE group. $15 per person.
ORDINARY MAGIC: RITUALS FOR GRIEF AND GRATITUDE. Sunday, November 17, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, Willow Farm Contemplative Center, 11898 N 75th St., Longmont, CO. $$90 per person.
WALKING WITH YOUR GRIEF. Everyone suffers deep losses. But nobody suffers our losses. This group will meet online via Zoom three Thursdays in a row January 16th, 23rd and 30th from 6:30 pm to 8 pm. $120 per person.