For as long as I have been alive, all major holidays have been celebrated at my mother’s house. No discussion. No argument. No exception. That’s just the way it is and all four of her children knew it was futile to argue or plan otherwise. Over the years we have had some interesting gatherings, with one sibling or another often bringing a friend who had no better place to go, to enjoy the mayhem that makes up family gatherings. The house was always crowded, busy and at the least, entertaining.
And then we started getting old. And some of us got sick. And things changed. First, we lost my father. Then, a few years later, both my brother and one of my sisters became ill. Terminally ill. The holiday gatherings began to shrink exponentially. We lost spouses and children who no longer felt attached, or who moved away and on with their lives. Before we even had time to process or recover from these tragedies, my living sister then lost her husband to the same, terrible disease that had claimed our father and siblings.
At this point our family events were beginning to look and feel rather bleak. Depressing is more like it. We barely filled all the chairs at the kitchen table. I seriously considered not coming any more myself; I was tired of the feeling of loss.
Even though my wife and I have 4 children of our own, they all have other family responsibilities so holidays often fall in rotation, meaning we rarely ever see all four of them at the same time. This Christmas was one of those rare exceptions. All four children were present, along with each of their partners and our three grandchildren. A rare and wonderful treat. The house was full and loud. It may have seemed chaotic to others, but it felt “right” to me.
My sister and I feel like the “lone survivors” in our family; at least I do. Most of the time, life just goes on and it doesn’t cross my mind, but once in a while I am reminded of the empty chairs at our holiday table. For Christmas this year, my sister did a really cool thing. She had calendars made for all of us. Each month had family photos relative to that particular time of the year. Each birthday was marked with the face of the celebrant. On the month of November, she shared a photo of each of the family members we lost: our brother, our sister, her husband and our dad. We all enjoyed the calendar and commented on the cool old photos. At one point, while the grandchildren were stealing the show, I started thumbing through the calendar again. I stopped on November, and for some reason, the photos on that page reached out to me, and I felt the loss. Something was missing…someone, several someone’s were missing.
I saw my sweet granddaughter and my wonderful grandsons playing on the floor below and thought how much those who have left us would have enjoyed meeting and playing with these little wonders. They would have looked at our “little girls,” Kristin and Cailin and marveled at how they were now mothers themselves. At that moment, I missed them deeply. Time changes things; not always in a way we like.
A few moments later, I walked into the kitchen to find my wife, all four of our children, along with their partners and children, all chatting together, bantering back and forth and poking fun at one another. Just like we used to do. It was a profound moment for me. No one even knew it was happening. I guess you could say I saw the passing of time. I have taken the place of my father and Lori is “Mom.” The four children gathering are no longer my siblings and I. Instead, it is our children. It was a bittersweet revelation. Sad, sentimental and comforting all at the same time. Sometimes it seems that life has flown by at an unbelievable pace. Yesterday I was the child; today I am the grandfather. As James McMurty sings, it’s a “damn short movie.”
This summer we sold the house that our four children became brothers and sisters in. Their life’s memories reside there. We managed to get them all together briefly to take one last photo in front of our “home.” One of my daughters gave us the photo for Christmas.
I hope that in the time to come, we can create more of those moments where everyone is together. I hope that time will be good to our children and give them many years of enjoying one another’s company. I hope that once in a while they will bring a “stray” to Thanksgiving or Christmas. And if they are lucky, we might even let them host a Holiday now and then!