Family Ties

imagesSo this is Christmas, I thought to myself, looking around the room at cousins I had not connected with for almost three decades.  I wasn’t certain what to expect when I invited myself to spend a few weeks with my uncle and he suggested we visit another uncle and my cousins for Christmas Day.

While I have always felt like an outsider in my family because they thought I felt I was too good for them, or better than them, when I really just wanted to escape; my mom has always felt as if she was the outcast in her family.  Her three brothers were all professionals who went to college, purchased homes, and traveled the world; conversely, my parents didn’t finish high school, moved their family around not very close to our cousins, and I did not see them after I was 10 except the rare business trip when my oldest cousin would breeze through town; twice maybe.

Growing up, I heard about my cousin’s adventures; one traveled to Australia to play soccer and got to go watch the Olympics with his dad; one studied for a year abroad in Spain; they all spent summers taking swimming lessons and going to camp; all three of the girls had big, beautiful weddings with white flowing wedding dresses, pictures on the beach, their blonde tresses flowing in the wind; there were trips to foreign countries, too numerous to name; ski vacations with their friends to the family cabin in the mountains; they were everything our family was not.

As adults, I had heard their lives were just as spectacular; much different than the disaster mine had been.  Each one was successful, happy; the girls married lawyers and other professionals; one of the boys married a very successful executive for a major network and owns a house overlooking Sea world; they own houses, have blonde haired blue-eyed children who adore them; they have loving spouses; and, they love their parents and are an intact family unit.

Needless to say, I was somewhat intimidated to visit for the holiday, even if it was only one day.  I had not seen them in years, but they all knew what my life had been like, up to and including all of the latest family drama.

Having already spent Christmas Eve with my uncle catching up and making the traditional secret family bread; we headed up the mountain early Christmas morning to visit my other uncle and my cousins.  Everybody would be there except two of my cousins, one of the twins, and the younger girl; however, the cousin I had been closest to when we had been young was going to be there along with her husband and kids.

When we walked in the door, I was overwhelmed by the warm hugs and welcomes; I was introduced to the spouse and girlfriend of my cousin K and M respectively, and reintroduced to my cousin B’s wife A whom I had met in 2001.  I barely recognized my cousins, but they warmed me and graciously invited me into their parent’s home.

There were children running all over the place opening gifts, screaming, playing, and taunting each other; it was after all, Christmas morning.  I went into the kitchen and greeted my uncle B while he was making a big breakfast for everyone; then turned around and saw my aunt P.  It was a crazy and fun madhouse.

As everyone settled in, my cousin’s K and B and Aunt P stood in the kitchen drinking mimosas cooking and catching up; they wanted to hear some stories about my life both as a child and as an adult.  I told them story after story; they were not surprised, they were somewhat saddened, though.  While my aunt knew we had a difficult life growing up, some of the stories were beyond what she saw as an outsider.

Later, my cousin K and I sat and talked for hours; she listened as I told her my woeful tale of feeling disconnected and flat, of not being able to love.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes; she stood up and hugged me, warning me to tread lightly with my relationship so I don’t end up alone.  We talked about how many times I had been in the area and had never seen or called anybody in the family for the past 20 years; she implored me not to continue the behavior.

K stood up and hugged me and I let her.

I felt incredibly warm and accepted by them, although I missed my family; my girls, my mother, sisters and brother.  The day was good, and by the time I left, I was no longer intimidated by them; they were truly no different from me.  We all embraced and said goodbye, I promised to keep in touch.

Before I left, I went to the restroom; my cousin’s 4 year-old boy was on the stairs, I asked how his Christmas was, he eyed me suspiciously and said, “I don’t like you.”  So it goes, so it goes.

I do Love Christmas – Despite my Protests

imagesWhen I was a little girl, I spent every summer with my grandmother; she was not what I would call a devout Catholic, but she required me to pray on my knees every night, attend Catechism classes and go to church with her occasionally.  She had a huge cross with Jesus stretched across it hung over her bed.

Before going to sleep, we would kneel side by side, hands clasped, head bent, and we would pray together.  I would pray aloud for my mom, dad, brother, and sisters, I would include the neighbors, my grandmother and her husband, and all of our relatives, and then I would pray for my dog, Woodstock and my donkey, Cinnamon.  When we were finished saying our spoken prayers, I would always look up, towards the ceiling, and I would silently pray to God for him to make my family get better; I would ask for my parents to stop fighting.  I wanted there to be peace in my home when I returned from my summer break.

Each year my prayers went unanswered and life in our house became more troubled; every time my mom went to the hospital or my father went to jail, I started to believe less.  I started to think prayers were like wishes; either they were only fulfilled for “good” children, and I wasn’t one, or there was no such thing as God.

As life wore on, I stopped believing; I became afraid to believe because I was tired of being disappointed.

***

When I was in elementary school and middle school, I used to play “school” often; I would line up all of my stuffed animals, my favorite toys and pretend they were all my students.  My two donkeys would always sit in the front, they were the best students.

Sometimes, I would recruit my younger brother and sister to play as well; I would create math problems and sentences for them to copy, they bored easily of the game, though, and weren’t the straight-A students my animals were.  If anybody had ever asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, a favorite question of adults, I would answer I wanted to be a teacher.

As a high school student, I had the opportunity to spend my junior and senior years working at an elementary school for one of my classes.  It was a true eye-opener as to what the experience would be like if I followed my heart.  I fell in love with so many of the students; I worked at one of the schools with the lowest income levels in town, so many students lived in the weekly motels.

One particular student would come to school with various bruises, bumps, bandages, and sometimes casts.  He wore the same clothing day after day, not a crime, but a sign his family needed help.  One day I asked him about his broken arm, one “kid” to another; when he confided to me his dad had broken it but he wasn’t supposed to tell, I told the teacher I was working with.

Her response was apathetic at best, she had explained how it happened all the time in the area and there wasn’t much she could do.  Times were different in those days; but, I was crushed, I understood some of what he was experiencing.  A few weeks later, the boy was pulled from the school and he was gone.  I never saw him again.

I finished my work experience, but I changed my mind about wanting to be a teacher; I realized I would fall in love and there was nothing I could do to save all of those children.  It was around the same time I started to adopt my theory that I did not want to be a mother, either, that I would be a horrible mother, not able to protect my children from everything.

Throughout the rest of my life, those words have haunted me; my family always reminds me and my children that I “never wanted kids”.  The fact is, I was so afraid of loving them too much and of having them ripped away from me; or of never being good enough.

***

Despite the fact that my family was a shade less than perfect, my mom did her best to make the holidays magical.  Our house was decorated throughout from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after New Year’s, including the yard.  We had homemade goodies galore, Christmas music wafted through the house, and presents practically covered our tree.

Still, no matter how much tinsel she used or how many lights there were, the magic wasn’t enough to keep the police at bay.  It turns out it just wasn’t a family holiday if somebody wasn’t drunk, in jail, in the hospital, or threatening somebody; that’s just the way it was.  Though, she tried.

When I became an adult, I did everything I could to make my children’s holidays as special as I could.  But, I felt just as cursed as my parents had been; there was never enough money in the first few years.  Though, when children are very young, they don’t notice the one foot tall Charlie Brown tree with two or three gifts scattered underneath and the paper fireplace.

Then, when my first husband left on New Year’s Eve when my girls were young, the event put a bit of a pall over holidays; especially since he made a habit of calling four times a year after that, my birthday, his birthday, our anniversary, and New Year’s Eve.  We eventually forgot about him and opted to move on with our new family, the three of us and the girls’ adopted dad.

However, their new dad could not have cared less about Christmas; no matter how special I tried to make it, he was not interested.  One year, we didn’t even have a tree; something the girls and I looked forward to as soon as Halloween came knocking on the door.

As each year passed, my enthusiasm for Christmas began to wane, his dislike for the holiday and my traditions made me feel small and sad.  I wanted to give my girls not just physical gifts, but the traditions I had enjoyed the most; the Christmas Eve traditions of new pajamas, board games, fondue and snacks for dinner; the morning traditions of eating breakfast from the stockings, making a huge Christmas dinner, and all of the other traditions.

The last Christmas we spent together, I served his dinner to him at his desk upstairs while the girls and I ate together downstairs.  The girls and I went alone to go look at the Christmas lights, typically a family event.

After that, I was afraid to love Christmas; the more I love something, the further it seems to slip away from me.  I am certain the logic does not make any sense, but in my fractured mind, it protects me from getting hurt.

The Best Christmas

(Sorry, I know this one is long… but, it is what it is…)

christmasOne year when I was separated from my now ex-husband, I was staying with my older sister for a few months.  I had previously been staying with my parents after suffering a nervous breakdown and leaving my job at the local community college.  The year had been a difficult one, nervous breakdown, walking away from my four-year job, bitter feud with my parents, eventually becoming a virtual squatter on my sister’s couch.

However, the month before Christmas, things started to improve; I landed a job as a manager at a local family owned business.  Still, I was having a difficult time as my out of control spending habits from my untreated illnesses started to creep into my real life.  Whenever I felt unhappy or alone, as I did on most days, I simply went shopping for things I did not want, did not need, and could ill afford; a classic symptom of borderline personality disorder.

I had cut up my credit cards months before the holiday approached, but I knew I could not afford to spend $10 on either one of the girls I loved so dearly.  Each day I watched as the stack of presents grew underneath my sister’s Christmas tree.  The presents were neatly wrapped in glittery paper, tied with ribbons and adorned with bows, all carefully marked with the name of her son, daughter or husband.

I was happy to have a place to live, but my heart ached at feeling so out-of-place at Christmas time.  My sister and I were not very close, and she made it clear I was in her way daily when she would sigh loudly every time she had to move something of mine that was in her way.  I felt terrible, even though she would profess, “Oh, knock it off, if it was a big deal, I wouldn’t have invited you to stay with us.”  Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been a pawn in the big feud between her and our parents.

At night, when everybody would sleep, I would sometimes cry, as silently as I could so I would not disturb them; I would wonder what part I had played in the feud.  My dad was not speaking to my sister over some letter he had written and had given each of us kids a copy of; I am not even certain if I read it.  In turn, we all had to take sides.  I needed a place to live, so I guess I chose hers.  The family became divided in a dispute that lasted until the day he was shot; me and my older sister on one half of a canyon, my mom, dad, brother, and younger sister on the other.

So this is Christmas, I thought, wondering what I could do for my girls as I looked at the presents under the tree.  Well, absolutely nothing.

My girls were coming out and spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day with me, their father did not really care about celebrations and we had maintained a civil separation.  I drove the 45 miles into town and picked them up, happy to see them, but sad that I did not even have the money to give them their traditional Christmas Eve pajamas.

They were excited to come, “Oh, Mommy,” they exclaimed, “We don’t care about presents.  We’re just happy we get to spend the holiday with you.”  I was so warmed to hear those words; but, still, I wanted to give them so much.  I knew their cousins were getting lots of toys; the tree was already buried, and Santa would be bringing even more.

When we arrived at the house, the girls didn’t seem very interested in sticking around and visiting with me; instead, they wanted to go outside with their cousins.  I agreed, wanting desperately for them to enjoy themselves and have a good time.  They disappeared outside in the cold for hours.  I looked outside and didn’t see them.  “Where are they?” I asked my sister as she started cooking their Christmas Eve dinner.

“Oh, I think they are in the trailer,” she said as she looked outside noticing a swinging door open on the tractor-trailer door.  Their yard is reminiscent of a car graveyard, old vehicles lined up, rusting away in the sun; my brother-in-law used to own his own trucking company, so they have two of the box type trailers as well.  The kids would often play in there to get out of the wind and cold.

When they came in late in the afternoon, their cousins settling in for Christmas Eve dinner, I assumed we would be eating as well, “No, Mommy,” they urged, “Put your coat on and come with us.”  I followed them as they led me outside to the trailer.

As soon as I stepped foot inside, my eyes filled with tears; they had transformed the inside of the trailer into a festive Christmas hall, complete with a paper Christmas tree.  There were paper chains, ornaments made of Popsicle sticks, tinsel from the Dollar Store, candles, candy, and presents sitting on floor underneath the construction paper tree.  They had even constructed a fireplace and had hung three stockings over the make-believe fire.

“How did you do this,” I asked them, not believing my eyes, “where did you get the money?”

They explained that their dad had taken them shopping at The Dollar Store and had chipped in some of his own money, wanting us to have a nice day; and their cousins had spent the afternoon helping them set it all up.  I hugged them tighter than I ever had in my life.

They had stacks of sleeping bags, apparently we were to spend the night outside as well; just as well, I thought, I did not want to wake up in the house full of gifts my children couldn’t have.

We spread the sleeping bags out and sat down to a feast of Dollar Store snacks and junk.  Later on that evening as we were singing Christmas songs and telling funny stories, my niece and nephew came out and begged to stay the night with us, claiming it was more fun out there than in their boring house.  They were allowed to stay about an hour until my sister came out and demanded their return.

Christmas morning we awoke to stockings filled with lotion, soap, body spray and candy, Santa had been good to us.  We opened presents they had bought for us and each other; I have never been more delighted with things purchased for under a dollar.

I am teary eyed as I think of that year and the love I know my girls had for me then, and I for them.  I couldn’t give them anything, but I wanted to give them the world.  I can only imagine when they saw how much their cousins had, and how they received nothing, they must have known how much I screwed up.  Yet, I wondered who taught them to love that way…