Friday, December 20, 2013

Lady Sings The Holiday Blues
Ghosts of Christmas Past

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  At least that's what the song says.  But the reality is that for many people, it can be the most depressing time of the year.

The holidays, which can seem like a season of 'forced cheer', can serve to highlight what is lacking in our lives. These lacks can trigger memories of the 'good ole' days and make us painfully aware of  how much things have changed. Instead of experiencing Christmas cheer, we find ourselves singing the holiday blues.

Over the years, amidst all the tinsel, lights and Christmas jubilee, I've found myself thinking about the days of yore. If I think long enough,  I hear Streisand's haunting melody, "Memories, like the corners of my mind. Misty water-colored memories, of the way we were."  I remember all my loved ones through  the years that have died, and the wonderful times I spent with them. For me, dwelling too long on Christmas memories of yesteryear can lead to melancholy.

When I was a teenager, my father died suddenly right before Halloween.  Suddenly, and without warning, my life was changed forever.  I was devastated by his sudden loss, and because it was so close to what was supposed to be a joyous time of year, it only served to magnify my pain.

I was the walking dead - in a total stupor. I interacted with others, talked and even laughed. But psychologically, I was in an alternate universe. And in this universe, the world had stopped. My life had been shattered. And to my shock, my schoolmates and friends were going on with their lives. The season of lights was upon us, but I was in a dark, dark place.  Everyone was hustling, bustling and putting up lights - all while songs of cheer were filling the air. But inside, the only music I heard was a death dirge.
Christmas would never be the same. I felt like an orphan, lost and desolate.

That was decades ago, and life has gone on.  But as anyone who has lost a parent in their youth will tell you, the effects can last for a lifetime.

But the gift of resiliency is one of God's greatest gifts. It is the ability to bounce back. Wounded? Yes. Hurting? Yes. Scarred? Yes, but moving on in the arena of life with new people to love and experiences to embrace.  Through the years, I've met and loved so many fascinating and delightful people. When I love, I don't half-step. I love hard!  Many of those I've loved hard are gone now, but the memories, the joys of just being with them, the lessons they taught me, live on today.  I miss them, sometimes terribly.

There was Mother Pearl! She was my husband's grandmother from a town I never heard of called Saint Mary's, Georgia - gateway to Cumberland Island.  Have you ever opened a can of soda, only to have the contents explode all over you? Then you've had a taste of what it was like to be with Mother Pearl. Her effervescence bubbled all over everyone around her. She was eternally  upbeat, clapping her hands together and thanking God for all things.  When she talked, and boy could she ever talk, she would punctuate the end of her sentences with her signature expression, "saaaame thing, saaaaame thing," while meshing her fingers together .
It was a double whammy. We lost her only a few months after we buried her daughter who was my mother-in-law. If Mother Pearl was the queen mother (of England), than my mother-in-law was Queen Elizabeth! Like so many daughter-in-laws, I was intimidated by her. She had a stern way about her, and over the years our relationship mellowed. She was known far and wide for her culinary skills. If you ever wanted a taste of heaven, the secret was in her grits and gravy! Her bread pudding made grown men weep. If there be any kitchens in heaven, she's at the stove whipping up her mouth-watering Southern delights like 'sock it to me' cake, shrimp perlou, and her decadent party pancakes!

I miss my mother-in-law all year.  But the holidays are a poignant reminder that, at least in this life, she will never again be here to dote on my children, showering them with gifts and attention. A huge void was created after she passed. The family dynamics changed.  Before there was no question about our plans for the holidays. We were going to Mom's. It didn't matter that it was my father-in-law's house too. We always called it 'mom's'.

And not just us. That was the case for many of my husband's family.  Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we descended like a flock of vultures...ahem...I mean birds. About 40 of us would make the pilgrimage from the north, south, east and west to get some of 'Dot's' (as they lovingly called her)  cooking and to be under one roof together.  The turkey wasn't the only thing stuffed. That house was stuffed to the brim with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandkids, not to mention our poor stomachs! You could hardly hear yourself talk much less think amid the din of all the laughter and animated conversations. Mom's place was the spot!
At some point, I'd prod everyone one by one to come to the basement so we could sing. Eventually we'd all gather around the piano where my mother-in-law would play and Uncle Roy, self-appointed choir leader, would direct us in Christmas songs as well as a collection of oldy but goody gospel songs.

It seems like ages ago, yet just yesterday. Things are very different now.  With the loss of my mother-in-law, the family throng has been scattered.  She was the sun, and we, like so many planets are somewhat scattered now, rotating in our own individual orbits.  She was the one who galvanized us all.

But such is life, fraught with paradoxes. There is life and there is death. Greetings and partings, a delicate mixture of both joys and sorrows. Robin Roberts (of Good Morning America) recently talked about her battles with cancer. She said if she dwells in the past too much she gets depressed. And if she focuses on the future too much she gets anxious. She went on to say how living in the present helps maintain her sanity.

This is sound advice for the Holidays and every season.  Yes, things are not the same. In this life, change and loss are inevitable.  I can't afford myself the luxury of camping out on 'memory-lane', whether memories of Dad,  Mother Pearl or Mom. If I pitch my tent there for too long, the campground turns to quicksand and I'm swallowed up, singing blues that would put BB King himself to shame.

So to help keep the holiday blues at bay, I resolve to think in such a way that will not jettison me into the abyss.  I know I will have my weak moments, but it's good to have a plan.

Anti-Holiday Blues Plan

I will have a merry Christmas this year! Not just because it's the season of cheer, but because God has been good to me. Though I have experienced loss, His bountiful gifts have far outweighed my losses.

I will cherish the memories of my lost loves ones, but I won't cling to them.  Those memories were gifts from God that were meant for a season.  I will hold them with an open palm instead of a clenched fist.

I will smile, not cry when I reminisce.  Having said that, there is a time for all things. Crying is part of the grieving process. Particularly, fresh grief.  And with old grief, (yes, I still cry about Dad) I won't wallow in endless tears.

I will be thankful for the time I had with them, instead of angry they are gone.  Gratitude lifts. Anger depresses, and is a toxic formula for misery. There are people who live their whole lives, having never  known some of the glorious, colorful characters like the ones I have.

I will not feel sorry for myself that I've lost them.  Many people in the world have lost far more and much more than I.

I will live in the present and relish the moments with  friends and family. I will dive into the pool of the now with gusto. I'm talkin' Olympic style, triple somersault and a twist.  After all, tomorrow isn't promised to them, or me.

Am I alone in my struggle with the holiday blues?  What are some ways you handle memories of Christmases past?  How do you keep your feet out of the den of despair?


  1. I am remembering too, Norma!
    Your story is chock full of love and wonderful memories. Mother Pearl, Aunt Dot and your Dad are smiling down from heaven, I'm sure:) You tell a tale that so, so many are experiencing this time of year. I applaud your candidness and thoughtfulness.

    In a lot of ways I find myself giving tribute to those I've lost and miss so dearly. I usually acknowledge them often and sometiimes daily in one way or another. This helps me not to dwell and live so much in the past. You're right about intentionally living in the present, it's a must. I literally laugh out loud when I catch myself thinking of or doing things similar to them, like: cooking, life approaches, coping mechanisms, attitude and posture etc.

    The holidays are just an extension of that everyday love they exhibited. There is so much joy thinking of the richness left to us. I am proud to have known and loved them…as much as I miss might them. I pray their legacy continues to comfort and remind us to love unconditionally. 'Cause That's what it's all about…(Mother Pearl).

    Love you, Norma
    Happy holidays to you and the family.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Cree! As you said, their legacy lives on in us, and we are so enriched from having known them. I hope when people read this, they'll think of their own loved ones who have since passed on, and realize they are not alone in their feelings, but at the same time feel encouraged to move forward, establish their own traditions and live their lives to the fullest.