It Was The Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

These are the first 12 words from one of my favorite novels.  It’s also one of the two Charles Dickens books on Oprah’s latest Book Club reading list.

The story is also a good metaphor for the holiday season.  The holidays are a happy time, but for many people they can also be stressful and sad.  There is a dichotomy of emotions that can exist for many people this time of year.

For many years, I dreaded the holidays.  I dreaded them because of the memories from my childhood.  While my parents were married, the holidays were when some of their most ferocious fights occurred.

My father grew up in a family as the oldest of 3 boys and lived in Chicago.  Their father was a janitor, and their mother was a seamstress.  From what I can gather it was a loveless marriage, and they did not have much joy in their home at Christmas or anytime from what I can gather.  My father’s parents ended up divorcing which was very unusual for their generation.

Christmas 1959 – my father’s mother is in the front dressed in the lovely black dress with the lacy apron and gorgeous hat.  Her mother and sisters owned a millinery shop in Chicago and were great seamstresses and hat makers.  My mother’s mother and father (hidden) are in the back.  I am on the floor with my 2 younger sisters and mother.

My mother grew up in a family as the 9th of 10 kids from a rural farming community near Galesburg, IL.  Her father was mean and violent, and the kids escaped as soon as they were old enough to leave.  The boys joined the military and several of them never returned to the family home.  They were also very poor and did not have or get much at Christmas.

This is a picture of my mother’s father and was taken in 1959.  He was always this scary looking.

My parents had two different ideas about what the holidays should be like for their children.  My mother wanted decorations, tradition, homemade cookies, and presents for her kids.  My dad felt that he did without and turned out okay so that should be good enough for us.  At least, that’s how I remember the arguments.

After my parents’ divorce, the holidays were a time of turmoil.  We were jockeyed back and forth.  It seemed as if neither one of them really wanted us around during the holidays.

When we were with my father, the older kids were responsible for making the meals including those at the holidays.  So I was 12 or 13 when I started making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  Believe me, we always ate, but it wasn’t always good or pretty!

And when my father finally decided that he should buy presents for us, he would take one of us older kids to do the shopping.

And I don’t really remember there being Christmas in my mother’s house after the divorce because money was always really tight.  There was always money for booze and cigarettes, but we often did not have food, electricity, or a phone.  When we were old enough to start working, we contributed, financially, to the running of the household.

So, I come at the holidays with a different perspective than my husband.  His holidays growing up were idyllic - especially in comparison to mine!  His father’s birthday was on Christmas Eve so they also celebrated that along with traveling to Grandma’s and going to church and leaving cookies and milk for Santa.

So, we approach the holidays differently, much like my parents did.  I am grateful that he has been patient with me because it has taken many years of establishing new traditions and enjoying them with my children for the holidays to become a time of joy for me.  And it has never really been about the number of gifts, it’s really all about spending time together.

And as we layer on life experiences, our traditions undergo subtle changes.  Losing loved ones causes us to be thankful for those with whom we have left around us.  And adding new loved ones to our family and sharing our traditions with them is a source of joy.

My post started out with the quote from A Tale of Two Cities that I love.  Re-reading the last section of the book made me cry.  This story is full of dichotomies of emotions and layers of happiness and sadness – much like the holidays.  I think the lesson for me is to not have any one emotion be all consuming.  I strive to balance the range of all these emotions and this enables me to more fully appreciate all that I have.

I don’t want or expect my kids to have to go through this kind of pain in order to be able to appreciate the holidays.  I hope that we have created for them a lifetime of happy memories that will enable them to create the same going forward.

And I hope the same for everyone – embrace the pain if it exists in your life, but don’t let it consume you.  Create for yourself and your loved ones, a series of traditions that can grow and evolve over time.

And no matter what holiday you celebrate, I hope you are able to share it with those you love doing things that bring happiness and meaning to your life.

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