Family tradition is invaluable


Mary McDonough

Holiday seasons are a time to bring families together for memories that will last a lifetime. Small routines become long-awaited traditions. Some bring out family recipes, board games or simply enjoy each other’s company.

For many, the loss of a loved one can cause the holiday season to feel more bittersweet, almost magnifying the absence of that person instead of celebrating the joy of time together.

Traditions seem to feel much more significant, being one of the only ways left to connect with that person and all the memories with them. For even a little while, that empty chair at the table doesn’t seem quite so painful. Those traditions develop into a tool to cope with grief during holidays.

A week before the start of fall semester, I lost my grandma suddenly, who was the most influential woman in my life. As long as I could remember, every holiday that we spent with her was one long standing tradition on top of another, but all the stops came out for Christmas.

The table was set with linen tablecloths to go along with a set of spode dishes that my great grandparents ate off of for decades. Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas albums played on loop while Great Grandma’s Hurteline’s cranberry relish and raspberry jello was prepped for dessert. As the youngest of all my cousins, I could never keep up. Instead, I stayed at my Grandma’s side, absorbing every bit of knowledge she could offer like a quiet sponge.

One thing that stuck was the wealth of Broadway history she offered. I fell in love, and when she discovered how much I wanted to know, it became the focus of many conversations. She would recall shows growing up that she fell in love with and passed them on to me. Without failure, every Christmas I would find a DVD of a musical. That night, while my mom and aunts tried on clothes and my dad went on the hunt for AA batteries, she and I would sit there in the living room. Intricate ballets and beautiful tear-jerking scores, all normally in technicolor, transported me to a variety of different worlds. It felt like my yearly dose of magic.

This year, her absence filled every room. For the first time in 20 years, that magic was nowhere to be seen. Like every Christmas before, there was raspberry jello and cranberry relish served on the spode, but that sense of magic and anticipation was something I was left searching for. As I sat at the dining room table, I remembered the title that we talked about in our last conversation—Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In the first year without her, our annual movie turned into me sitting at the table with my earbuds in and the soundtrack on loop.

For that few minutes, the magic was back. While it didn’t heal the pain of grief entirely, being able to feel her spirit and larger-than-life personality, although for just a few minutes, helped me find the light in being with the people I care about during the season.

Memories and magic come from the smallest things, and they become the things you may rely on later, when you’re the only one to remember them. Those traditions will not only be a constant connection, but those memories will be passed down to future generations. If there is one thing that sticks with you from all of this, please realize that those small moments are everything. Don’t blow them off, don’t take advantage of the fact that they will come around next year. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.