This last Christmas was my third without Mom and my second without Dad. At the risk of sounding like a jerk, the holidays aren't as difficult as I expected them to be. Veteran's Day is always hard without Dad, which is a weird holiday to feel melancholy about, but it makes sense when you understand how much Dad's world revolved around his four years in the Army. The first Christmas without Mom was difficult, but I find the unexpected moments to be the worst. I'm prepared for the holidays. I'm not always prepared for quiet moments waiting for a plane to take off or spying little old ladies built like bowling balls rummaging through produce at the supermarket. It won't ever be the same as it was when 30 people crammed into my mother's living room to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I won't spend any more days making Christmas cookies with my mother or helping my father decorate the tree. (A neighbor once joked that Dad's 40-year-old Christmas ornaments weren't the oldest balls in the house.) I miss those times, but I think I've retained their spirit.
The decorations and gifts and food were wonderful, but not because they were decorations and gifts and food. I've walked by spectacular displays and barely noticed them. I don't remember many specific gifts. I've eaten good food that I barely tasted. What made holidays special was knowing I was loved and cared for, and I still have that.
I still have a lot of that.
I have aunts and uncles and cousins and old friends who ground me to my past and remind me that I have always been loved. I have a husband and new friends who remind me that the present is worthwhile, and that the future is too important to get lost in the weeds.
Some things are better now than they were then. I don't have to spend the day watching every word I say in fear that it's going to set off World War III. Christmas dinners aren't going to end in drunken cursing matches. Nostalgia often makes things warmer and fuzzier than they ever really were.
I think again about those days making Christmas cookies with Mom. Sometimes she would cry, and when I asked her why she was crying, she said it was because she missed her own mother so much. My daughter will be named after my grandmother, a woman I can barely remember but who helped shape an entire lifetime of Christmases.
Shaping the holidays for my daughter is my job now, and as I think about the task in front of me, I find myself calling on my mother's memory. Knowing she won't be here to see my daughter's face or show pictures of her new granddaughter to her friends makes me feel like I've been robbed, much like she must have felt felt when I admitted that I didn't remember very much of my grandmother, who died when I was 2. I don't believe in God, but I believe in an afterlife where my parents are OK, where they can see that I'm happy. I know I'm deluding myself, but I need it and I don't care.
But it's OK. Even the good stuff is bittersweet when you're an adult. Holidays are better now than they were 25 years ago -- sadder, with less sheer exuberance, but with more texture because of what my parents left behind.