Traditions

Green eggs and ham. 

The eggs were scrambled, enough food coloring added to complete the transition from yellow to a sort of chartreuse. Ham leftover from yesterday’s big Christmas dinner was fried in a big skillet before being piled onto a platter in the center of the kitchen table. Still in our pajamas and buzzing with the excitement of recently unwrapped gifts, Mat, Karissa, and I would pour red ketchup over green eggs, and devour one of our family’s most notable traditions- green eggs and ham for Christmas breakfast.

This wasn’t our only tradition. My dad is a talented guitarist and our family always kicked off the holiday season with friends and neighbors and a motley assortment of young sailors from the Navy base all gathered at our home late on Thanksgiving for pie and singing Christmas carols. We closed the holiday season the same way, those same neighbors returning Christmas night, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and the ringing of off-key voices filling our home. There were the usual customs, of course, cookies and stockings and decorations that become iconic over the years, the putting up of the tree and whose turn it is to place the star atop the (in our case, artificial) branches. There was midnight mass and new pajamas on Christmas Eve, and the family- my grandmother and uncle- who I can’t recall ever being absent from a childhood Christmas, no matter where the Navy sent us.

Looking back now, I can see other “traditions” at play. The late nights that my mom stayed up cleaning and fixing up the second-hand toys she’d spent Saturdays yard-saling for so that Santa could visit our home regardless of the salary the Navy paid its enlisted sailors. The careful planning, the saving of wrapping paper, the making of homemade decorations with popcorn and salt dough. How my mom, especially, had a talent for infusing the season with ritual and celebration as she went about the tasks of daily life singing along to old Statler Brothers and Kenny Rogers and Amy Grant Christmas records. 

We get older and often the holiday season begins to lose its magic. We get caught up in complaining that the decorations go up in stores earlier than we think is appropriate, or that the mall parking lots are full, or that our kids' wish lists are full of expensive technology that they disappear behind. We say to each other that the holidays just aren’t the same as when we were kids, that things just don’t sparkle like they once did. We can forget that, quite often, it was the combination of someone else’s hard work (thanks, Mom!) and our wide-eyed openness to the magic of the season that made our childhood holidays so special. When was the last time you heard an 8-year-old complain about carols playing at the grocery store in November? You don’t. They simply grin and sing along to words that fill them with excitement. 

As adults, we have to do our own hard work. We have to pull out the decorations on a Saturday morning instead of sitting on the couch continuing to scroll through our phones. We have to set aside our snarky eye-rolling and sing along to Jingle Bells for the eleven-thousandth time in our lives. We need to go to that tree-lighting and bake those cookies and watch Elf yet again and do whatever things allow us to open up to the very best parts of the season. Even better, we have the opportunity to smile at the sparkling lights and festive cheer, and then reach out further, to extend forgiveness where we once gave anger, to share our love and our compassion where we once held back, to renew our resolve to carry that love and forgiveness and compassion into the new year with us as we work to be kinder and more empathic in this world that can sometimes feel so full of pain.

For years, I put all of this off. I didn’t take any kind of active stand against the holidays, I simply didn’t put any effort in, didn’t go out of my way at all. I assumed that someday I would have kids and then I would pick up where my childhood left off, complete with Statler Brothers and Amy Grant and maybe even a little Dolly Parton thrown in for good measure. The first holiday season after I knew for certain that I would never have children, I was shocked at the waves of grief that would hit each time I realized that this would not be the case, that the images I’d carried for as long as I could remember of turning eggs a bizarre shade of green on Christmas morning to the delight of my kids would never actually take place. 

The holidays have a way of bringing our losses home to us. The absence of my grandmother and my uncle on Christmas morning reminds me every year how very much I still miss them. The shimmering ghosts of the children I thought I would raise, the mother I thought I would be, often dance at the edges of the kitchen as I bake cookies or put the star at the top of the tree. But those losses and ghosts and the bittersweet nostalgia of holidays past only lend more texture to this time of year, I find. These things allow me to see some of the scaffolding under the celebrating, erected of love and duty and hope and grief. As a child, my wonder could extend only to the magic and the gifts and the delicious food. As an adult, I can see the great depths of love and the sacrifice that provided those things for me, and my wonder can now more fully embrace true gratitude as well as the deep joy of reciprocity, of contributing and giving of my own heart and hands. 

We can continue to complain about mall crowds or consumerism. We can take offense at which words the cashier at the grocery store uses to wish us well during this season. We can sink into sadness over who is missing from our tables or how time has changed our dreams. 

Or...

We can take responsibility for our holiday season ourselves. Grief and sadness are not mutually exclusive with joy and gratitude, after all. Sometimes I think they are all more powerful when paired, actually, and to take responsibility for our holiday seasons means that we embrace the tough parts too. That we acknowledge our own pain and that of those around us so that we can add sparkle to not only our own lives, but take the opportunity to sprinkle it around for others as well. We can put up trees and string popcorn and bake delicious things that have too much sugar and butter involved. We can beam at the photos on the holiday cards that arrive in the mail and leave them up way past the season just because they make us smile. We can pay for a stranger’s coffee or leave a toy under a tree for an unknown child or stop by to sit and play checkers at a nursing home. We can choose to wait patiently in long lines and still smile and be kind to our fellow shoppers as well as the exhausted and abused clerk behind the register. We can hug the people that are at our tables and tell them an extra time or two just how much they mean to us. We can look with love at the ghosts of other lives we may have led and then turn with real and genuine gratitude at the many gifts in the lives we are actually leading. 

As for me, I think I’ll go with belting out some Statler Brothers off-key, baking up a storm, holding Justin’s hand tight, telling my family and friends how much I love them, saying thank you to anyone and everyone, and maybe even seeing if I can find organic green food coloring for my Christmas morning eggs.

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Unknowable

I’m working on a personal project right now that has to do with my family’s history. It revolves around a family incident that happened when my mother was barely out of toddlerhood, a tragedy that changed the trajectory of, well, everything really. 

When I sat down and began writing, I had this image in my mind of who each of the players were. I began to sketch out these people I knew, my grandmother and my grandfather, people whose expressions and voices were so familiar to me. It didn’t take long, however, before I remembered what we all have some basic awareness of: that knowing someone and knowing someone are hardly the same thing.

I was struck by all that I don’t know, all that will forever remain a mystery now that they are gone. The grandmother that I knew was a woman in her 50s and 60s, long-since divorced, forty years after the incident I’m writing about. The grandmother that I’ve heard about through my own mother is someone else entirely. And the woman who married at 17, the one before her husband went off to be damaged in the way only war can damage a person, the one who had yet to lose her children…who was she? Where do I find her? Hidden in the shy smiles in old photographs? In the words of love scribbled on the backs of photos shipped off to her man in uniform gallantly serving overseas? And what of that man? Who was he before the war, before the guilt and the loss and the heartbreak? He’d already known hardship and trauma by the time they married, but isn’t there some kind of inherent hope in the mere act of matrimony? A belief that the two of you can build something new, something strong and fresh together? When did that hope die, exactly? Somewhere in the rubble he photographed in Hiroshima, or did it suffer its final death throes alongside his son?

We live our lives surrounded by our loved ones, parents and grandparents and siblings and sometimes aunts and uncles and cousins and lifelong friends. We spend decades saying goodnight to a beloved partner or our children and we can so easily forget that knowing their voices and precisely how their eyes scrunch up at the corners when they smile, or what their favorite song is or how they take their coffee is different from knowing them. Is it even possible to really know another human? Hell, it feels nearly impossible most days to be truly honest in my knowing of myself. So I suppose not. 

But isn’t that such a beautiful mystery? The slew of tiny memories and hidden corners and buried treasure hidden within each of us? To be able to spend a lifetime next to those we love and discover newness and uncharted depth within their hidden realms? We are all such messy swirls of dark and light, such untidy tapestries full of the pinprick holes made by the small hurtful words and little rejections, of the tears created when our hearts are ripped by pain, of the stitches where kind words landed at just the right moment or our love was reflected in another’s eyes or a forest showed us how to begin to mend ourselves. For every piece of ourselves that we share with the world, there are an infinite number that never see the light of day, that live within us weaving the complex beings that we are. 

To recognize our inability to know or be known is to recognize that each person holds within them a magical mystery, an infinity of possibility. This we have in common, this each of us shares. I do not know where your ragged edges might be frayed, or when my hasty words might add girth to what had been only a pinprick hole, so I will do my best to tread carefully and with compassion. I will do my best to truly see you and treat you as the wondrous enigma, the boundless promise, the unknowable and undoubtedly flawed human that you are, that we all are.

Some small bits can be gleaned from faded sepia photographs and handwritten scrawl. Some bits can be inferred from empathy and attention to what is said between the words. But I will never know who my grandmother was, not the 17 year old and not the 63 year old whose voice I can still hear clearly after all these years without her. I will never know my mother or my sweet husband or my dearest friends. Their innermost selves will remain always out of reach, sparkling starry skies full of infinite galaxies, always a mystery, always a wonder.

cindy_giovagnoli_mount_rainier_national_park_night_photography

Nesting Instinct

In the front yard of our house on West Moreland Road, the first address that I consciously learned as a child and can still recall to this day, there was a small dogwood tree. Its pink and white blooms meant that spring had truly arrived in our small corner of eastern Pennsylvania, that April had pushed winter back once again to make way for life to thrive once more. The tree, though seemingly enormous in memory, was quite diminutive in stature, but it's pale branches jutted from the sturdy trunk at exactly the right angles for our small arms and legs to climb. And climb we did.

We invented a game that was played only in those branches, a version of tag that we called "Diabetes Monster" in reference to adult conversations overheard but not understood. Somehow it was always more fun when Mat was "it" so Karissa and I would climb as high as we could and then scream and giggle hysterically when Mat, imitating the most fearsome animal he'd recently become obsessed with from the Discovery Channel, huffed or growled or roared and chased after us on the all-fours of a gangly six-year-old boy.

In the final spring before we moved away from that little white house with the black shutters and Pennsylvania and all of the ties of family and home that were rooted there, we discovered a small bird's nest tucked in among the blossoms of that dogwood tree. Forbidden to climb while the nest was there, it was the first place we ran after dropping schoolbags at the door each afternoon. The three of us would stand staring up at the tiny nest, discussing all of the possible bird species in our very limited knowledge, quite convinced that we had a bald eagle's nest in our very own front yard and that, any day now, we would be witness to one of these majestic creatures raising its family in our beloved dogwood tree. 

After a week or two, or perhaps a lifetime, we went running out to peer at our nest only to find it gone. Mysteriously vanished, much to our worry and dismay. Over after-school snacks of peanut butter and apples, our Mom reassured us that this was sometimes how nature worked, that a predator may have reached the nest or perhaps a strong wind, and that it was okay to be a little bit sad, but that there were other nests in other trees and all would be well. Bolstered by her explanation and still consumed with the idea of nests and baby birds, we commandeered an old bed sheet from the basement and went back to our tree, excited to once again be able to climb its limbs.

As the oldest, my job was simple: I was responsible for the structural integrity of our endeavor. So I carefully knotted the faded orange and green floral patterned sheet around the branches we'd selected, double knotting where possible but careful to leave enough slack to form a cozy little sack suspended above the ground. Karissa, not only the youngest, but also the most effective charmer with her little chubby four-year-old legs and earnest intentions, was sent inside to request crackers from our mom, a rather strict quartermaster. Meanwhile, Mat made his way into the hanging bed sheet, carefully positioning himself in the most realistic baby bird posture we could collectively imagine and sat with mouth open wide awaiting Karissa's return. When she did return, it was with popcorn instead of crackers and we were delighted with the turn of events as she and I sat perched on our branch beside our "nest" and tossed kernel after kernel into Mat's gaping mouth, giggling all the while at his perfect impression.

That April afternoon under the pink and white dogwood blossoms is the last clear memory I have of my brother, sister, and me truly playing together. I was approaching pre-adolescence and would soon begin to reject playing as too childish while simultaneously craving its freedom. In the months following that day, we would move to Virginia and it would be the first of many moves taking us further and further from where our family began. As each of us grew into the people we'd become, our interests and personalities drew us in different directions and we became separated by time and distance and perceived hurts.

But around this time each year, on those days when the temperature rides the line between warm and cool and the scent of new budding daffodils and fervent life pushing out of thawing ground wafts over the breeze, I can see it all like it was yesterday. Mat's goofy grin between popcorn kernels and the way he said Karissa's name, mispronouncing the "r" in his little boy voice as he urged her to throw another piece. Karissa, blonde pigtails and big brown eyes, seated next to me on the tree branch, her warm little body pressed against mine and the green plastic bowl of popcorn balanced between us. 

Nests sometimes fall from trees, but life moves forward regardless. On that April day long ago, we, unwillingly, were forced to set aside our expectations of all that fragile little nest promised and the potential it held. In it's place, we created something unexpected, built a nest of our own and fulfilled a potential we hadn't imagined until it was suddenly before us. Winter comes and spring always follows, no matter how cold or dark or laden with snow. The blossoms eventually burst into pink and white before yielding to the press of leaves and maturity, all the more precious for their fleeting and fragile nature.