One of the things that I have learned as a widow, is that, in order to cope with our loss going forward, we have to find new ways of doing old things. For some, it is as simple as getting groceries delivered, because the significant other was the shopper. At this time of year, it often means finding the right blend of family traditions and new innovations.
This year, I’m honored to be co-facilitating my own grief group at the amazing Stephy’s Place—the place where I found so many answers. As the holidays approach, we will see people grapple with the pain of contemplating a family tradition and the fear of losing that tradition, if they chose to skip it one year.
Today, it is not just those who are dealing with loss who have to re-examine their traditions, but all of us will have to create “work arounds” for this Holiday 2020 season.
In our family, the tree was purchased en masse, with no exceptions. As younger children, it was easy to mandate that on a particular Saturday evening we would all jump into the family car and hit the tree lot in town.
My father, a true ham, would always query, to our excitement as children, and our embarrassment as teens, “If you throw the tree and I catch it, do I get it for free?” This was usually met with a chuckle from an older person, and bored tolerance from the football player-turned seasonal lot boy, who really just wanted to wrap the tree and make the sale.
As small children, we wondered if anyone would ever take my father up on this outrageous challenge, as older children we knew that at best, someone would get a laugh out of it.
After deliberation of which everyone, including the youngest had an equal say, the tree was purchased, netted and tied to the top of the car. At which point, we would head to the Chinese restaurant next door and have dinner before decorating.
Once into the house and on the stand, it was my mother’s domain. Every year she would buy individual ornaments with our names and the year on the bottom. Each year, we got to put our own ornaments on the tree, as well as any other ones. My father, feeling the bonhomie of the season, would recline on the living room couch and watch, making small suggestions or comments as we worked.
Before we deemed that tinsel was tacky, we would delight in stringing the silver, plastic icicles over the branches. The youngest would undoubtedly clump on the lowest branches and it would be up to one of the oldest to discreetly redistribute the placement.
This tree tradition was solid. It wasn’t until I came home from my freshman year of college and found that they had waited for me to get the tree—was the 23rd of December. There weren’t a lot of trees, nobody was happy. After that, the family voted to get the tree when a majority was home. It would no longer be a unanimous event, but then I was in college and couldn’t care less about things like that.
My mother decorated the house with a tasteful hand. Never too much and always with real greenery. It was wonderful how effortless she made the transformation.
As an adult, with my own family and house, I tried to be equal to her task. But for me, it might look beautiful, but it never looked effortless, I looked like a one woman wrecking crew.
After a few years of this tradition of high-stress, but high-reward decorating, my husband dubbed me “Bertha Stewart,” Martha’s evil twin sister. Whereas my mother’s decorating style was quiet, sure and elegant, by contrast mine was dictatorial and demanding. My husband once recorded on his phone, me yelling through the house, “Has anyone seen the cranberry velvet?” It didn’t go viral, except in my family where the kids laughed hysterically, imitating my shrill voice.
I will mention, in fairness, that one of the contradictions of my obsessive, perfectionist holiday decorating was that I was not that way about any other aspect of my home. I constantly had loads of laundry waiting for the washer, and I would ritually step over a pile of toys to decorate my fireplaces. Let’s just say when it came to the holidays, I was myopic.
When my husband died on December 23rd, I didn’t have one decoration in the house, except for a Christmas tree that a close friend had decorated with lights and snuck into my house the week before. On the day he died, we returned home and it hit me—it was Christmas. Not being able to do the funeral until the day after Christmas, I kept the family gathering that we had planned and only then did I decorate. It was perfunctory and joyless, but in a weird way it was comforting. Life goes on, holidays will happen.
My mother, in homage to her Italian mother-in-law whom she adored, did a modified Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve. My mother’s version included fried flounder, linguine and clam sauce, cold shrimp and homemade calzones. In our younger days, my father, when he was feeling up to the dramatics required, would make octopus. I remember him swooping, with his usual fanfare, the tentacled victim into my mother’s largest pot of scalding water. I was one of the taste testers—my verdict, “It tastes like fishy rubber bands.” He only made that a few times, determining that it was just not worth the work.
When my sister and I had our own families, we modified the already modified version of the feast. We realized none of our children liked flounder, only a handful of adults liked linguine with clam sauce, and most importantly, with Christmas Eve falling often on a weekday, it was at least a partial work day for most.
So with the ease of a clear conscience, we jettisoned the tradition of The Feast of The Seven Fishes, which was The Feast of The Three Fishes by the time we were children, and with the help of a wonderful Italian caterer and a platter of shrimp, we now comfortably, and without stress, celebrate The Feast of The One Fish.
It is such a relaxing evening. By getting rid of the multiple courses of food, we are able to really enjoy Christmas Eve with our family. I can safely say, unless some miracle happens, we will not be returning to a multi-fish meal on Christmas Eve.
Way before Michael died, we had already had to tweak the “Everyone picks out the Christmas tree,” because like my parents before me, we realized it is VERY hard to get two parents and four children to commit to a time to shop for a tree. Frankly, once they got bigger, they really didn’t care much, as long as there was a tree. But up until last year, the smallest Lucey tree expedition had at least three people.
Last year, with two years of widowhood under my belt and a house that had all the decorations in place except a tree, I took matters into my own hands. It was December 21st and we still could not find the time to get a tree.
On my lunch hour, I hit a local tree farm where the only trees still standing made Charlie Brown’s tree look sumptuous. So I swung by Home Depot. Walking into their outdoor area, my heels echoed on the concrete. There was no one in the booth and there were about ten trees, all leaning on the make-shift fence in a piggly wiggly fashion.
I was not dressed for tree shopping, I wore a dress and heels, however I was determined. I wrangled the first tree off of its fellows, and took a look. Way too small, but full. The next tree was also full, but much taller. I liked it, but as I tried to hold it up for inspection, the trunk slipped and the tree fell with me on top of it. I looked like I was wrestling an alligator, and as I righted myself I saw a young couple in their twenties. Not only didn’t they ask if I was ok, they actually used the opportunity, while I was wiping tree sap and needles from my coat, to swipe the tree and carry it, the guy at the trunk, the girl at the top, to the cashier.
Bruised, sticky and determined, I picked up another few trees before I hit the jackpot This time, I dropped the tree on the cement floor, and grabbed the trunk, dragging the tree backwards to the little booth where a middle-aged woman, wearing antlers and the requisite orange apron, was standing. When she saw me, she craned her head out of the booth to look for my non-existent entourage. Flopping the tree down and pulling the last of the small twigs from my hair, I smiled at the woman.
“Honey, do you need help?”, she asked, the lively antlers bouncing.
“No, I’m ok, thank you,” Not going to lie, at this point, a little self-pity crept in.
“Is there someone who can wrap this up for me? I’ll also need a hand getting it on to my car.”
Up until this point in my personal history, I had only just pointed to the tree and my husband and kids would do whatever with it. I would sit in the warm car as twine and directions were thrown back and forth over the top of the vehicle.
I felt compelled, at that point, to furnish some historical reference. “I don’t usually buy a Christmas tree by myself, but my kids are busy and it is almost Christmas, and I’m a widow. So here I am!” I added gamely giving her my best, “I’m not pathetic, I’m just alone,” smile.
At that point, this lovely Christmas elf proceeded to grab two wreaths, which were at deep discount, and pointed me in the direction of other portable evergreen decorations. At the same time, antlers moving at high speed, she radioed for backup and two college-aged guys in flannel shirts materialized to cut the trunk, wrap the tree and tie it to the top of my car. Next, she grabbed more assorted greenery and threw it into a bag.
As I handed her my credit card, she smiled at me and offered to carry the rest of my bounty.
She came to my car and, as the guys were jokingly throwing the ball of red twine back and forth, she leaned into the passenger side and said, “Look at you! You did it!”. I thought she was joking and started to laugh, but she got serious and said. “No, you really did it. You needed a tree, you bought a tree, and now you know you can do it by yourself.”
Her little antlers caught on the inside of my car making both of us crack up, but she was right. It was a little thing really, but it was breaking with tradition out of necessity.
I got the tree home, my son helped me put it in the stand, and we let it rest before we decorated it. It was a gorgeous tree! It was no less beautiful having been chosen by only me, and it was no less festive having been decorated by only two of my four kids.
It was a “work around” that yielded a great result. As it stood in the living room of my house—a living room in a house that my husband never saw, I accepted that the new normal involves flexibility, and even a little elasticity, to get the desired result.
So this year, as we deal with rising infection rates and tightened regulations, we look once again to our traditions and determine which ones can be tweaked to accommodate the changing times.
For me, Christmas Eve will the same-me and my sister’s families together. But it means that we will not be able to see my brothers and their families on Christmas Day. Truly half of my siblings live in Long Island. Zoom will be for dessert and we will collectively hope that the work around for this year will be just that, for this year.
I think of my father today, which coincidentally is his birthday, and I wonder how his often wacky and inventive spirit would have been moved to create a distinctive family work-around.
All I know is that we have to adapt, even just this once, or we risk giving away all that we hold dear this time of year.
When talking to grieving people, we always say that if a tradition is too hard, give yourself permission to forego it for the time being. Give yourself permission to change things up and free yourself from stress. I think this advice could be used by all of us this year.
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.