I’ve been thinking a lot lately about memory, and in particular about memories—their astonishing power. How, for instance, they appear in the wake of a thought, seemingly untampered by the thought itself, as an illustration of or evidence for whatever it is we’re choosing to think. Or, conversely, how a memory can set in motion a thought that appears to affirm and therefore underscore the memory as point of origin, or explanation for the way things are. In other words, the relationship between what we think/believe and what we remember is intricate and intimate: thoughts beget memories that in turn beget thoughts. Memories beget thoughts that in turn beget memories. Together, memory and thought perform a kind of selective call-and-response through which we stitch the stories of our selves—about who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’re destined to become.
This stuff is thick on my mind these days not only because of the holidays, a time that’s ripe-to-bursting with memories, but also, I think, because this is a holiday season full of firsts for me and my family: the kids and I hosted our first Thanksgiving at my new house, a house I adore that has, of course, taken them some time to adjust to post-divorce. This Thanksgiving was also the first holiday that the kids and my ex-husband and I shared together with new partners, all of us working seamlessly as a team to support and make joyous the occasion. And, to boot: my first (decadent! delicious!) vegan holiday feast.
Firsts like this punctuate our days like pullouts along the road of life: small swerves from the familiar path that afford us an often breathtaking, sometimes dizzying panorama of that which sprawls beyond where we’ve been and connects us to where we’re going.
As I prepare for this year’s festivities, two years post-divorce, I feel keenly the loss of an era, and have been flooded with memories of holidays when our family was in tact: the kids rushing down the stairs on Christmas morning to Tchaikovsky and Handel… Thanksgiving walks through prairie woodlands… The days of high chairs and booster seats snugged to the linen-dressed farm table we’d found in a tiny town on Route 66… Stringing the tree with a growing garland of corks from bottles shared the year before…
In the face of these memories—or rather, the pang of loss they invoke—I scan the past, turn each tradition over in my mind like a beloved heirloom. I want to make each moment matter, to assure the kids that what’s important hasn’t changed: our love for them, our love for each other as a family. That I’ll do my best to hold tight to traditions we’ve treasured.
At the same time, I’m filled with excitement about the possibilities before us: with change comes the chance to pause, to ask ourselves why we do what we do, to consider who we are now and what we want to become, and to set in place new rituals that will, over time, create the memories that shape the histories we live by.
To this end, I decided this year to put up a Christmas tree as soon as we finished the Thanksgiving dishes. I’ve never had a tree more than a week before the 25th. Why? Because that’s what my parents did, and that’s what my ex-husband did. But why not fill my new house with the pungent smell of pine and the warmth of bright lights for as long as we can?
So, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving I set out with the kids to buy a tree. Feeling maybe a twinge of guilt for breaking with custom, I reminisced en route about past traditions, especially those we’d put on pause during the past couple of years. One custom in particular stood out for me: “How about the Chinese take-out feast on Christmas eve,” I recollected, “then bundling up in the car with thermoses of hot chocolate, Christmas music playing, and driving through all the neighborhoods to look at everyone’s lights?”
As a kid, I lived down a long dirt road, far away from other houses, and dozens of miles from take-out fare of any kind. Moreover, I grew up with a mom who cooked everything—including bread, tortillas, and mayonnaise—from scratch; take-out for dinner, especially on Christmas, would have been the ultimate act of unloving indifference. So, when I suggested one year (after the birth of my second child), that we order Chinese food for Christmas eve (a break from cooking for me, with no extended family within 1500 miles), then drive around looking at lights (kids strapped into car seats—oh mercy of heaven—and the blissful chance to sit for an hour), while drinking hot chocolate (tiny hands busied and mouths delighted), I felt downright liberated. Bold. Revolutionary. And, as the years passed, delighted with our new beloved family tradition.
I assumed, then, that the kids would be thrilled at my suggestion that we pick this custom back up again this year. But instead, my fifteen-year old daughter replied, easily and even cheerfully: “No, Mom, that’s something we did as a family. That’s from a time in the past. It was great, but I think we should let that tradition belong to that time in our lives.” I looked in the rearview mirror to see if her younger brother agreed. He was nodding. Yes. He did.
There was a time when I’d have made of my kids’ response an occasion for self-pity, or guilt, or at the very least, grief. What? Divorce doesn’t have to mean that we abandon our customs. We’re still a family. Come on, it’ll be great. You’ll see.
But one thing I’ve learned to respect post-divorce is the remarkable wisdom, and healthy resilience, of our kids. “Okay,” I said, and smiled. “You’re right.” I took a deep breath and pulled my mind into the moment: buying a Christmas tree as a threesome, today, four weeks before the 25th.
Buying a tree was, upon moving to Illinois 18 years ago, almost as daring and novel a tradition for me as was the take-out Chinese. I grew up in rural Maine, and we always cut our tree—a wonderfully scraggly Charlie Brown fir—from the woods around our house, then dragged it home through the snow. To drive up in a car, walk up and down rows of perfectly formed, fuzzy-plump trees, and simply ask to have that one, there, loaded up—has never ceased feeling delightfully strange (if also a little bizarre) to me. So it was that I pulled in to our neighborhood garden shop, where we’d bought our trees for years, feeling, yes, the inevitable twinge of loss, but also like a badass.
The outdoor tree lot was crammed-to-bursting with hundreds of trees. A mild and misty 50 degrees. I imagined strolling leisurely with the kids, comparing our finds. But before we’d completed the full first row, they’d picked one out. I stood it up straight, turned it around, and we all agreed. Pack it up.
While the attendants loaded our tree we went inside to choose a wreath. Within minutes my son found the one. Some greens and holly for the mantel, and we were done.
Less than 15 minutes. Tops.
This isn’t what I’d imagined. I’d hoped to make an afternoon of this new tradition, or at least an hour. Discussion, some back and forth—this one? That one? Maybe running into someone we know. Meandering and easy talk. Laughs. Hey Mom, over here! Just a minute, I’m coming…
As we walked to the register laden with wreath and greens, we passed a wall of ornaments: pickles, cows, guitars, angels, snowmen, bees. Hundreds of options, A – Z.
Aha, I thought. This will fatten our so-far-slim excursion.
“Hold up, guys. Let’s pick out the first new ornament for our tree.”
They stopped, chuckled at the tiny glass dachshund (like ours) wrapped in a bun.
“You go ahead. I’ll check out the candles, over there. Surprise me.”
When I was a kid, I loved the ritual unwrapping of ornaments each year. Two long-legged elves with pointy ears and huge eyes (one for my sister and one for me), a delicate glass peacock that clipped to a branch, a ceramic snowman I’d made in 1st grade. I still remember how jealous I’d feel when my younger sister got to put the star on top of the tree. Like the first fall leaves or the season’s first snow, the thrill of the familiar appearing again never fails to surprise me.
I knew that dividing my own family’s ornaments this year with my ex-husband would be tough. Not because we’d argue, but because I wanted it to be: the last of our shared possessions, ornaments are suffused with poignant memories. I wanted to feel every last bit of joy, sorrow, nostalgia, and grief that our careful dividing would stir—as well as the relief (many holidays were fraught with fights and the exhaustion that ensued as we did out best to hide our tension from the kids). I didn’t want to rob myself of feeling fully these emotions, all of them. I wanted to remember. To reminisce. To memorialize. And let go.
“Mom, here you go.”
The kids had caught up with me in line, their ornament in tow. Their teenage faces pulled me back into the now, out of the past, away from speculations about the final divide I’d be doing that afternoon. Into the moment: Fanny May Meltaways stacked by the register, green tissue and red ribbons scattered on the counter. Candle-sweet cinnamon curling the air.
And in my daughter’s outstretched hands, the ornament they’d picked: a glass box of Chinese take-out, hanging by a golden hook.
I’ve come to think that the holidays are full of traditions and rituals (and are themselves a form of tradition and ritual) in part because such customs provide us with a way to manage, to steer, the torrent of memories that the changing of seasons (time’s passage) unearths. Memories can appear to arrive unbidden, but we’re also constantly training our minds to recall certain memories over others: this is the stuff of history. Photographs, traditions, customs, and rituals—these acts memorialize certain moments of our lives, and in so doing illustrate the stories by which we live and confirm the beliefs that determine how we’ll show up to others and ourselves.
This year, I invite you to take some extra time to reflect on your holiday customs. To revisit the values they underscore and the beliefs they serve. To deepen and secure the traditions that reflect the life you truly value and want to pass on. Gift yourself and your loved ones the time to think about and share memories about the traditions you have in place.
At the same time, I challenge you to create one new tradition this year—whether you’re in the midst of transition or not. What feeling do you want to cultivate more of this year—for yourself, and in others? What beliefs do you want to value? In what do you want to place your faith? What about this moment, about your life now, do you want to lift into relief, stitch into memory’s store, and practice as belief?
I’d love to know, and hope you’ll share in the comment box below.
Love, and happy holidays,