Tradition. Most people can identify at least one. Perhaps it's a meal always eaten on a certain holiday. Perhaps it's a movie always enjoyed at a certain time of year. Perhaps a song. Perhaps a flower, always planted at a gravesite on Memorial Day. So many traditions. They come. They go. They get passed down. They fade. They become forgotten.
Then, there are things so steeped in tradition, you wonder how you would live without them. In our family, that tradition is simply referred to as "the story."
When I was a little girl, in the early 70's, I remember getting packed up on Christmas Eve. We piled into the car and headed off to Bah's house. He was my grandfather. I remember the sounds and smells. The house was always cozy. It smelled like my grandfather's house. As a young child, it smelled like Bah's house. It smelled like Brownie, his dog. It smelled of cigarette smoke; what house didn't? It smelled of family dinners and sweet treats. It smelled like a cottage and the perfume of my aunt. Every year brought memories of the years before. Every year played out, much the same. We would all gather together. My grandparents, Uncle, Aunt, parents, brothers, and I. When it was time for "the story," I would take my place on the floor. My Uncle and his wife, would sit side-by-side on the couch. My grandfather would sit in his chair, and out came the little green book. Silence would befall the room. Bah would give a brief history, then he would read the story. Everyone listened. Everyone respected the story, as much as the tradition.
Sometimes, the grown-ups would cry. I wasn't sure why the story brought tears. Somehow, I didn't need to know. I didn't need to understand. It was part of the tradition.
After the story, we would eat. It's how we spent Christmas Eve. Every year. Without fail.
To understand the depth of this story. Allow me to back up.
In 1873, there was a young girl named Hattie. At Christmas time, Hattie's Mama bought her a little green book. Hidden within it's pages was a beautiful story about a Father, his children, Christmas, loss, and the awakening of renewed hope. On Christmas Eve, Hattie's Mama read that story to her little girl. In 1874, that story was read again. We will never know if Hattie requested the story, or if a parent simply made the decision to re-read the story. What matters is this....in 1873, a tradition unknowingly began....
It has been said that on one Christmas Eve, many moons ago, my grandfather had not yet arrived home. It was a cold New England night. Snow was blanketing the earth. Family had gathered, as it had since 1873, wondering if the story would be read without it's typical narrator. But, alas, much like an old time Christmas movie that leaves it's viewers with goosebumps and tears in their eyes, my grandfather came through the door. He made it home for "the story."
Every year, family makes it home for the story. Every. Single. Year. Without fail.
In the 80's, there was the wayward son. He lived in Maine. He had a contagious laugh and a heart of gold. He loved and was loved. He was not, however, always completely dependable. This particular year, I wondered if he would miss our annual Christmas Eve tradition. But, like the grandfather decades earlier, he arrived a day or so before. He arrived like a scene out of the Beverly Hillbillies... driving an overflowing truck loaded with he, his wife, their animals, various belongings, clothes, gifts, and assorted treasures. At the sight of him, I knew it was Christmas.
Yes, "the story" has endured. It is so steeped in tradition that no one would consider being absent from it. Every year it somehow becomes more important.
It took years for me to understand the behavior of my elders. As my grandfather aged, his wife long since buried, the tradition of the story was moved to my parents home. When my grandfather died, it was Thanksgiving. I was about 10. Before the funeral, our family gathered in a quiet room, near the casket. We listened to the tape recording of Bah reading the story. I cried. It was the first time I cried for the story.
The story, itself, is not particularly sad. It tells the tale of a father, much like Scrooge, who needs help to find the spirit of Christmas. The story is so much more than it's words. It is wrapped up with the memories of past Christmas Eves. The story somehow absorbs every family member.....every sight, smell, and gathering. When the pages are revisited, the story brings it all back to you. It is history revisited. The tears are for those no longer sitting by our side. The tears are for those we long for. The tears are for the past, the present, and the future. When the story is read, it is timeless. It is the past, the present, and the future.
The year after my grandfather died, my Dad became the patriarch. He read the story and many of us shed tears for the generation that had passed. And so it goes, year after year, the story is read. The tradition continues. From time to time, we face a gathering with a new empty seat. In 2010, the wayward son (my brother) did not arrive for the story....the story was difficult for him. He arrived hours later and made an appearance. The following year, 2011, the empty chair was his. He had joined the family members who had gone before him. The story was read. The adults cried. The children watched quietly, like the generations before them. Their turn will come.
And now, we rapidly approach the 147th year of a long-standing family tradition.
It's the year of the pandemic. We've been told to socially distance. Stay six feet apart. Wear masks. Celebrate only with your immediate household members. Children may be carriers, but asymptomatic. For some, it mimics a mild cold; for some, a death sentence. A vaccine is just starting to roll out. So, we shall do what's safe for all. We will choose to celebrate from a distance.
I'm angry at this pandemic, for interfering with our tradition. I miss my family but am grateful that they are well. I am grateful that this beast hasn't taken any of them away. I will miss the sights and smells, of our annual gathering. I will miss the food and conversation. I will miss the hugs. I will miss the closeness.
Indeed. This year will be very different. We will do gift drop-offs and pick-ups. We may exchange food/treats. Some gifts have been mailed to their recipients. We will still gather on Christmas Eve, virtually. We will listen to the story "together" via video messaging. We will wave to each other and shout phrases of love and good tidings. We will eat with our own immediate family members. We will open gifts in the sanctity of our own homes. We will wake up Christmas morning to quiet homes without visitors or large gatherings.
This year I may cry. I will cry because I miss my grandfather. I will cry because I miss my brother. My grandmother. My two husbands. I will cry for the family that awaits us in Heaven. But this year is different.
I will cry because I miss my parents. I want to hug my Daddy. I will cry because I'm unable to bring "the story" to my aunt, who resides in a long term care facility; the pandemic makes that venture impossible. I will cry because I miss my remaining brother. Sister in law. Sister. Nephew. Niece. Family. I miss the people who make me who I am. I miss the people for whom my heart beats. Yes, I expect I will cry this year. I will hug my children. I will enjoy Christmas with my children. But, there will be tears. Tears for the past, the present, and the future.
I will pray that next year is back to normal. I will pray that we can all be together next year. I will pray for no additional empty seats next year. I will pray for our 148th year. I know that whatever it looks like, in whatever way possible, we will be there. We will be together again. We are family. It is our story.