grief and joy mix and mingle

Usually, we only get a Christmas tree every three years. Because my husband and I both work on the academic calendar, we spend most of Christmas vacation visiting our families in Nebraska or Virginia. Every third year, though we stay home and entertain. On those years, we deck our halls.

This was supposed to be a Virginia year at my mother-in-law’s, but COVID changed that. Our pattern, and our tradition, has been broken. We bought a tree the day after Thanksgiving this year, uncharacteristically early because we craved something joyful and bright. My three-year-old loved unwrapping ornaments from their tissue paper, and hanging each newly opened treasure on a branch, delighted him.

I, however, was taken aback when unpacking Christmas ornaments made grief bubble up, as trimming the tree reminded me of my dead. Mom had given a box of family ornaments the last time I was in Nebraska, and this was the first time I’d taken them out. They bowled me over with sadness.

First, a small heart-shaped ornament, trimmed in lace, adorned with a plastic trumpet and a tied with a red ribbon. It was a favor from my Aunt Beth’s wedding. We lost her to breast cancer a few years ago.

Then, a strange ornament my Grandma B fashioned from a turkey wishbone. It made my longing to be with Grandma again fresh and raw, even though she died 15 years ago. Grief isn’t linear, they say, and suddenly fresh grief spiraled up. Lots of grief feels raw these days, as the number of people we know who’ve died of COVID continues to grow.

Grandma B painted the turkey furcula bone red and tied with red yarn. Thanksgiving circa 1989, we’d raised our own turkey on the farm that year. By whatever combination of breeding and feeding, the turkey was a 42 pound behemoth. Grandma thought this was special enough to commemorate with an ornament. At the time (I was 11), I thought it down-right weird. My father and I broke the wishbone anytime mom roasted a chicken or turkey—and perhaps that’s what miffed me—I wanted the natural order of tradition. I wanted to do what we always did, which was break the bone. I wanted the magic of making a wish. Now, almost 30 years later, the wishbone ornament is my most treasured. I see in it Grandma B’s creativity, quirkiness, foresight and sentimentality.

This is an apt reflection for 2020, especially this holiday season. I’m miffed that traditions are being broken because we can’t travel or gather together because it could put loved ones’ lives at risk. But, maybe looking back, this will be the most special of years because it was so strange, and I don’t think it will take me another 30 years to appreciate this year’s lessons. We will make new, and perhaps, odd memories. We’ll say years from now, “Remember that year Christmas was on Zoom?”

I’m reminded that one of the things about life is grief and joy mix and mingle, especially during the holidays. May you be able to acknowledge the grief and experience the joy.

Happy Holidays.