WE WERE SEVERAL years in. Married long enough to still be smug that we’d figured out bliss so early. He was in grad school, and I was working to support us, to fill in the gaps of the student loans. Our wedding had been small, weeks after our college graduation, a handful of people on a beach where I had spent so much of my youth. It was the only sentimental thing about the day; it was the only thing I had insisted upon, and I was proud of the fact that I had no other demands. I would have married him barefoot in a bathing suit, but I acquiesced to my new family-to-be as well as my own, and wore a dress.
I had thought that neither of us dwelt in the past, and then came the holidays in the Northeast without my family. Whatever had happened to us in the months where the absence of a major holiday was felt deeply, my family always seemed to pull it together in the end, and haul out the traditions, as tangled as those traditions were, thread as thin as gossamer.
Not so for this new family I had entered. While from the outside the house looked like a New England postcard, with sturdy porches, bricks and columns, festooned with lights burning bright, candles in the windows, greenery, and just the right amount of snow dusting the eaves and walks. On the inside, it was entirely different. The tree was artificial and looked like it had been put away decorated. The food was an afterthought. The kitchen, enviable in size, warmed by a fireplace, cupboards and counters overflowing with the chaos of their life, contained an older sister whose marriage was freshly broken and who’d moved back home with her toddler, a younger sister readying to leave, a traveling executive father, and a homemaker mother committed to charities and the Presbyterian church. Where my large Italian family would have had planned (naturally around midnight mass) for weeks what was to be cooked, how it was to be cooked, who would be cooking, who was attending, and calls went out to the fish man, the baker and the butcher to reserve the best, all placed well in advance, in my new family things were decidedly casual. There was mention of a ham, some mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup. There was a selection of creamy cheeses in plastic tubs, swirled a sickly orange and pink that reminded me of sherbet, purchased from a store in the mall, an afterthought on a platter, the cellophane crackers not even out of the package and blue tubes of what my sister-in-law assured me were rolls, lined up in the fridge. The table in the massive wood-paneled dining room had been set for twenty with white linens and dishes, and in the center was a listless poinsettia, the only nod to the holiday. In my head I panicked as I began to calculate the food-to-guest ratio, and realized I had become my Italian grandmother. There would be no foil food packets pressed into eager hands, no thirds or fourths, no picking the bones as you cleaned the kitchen, no midnight foraging of leftovers for cold sandwiches as you put the finishing touches on the gifts under the tree.
The next morning, before gifts and coffee, my sisters-in-law put candles in a lopsided cake on a milky white stand and sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. My toddler nephew danced before us in his footed pajamas, and my husband, the man I thought I knew so well, sang the loudest of them all. Later, when we were alone, and I asked him what the hell that was all about, he looked amused, and maybe a little surprised. He had done that his entire life, and it had never occurred to him that other people did not. That it might seem wacky, and perhaps Evangelical, to an admittedly lapsed Catholic, hadn’t even occurred to him.
The years following grad school were, as expected, financially shaky. Cross-country trips home were few. His older sister reconciled with her husband, and they had another child. His younger sister married and had children as well. His corporate parents moved around the Northeast, but in each house the same bedraggled Christmas tree appeared, the same lopsided birthday cake to baby Jesus, the same listless poinsettia, because my mother-in-law had an affinity for runts and a bargain. Slowly, I added dishes to the buffet, and nudged in desserts that made me pine for home. They would have preferred I bring a baby, but they loved my grandmother’s recipe for lasagna and the miracle of tomato sauce that didn’t come from a jar.
When his father accepted a consulting job that would move them out of the area, we still celebrated together, although now the locations changed from their home to the homes of my sisters-in-law. The older had separated, and moved into an apartment with her two children, the younger had a home in the last town my in-laws had lived in, with her husband and children. My husband and I, working and still childless by choice, went to them, as did my in-laws. Before they moved my mother-in-law had split some of her Christmas decorations between her daughters, as well as her affinity for lackluster meal planning. There was no longer the dining table for twenty, or the even the room; one year we went to a restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner, although the soft, peculiar cheese remained a staple.
When a sudden tragedy took the life of my older sister-in-law, we came together the following Christmas, only three short months after her death, to try and continue the traditions which I now had to admit had become my own. Until that moment, I had stayed on the sidelines of this new family. I had remained mournful over my own lapsed traditions, and standoffish even when I knew what to expect from the new ones.
On Christmas Eve, my sister-in-law’s ex brought over her children, five and nine, to spend time with us. They would return the next morning to open presents, and we promised not to sing “Happy Birthday” until we saw their sweet little faces, but we already knew we had lost something too inexplicable to name.
That night after my younger sister-in-law’s children were asleep, we all helped to assemble and fill in the presents under the tree until finally we had nothing else to keep us busy. There had been so many questions from the little ones about their aunt the angel, and many discussions of how she could whisper into Santa’s ear on their behalf. They were too young to understand that they really would never see her again, and we lacked the words or the energy to explain.
Later, I came upon my mother-in-law and sister-in-law on the couch in front of the tree. They looked distracted, tired and exhausted, absorbed in their own thoughts. They had left a space open between them on the couch, and it didn’t seem right that I take it. When I suggested that we still had time to make it to midnight mass, I expected an excuse. We hadn’t been in years. Instead my mother-in-law stood and said she wanted to go, as did my sister-in-law.
We arrived too late for anything but the last pew, but room was made for the three of us. The service had already begun. The beautiful old stone church was filled to the loft with flowers and a chorus of voices raised in song. There were flushed faces on restless children hopped up on sugar and excitement, exhausted parents shared tender glances, while older couples seemed to absorb the chaos around them with an air of wistfulness.
Immediately I was sorry I’d suggested it. I had made a mistake. I felt my sister-in-law’s rigidity, saw my mother-in-law’s stoic face as she whispered along the response to prayers. I looked up at the rafters. It had been my older sister-in-law’s enthusiasm for the holidays that carried us along. She was the ringleader, the goofy one, the cheerleader, the family prankster. Every year she insisted on some family craft that forced each of us to end up with a collection of ugly misshapen stockings (the year we crocheted), undecipherable ornaments (the year we cross-stitched), patchy Styrofoam balls (the year we used glitter), lumpy, moldy gingerbread families (the year we made salt dough ornaments). Without her any efforts now seemed meaningless.
I didn’t realized I had been crying until I felt the press of a tissue against my hand. When I didn’t make a move to take it, my sister-in-law pried apart my fingers. But instead of taking her hand away she left it there for the rest of the service and on our way down the crowded aisle and out the front doors. She and her sister had both been married in this church, they had baptized children here, they had gone to church school and summer camps, and it was here they had to say goodbye.
I looked back at my mother-in-law. She had been caught up in a crowd of people who were wishing her well, who were sad she had buried a child, but who were happy that they were going home to a family wholly intact. She knew that. Still she accepted everything with grace and moved slowly toward where we stood waiting on the sidewalk. We shivered, the snow beneath our boots squeaked as we made it to the car. We didn’t say a word all the way home. I think we knew we had to preserve what we could in that moment, and that the unraveling had already begun, that Christmas would never again be the same.