Looking for that old magic at Christmastime

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Rhodes family Christmases in the suburban bubble of Glendora typically included our core immediate family of 12, which isn’t much, but felt like a lot.

From my standpoint as the second youngest in my generation — five boys borne from the previous generation’s three girls — things were rosy. Sure, some of the adults squabbled sometimes, usually over food, such as aunt #1 complaining how aunt #2 did not know what she was doing with the deviled eggs. I remember but a handful of actual confrontations, all of which involved a certain uncle who was drunk, or so I heard. Strangely, I think now, we were generally a dry bunch, save said uncle, with no booze on the table at any family gatherings I can recall.

Sometimes the veneer would crack on Christmas though, and I’d see an aunt or cousin lose it over some perceived slight. But the fireworks were rare. It was mostly all good vibes.

But I was a kid. What did I know?

My family unit was mom and me, no siblings. Dad was MIA. Luckily, I had that tight extended family, and spent a lot of time with my grandparents, my two aunts and uncles, and their four boys. Holidays were always the lot of us crammed into my grandparent’s living room while us five boys tore into our gifts.

Of course, what I failed to register as a kid was the adults dealt with logistics. These included the tangible — gifts, decorations, food, drink, transportation — and the unseen (to me), like “Will aunt Peg get too deep into the Chablis and start a fight with her sister again?” on up to seriously sad stuff like, “Will grandpa say something crappy to his gay grandson this year?” Clearly, I was not the most intuitive kid, as this was the extent of my understanding of the sometimes less than joyous undercurrent at family gatherings.

As the years went by, I noticed the energy of the holidays waning. This, I’ve come to learn, is the natural order of things.

I graduated high school, chased a career, got married, had children, divorced, married again, had more children, and before I knew it, I was the one making the holidays happen. At that point I was still operating under the assumption that the “holiday magic” I’d felt as a kid could be summoned by the prep work involved. I made the pies, put the gifts under the tree, and put the holiday music on, just like mom had done. So why did it feel different?

Well, decades later, I’ve come to understand the holidays are not so joyous for some. We’ve all heard the jokes about suicide rates swelling this time of year. I used to laugh. Now I get it. Things can get weird. Families can splinter, sometimes by choice, sometimes not.

A sort of magic returned after my cousin’s son and my first daughter were in the mix around the same time in the mid 1980s. Things seemed back on track. When another cousin had two sons, the fresh crop of kids helped resurrect a new, different version of our childhood holiday.

But as folks my age (60!) know all too well, the arc of family — birth, renewal, death, repeat — is unrelenting. One cousin was felled by AIDS in 1993. That left just four of us from my generation. Then grandmother, aunt Peg, aunt Judy, grandfather, and mom followed suit. By the time I realized what had happened, one cousin and his family of three were in Sacramento, another was in Texas with his two boys, and the other, who’d never had kids, was long gone,  somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Being an only child, I really had no option but to start over and make my own holiday traditions. That worked for a time, but a bitter divorce soured that arrangement, and now I’m one of the fools whose decree dictates his kids alternate between parents’ homes every Christmas.

Last year was a first: for reasons better left vague, I spent Christmas morning alone. Attending my ex’s Christmas thing with my kids was not possible. Chalk it up to the remnants of that crappy, protracted divorce. But being alone wasn’t terrible. I slept in, made some coffee, gawked at all my friends’ and small family’s celebrations on my socials, and sent out happy Christmas texts to my people. Later in the day I had a Christmas lunch over at my wife’s brother’s place. It was lovely, actually.

I’ll get my turn with the kids this Christmas, and I’m hoping to muster that feeling again. The tree is up. The shopping, what there was of it, is done. They’re all older now and gift buying isn’t nearly as fun when they wanted bikes and Buzz Lightyears. My 21-year-old daughter wanted gift cards and some new contacts. Her sister, 18, was kinda spirited, providing us with an Amazon Wish List with books, clothes, and art supplies. My, son, who’ll be 14 soon, wanted one item, a new Xbox thingamajig. One item. I guess the present opening portion of Christmas morning will take about 10 minutes.

Though I’m griping, I’m not disappointed. Part of my meandering, yearslong mental health journey has included accepting that I am right where I am supposed to be. I am striving to be “present.” I’ve gotten a little better at this, but still have a ways to go.

So this year I’m going to enjoy what we have, which is perfect. We’ve been pulled apart by forces internal and external, separated by geography and divorce. Our numbers are small, to be sure, and that’s okay.

No matter what Christmas holds, it’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.

Happy holidays to all.


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