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Slices of Life by Jill Pertler

April 17, 2013

A return to holidays
For the last three years I’ve avoided holidays. Not the holidays in December. Every single holiday – all 12 months of them. This behavior stems from a psychological compensation issue (as most things do).

  Some people thrive on holiday hoopla – and not only those who are able to grow long white beards or are in possession of a size XL bunny suit. I’m talking, of course, about teachers.

  First grade teachers are pros at making a big deal out of Johnny Appleseed Day, Elephant Appreciation Day, National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day and whether March comes in like a lamb or lion. Give a first grade teacher a plain old rock and a big pot of water and she’ll make a party out of it. Guaranteed.  

My mom was a first grade teacher with unsurpassed talent for holiday hullabaloo. After my sister and I were born, she traded in her classroom of 30 students for two daughters, but continued to display holiday talents at an Olympic level. If they gave medals for holiday triumphs, my mom would have been weighed down in gold.

  When I was a kid, this worked out pretty well for me. I basked in my mom’s holiday splendor. We looked for shadows on Groundhog Day. We learned about some man with a bucket from Nantucket on National Limerick Day. We swapped the sugar with the salt on April 1.  

Obscure holidays were fun, but my mom’s sparkle shined the brightest on the biggies. Food, candy, presents and décor all overflowed – often in a literal sense. If two daughters brought out the holiday genius of my mom, you can only imagine what the arrival of grandchildren did to the equation. It was exponential.

  I wasn’t born with the holiday gene. I didn’t have the organizing and planning talents of my mom, but I was happy to follow along and put out the pickle tray, blow up the balloons or hang the garlands wherever she told me to put them.

  And so the fun continued, until Alzheimer’s disease joined our family get-togethers and holidays became less celebratory and more bittersweet. Those of us close to my mom took on what we could, but hers were big shoes to fill.

  Three years ago, my mom spent her last holiday with us. Three years ago, I started avoiding them. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out why.  

Three years is a long time – and a lot of holidays. Of course I couldn’t avoid every one of them completely because I wasn’t even conscious of my behavior at first. Once I figured out my motives, I was appalled and a little embarrassed, so I shielded them from others. I became a holiday minimalist – doing as little as possible to get by without arousing suspicion.

  Time is a universal healer and three years transports a person from one level of grief to another. Thank goodness. Holidays are a part of life; avoiding life is no way to live.  

Last weekend, we loaded up our family and made the two-hour trek to spend a holiday with my dad and sister and her family. The event wasn’t the super-planned, over-the-top whirlwind affair of my mom’s heyday, but my sister did make some killer cheesy potatoes. And we got to spend time together – talking, laughing, sharing stories and making memories like families do.

  At one point, as my sister related one of her stories, a certain expression and intonation in her voice reminded me of our mom and I realized we are more like her than we think. Perhaps neither of us will ever make it into the holiday hall of fame, but we both carry parts of our mom with us wherever we go. And when we get together to celebrate a holiday, she is there with us. And she is smiling.  


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