Friday, January 06, 2012

Turkey, Ham, Family Dysfunction, and A Baby

He was despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. Isaiah 53

Lets just all agree that, more times than not, Christmas is not anything like the Hallmark channel or a Rockwell painting.

You know; those images of all the family huddled around the newly arrived nephew, or joyfully belting out Christmas carols; happy, laughing, and content in neat lives that radiate success and contentment.

But I cannot shake the thought that somehow something with Christmas is not right, and that it shouldn't be that way.  I am guessing that I am not the only person who thinks this way, not the only one who won't let go of expectations.  Each year, I find myself feeling perhaps like you; perpetually mildly disappointed as Christmas recedes in the rear view mirror.

A Turkey, Ham.....
As I look back at my life of 53 years, and all the Christmas Family dinners I have been through, I am beginning to finally be grown up enough to notice some general themes.  In the midst of all those rooms full of holiday revelers, I am guessing that you have seen some of these same people, or know of similar stories as well.  All of us have a story to tell, and all of us have lives that, in varying ways, reflect the suffering and joy of the human condition.

Every year, we seem to be involved in one or more large, noisy, extended family Christmas celebration.  These are invariably held with far too many people in a house slightly too small for the crowd.  And every year, there will be people there you have either know for years, or hardly know.  Both the ones you look forward to seeing, and the one that, well, you could do without.  We all come with our contributions to the festivities, a salad here, an apple pie there.  I come bringing my roasted turkey, still wrapped in beach blankets, keeping warm right out of the oven.  Those who are cooking challenged come bearing their Honey Baked Hams and salads from the designer grocery chain.  We all do our part.

Lets take a look around the room.

.....and Family Dysfunction
Bustling around in the center of the kitchen, the focal point of this holiday bacchanalia, is the not-so-middle-aged mom of the host family.  She has been the driving force of this Christmas gathering for more than a decade now, organizing, decorating, now hugging new comers upon entry, and making sure the punch bowl is full and the conversation is lively and cheerful.  But within her, life has not all been easy and cheerful.  There has been the death of parents, the worry over children, and her own health struggles that have carved lines into her smile.  Lines that speak of life, and loving, and worry.  She has a story to tell of her life that is rich, and full, with some parts not easy to hear and other parts enough to make you cry with laughter.  But that story will have to wait, dinner must be served.

Over there, by the salted nut bowl, there is the loud and crazy uncle, the one who is on his 4th marriage, (is it 4th or 5th, we never can seem to remember?) who has the omniscient knowledge of all things both political and moral.  He can speak for hours on any subject, but is nearly incapable of asking anyone how they are doing.  Whenever the Christmas carols begin, he is the one who starts to sing his own song, separate and apart and far louder that whatever the chosen carol is.  He has always been that way.  His whole life.  It drives you batty. 

Sitting by the onion dip bowl over there is the divorcee in the family, who is attempting to make herself look all put together, her hair is just so, and the outfit that is charmingly Christmasy.  In reality, her last two years have been full of enough emotion, pain, and distance from her family to the extent that it hurts to think about it.  Its not really entirely her fault.  She has mastered the art of the happy holiday smile and greeting, but you get the sense of a hollow ring to her greeting.  You wish you had something to say that could offer hope, but words fail you.  And so, you return the greeting with the best warm hug you can offer, and a few minutes of idle chatter about the kids and the weather.

Seated in the kitchen almost like a centerpiece in the midst of the bustle, looking almost regal, is the family matron of 83 years.  In one way or another, all of us here have been touched by her warmth, her engaging way of conversation, and the apparently real love she has for each person in the room.  She has a life story to tell that is remarkable; of teen years saving various household items for the effort of World War II, and of the meeting and marriage of her young soldier sweetheart, with whom she was married for 48 years, until his death several years ago.  She is quite alert for her age, and so full of grace, you want to sit next to her and listen for the rest of the night.  But, there are others in the room you need to catch up with.

And look, in the kitchen.  The gaggle of late teens and early twenties, the kids of several different families.  They have surrounded a bowl of guacamole dip and chips, which will be history in five minutes or less.  Our of the corner of your eye, you notice on the periphery of this group the moody college freshman who doesn't quite fit - who is not exactly socially graceful.  She tends to put the other kids at slight unease, never really feeling comfortable in this crowd.  These kids don't really understand where she comes from.  Neither do the adults.  Diagnosed with a mild learning disability and depression in her younger years, it feels to her like no one really understands her.  Although her parents have tried just about everything, she will not see a therapist, nor will she consider taking any medication that might alleviate her moodiness.  She doesn't like the dull ache she feels when on medication, perhaps she also revels in her shadowy personality.  Its easier to think everyone else is a butt hole, rather than than face up to your own pain.  We are all like that in some ways.

Unexpectedly, A Baby
Over there by the fireplace.  A sight that is in simple stark contrast to the carnival of family issues filling the rest of the house.  A dark-haired, younger mother is sitting quietly; the only person who seems entirely disconnected from all the noise, and bustle, all the preparation and masked pain.  She has a baby boy of less than six months, wrapped in a blanket adorned with little tiny snowmen.

This sight nearly stops you in your tracks, and you feel your breath softly exhaling as you take in this sight.  A baby.  Sleeping soundly.  You lean forward to watch that little face, softly twitching in slumber.  What thoughts are filling that new little mind?  Look how peaceful he is, not a care in the world.  No issues, no confusion about life, no dysfunction.  No having to act glued together and dressed up well.

Just how did we get here, at this Christmas party, carrying in the door our culinary contributions along with our pain, and sadness, our confusion and our fears?  And how, in the midst of all this noise and food, abundance and insecurity, can there be a little soul sleeping so soundly, oblivious to all the struggle, heartache, and frustrations the rest of us feel?

Our Christmas feelings may not end up with everyone happy, with each person in the room fondly reflecting on a life well lived thus far.  But at the deep, subtle, and shadowed center of all this Advent revelry, there is this; a baby.  We cannot avoid him.  For in a moment, more than two centuries ago, his screams of new life, brought forth in a crappy barn in the middle of nowhere, changed everything for all of us.  Forever.

Merry Belated Christmas.

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