The winter holidays, for me, have always represented a season of mixed emotions. Occasionally, we would have a fun gathering at one sister’s house or another. When my daughter married, her house became the focal point for most of my holidays.
Since my grandparents passed away, and that’s been a long time, Christmas hasn’t been particularly special for me, except for watching people open up gifts I thought they might really want. In terms of tradition, there was never any consistency in my extended family of origin for any holiday or event. My sisters typically do something with their own families. I am not sure what the experience of the holidays is for my brother, who I haven’t seen in years.
Every year I do think about how happy the Christmas season was when I was a young kid. I believed more innocently in the Christmas story, and I believed in Santa Claus, too. I recall in minute detail three presents that made me especially happy: a Tiny Thumbelina doll, an archaic model calculator that is almost impossible to describe, and a troll doll house.
In second grade I was introduced to Hanukkah, thanks to a visit to my buddy Jeffrey Zimmerman’s house. I was overwhelmed at the sights, sounds, and smells of his holiday household. I didn’t really envy him at the time, because my grandparents were still around and life wasn’t all that bad back then. But something impressed me deeply about his family because I still remember the visits to his house and the warm feelings I had while I was there. Everyone was kind, and I always felt included.
When I dated my husband in the mid-eighties, we were invited to a Seder at his Aunt Belle’s, and those warm feelings returned. Not once did I perceive myself as an outsider sitting awkwardly at the table. As I recall, the family and friends gathered that day did not routinely meet up with one another all that often, but when they did, it was as comfortable a group as if they saw each other all the time. I marveled then, and do now, that people can fold so naturally into one another. I must have been enfolded too, because I didn’t feel out of place participating in a ritual that I did not understand.
Years later I volunteered at the Holocaust Memorial Foundation in Skokie, Illinois. I worked on a few projects, and came to know and love many of the elderly men and women devoting their lives to the creation of the world-class museum that exists there today. The running joke there was that I now had twenty Jewish mothers to make up for the one I never had.
Recently, friends of Marc’s invited us and a few other couples to their house for the first night of Hanukah. Last night as I sat watching Sam Edelman making sixty or so latkes for the assembled group, I felt overwhelmed at the sense of inclusion again, just as I had at Jeffrey’s house. Sam’s wife Carol had found enough menorahs for each couple to participate in lighting the first candle of the first night. So we went through this little ceremony, singing songs I could only listen to, but still enjoyed.
I had a lot going on at work today, so my original plan had been to leave early. But given the warmth at the table with people I barely knew, I found it hard to leave.
Tonight Marc asked me if I wanted to light another candle tonight here at home. I said no, and I really don’t know why.
This is a photo of Sam last night at his home. It captures a lot of the spirit of the evening, which reflects the spirit of the man and his family. It’s one I relate to very much. Again, I am not sure why.