This is Not Your Grandma’s Choice: Longing for the Holidays We Can’t Have

Hello all. Normally as the holidays approach, I post about how to have family harmony, even though some of your relatives may irk the heck out of you, or even make suggestions about how to bow out of those festive gatherings when they feel like too much. But as we are so very far from anything normal now in the pandemic, and you may even find yourself missing the very people who in years past you complained about the whole drive home, in this unprecedented year, it may be fitting that this is a very different kind of post from me. It comes from the heart and I hope it brings you some comfort.

Today was not such a good day, not for a while anyway. I had things to do that seemed impossible. The stakes were high. Time-sensitive forms needed to be filled out, at a distance, in masks, with a notary, by my hearing impaired ninety-one year old father in the midst of a lockdown, while he is in mourning. He is grieving the loss of the love of his life—my dear mother—just two short months ago.

As I despairingly paced, my threadbare soul and sleep-deprived mind plagued by daunting logistics, I couldn’t see a way through the labyrinth of obstacles that stood between me and these— in any other time period—mere practical operations, let alone getting from this moment of existing to the next, let alone, still— from this inner torment to grace.

Which is where I longed to be.

My body just didn’t know what to do with itself. I felt near a breaking point. Or maybe I just needed a break. My dear mother would have told me, and rightly so, to just take a nap. But for the moment, impossibilities crowded out my mind: I couldn’t get these forms done, I couldn’t keep my father safe, and not lonely at Thanksgiving and the holidays beyond. “I don’t like how I’m living my life,” I thought to myself. “This strain, this stress, it’s not good.” Reflexively, I scrolled through my email. An opportunity for something else— a world beyond— waved to me in a misread newsletter headline:

“This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Choice.”

I thought that’s what the headline said, anyway.

Those words immediately resonated. I felt comforted. Lifted from my impasse, I was off to the races, nodding my head in agreement. With just five words, this vibrant online magazine for the arts and culture in the beautiful Hudson Valley which showcases artisanal restaurants and curated real estate treasures had just captioned the brokenness of our plans, the blizzard of alienated feelings we have in this fragile time. Fierce! Who better than Grandma—the legions of grandmothers, in fact: paragons of wisdom and abiders of great hardship— to represent that resilience we so need to summon now?  Thankfully, it had come to that. I was suffused by the promise of unity of purpose.

“Understand,” this headline said to me—”Grandma knows it’s not her choice this year—all of us lost and alone in our own homes at Thanksgiving.  All of us out of that ‘let’s just make this work,’ steam, spent long ago on all the concessions and disappointments of eight months in a pandemic. Grandma understands the longings, the sacrifice, the need for flinty common sense, the mustering of the will to persist in this season of hard decisions, and we must, too.”

Right, it’s not Grandma’s choice this wretched pandemic. Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we can’t go. Not this year.

It’s not her choice. None of it. Grandma didn’t choose this, but she will not be undone by it either.

Grandma wants to wake up early, before anyone is stirring and have the peace and quiet to make pies from scratch, thinking her thoughts privately while she kneads dough like her mother did before her. She wants happy mayhem at her Thanksgiving table, the clamoring for more stuffing and sweet potatoes, the din of happy chatter, a reprieve from the silent imprint of ancient family wounds.

She wants all of that, but she knows, this year is bigger than us. It’s not her choice. Something far greater than our wishes are at play.

What she may want more than that moment of family harmony when grace is said and felt is for her family, her children and her grandchildren, to have the fortitude to not let this disappointment of this favorite day hurt them too badly. She wants our expectations—the  deserved and savored attachments to the idea of a day with all the trimmings, a favorite day when we can all give thanks for what we have, with pie—to ease up on us.

“Please dear lord,” she would pray, “let my children and grandchildren be brave enough to grieve this, but not let it break them. To make an impression but not crush their spirit beyond repair. Let what they hold dear be robust and survive.”

She can’t decide how much to tell her family of her own sacrifices, how much she lost, lost and gave up to get to this moment. Maybe seeing her progeny at a distance at the end of her driveway, or each in their own flat box on her computer—waving, trying to muster the gratitude that she would want them to have. She feels overwhelming abundance. That gratitude she instilled in them through her unconditional kindness. She has waited patiently for each of them, apprentices to her grace, to stop and see and realize what they have. Everyone has something to be grateful for. She sees the glow of recognition, the glint of perspective. This, she knows, is the way they’ll be able to survive. Seeing this, she can be at peace. The pandemic could only win if we let it.

She feels pride in seeing them—even her young great grandson growing up fast with his mask and making do—all rising up to meet the road being carved out of the macadam of dread and necessity and determination each day.

No, this year—these holidays, this Thanksgiving—isn’t your grandma’s choice. And it isn’t ours either, but we will make it through.

I return from this reverie a split second later, my aching heart having been rescued from despair by the welcomed collusion of my imagination and poor eyesight and read the email subject line again, this time more closely: “This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Crochet,” it reads, highlighting a Hudson Valley shop with exquisite custom lace. I nod again, this time in recognition of my folly.

Yes, in this difficult season each of us will have times when we almost break, when we are stymied by challenges that feel insurmountable with the highest of stakes, but then, somehow, life itself will wave to us. We will conveniently misread headlines. We will be rescued if not by our imaginations, then by each other’s caring. That caring honed, nurtured and treasured by none other than the gift of a Grandmother’s attunement. For this we are all grateful. Invoking that love, what has made our existence possible, our spirits will prevail in the name of hope waiting and working for a future we can’t quite see but want with all our might. We will find the provisions we need to get through these dark times until that day when it is, in fact, this Thanksgiving, these holidays, our lives: Grandma’s choice, again.

Stay safe and well everyone. Please wear a mask and make those hard choices. Thank you so much for being here. Warmest Thanksgiving wishes and much love to your families this holiday season.

©2020 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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