Christmas day. For years I longed for tradition. Perhaps we had them at one time. Traditions not necessarily identified as such; but, nonetheless, there were ceremonies and rituals my family followed. Ma played Santa until my younger sister Kim and I were old enough to know better. We did the same for our baby brother Chris when he came along ten years after me. In our cramped apartments Ma sang and there was a decorated tree each Christmas. Ornaments put up year after year—some handmade by myself and later Kim and Chris. There were the Santa Claus mugs with hot cocoa and mini marshmallows. I loved those mugs which only came out for this season. Christmas mornings we checked the plate for the cookies with a bite taken out.
We saw the Nutcracker one year. Ma annoyed when I dozed off during the long ballet. What a sacrifice it must have been to provide us with that experience. We scored standing room only tickets in 1975 to The Wiz. I don’t know if we saw it on Broadway or at the Majestic theater. I remember my legs tired and the usher eventually allowed me to sit on the aisle steps. I loved Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and Mabel King as Evillene. Just as enthralling were annual trips to Macys to see the displays and Rockefeller Center to gaze at the big tree and watch the ice skaters.
There were gatherings with aunts, uncles, and cousins. I loved Aunt Naomi’s fruit cake. Kitchen surfaces laden with ham, turkey, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, and sweet potato pie (never heard of pumpkin pie until I came to the Midwest). Rooms cloudy with cigarette smoke, relatives slapping cards on the table, alcohol flowing, laughter, and music filling empty space are my memories.
We didn’t have much; yet, rarely did I think we lacked. Okay, maybe the year Ma dressed up our old beat up dolls in new clothes and put them under the tree. The red velveteen dress and beret on my white Susie doll fooled me only until I lifted the dress and discovered the missing battery cover. Susie had long ceased squawking, “Mama. Mama.” and “I want another drink of water.” I looked at Ma, the disappointment in my eyes accompanied by my loud, “HEY! These are old dolls!” I still remember her face. Guilt? Sadness? Something that made me —even at five or six years old—realize that she wished she could have done more. It was the beginning of learning to let go.
When I married James in 1990 I believed we would one day establish traditions. Our wedding held in the Clinton Correctional facility in Dannemora, NY only required Job-like faith in God. During the previous eight years that I was following God’s plan for my life in Minnesota, James’ home was Rikers Island and later New York prisons. Our love story not at all unusual in our native Brooklyn neighborhoods. February 1, 1990 I flew in and stayed in a motel not far from the prison. Two days later we were married. The next day, clutching the beautiful bouquet my “adopted” Swedish mom had made for me but the guards would not allow into the prison, I sobbed so hard on the Minnesota bound plane the flight attendant tried to comfort me. Of course, I could not explain to this young, white woman why I could not be consoled.
Weddings were never my dream; still, I hoped when James was released we could have a true ceremony. I imagined the years yet to come. The children we would have. For five more long years I imagined. In dreams, I combined what I remembered from my childhood with memories James shared. Our future children would have comfort, security, and strength. Tradition would unite and heal. Tradition would be a lifeline of past, present, and future Godbolts, Sheppards, and Morgans. I didn’t imagine James and I would only have that one Christmas in 1995. I didn’t imagine I’d be a widow by spring 1996. I didn’t imagine God’s promise of a future and a hope would become my hardest letting go lesson.
Ma died March 2005. Her last few Christmases marked by disfigurement, suffering from a rare cancer that consumed her literally head to toe. We came together as family—Kim and her husband, their precocious little one, Chris, and I. We took care of Ma and as best we could each other. Tradition. Letting go.
As I often do, I look back. Grief has become my tradition. I have my rituals, remembrances, memorials. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. I refuse to manipulate my grief into some story of resilience. I refuse to let others comfort themselves with a feel-good hero’s journey. I am not sad. I am not lonely. What was sad were the times I adopted other families, became the invited single, shared in others’ traditions which mostly exacerbated my losses (and yes, I welcome the invites even though I politely decline).
I’m not alone. For over a decade I’ve shared Christmas and felt most at ease with people experiencing homelessness. People who live loss daily. I’ve collected and saved the postcards of the annual Homeless Memorial March and Service. At this year’s 33rd march and vigil 169 homeless and formerly homeless and 11 advocates who died this year were honored and celebrated. Tradition.
My affinity with those perched on Life’s edge is a pained gift. In their eyes my own losses are reflected. As someone recently said to me, loss is loss. The empty spaces only momentarily filled by the holiday meal, gift bag, clean socks, hand warmers, tokens. When all is said and done our loss—homes, family, independence, health—still exists. There isn’t anything merry or bright about that.
Tradition is remembrance. Tradition is raw honesty. Tradition makes space for the less traditional. It morphs and bends. It opens and embraces. It accepts quiet reflection, tears, stories, whatever the heart is willing to yield.