It’s another holiday season and once again people start asking “You have any plans for Easter?” The short answer is, “No, not really”.
It happens: families get smaller, spread out, time passes, people die. I watch with a little smile the holiday TV commercials, during Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially: hordes of happy, apple-cheeked Moms and Dads, Grandpas and Grandmas, cousins, aunts and uncles – all scrubbed up like new potatoes, well-dressed and happy. Most of all happy: happy to see each other, happy to sit down to the groaning board, thrilled above all to be enjoying the Pillsbury Rolls/Butterball Turkey/Hormel Ham/Mrs. Smith’s pie…
My family did things a bit differently, but in the end it was the same. Christmas Eve was when we opened our gifts, an adoption of the Danish custom. Everyone gathered at our house: children, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles… just like the ads. For years we waited until the stroke of midnight to begin the ritual, but over the years the time crept up, earlier and earlier, until by the ‘90’s things were pretty much over with by 7 p.m. People got older, moved away, died.
At Easter it was a bit different. For over two decades, my parents owned a restaurant and Easter Sunday, along with Mother’s Day, was a big-business day. I was generally the busboy, helping out the crew of waitresses – hard-working women, many of whom had been part of the family since my grandparents had owned the place -- in their pristine uniforms, white aprons, and sporting white hankies with delicate, lacy borders, starched to a fare-thee-well and folded like elaborate fans, which they wore over their breast pockets. I can’t remember how much in tips I raked in on these holidays, maybe all of ten or twenty dollars, but at the time it seemed like a lot of cash.
Certain traditions carried on through the years, but as the family aged and changed, the shapes and essence of those traditions changed until, for the most part, we seemed to be going through the motions. On many occasions my older sister and her husband would take us all out to dinner to a nearby restaurant – where, according to local legend, someone was once shot at the bar and which, not long ago, was featured on one of those “reality” shows where some expert goes in and revamps a restaurant in 24 hours. Rita would hold court at the head of the table, even though it became increasingly difficult for her to leave the house, arrayed in a snazzy outfit, her sable jacket and a sampling of her very good, very impressive diamonds.
Then my mother died and not everyone attended all the celebrations. My father was crushed by the loss of his wife of 56 years and never really recovered. So we would gather, but the atmosphere was often one of forced gaiety. Dad’s blazer and slacks hung off his increasingly ravaged frame.
Much of the reason we still celebrated at all was because of my younger brother, Robert, born with Down Syndrome, who we still more or less considered a child. We convinced ourselves that he would miss the opening of the gifts, the Easter basket, the turkey, the ham. But eventually I realized that Bobby most certainly understands more than we give him credit for. For years I was afraid of the moment when I would have to tell him about the death of our mother, or our father whom he loved dearly. But when the time came, he was accepting and stoic. And when he attended the funerals he was respectful and quiet and bore it all as well as any of us.
So, now we come to another holiday – having got through another Christmas without my parents. Rita is gone now, too and Easter, having never been a Big Deal for us, is now just another Sunday, at least for me. So I’m not surprised I’m experiencing what John Cheever used to call his “cafard” – a shapeless, headachey sense of sadness and loss, even a little dread about the future. (Well, yes, considering it’s pointless to dread the past…) I actually have to get myself up and out and into the world every day before I realize there’s nothing to be afraid of. If I stay present and do the next indicated thing, the days go – rather too quickly, sometimes, to suit me.
I’ve heard it said that you’re not really an adult until both your parents are gone. Well, this adult is celebrating the season with a new laptop (from The Easter Bunny, natch), maybe a pair of shoes or slacks. I’m starting to think about vacations – weekend trips over the summer, an extended trip somewhere (Lisbon, Provincetown, Budapest?) come fall. I plan meals, I plan my budget, I plan a great deal. But, come the holidays, I can never plan for that moment when I start to think “I ought to call Mom—“ or “Dad might enjoy—“ No matter how cagey I think I am, things still have a way of sneaking up on me.