Getting together with family for the holidays is something many of us look forward to with mixed emotions. There’s the excitement of knowing you’ll see loved ones, and the reality of ongoing differences, as slight as the distinction between half-and-half and French-vanilla Coffee Mate creamer. My controversial position is that even a jolly, old soul like Santa doesn’t want artificially flavored, corn-syrup sweetened, fake dairy product in his coffee. At the same time, I’d never want to hurt the feelings of a family member offering Coffee Mate at a family brunch, so I demur politely and tell the host I’ve begun to drink my coffee black. I can appreciate drinking coffee black as long as it’s hot and flavorful. Appreciation is one of those things that can go a long way toward enjoying holidays with the family.
This year, I made the 2,500-mile round trip to see my family the week of Thanksgiving. We made it a Christmas combo, a real two-for-one. My parents’ house and five acres on the outskirts of Dallas was the locus of our gatherings. The weather was perfect, sunny and 60s, and at night, the Christmas lights lit up. I appreciate my folks for embracing all the craziness, loudness, and messes we made, considering they are almost octogenarians with a busy, active social life, as my mother tells me. At the high point of attendance, there were twenty-two of us, and in spite of ongoing differences, I found many things to appreciate.
- My Sister Made a Perfect Salad
I think it had spring lettuces, iceberg, and fresh baby spinach, whatever, a perfect mix of greenery; and cranberries, walnuts, cheese, strawberries, poppyseed dressing, though to be honest, even if I can’t legitimately list everything in it, it was the most perfect salad I’ve ever had.
2. My Niece Who Showed Up Every Day
I’m not the only family member who lives at a distance, and the ones who live locally work and have other responsibilities, so not all family members were able to show up. I appreciate my oldest niece, who came to see me five days in a row. She was there when I arrived and saw me every day until I departed. She gets the Award for Best Attendance. I appreciate the time and laughs we shared.
3. Left-Right-Center, Plus $90 One-Dollar Bills
We always play games when the family gets together. This year I brought a dice game, Left-Right-Center, a gambling game where luck travels around the table. Everyone starts with three dollars. You might run out of money, but if the person next to you rolls “Right,” a dollar is passed over and puts you back in the game. The last person with a dollar wins the “Center,” or the pot. This is not how the game always ends, but we played by family rules.
Depending how the dice are rolling, a game can last almost an hour. Ninety one-dollar bills was enough cash to allow ten people to play the game three times. Once everyone was having fun, people broke extra dollars out of pockets and purses to play again. The stakes were low; the trash talking and merriment high. I appreciate all the hooting and hollering that took place, and I’m happy to report my mom and dad won three out of the four pots.
4. A Bunch of Cute Little Kids and Hijinks
Five of my parents’ great-grandchildren were at the main event, including a two-year-old, Philip, three five-year-olds, Daniel, Duncan, and Noah, and a seven-year-old, Genesis. The little one stayed inside while we played games. The older ones played outside on the Little Tikes swing set and chased each other around. They were high on Cherry Sprite and their new Pez dispensers, which had been stocking stuffers.
At one point, someone went to check on the children, and the cry came, “The kids are in the pond!”
Parental figures poured out of the house. The pond is a natural basin that doesn’t hold water year-round because it has a leak in its limestone foundation. During seasonal rains, it fills up; the week of Thanksgiving, it contained maybe a foot of water.
Yes, the kids were in the pond. They were really splashing it up. Duncan jumped up and down and said, “See? It’s not deep, Mom.” But it was mucky, scummy, and too cold for swimming. The kids were rounded up and divested of their soggy shoes and socks, which we sat in the sun to dry. I appreciate getting to know the next generation of our family, and that kids still know how to have fun.
5. Walking in the Woods
In the afternoon, some of us took a walk in the woods. A vague path leads through the locust, mesquite trees, and pine to a natural creek bed of shallow, running water. The locust trees menace with clumps of needles, and my mother has hung decorative old tires in the trees. My son and I searched for the persimmon tree my mother said was on the property. We found it, a tall, skinny tree with a few, stunted persimmons clinging to its upper branches. A nature walk was just what we needed. I appreciate quiet time spent with my son.
Sometimes living at a distance from family can amplify our ongoing differences in a way that only presence and connection can erase. Being with family makes it easier to appreciate our shared need for nurture, fellowship, and compassion and to accept the ways we are different. If you want to have a merry family holiday gathering, look for moments to appreciate.