Friday, December 23, 2011

Seasons, Reasons, Celebrations

Before I even knew I was Jewish, I can remember all kinds of Christmas guilt and anxiety. It had nothing to do with religion.

I grew up with an alcoholic father I rarely saw, who traveled for "business" most of the week, and who bought us a 40-foot camper so my mother would keep my brother and me away for the summer, but Christmas eve found us all around the tree each year, unable to figure out how to be a family. Inevitably, my brother and I bickered over ornaments, my mother complained about how hard she worked to make things "perfect", and my father smilingly slurred snide and sarcastic zingers from his corner of the sofa. My mother grew louder and my father quieter and more sour, as my brother's head nearly exploded from the pressure, until at last I wept.

My crying infuriated everyone. Once I cried, my mother blamed my father, my father blamed my brother, my brother called me a baby, and I cried more. My mother hurled something against a wall, I cleaned up the splinters, my father passed out, my brother turned up the music... Then, to bed, so we could wake up and unwrap countless presents wrapped opulently in guilt and misery.

The Christmas morning I was ten, we left on our one and only family vacation. With gifts of Arthur Ashe tennis rackets and tank tops, we headed off to Disney World, where my parents took Polaroids of us by day (wearing parkas purchased in the gift shop -- Orlando had a record cold spell and flurries) and took their screaming matches out on the town by night, while my brother and I stayed in the hotel room with a babysitter and a television that seemed inseparable. By my eleventh Christmas, my mother had left my father, my father had fled the country, and I had learned about Judaism when we moved in with my grandparents.

What on earth does this have to do with autism?

Well, it's convoluted, I admit.

I started liking Christmas a lot better after my parents split up, the inclusion of Chanukah in my life notwithstanding. I liked celebrating without the smell of alcohol, without anyone smashing things and screaming, without such fancy and expensive gifts. I started making my own community and spending time learning about my friends' traditions, making my own traditions, reclaiming the ideas of celebration and joy. I began dreaming about one day having my own family, raising children who never associated Christmas with vodka or beer, bitterness or misery, nor with religion -- children who knew they were Jewish and felt free to live, worship, celebrate, believe, and be, any way those chose, any way that made them happy. We would light candles and eat latkes, we would decorate the tree with ornaments we made ourselves. We would try, learn, love, be happy, and celebrate.

To paraphrase Sandra Cisneros, what no one tells you is that when you are a parent, you are still a child. The trick is not to let your own childishness ruin things for everyone. This is especially true if you are a parent of a child with special needs.

When it comes to Christmas, I don't want to neglect the little girl I still am inside, but I don't want to put her needs over those of my own children, who I want to put first. First, but not only.
So, it's complicated.

You can bet that Christmas has not turned out like I expected. Some years we light candles for eight nights, and some years we settle for two or three. Some years we have a tree, and some years it is just too much. Once or twice we have visited Santa. This year I managed to get out just a few Shutterfly cards. Part of this has to do with autism. It just does. It just does.

Once again, screaming has become part of my holiday traditions. I find that I have resumed my role as the one who ends up crying sometimes. And I admit there is some bitterness. Some guilt. These are not the holidays I envisioned as a child. This is not the life I envisioned. But not all of this has to do with autism. And I don't "blame" autism. We all are who we all are. We're complicated. We are real. We are a family.

And here is the thing: what I really wanted from holidays as a kid was not some picture of perfection. It is pictures of perfection --- and the insatiable desire for those illusions --- that led to the mess of my childhood. Yes, I had dreams of gingerbread houses and stringing popcorn. Yes, I had dreams of grating the potatoes and following my grandma's handwritten latke recipe, and playing dreidle and singing songs. But really all I truly wanted from my holidays was a loving family, warts and all. And so I am trying to joyfully celebrate the way the family I have today needs me to, not the way the girl I used to be might wish we could.

No latkes this year. No gelt. No tree. No gingerbread.

Warts? We got 'em. Oh, how we got 'em. But tomorrow we will gather with extended family and there will also be no vodka, no beer, no snide remarks, and no guilt. There will be autism, and maybe some (kids) screaming, possibly a moment of anxiety, but not too much. And there will be love, in abundance - the greatest gift of all. And because that means so much to me, I will try - try my best - not to look too far back or too far forward, but be right there, in the moment of celebration.

Whatever you believe or celebrate, I wish you love, peace, and all the best for a bright 2012.

1 comment:

kim mccafferty said...

Wonderful post- particularly loved "first, but not only". This is a real portrait of a real family, most of us are right there with you. Thanks for such a heartfelt share!