Sorry for the lengthy post. Sometimes it is cathartic to write it out.
Building on Julia’s (from My American Life) post on lowering expectations at Christmas, I thought maybe I could share my own crazy Christmas story from a few days ago.
Where to start? Probably with the preface that if my family knew I was writing about this on the internet they would probably shoot me.
I’ve shared a bit of frustration about my mother in the past. It’s not that she is a bad person necessarily, but we are very different. She has had a rocky path in life, and as a result she has a lot of negativity around her. As part of this, she can be difficult to be around. I can only take her in small doses, but I still appreciate that she is my mother, and I make an effort to connect when I can. Unfortunately I think my mother’s family (my grandmother and my many aunts and uncles) has decided they don’t want to deal with her anymore and have pretty much written her off. But she still makes the effort–coming on holidays, calling to check in occasionally, etc–but her gestures aren’t really reciprocated, and sometimes she is seemingly overtly shunned.
Now I’m trying to get my head around this Christmas, because when I see my mother’s siblings and my grandmother, I can’t tell if they realize how much their actions are hurting my mother, or if they are so absorbed into their own worlds they are oblivious to the fact that they are hurting her. Or maybe they don’t care anymore? Their actions make her angry, which makes her want to react, which make them think she is still being negative, and they do something else, which makes her angry and makes her want to react, and it is this vicious cycle.
Anyway– so this leads me to Christmas.
When we were kids, holidays were always a lot of fun. Both my parents come from large families (my dad is one of 5, my mom is one of 7), so holidays were always full of people. At my dad’s family we had a lot of cousins around our ages, so holidays meant snowball fights and lots of games. But there were always more rules at my dad’s family’s house, so his family came off as more strict. At my mom’s family’s house, my mom was the first to get married, and for a long time it was just me, and then my middle sister. It was us and the adults. Since many of my mother’s younger siblings weren’t married and not used to kids, they enjoyed spoiling us and having us break the rules– stay up late, eat candies, forget schedules. They always seemed like the “fun” family because everything was crazy with them.
So maybe that is the carefree spirit now, that they are still interested in doing their own thing instead of thinking about others… I don’t know.
My parents divorced a long time ago, and that makes holidays already a bit awkward sometimes, so having these extra frustrations can make them more so. But I always look forward to the possibility of having a fun carefree Christmas, like the holidays of my childhood.
Now my mother lives in Virginia, we live in New England, my grandmother lives in Southern NY and my aunts live close by in New Jersey. My grandmother and aunts (especially one younger aunt, who has since married and has three small kids) see each other all the time. They live about an hour from each other, and my grandmother often babysits, and stays for stretches of time at the aunt’s house. We, by contrast, have always lived a bit far– at least four hours away as a child, and now a similar distance for me as an adult, and about six or seven hours away for my mom and my middle sister. Since no one comes down to visit, and my mother works retail, getting up to see the relatives in NY/NJ is quite a feat. She sometimes makes the long drive only to stay for about 24 hours, to turn around and drive home to work again. No one seems to appreciate this. In fact, I think they would rather my mother not come. They exclude her from gift exchanges, aren’t considerate of her schedule, and usually don’t listen to her.
This year, my sister and mother were able to take off from work early. P’s brother U had nothing to do for Christmas, so I invited him to come with us (after checking with my grandmother to see if it is was alright. Her response– “Jesus says there is always room at the inn.”) U, who doesn’t have a car, had to take a train up from Philly, and since on Christmas Eve the trains are on a holiday schedule, we had to be at the station at a specific time to pick him up. I had called my grandmother about a week in advance to coordinate the details. P and I were hoping to come down around mid-day on Christmas Eve to my grandmother’s place to hang out and be with family and pick up U.
“Oh no,” my grandmother said, “No one will be here. We have to pick up your uncles at the airport in Newark, and then we are going to your cousin’s Christmas play in New Jersey. No one will be here until 9pm.”
Me: “That’s quite late, should we go to New Jersey then?”
“No, just come to my house at 9.”
Me: “Well, the trains, we might have to come early because of the train to pick up U.”
“Can’t he take a train to Boston and then drive down with you from there?”
Me: “But, then he is paying to go several hours in the wrong direction, it would make more sense to pick him up at the train station near your place, unless we need to drive to Philly to pick him up and then turn around and drive back to your place, but that is 4 extra hours of needless driving.”
“Yeah, no that is silly, just come at 9, we will be here at 9.”
–now an aside frustration– my two uncles are in their 40s and 50s. They have always been picked up at the airport for holidays, which is fine, but my relatives wouldn’t give P and I the same courtesy when we literally flew from the other side of the world back from Nepal in 2009. My aunt instead insisted we take a $200 car service instead since the airport was “too far.” When I mentioned $200 was a lot of money, she said that maybe we didn’t have enough money to make the trip then and we shouldn’t go in the first place. That was the last time I was going to ask them for help. Our good friend AD agreed to pick us up no questions asked and bring us to our car that was parked at his place an hour north of the city.
So Christmas Eve comes, and U realizes that his train options are 7:20pm or 11pm. 11 seemed awfully late to be traveling, so we said he should come at 7:20 and we would take him out to dinner to kill time. We called the restaurants near my grandmother’s place to see when they closed– which was around 8pm– I mean it was Christmas Eve, of course the wait staff would want to be home with their families too. We called my mom, who said they were going to be near my grandmother’s place at 6, since they got off from work early and wanted to set out early in case there was traffic coming through DC. So we aimed to be there at 6 so we could eat with my mother and sisters before going to my grandmother’s place.
Then I called my aunt to check in. Both my uncles had arrived (we were originally told that one uncle was coming in the morning and one in the evening, but that happened not to be the case) and had been picked up, and they were getting ready for the Christmas play which would be over by 6. Remember they were only an hour from my grandmother’s place. Which means they could technically have been back by 7pm. I told her the train schedule and my mother’s work schedule had us all reaching NY by 6, and we would kill time at a restaurant, but all the restaurants closed at 8pm, could they please come back closer to 8 instead of 9? Otherwise we would be sitting in the driveway in the car for an hour or so waiting for them. I even offered that if they would be up around 7, we could all eat at the restaurant together.
My aunt made an excuse about “if there is traffic and we are running late, we don’t want you to miss your dinner, so we will eat in NJ and come up after that.” I said, “Sure, but could you come closer to 8 than 9, everything closes at 8 and we will be stuck outside with nowhere to go on Christmas Eve.” She said something noncommittal and got off the phone.
All went according to plan– we met, ate, picked U at the train station, and stayed at the restaurant as long as we could before it became painfully obvious that the wait staff was anxious to leave. We called my uncle to check in– “oh we are still in NJ, your aunt made dinner, we will be about hour and a half… just go to a bar and wait. No big deal.”
My mother at this point was furious. She had driven 7 hours to come up for the holiday, tried to plan in advance, we had all met on our schedules, and all we asked was that they come back from my aunt’s place in NJ– an aunt that socializes with my grandmother and other aunt ALL THE TIME– an hour early so we wouldn’t have to sit in the cold waiting for them. They knew this at least a few hours in advance. They just didn’t seem to care. And there alternative suggestion was– oh, find a bar to hang out in– on Christmas EVE!– if we didn’t want to wait in the cold.
So we drove to my grandmother’s place. My mother said that my grandmother often forgets to lock the back porch door, and she was hoping that maybe the back door was also open. I went with her. We got in the porch, but the back door was locked. By the light of our cell phones I figured that I could probably shimmy the kitchen window open and crawl through so I could unlock the house from the inside. After 10 minutes of jiggling the window screens/latches, I took a set of car keys and wedged a key under the window pane and propped up the window, sliding through and rolling into the kitchen sink (a move that I didn’t realize at the time, but left both my upper thighs with three long sets of bruises as I shimmed through the high window sill). Finally I was in. I turned on the lights and unlocked the door and let my mom and sisters, and P and his brother in.
We settled in with our bags, and sat waiting for my grandmother and uncles to come back. My mom kept saying that she didn’t necessarily blame my grandmother, who is getting quite old and just kind of follows the crowd, but her siblings, for their lack of consideration for other people. She was practically in tears and seething. When the crew finally did show up some time between 9 and 10, they were surprised to find us in the house. I said the back door was unlocked, and they said, “oh that was lucky” and acted as if everything was no big deal. Later at midnight mass my grandmother didn’t know why my mother had “a puss on her face” during the service.
I tried to keep my mother from making snide comments under her breath the rest of the weekend (sometimes more successfully than others) but at least Christmas day was enjoyable. My youngest uncle was quick to fill everyone’s’ glass with more alcohol, and the house filled with other relatives.
The next day (26th), the big news was that the east coast of the US was going to be hit with a big snow storm. P and I assumed that we would stay at my grandmother’s to ride out the storm before heading south to Philly to drop U off at his place. Instead my grandmother said that she, my aunt, and my two uncles were going to NJ again, and didn’t extend the invitation to any of us. Since my grandmother didn’t share her keys, the house would have to be locked when they left, which meant we all had to leave too. It basically meant we were being turned out of the house into an oncoming blizzard.
“In Nepal no family member would send you out into bad weather. Ever.” P said, as we loaded up the car and drove off. Again, my mother was seething, she was planning to drive 7 hours back to Virginia with both my sisters, into the storm. I kept calling her on my cell phone imploring her to take the route south which swings by Philly so if the weather got really bad she and my sisters could crash at U’s place.
According to our GPS the route from my grandmother’s place to U’s should only have taken 2 hours. It took us 6 because of the storm. We literally drove along the Garden State and New Jersey Turnpikes at 10-15 miles an hour, and could play “count the car wrecks” on the side of the road. We eventually caught my mother at a rest stop and had her follow us back to Philly where we weathered the rest of the storm at U’s and dug out the next morning. Upon calling my grandmother and aunts to let them know she reached somewhere safely they a) acted like it was no big deal and b) admonished her for staying at U’s place– a 20 something year old bachelor who was most likely “unprepared” for guests. They told her to get a hotel somewhere– which I know is outside my mother’s budget. Actually when my mother tried to coordinate Christmas to begin with, and the 9pm on Christmas Eve thing originally came up my aunt told my mother, “why don’t you get a hotel then” knowing my mother’s precarious financial situation.
And my youngest uncle had the audacity to say over the holiday that “family is important, and no matter how much we drive each other crazy, it’s important to get together.” Their actions didn’t really show it.
Needless to say I found the whole 2 day experience with the family quite hurtful. Not necessarily to me, but knowing how much their nonchalant attitude was angering my mother. I guess what makes it harder to chew is that growing up they were always the “fun” family. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I have to lower my expectations from them. My mother said, “I feel guilty, because I know it’s me they don’t like, and I feel that they treat my children bad now because of it.”
I was also embarrassed because it was the first time P’s brother U was spending Christmas with us. It was his first look at an American family holiday gathering– and this was what he saw. Never in a million years could I imagine P’s family, or any Nepali friend of ours, doing that kind of stuff to me or my family. So it saddened me a lot to showcase this side of my family. But likewise I would feel bad if I had to “hide” holidays from P and U as well.
So anyway, P and I are leaving Philly today after a day of relaxation to head south to VA for New Years at my mothers. Hopefully this holiday will have slightly less drama, but knowing how it started out, I’m not so sure.