Many years ago, My parents nailed setting traditions. They were adamant about keeping some of the old traditions that my Mom grew up with and even added a few of their own. It was a glorious, magical time. Christmas Eve dinner & celebrations. We, my mom, grandmother, sister and I prepared for weeks. The shopping and expense were enormous. My parents had five children and lived on a NYPD salary in the 60’s. So my beloved grandmother, Nanny, would come out from Brooklyn and stay for a week and she splurged a lot with all the specialities and extras. She helped to make Christmas special. So we all shopped till we dropped. She would spare no expense. She lived and breathed to spoil and love our family. She didn’t skimp on anything. Every nut, candy, desserts, seven types of fish and 20 pounds of homemade butter cookies, chocolates and honey balls adorned our tables. The fresh Italian meats and cheeses were piled on platters. We prepared the entire day for our family dinner. I remember as a child, the rule was no meat on Christmas Eve. (Only fish and shellfish dishes). A religious rule as per my grandparents. Over the years, and many picky eaters later on, my mother bent that rule for them. It was quite the extravaganza. Truth: I enjoyed every second of it. I had my loving, beautiful, warm Mom, & Daddy, my little Nanny & Pop, and my five siblings. My mom blasted Christmas music all day long. My Dad was in charge of decorating. He spent hours stringing lights outside. He would climb on the roof and hang the Big Santa face. He would string santa and the reindeer taking off our roof. Then he would come inside and hang lights everywhere. My Mom, an artist and crafty gal would spend a month decorating the interiors. Her trees were her pride and joy. She would make wreaths and garland and over the years, she built quite the miniature Christmas village. It was magical and grew each year with a new house. I have a picture somewhere of the magical homemade village set in a mountain that she created. It stood over four stories high and she would nestle each house in the snow covered hills and make her very own village. It was her masterpiece and she loved creating it each year. Every detail was special. Every tree, animals, skaters, and even a moving ski lift to the top of the mountain. She made Christmas magical for all of us.
As our family grew, everyone had a partner or spouse by then, except our baby brother Anthony. We all showed up. We all dressed up, (one year, my mom insisted we wear matching Kaftans!) all of us with armfuls of presents and the world was ours. As the music played, everyone laughing, dancing and partying together. The mood was so warm and there was nowhere else we would rather be. Just together. My grandfather, Poppy, Peter Shannon, would take his once a year, half a shot of blackberry brandy and head to bed early. His sparkling blue eyes and hugs still make me teary. He was a kind, soft soul. We would feast, for hours, we were very blessed, content. We were happy to be together. Another rule was, we had to wait till midnight to open gifts. Once you became a teenager, you could stay up and open with the “adults”. A rite of passage. I think we bent that rule for Anthony, but the poor kid had to wait. You see, the rule was, oldest first. He was patient and he loved being spoiled too!
One year, my Dad decided to pen his thoughts and gratefulness to us. He wrote the first Christmas letter. It was a letter of love, hope and admiration for his wife and children. He would write about milestones and how proud he was of all our accomplishments. Most importantly, always reminding us the meaning and importance of family. The people in this room, he would say, are everything and all I cherish in this harsh world. He would remind us that no matter what, if you needed help, we would all be there for each other. I remember looking up at my Dad and feeling so proud and mostly, loved and cherished. The wonderful thing about the letter, is each of us over the next decades would take a turn and write our own Christmas letter to the family. It turns out, many of my siblings were talented writers and wrote beautiful letters and messages. I of course, a self proclaimed poet/writer, wrote a tear jerker. If I made my parents cry, I knew I was doing good.
As the years flew by, we all married, we had lots of children, we had each other, we had love and family. We had it all. Our grandparents and our parents were alive and well. Our traditions continued, but our shift turned to our children. My family was insane with the presents. My son, Michael was the first born grandchild. That year, I believe we needed a whole bedroom just to stack up his gifts. He was king, he was the first born grandson. Too bad he was only 6 weeks old! They continued to indulge and spoil my son throughout his entire life.
We continued our Christmas Eve tradition for many, many years. Then, well, life happened. My oldest brother Thomas, got married and eventually moved to California. Then, one by one, others moved, divorced and some even remarried. My grandfather passed first, followed by my grandmother. The shift was happening, but, we were still a family. Eventually my brother Michael moved to Charlotte, NC and my sister got remarried and moved to New Jersey. We continued to have our Christmas Eve dinners, however, they became much smaller. A huge factor was relocations and the reality of divorce. When my siblings divorced with children, they all had to share and compromise on certain holidays. That became an issue over the years that none of us had control of. For me, I think the turning point was the death of my father. He died eighteen years ago. Tragically, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and suffered for 6 months in Chemo. He died shortly after his treatments ended. My father, Thomas, he was our rock, and the glue and the center of our family. Our mentor and beloved father left this earth at 64 years of age. It was unexpected and devastated all of us. He was young, he fought, but lost the battle and, sadly, we were never the same. How could we be? My mother moved in with me and we still managed to hang on to some of her traditions. We would hold each other up, grieve and move forward. My mom grieved more than the loss of her husband. She also grieved the traditional Christmas Eve’s she instilled in all of us. We managed and just loved each other and thankful that we had each other. That year, we all chipped in and we surprised my Mom with an engraved pendant necklace with my Dad’s picture engraved on it. I have it on video, she cried and loved that gift so much.
My mom passed away ten years ago. She had many medical issues and sadly, she got sick and suffered for several days in ICU. She was 71 years old. She told me shortly before her death that she had a dream. She said she dreamt that she would join my Dad at 72. I remember being upset and scolding her! I said, thanks for the heads up Mom. Little did we know, she wouldn’t make her 72’nd birthday. I was blessed to have a mother who loved me, my whole entire existence, unconditionally, and now, eternally.
When my Dad died, my brother, Thomas got remarried and offered to host Christmas Eve dinner at his home. He had the biggest house and he wanted to blend the new families together. I remember him telling me, you have to bend and adapt to change. I told him, I don’t think I have to do that, but, eventually I relented, and after my Mother died, I went to his house and joined him and his new family. Tom threw great parties. Generous and loving he was. I learned a few things: Life changes. Nothing remains the same, except the love and the memories we hold deeply in our hearts and mind. I was happy that we celebrated together.
In my life, our family, we, sadly have suffered with many losses. Our entire family was dealt a devastating loss in 2015 when my oldest brother Thomas died at 55. He sadly, tragically ended his own life by suicide. I still go to Christmas Eve at his house, it’s still painful and devastating. Every time I drive down his street, my heart sinks and I miss him terribly. So very young and gone from here. My heart carries a memory of him smiling and throwing elaborate dinners and jetting around the Great South Bay in his new boat. I remember he was a natural comedian and could work a room and have you laughing your ass off. He was quite charming and handsome. His smile and those sparkling, white teeth. I used to tell my friends, he was so charming, he got away with lots of stuff. Tom was loved and admired by many. His friends still tell me, I still can’t believe he is gone. Me too. My brother, Tom, he had a great life, a full life, one that most only dream of. Then in a instant, he exited this life. This world lost a wonderful man. I lost a my big brother. God, I miss him, I miss us. I try and remember when he was well and healthy and happy. He tried to keep some of our family traditions. At least we were together, making memories. His wife and kids and step kids are coping and he should be so proud of all of them. They fundraise now each year in honor of Tom. Each Christmas Eve, I say a few words about Tom and we toast to him. Last year, we lit candles for everyone and lined them up his steps to his house. We still go to his house and I will forever wish he was right beside us again.
This is the hard part. The closing chapter I dread having to share. But, I must, because this is the part that changes everything for me. It isn’t pretty. It’s life changing, life altering for me. In 2016, our family suffered another devastating tragedy. The tragic loss and passing of our son Michael. He had just turned 31. Michael had struggled with addiction for a few years. He became addicted to opiates and that lead to Heroin. He was in and out of a dozen detox centers and treatment facilities and programs. He tried very hard to beat it. He was sick and suffering. He hid his addiction from the world. until, he couldn’t. After a court hearing one day, abruptly, he decided to up and move to Maine, three weeks before Christmas. He went to a sober living home near his girlfriend. He was doing ok. Trying to recover. He made a last minute decision, to visit his grandmother and aunt for Christmas dinner. He took a bus down to New Hampshire. Along the way, tragically, he made a bad decision and relapsed and subsequently he overdosed a few hours later in the guest room, next to his Grandmother’s bedroom, on Christmas Eve. We were not there. My sister in law found him. She held him and she called 911 and then she called me at 9:36 am. It felt like a slow motion horror movie. It wasn’t a movie. I felt like I was dead that morning. A part of you dies when your child dies. Your world instantly changes. My son, Michael died from a heroin/fentynol overdose. I found out later that my brother in law hosted his son and family in the adjoining house hours later. Like it never happened. It is painful to even picture that scene. I thank my sister in law for her strength and for holding my son. I thank my mother in law for loving my son. I am forever sorry that it happened in your home. He was loved and had so much to live for. My son fell in love and had a child. A baby girl he never got to raise. I know he loved her, but addiction blocked him from being a father to her. I know that really effected him and he suffered greatly from losing custody. I saw what addiction can do and take from you and your family. Everyone suffers. The addict suffers the most. So, how could it happen? How could he die on Christmas Eve? were they sure? The police officer got on the phone to confirm that. I gave the phone to my husband. You see, my biggest fear and my worst nightmare was unraveling as I watched the Christmas parade on TV. My beautiful son loved Christmas Eve. He loved it the most. He would often tell me how much he missed all of us being together. How much he missed his grandparents. He loved the food and the family and all his cousins. We all did. I wrote my children a Christmas letter a year before that and read it to our little family around the dining room table. I only wished for him to recover and regain his life back. So, not all dreams come true. Not everyone survives. Life isn’t always “fair” or “blessed”. Change is inevitable. That is a given. Life goes on. Some live longer, some die young. The lessons I learned were not pretty or sugar coated. I just learned how to cope and how I can honor and live the remainder of my life on this earth with dignity and with grace.
I reunited with my granddaughter 3 years ago. She was shy, and quiet. (Not like her Dad at all!) & When I saw her little face, I saw her Dad staring back at me. she resembles her father. She turned out to be quite angelic. She has a sweet, loving heart. She brings instant joy and love. She has ignited my soul in many ways. I love spoiling her and spending time with her. Abruptly, she has moved to Greece last spring. I speak to her on face time. I pray we see her again some day. She will soon be five years old. She is growing and I miss her terribly. If heaven truly exists, I picture my son, her Dad, watching over her and protecting her always. I hope one day she asks me about her Dad. I am prepared to tell her all the stories of Christmas Eve’s past, and show her the family who loved and adored him. I will explain how her great grandmother instilled traditions and how we all were together and celebrated. I hope to reunite with her again soon. Life, so unpredictable, so fleeing. Here is my Christmas wish for all of you this year:
Enjoy each other when you can. Show up for Christmas dinner, & tolerate each other. Be kind to each other. Keep it light and no drama. You have like 364 other days to create drama. So, go out and make memories and traditions with and for your children and grandchildren. Decorate the trees and string a few lights. Drive around and see all the sparkling lights in your town! Attend all the events and tree lightings in your community. Go to Church. Praise God. Please buy a toy for a child who has nothing. Teach your kids to give back. That is what heals me now. I spoiled my own children for 30 years. Now, I enjoy picking a family who is less fortunate and donating to make their Christmas special. I promise you, You won’t regret any of it. You will teach your children a tradition, and perhaps they will continue that with their own. Afterall, isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be about? Teach them to be kind to one another. Instill a few fun traditions for just you and your family. But….Most of all, remember to tell the ones that you cherish and love the most how much you adore them. Maybe you can even write a letter this year and read it to your family. I know all of those traditions made our holidays special. To my two beautiful children. Always remember, I love you to the moon and back again <3. Always & Forever.... Mamabear <3