There was a time, before we were all grown and out of the house, when religious holidays were important to my immediate family. It seems like a lifetime ago. Mom was alive, we wore special clothes, went to Mass, had big family meals, and celebrated the holidays like any good Catholic family should.
I can look back at old family photos and see pictures of my older siblings dressed up for Mass, mom wearing a dress and high heels, dad wearing vests and ties, and everybody smiling. These pictures date back to the early 1950s and continue through the early 1970s. There are a few pictures after 1974, but they are different. Things changed so much after she died.
Mom and JHP,JR circa 1970-ish
After mom passed away, my older sisters worked hard to carry on and create happy holiday memories. I think, even as young as they were, they knew that I didn’t really have good memories of the holidays, or that the ones I had wouldn’t last. I think they also wanted to work through their own sadness and give our family what we all deserved…happy holidays. To their credit, they tried very hard to give each of us happy memories for our family’s emotional scrapbook. Unfortunately, they were facing one of the greatest challenges, a Scrooge of sorts, JHP, JR.
While my memories of those earlier holidays are, at the very most, vague, I sometimes wish my memories of the JHP,JR-only holidays were nonexistent. It’s my belief that Dad struggled with seeing his daughters’ attempts at creating happy holiday memories for us all. I believe he often overruled and decided we would do the holidays differently, thereby making it less work for my sisters. So, we often spent holiday meals at the local Chinese restaurant, and I think we celebrated a few holidays at my sister’s apartment.
When I look back, I am aware that I adopted a holiday attitude similar to my father’s, because no matter how hard my sisters tried, Dad was a, well frankly, a baby about it all. He made the holidays so tense and uncomfortable that I don’t know how we all managed. I also realize I slowly gained a resentful understanding of Dad’s issues around the holidays. He was furious that he did not have his wife there to celebrate with him. He felt incapable of creating family holidays as well as she did. He didn’t want my sisters to carry the burden, but he really wanted to hold up in a cocoon and hibernate through the holidays. As I’ve gotten older, it all makes a weird kind of dysfunctional sense to me.
Now that dementia has changed him so much, I’ve taken a few risks around holidays that would have otherwise sent him into an emotional tirade or a drinking binge. First of all, the facility where he lives celebrates most of the significant Christian holidays a week or two before the actual dates. This is helpful because families can be there, but then when the real date comes along they can be elsewhere, without nearly as much guilt.
Thanksgiving, 2010 wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I was very nervous about attending the celebration where dad lives because I was fairly certain he would act as he had in the past. I was wrong. There was nothing to it. The girls and I arrived a bit late, but we managed to sit with him and eat. My youngest daughter actually got a plate full of food and when she set it down at our table, one of the residents took it. We laughed and she got another plate. After the meal, we went with Dad to his room and the girls did their usual shtick, playing on his walker, playing with the dog and dancing for grandpa.
JHP, JR listening to a middle school orchestra perform holiday music
The facility’s Christmas season was even more worrisome for me. They brought out the reminders of Christmas shortly after Thanksgiving. Every time I walked into the building, I feared finding Dad sitting in his chair with that old holiday scowl on his face. It never happened. I was so surprised by his lack of reaction, that I decided to risk it and get some decorations for his room. And guess what! He was thrilled!!
I realized I was finding more reasons to appreciate the changes in his brain’s wiring. As awful as that sounds, it’s the God’s honest truth. JHP, JR. was on the road to finally having good holidays all because he couldn’t remember that he hated the holidays or why. Ultimately this also meant my daughters might grow up with happy holiday memories that included JHP, JR! Who knew?
Dad's dog, Ishmael, during our Christmas celebration with JHP, JR
So, today is Easter Sunday, 2011. I’m at home by myself. My kids are at their father’s house. Dad is at his place. The girls and I missed the early Easter celebration because we got late notice of the event. And today, I’m feeling a bit JHP, Jr’ish myself. There are no baskets of chocolate sitting in my living room. There isn’t any green plastic grass waiting for the vacuum. I will, however, go to the Lynn’s house, my other “adopted” family, for a great meal and spend a wonderful afternoon with them. I’ll laugh. I’ll eat. I’ll get leftovers and I’ll take those to my dad’s place before the girls come home.
Dad and I will eat pie and talk. We won’t say much and I’m not even sure if I’ll mention that it’s Easter Sunday. It’ll still be a nice memory for me and it will be a good feeling for him. This is good enough, because I’m beginning to realize no matter your age, no matter who you’re with, it’s really all about the feeling. That’s what imprints our memories. Those imprints then lead us to recalling the finer details of the day. Those feelings are what Dad and I can both hang on to for now.
So, no matter what holidays you celebrate, I hope you are finding some happiness in these moments with your loved ones whether or not they know who you are or the significance of the day.