Welcoming the Unexpected

Tonight, I’m not a teacher typing her way to clarity, but rather a daughter on the patio of her childhood home, ever aware of her parents just beyond the sun porch door watching the Syracuse game on TV.  I don’t have to see inside to know my father is relaxing on the couch with a remote in one hand, and my mother is on the love seat falling asleep.  The picture remains unchanged after decades living away from home.

A wrought iron bench substitutes for my white wicker perch, reflective of the subtle differences in family décor choices.  Understanding the quirky habits of my weekly writing nights, my mother supplied a glass of wine and a blanket before leaving me to the task at hand.  Each week, I listen to the same mix CD as I drive home from Tuesday nights with my older brother’s family.  I attempted to reproduce this routine on the tail end of my day’s drive from Tuesday morning with my younger brother’s family in Pittsburgh.

My computer is at the service center, but I was sure to transfer my “I Used to Be” Word document with the previous forty-one blog entries onto my temporary laptop for this moment.  Cuddled up in Charming’s hoodie, I imagine I look the same as last week, but despite every effort to replicate writing night while “home” for Christmas, what is different and unfamiliar dominates my view, literally and figuratively.

As I exited 690 East onto Teall Avenue two hours ago, I ignored Google maps.  I know these back roads better than it does and can still navigate the streets of Syracuse practically on auto-pilot. There was no snow to endanger my driving travels today, with a sixty degree day serving as a staunch contrast to the limited visibility of drives back over the past decade.  Had I turned left off of the exit ramp, I’d quickly find myself in front of the house in Eastwood that I called home for a brief year of my adult life, a place that turned out to be simply a pit stop between Nashville, TN and Hampton, VA.

But I turned right, only moments away from the home of my first eighteen years of life.  I’ve always felt Christmas was most real, most authentic, in this white house with black shutters.  My parents and the house are the same.  It’s me that’s changed.  It’s me that’s unfamiliar, perched on this wrought iron bench.  My mother and father belong on the loveseat and couch, respectively.  I am, as I have been doing for the last fourteen years, just passing through.

When my brothers and I were little, our holidays were mirror images of one another.  Christmas Eve service, pajamas under the tree from Santa to open afterward, stockings in the morning with Aunt Esther, and then the real festivities began when Grammy arrived.  We’d sing Christmas hymns and one of my brothers would bring a sermonette before singing Happy Birthday to Jesus.  My little brother and I would distribute the presents, and we’d take turns opening them in order of age until our piles of gifts had transformed into surprises and delights.

Though we’ve attempted to preserve the traditions, life happened.  Marital unions and the pitter patter of little feet happened.  Old age happened.  Couples alternating Christmases between in-laws resulted in absent seats in the living room.  Eventually, Grams’ body was too fragile to leave the nursing home.  Some years, it was too challenging for my brothers’ families to travel with infants or binding work schedules.  This year, as it turns out, I’m the only one of four children returning home.  And as I am the only one childless, after thirty-seven years of children and grandchildren, it will be a grown-up Christmas for my parents.

Routines please me.  My brain is comforted by predictability and sameness, so much so that my mother warns me if she’s ripped out rugs or changed the furniture before I venture home so at least I’ll know what to expect.  What I couldn’t have anticipated this year, though, would be the change in me.

Even just a year ago, failure to resurrect traditions disappointed me.  In response to my writing last week, Charming posed a question that I mulled over during my long drive north.  Can traditions sometimes become ruts?  When I reflect on the past month of the holiday season, the moments that make me smile were first time experiences.  In essence, those traditions on which I was willing to compromise introduced excitement and joy I would not have expected or anticipated.

My writing nights, like the holidays, are similarly cloaked in tradition.  In much the same way that an athlete might wear the same underwear every game night, I believe that the consistencies in my writing environment foster the potential for the best outcome.  Yet, across a handful of state lines, the words still form themselves into reflective meanderings likewise unexpected or anticipated.  Were I in Hampton on my own front porch, I wouldn’t be picturing my brothers and I sledding down the hill in the backyard where I now sit, decades later.

I have no control over the unseasonably warm temperatures this December.  I recall many years driving North, hands white from gripping the steering wheel, heart rate elevated in fear that my front wheel drive car would not land safely in my parents’ driveway.  The change this year was refreshing, relaxing even, as my audio book traveling companion and I made our way up the thruway.  What constitutes tradition?  Were it simply that an experience is repeated, navigating through snow and sleet would become a part of my Christmas narrative.

Change is inevitable.  It still saddens me that my brothers and their families won’t be sharing Christmas day with me this year, but I’m delighted by the absence of snow!  And were it not for its undeniable presence in past years, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate its absence.  Traditions tend to give us something to look forward to, but this holiday season is teaching me to welcome the unexpected.

Divorce completely eradicated a decade of traditions for me.  We hold on to traditions to seek fulfillment of the joys of the past.  What happens when marriage, births, old age, divorce, and death threaten that? The natural derivative of life change is a deviation from tradition that forces us to award value to the present.

When I held my four-month old nephew for the first time yesterday, it did not occur to me to grieve his father’s impending absence on Christmas day.  Staring into his blue eyes, I was transported to age five when I held his father in my arms in just the same way.  Watching him on a blanket swatting happily at the ornaments on the lowest branches of their Christmas tree, I knew that the addition of the youngest Palma will forever change Christmases to come.  Tradition was irrelevant.   There is hope in this change.

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And this past weekend, Charming and I celebrated our first Christmas together.  By the light of the fireplace, sipping hot chocolate won in a White Elephant gift exchange that day, we exchanged gifts and gratitude.  There was no tradition, no desire to fulfill joys of the past, but rather to reclaim ourselves in the very nature of firsts and onlys in life after change.

Changes that, by eliminating traditions, made room for unexpected, unanticipated moments of delight in a season where we are reminded of the only constant worthy of celebrating year after year, regardless of change.   Mom is assuredly asleep on the loveseat by now.  Dad is still flipping through the channels.  Life happens, and this scene may change in years to come, but God’s unmatched love and mercy in providing His son as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world, the reason for this season, will remain unchanged.

Any holiday tradition, new or old, is hinged upon the ultimate Christmas gift.  God’s grace extends through marriages, births, old age, divorce, and death, such that hope glistens in the twinkling lights, with a greater power than change could ever threaten to dim.

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