By Kathy P. Behan
When I was little we lived in an apartment building in Queens, N.Y., where my family lived on the middle floor, my grandmother and an uncle on the first, and another aunt and uncle on the third floor. As the only children, my older sister and I had full run of the building. We’d play in the dark, catacomb-like basement and chase each other around the fenced-in backyard.
My grandmother would proudly take us around the neighborhood while doing her errands. We’d routinely visit John, the butcher, who’d always roll up slices of thin, fresh bologna for my sister and me, and we’d go to the bakery where among other delicacies, we’d pick up chocolate-covered butter cookies made into the shape of pretzels.
Living in the same building, we saw a lot of our relatives. Even when we moved to Long Island and then to a house in Westchester, we’d visit my grandmother and Uncle Mike on a weekly basis, and other family members at least monthly.
On holidays, besides the lively and loud discussions, what I remember best was the table set with Nana’s gold-rimmed, floral-printed china, and crowded with antipasto, salad, steaming vegetables, oven-warmed breads, platters of pasta, sausages and meatballs.
After dinner, we’d all go downstairs and Uncle Mike played his favorite musical selections on his brand new hi-fi system, and my sisters (by this time my sister Maria was born) and I danced. The adults joined us sometimes, but more often they’d just watch, encouraging us with their cheers and applause. We grew up fully aware of how much we were cherished and loved.
As years passed, we got together frequently; that came to an end after my grandmother’s death. Her passing seemed to give my relatives permission to move to other states. But it wasn’t just physical distance that now came between us. Instead of being part of one big family, we broke up into factions. I kept in close contact with my parents and sisters, but not with the aunts, uncles and cousins who had comprised the original familial group.
I’m still not exactly sure how and why this distancing happened. It was such a gradual and seemingly natural process that I didn’t really notice until the dissolution was complete.
As the holiday season approaches, I often think back to the “old days” and mourn the loss of a large family get-together. I miss my relatives. And I especially miss the feeling of unconditional love and support that can only come from people who have known you forever.
My children will grow up never having had relatives as part of their daily or even monthly existence. They’ll see other family members, at most, four times a year, and they’ll need to take a plane or at least car rides in order to do so.
This situation is not completely bleak. There are actually a few advantages of not having relatives around. You don’t have to put up with some of the more disagreeable aspects of family life. Though I enjoyed seeing my relatives, as I became older I also became aware of my family’s imperfections. I noticed and was annoyed by their flaws and idiosyncrasies.
Another advantage of being on our own for the holidays is that we’re now free to just please ourselves and create our own traditions. I can make lasagna for Thanksgiving, for example, and my kids will think this is great.
And in the past, we’d just go along with the routines that had been established in our childhoods. Now that we’re in charge of creating these memories for our own children, my husband and I have had to evaluate and plan our own rituals and celebrations.
Patrick and I will always carry happy memories of holidays past with us. We’re hoping that in the future, our children will do the same.
Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.