On my wedding day, before the ceremony, my future mother-in-law Joyce, pulled me aside. She cradled my cheeks in her strong, capable hands.
This was not the first time she had done this. A few months earlier I was a patient in the hospital where she worked as a nurse. I had just endured my first miscarriage. After it was all over, she gently but firmly nudged Dave, her son and my future husband, from my bedside. She took my face in her hands, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” This woman, who I had known for only a short time, revived me from my deep despair.
Now, on my wedding day, she had another message for me. I could feel, as I did on that day in the hospital, my spirit rise to meet her touch. With the utmost affection in her voice, she said, “Dave is not a strong swimmer and I get Christmas.”
Joyce and I enjoy the abundance of our shared Italian American heritage. You only need a passing interest in this culture’s mores and its movies to know that family business is often settled on wedding days. On this day of commitment, the concerns of family should be included. The opening of The Godfather depicts his daughter’s wedding and the favors the Godfather grants. I was not surprised that my future mother-in-law had taken this opportunity to speak frankly, but I was baffled by the message.
What did she think I was going to do? Sail Dave out to sea and then sink the boat? My quandary over the first part of the message was short-lived because I was rattled by the second part.
As far as Christmas goes, I am fairly open. I enjoy all the usual stuff – trees, carols, cookies, decorations, cards… As for the religious part, I worked at and attended Trinity Church for years, my first and only long term religious affiliation. I enjoy the pageantry of Christmas. When it comes to the holidays, spin a dreidel or let the season pass me by. It’s about joy, not insistence. I’m up for whatever presents itself to me in December.
My mother-in-law’s request to have Christmas should have been easily granted. But I resisted. I had spent the Christmas before our wedding at her house with the Ferguson family and loved it. I enjoyed his young nieces’ and nephew’s delight in presents under a tree; Joyce played carols on the piano; pizzelles and roast beef served with yorkshire pudding (there are some Northern European genes mixed up in that pool). But then, around seven or so, I got restless. I knew that my family was about to leave the house to observe our Christmas tradition: an evening at the movies. As I thought of my mother and brother heading off to the cinema without me, my easy-going Christmas attitude soured. I wanted to be with my family, doing our thing.
Nothing in my life to that point had ever interfered with catching a movie on Christmas evening, and if I didn’t get to see one on a given year, oh well, there was always the next year. But, as I sat with Dave’s family that Christmas, knowing full well how rude it would be to leave, I began to realize that this Christmas was just the beginning. I wasn’t merely partaking this one time in someone else’s traditions, I was being inducted into a whole new set.
When I was a kid my extended family lived in Buffalo while my mother, brother and I lived in Oregon. We often tried to “go home for Christmas.” My mom referred to Buffalo as home as if home was not one fixed place on a map. I often felt that my single mother’s sense of home was more ship than house. We could be out cruising anywhere, but Port Authority was in Buffalo with her parents. We tried to “go home for Christmas” but we lived in a small town. In order to get across the country, you had to take a small plane to a bigger airport for a layover to get on a big plane to take you to a second layover, where you caught a smaller plane to Buffalo and – if the weather gods allowed – you landed in Buffalo at the height of lake effect snow storm. Then to return, you started all over again. One year we spent Christmas Eve morning in Newark; and another year we ended up in a Denver hotel watching one of the last broadcasts of Guy Lombardo’s New Year’s Eve at the Waldorf Astoria. Air travel during the holidays with two kids, one of whom suffered from motion sickness, was exhausting and expensive.
My mom was settling in and meeting people in our new home town. We often celebrated Christmas at brunch with a covey of other western New York transplants. We had presents to open in the morning and a gathering in the afternoon, but the evening without a formal Christmas dinner began to feel like a let down. We longed to do something celebratory and communal on Christmas evening. We picked going to a movie.
Oh, we love the movies. My brother Scott loves big Hollywood movies with action and special effects; I love romantic comedies; and my mom loves character-driven dramas. At Christmas time, Hollywood releases movies that have it all. They showcase the very best just in time for Oscar season. We have seen Jaws, Godfather III, Michael, Quills,The Prince of Tides, Empire of the Sun. My brother and I awaited the announcement of Christmas movie releases like other kids had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.
Even as adults, when we weren’t together, we made it a point to go to the same movie. One year I saw As Good as it Gets with my bestie and her husband in Seattle; my mother and aunts saw it in Buffalo; and Scott and his girlfriend saw it in Portland. Together at the movies.
The last Christmas movie before I graduated from high school and left home was Tootsie. Our best friends came along. I know it wasn’t the last time, Brigid, Cooper, Karen, Scott, mom and I piled into our bright yellow International Scout to make the trip from Ashland to a movie theater in Medford, but it’s how I remember this iteration of my life best – on an adventure together making it up as we went along and picking up family and friends along the way.
And so on my wedding day, my mother-in-law’s request seemed to require that I give up something I treasured. Because I was versed (although heretofore inexperienced) in this tradition of wedding requests, I knew that there was room for negotiation. The Godfather grants a wedding day favor but not without conditions. And I was about to levy mine – she could have the entire day until 6:45pm, at which time I could still make a 7 o’clock show. And just as I was about to convey my caveat, I looked into her eyes as I did that day in the hospital. She had believed in my future as a mother even when I did not.
In that moment, I saw not my future mother-in-law but my future children’s grandmother. This was not the moment to defend cherished Christmas pasts but to embrace my Christmas future. Of course my children whoever they turned out to be, would want to spend Christmas with their family. She wasn’t trying to take something away, she was offering me the gift of a family tradition, one that didn’t require dragging a baby to a movie theater. Traditions must work for the family that celebrates them.
Turns out heeding Joyce’s wedding requests was a good thing. Dave isn’t a strong swimmer because, as we learned, his physiology makes him sink rather than float – an odd and oddly important fact when you live along the shores of a Great Lake and want to partake in watersports. We carry extra floatation devices. We are resolute that our sons be strong swimmers. And they are.
After a few years of Christmases at her house, my mother-in-law moved to Virginia Beach. She spends every other holiday season with her Buffalo family. I honor the spirit of Joyce’s wedding day request. My in-laws come to our house for dinner where we serve beef-on-weck and shells and ricotta. She gave me a tradition and I picked it up. My sons love Christmas Day with their family. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
Any new daughters-in-law who could use some advice regarding the clash between family traditions, ours or theirs, here it is: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”