All of this damned freedom is suffocating!

This morning, while walking to school, I started crying while listening to the song “Merry Christmas From The Family.” Why would I cry listening to a hilarious country music song?

Well, my period was through a week ago, and it is too soon in my cycle to suspect pregnancy. I suppose hormones could still be out of whack for other reasons, but maybe there is a deeper meaning to my tears.

My entire childhood I was surrounded by family. Perhaps they weren’t all good for me or good to me, but many of them have offered love, encouragement, support, and even financial assistance to me and to my parents and siblings over the years.

This Thanksgiving, I truly enjoyed spending time with friends at their family gatherings, but it wasn’t until my friend Megan’s roommates came home and her house got loud that I thought, “Now THIS feels like Thanksgiving!”

I remember holidays at my Grandma Jeanie’s house. She would spend hours and hours cooking the food by herself, refusing our assistance. We were permitted to get exactly one “coke” out of her fridge. I was actually chastised once for asking “May I have a soda pop?”

“You want a WHAT?” she asked.

“A soda pop.”

“We don’t have soda pop here, we have coke, and if you want coke you can ask for that.”

So I reluctantly asked for a coke, and she said “What kind?”

“Dr. Pepper please,” I said meekly, wondering why all carbonated beverages that are not of an alcoholic nature are called “coke” in the south but “soda” or “pop” or “soda pop” in the north. Later in college I would learn my answer, but back then I was clueless.

After Grandma Jeannie finished cooking, she would make us set the table. The setting was always placed in the proper formal way, with the salad fork and the dinner fork and the steak knife and the butter knife and the water glass and the beverage glass and the napkin folded neatly and the good china and the pad under the tablecloth to protect her oak table from children and clumsy adults. We would all sit down and quietly wait for the prayer. Some years there would be a children’s table, but we eventually all earned the privilege of sitting at the adults’ table. The prayer was done by one person, chose by Grandma Jeannie or Grandpa Claude at the last minute, so we had to think it up on the fly. For us kids, it was the only time we got to have the center of attention. We relished it! A captive audience! We would drag that prayer out as long as we could, until someone politely said “in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen!” during one of our stalling “and-um-um-ums.” If we were there for the Christmas holiday, Grandma Jeannies perfect department-store Christmas tree would be surrounded by seemingly hundreds of brightly colored packages, some labeled “from Santa” and others labeled “from Grandma and Grandpa.” Inside the wrapping, we would usually find some expensive department store toy or outfit or peice of jewelry, chosen for us by Grandma because it fit our age and gender. Someone would play Santa, wearing a hat and passing the presents out, but we each opened a gift one by one until they were all opened. No one had the center of attention. Everyone talked and gossipped, nibbled on dessert, or took snapshots, without giving undivided attention to one MVP. When the day was through, we’d all go home, thoroughly stuffed full of all that good food. We always knew exactly what she would cook, the only thing that ever had any variety was her salad, which she tried to change up every year. It was all good though, and if we were offered leftovers they rarely lasted more than 24 hours.

I also remember holidays at Granny and Poppy’s. Everyone would arrive in carloads; there were always lots of children running about. The guests ages usually ranged from in utero to wise old sages with salt-and-peppered hair. The gatherings were never exclusive to family by blood. It was not at all unusual for my cousins to bring along their step-siblings from their father’s second marriage, or for someone to bring their latest boyfriend or girlfriend. We all brought presents with us, and since we usaully all shopped at the same discount stores we sometimes found we’d gotten each other the same gifts, which would lead to laughter and amusement rather than embarrassment or horror. Sometimes there was a tree and other times not, but there was a designated place in which to pile the gifts, and it often overflowed with all those brightly colored tokens of affection. You could tell which member of a the family had wrapped which gifts, because the packages were either expertly wrapped in much the same manner as the department stores would have done the gifts Grandma Jeannie got for us, or were wrapped in a less artistic way that still got the job done. There would be gift bags and wrapping paper that had been reused from years prior, or even sometimes reused from birthdays or baby showers. There would be brown paper sacks, wooden crates, reed baskets, or old newspaper used to wrap gifts. My aunt nancy made me a beautiful gift basket on year using a wire garbage can which was of course practical because I was able to take it back to my college dormitory and put it to use. The gift opening was always done in order from youngest family member to oldest family member. Each person got to sit in the center of the room, surrounded by their gifts, opening each one as slowly or as quickly as they liked. The video camera would record their reactions, and various cameras would flash off quick still frames as well. After all of a person’s gifts were opened, “stage hands” would help clean up the debris so the next person had a clean floor to start their own gift-opening play. When people who had not been anticipated showed up, such as friends, boyfriends, or step-siblings, they never left without at least one gift, for many of us brought extra, unlabled packages for just such an occurrence. We would quickly scrawl the person’s name on the package that contained something they might like and hide the gift among the others so they too would feel welcome as part of the family. Prayer took place before the meals; we all gathered in a big circle and held hands. Sometimes, we each got to take turns adding our own prayer around the cirle. You knew it was your turn because the person next to you squeezed your hand, or because, like me, you had your eyes opened and did not bow your head because you were watching carefully, counting how long til your turn, plotting your speech so you would not falter. If it was Thanksgiving rather than Christmas, we would sometimes take turns saying what we were thankful for. Other times, Poppy would say the prayer, in his booming-yet-soothing, savior-of-souls voice. The food was usually pot luck, with some items prepared by Granny and Poppy and other items brought by each of the guests. There were some items you would always see, like Green Stuff, and other items might surprise you, like Chicken Spagghetti, but with potluck it was never boring. Paper plates, cups, and bowls; plastic forks, knives, and spoons. Bottles of soda, some store brand and some name brand. There were rarely formal table settings, and there were rarely rules about which food items you could eat at which times.

Probably, Grandma Jeannie loved us, but she didn’t know how to show it and assumed expensive gifts were the way to our hearts. But I have no doubt that Granny, and Poppy, and the whole crowd that gathers at their house every holiday are loving people.

And I realize that I miss them! I have always been around family, but wanting freedom I left and moved far away.

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