From the Left



Bah Humbug

Susan Estrich on

It's that time of year when parents of non-Christian children find themselves challenged to explain why they aren't part of the general hoopla. And some respond by becoming part of the hoopla and others by creating hoopla of their own. In my family, we go to the movies and eat Chinese.

It was my mother and my favorite date when she was alive and I lived nearby. We would go to the multiplex in Peabody, her choice, maybe a movie about a lawyer so she could loudly ask me questions afterward. (It was her insecurity, years of therapy taught me.) And then, the best part, we would go to Dave Wong's China Sails in Vinnin Square and have the butterfly shrimp and pork strips and spare ribs -- we'd have them all, just this once.

This year, we need to pick a movie in advance. And make a reservation. Los Angeles is not Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Before we established this ritual, I hated Christmas. I had the usual vision of a fictionalized version of what my family should or could be but most certainly was not; not to mention the problem of being Jewish. My mother was a major believer in not making a stink about anything, although I do remember that she went to the rabbi on the Jews killing Jesus. But she shut me down when I wanted to protest the rule that the girl who played Mary was the one who had the longest hair (me) except when that girl was Jewish (like Mary) in which case the girl with the next longest hair got the biggest part. A great injustice, I thought. No traction on that one. But then my mother was barely a teenager during the Holocaust. My Hebrew school teacher had a number. My mother chose her fights (not my Hebrew school teacher).

But who can resist? Say prayers of gratitude. Forgive those who have wronged you. Breathe. Put work in its place. Breathe some more.

It is easy when you have automatic guests, as it were, for the holidays, even if they are yammering about the gifts they didn't get, much less the ones who are sitting with nothing more than chocolate gelt. You have company. You spend the holidays together. That is a given.

As your kids grow, it is not a given. They move away. I sit in the salon. It's a diverse crowd, with kids who have moved to Texas, Nevada, Utah, Ohio, Chicago, San Francisco. Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Guatemalan, Indian. Nobody's culture.

The people you love most in the world often live very far away.

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This is called modern culture. Don't you want your kids to be independent and find their own way, my daughter asks me. I certainly wanted it when I was her age. And I must love her enough to put her free spirit ahead of my cautious one.

So here is a secret: Not everyone's families come home for the holidays. And some who do -- it's the only time. And the lucky few sporadically realize that these are actually elderly people and middle-aged siblings just doing their best and not the monsters and villains of your imagination. Some years, the emotional toll is greater from getting together. Mr. Shrink told me to skip my mother's 80th birthday. I listened. Wrong.

Sad? Of course it's sad. But the point is: it's not just you. And it passes.

I guess that's my holiday message. Of course, I wish everyone a happy holiday. But let's face it, those people who are going to have a happy holiday are going to have it whether I wish them one or not. So, yeah, sure. But to everyone else, this is what I have learned: It passes. Today's pain will be nulled someday, not go away but not be as bad. Today's loneliness will not last forever. You might even find light along the way. Hang in.


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