My grandmother gets older, and our holiday traditions evolve
I kneel down to give my grandmother a kiss on the cheek as she sits in her wheelchair. I pause to hold her shoulders and gaze into her eyes as she looks up at me, giggling and holding her teddy bear. She is so happy, although she can’t express that to me with her words anymore. She is extra giggly today because the entire family is gathered in the community room at her assisted living facility; we reserved it for the afternoon to spend Christmas together. My grandmother is still the beautiful British woman she has always been. She is still the woman who encouraged my creativity and painted pottery with me when I was young. But over the past few years, she has started needing more and more care that she receives at the wonderful assisted living community where she now lives.
When I was younger, my grandparents were responsible for wrangling a large family of four sons and their spouses, twelve grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren together for holiday festivities. With such a large group, structure was necessary and expected; our traditions were firmly established. We always ate the same food (Yorkshire puddings and crown roast) surrounded by the same decorations. We popped the same party poppers together in a circle before dinner. We even had the same fights, usually stemming from a game of dominoes (my family can be a tad competitive, even on Christmas).
A few years ago while still in college, I knew that coming home for the holidays was going to be different.
Despite my grandma’s health, I assumed that most of our family traditions would continue through food and games. I clung to that hope of normalcy. It comforted me.
But over time, our traditions needed to change.
When I look at my grandmother today, receiving high levels of care at an assisted living facility, I smile at her. I remember the past. The center is decorated thoughtfully for the holiday season, and the wonderful nurses and caregivers are full of smiles and joy. They are happy to see families visiting their residents because they know the holidays can be hard; it’s not easy to see your loved one requiring so much care.
The residents’ rooms have large windows, bringing nature and sunlight to the people living there. These views liven up the community room in which my family is celebrating. My parents, aunts, and uncles have taken on the hosting roles that once belonged to my grandparents. Each adult has been assigned a meal to prepare, and we fill the room with crockpots and foil pans. No, we don’t have my grandmother’s Yorkshire puddings or a crown roast, but we have side dishes that have been included in family meals for decades. We all gravitate towards the food in our own time, make a plate, settle in, start eating, and catch up with our relatives.
My grandmother watches us while my grandfather feeds her the special meal that she can eat. They sit facing the family they grew together, both smiling and still so in love. While I look around the room, I recognize that we’ve all done a good job of maintaining brave faces. This year, our smiles are more like masks, concealing our sadness as we watch my grandmother endure a harsher season of her life.
It is not easy or comfortable to watch loved ones age.
Over time, my grandparents’ personalities have changed with their appearances. Luckily, my grandfather has kept his sharp sense of humor, making jokes about his forgetfulness. It helps us all get through these unfamiliar circumstances. Through his humor, he has taught me to live in the present like he does — day by day, without fear of the future.
As I celebrate the holiday in my grandmother’s nursing home, I see something beautiful, even if it’s not easy or comfortable, even if it’s sad. I watch my parents and aunts and uncles take on new roles as caregivers. I know it has been extremely difficult for them, but there is poetry in our family caring for my grandparents as my grandparents have cared for us our entire lives. We are individuals tied together by blood, working to graciously love one another as we cycle through this life.
Light pours in from the exterior windows of the community room, and I’m overwhelmed with love and honor for each person in my family. It’s okay that we altered our traditions, because I realize that traditions are no more than a dance we perform. The choreography changes, but we’re still here. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we do for the holidays. It matters that we navigate the seasons of our lives together as best as we can — and hopefully don’t get into too many fights over dominoes along the way.