Greenpoint: Traditions evolve as families grow, spread out, change


I stopped at an apple orchard on the way to my sister’s house when my eldest called. The topic moved quickly from apples to my brother-in-law’s health to the coming holidays. Turned out we should not expect a Thanksgiving visit.

That’s OK, I said, but what about Christmas? We’ll talk, my kid said.

I love the holidays. I love the gatherings and the baking and the time spent making things together and just being together. From the time my husband and I got together to start our own family and our own traditions, we limited the part we didn’t like about the holidays: the commercialization, the obligatory buying and wrapping and giving, the waste, the crashes in shopping mall parking lots, the excess garbage.

The part we love is cooking and eating together, sharing our harvest and our homemade cheeses, making a wreath from fir branches, talking together as we work on small gifts for each other. On Christmas Eve we sing carols to the animals, on Christmas morning we pretend to be amazed that our stockings were filled overnight. My eldest is my best partner in our kind of gentle, homemade festiveness.

When I got to my sister’s, two of her children were there, visiting from out west. My brother-in-law’s daughter and her partner were there, and various friends and relatives dropped in and left again. It was part of a month-long series of visits for my brother-in-law, who had recently entered hospice care. We had time to share stories and meals, lean on each other and spend sweet moments with my brother-in-law.

Thanks to the pandemic we had all perfected working remotely, so it wasn’t hard to be where we were needed, supporting my sister. Her long dinner table became our coworking space during the day as we pulled out our laptops — a Colorado attorney, an Oregon purchasing coordinator, two handling their work in New York City. We could go downstairs to the guest room for Zoom meetings. It helped that we were on different time zones, and mostly it helped that we could be together.

One morning another relative and I cleaned out my sister’s flower gardens, because that was something concrete we could do for her — raking, trimming, hauling leaves and stems to the compost pile, turning last summer into new earth to nourish her flowers next spring. We cut the last three roses and put them in a vase by the kitchen sink.

A niece arrived from Pennsylvania. Cousins from Massachusetts with their new baby. All these grownup kids, with their own babies.

“Thank you for making me a grandfather,” my brother-on-law said to my sister’s kids.

Last Christmas, when the partner’s COVID prevented my eldest from coming home, they pulled together a cozy holiday for two, filling their apartment with flowers and lights, baking a tart and cooking a tiny feast. It was so lovely they’ve decided to do it on purpose this year, maybe adding a tree.

Kids grow, families change. We make our gatherings when we can. My brother-in-law won’t be here for Thanksgiving, but my sister’s third child will come home, and the cousins from Massachusetts will be back with the baby. There will be different, smaller family gatherings around the country, wherever people can get together.

I’ll get my kids home together some time next month and we’ll make it festive, whenever it is. We can decorate cookies and romp through the woods and sing to the goats and chickens, all our favorite traditions. Together.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Dec. 4. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts

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