Creative Nonfiction Holiday Sad

Hanukkah is in 3 weeks and I probably won't celebrate it. Actually I don't think I have ever celebrated it properly; even as a kid, there was a keen awareness that my family was "wrong" in yet another way. It's sometimes called the festival of lights and miracles but in our house it just felt sad and lacking. Tradition dictates that children get a gift for each night of the holiday. Eight nights, eight gifts. My parents had a ready excuse for one small present. My brother and I both had birthdays in mid-November and the rationale for something minimal at Hannukah was this. It didn't seem to matter that birthdays were lean affairs as well: a shared cake and candles, gifts of money from grandparents always spent on clothes, no real party and one gift each; often a negotiated second choice.

Hannukah was even worse if that was possible. I was all too aware of my peers at Hebrew school receiving the full 8 treasures, the genereous servings of greasy latkes and chocolate money without the pointed remarks about calories and weight. They all seemed to have large family parties that appeared to rival Christmas for fun and joy. I never joined these pre-holiday conversations. I just listened and nodded; smiled and pretended to know just exactly how it all went...and I felt kind of lousy on the inside. Another example of my family's weirdness, cheapness and dysfunction.

I suppose if we had been poor, I could have accepted it. Actually there were a few students who had families that were less than comfortable but they still had the right kind of Hannukah with all the trimmings. But the fact was we were quite comfortable: I knew this because of the vacations my parents took, the clothes they wore and their Saturday nights out at theatre performances and restaurants. Even a 10 year old understood this simple arithmetic. And even a 10 year old knew a shitty deal when they lived one.

You might wonder what else made our Hanukkahs so god awful so I'll tell you: aside from the one present, it was the quality of the present; it wasn't like you received that art set you desperately wanted. The one with a stand and fine paper, brushes and paint. It was usually a book and some markers or a scarf and a bookmark. It wasn't even wrapped. Often we would get cards in the mail from our grandparents who wintered in Florida. Contained within was a crisp new $50. In those days it was a lot of money and to a 10 year old, a fortune. I don't have to tell you that my brother and I had to relinquish it and it was supposedly put towards clothes. I say supposedly because it never seemed to translate to more or even better quality apparel. My brother and I would just give each other knowing looks and then later trade notes on what we would have enjoyed spending the money on.

The word for money in Yiddish is gelt. The term used for the cash we were given was Hannukah gelt but more accurately, I thought of it as Hannukah guilt. One year when my brother and I decided to try and negotiate for at least some of the money. I started and then he took over. We asked with the earnest hopefulness that only a child might muster. But before I had my last few words out, the lecture began: I think back to it now and it still mortifies me. My mother would have a list of things that parents had to pay for and how children were expensive and needed to be grateful...and with those words, our hopeful balloon was quickly and decisively popped. I am ashamed to say that I despised them in that moment. Even at 10, I had a very rich vocabulary and I don't have to tell you I called them every nasty name in the book (in my head). The net result was that yet again, I had clear proof of my family's awfulness, that my parents were utterly messed up and that I hoped to escape as soon as possible.

If the gift nonesense wasn't bad enough, there was the forced attendance for lighting of the menorah and singing of prayers and the unsaid pretense that all of this was normal and/or that we were to stupid to know better. All in all 8 days of hell. It actually improved as we got older and found ways to not be around the house. I didn't even feel remorse knowing that my parents ended up lighting the candles on their own. The teenager I was saw it as divine retribution.

As a young adult out in the world, I shunned Hannukah; I downright boycotted it in favour of Christmas parties at work, I trimmed trees at friends' homes and savoured candy canes and egg nog. The thought of menorahs and overly onioned latkes frankly disgusted me. I avoided any notion of my heritage like the plague, especially at that time of year. There was a corner of me that felt sad about it and cut adrift but it was part of a larger and messier aspect of my life. Leaving home had afforded me freedom, but it had not solved the ongoing dynamic of me and my parents.

It was at around 13 that I truly began to resent them in earnest. The no bat mitzvah because my brother "had" to have one, they were costly and for girls not a must, the way they were constantly in critique mode on the regular and the fact none of my feelings were valid or respect. Yes, I realize that young people often feel this way, but there was more to it. More than I could admit to anyone. My brother and I had been hit by my father for as long as I could remember. Eventually my brother became bigger and stronger than my father and threatened to kill him if he ever touched him again. For me, it ended when I turned 18 and threatened to call the police. I moved out a few months later and lived with in a room that was both shabby and dark. I worked 2 part time jobs after school for the pleasure, but it felt worth it. I spent the next 10 years as far from my parents and extended family as possible. I only spoke to my brother. I guess you could say I was free but not really. It had never been about not wanting or needing parents: I just wanted ones that loved me, and didn't make me feel afraid and defeated. There was much that I didn't understand about them back then, both as a couple and individuals and even with understanding, there are more questions than answers.

After years of missteps, poor decisions, trying to have a relationship with my parents, failing, trying again and failing again and doing everything I humanly could to not be the person who was under valued, abused and always afraid, I was at the beginning of my 30's. I was ending a brief, embarassingly bad and soul scarring marriage. I doubted I would ever marry again and having children seemed highly unlikely. If you had told me that at 40, I would have 2 young children, a husband and all that went with that, I would have laughed myself silly, but it happened just like that and when my daughter was 3, I found myself buying a menorah, making latkes and bestowing gifts and it felt great...because it was on my own terms and it was joyful and fun. I wished I could have shared it with my parents and a couple of times I tried but it became the same ugly event I remembered. And my kids deserved better. I deserved better. And yet it made me sad. I had never truly stopped longing for Hannukah. And as the years passed, I realized that it might never happen.

Eventually, my parents chose to winter in the second Jewish homeland: Florida. I would hear about the Hannukkah parties they attended with friends and my children would receive the same $50 dollars in the mail (which I let them spend as they wished). Some years I made small parties for friends and some years I ignored the holiday all together. They had their life; I had mine. Sometimes we spent time together and on occasion it was okay. Often it was fraught and painful and like and octopus, I would flee in a cloud of ink and hide.

My father ended up with Alzheimer's. My parents hide it for a long time until they couldn't. This fact was both surprising and not. It had always been their way to close ranks around themselves to the exclusion of my brother and I. The realization that they preferred each other to us and later our families was not new. But I felt a strong and renewed need to connect; to be in their lives and to begin to understand and perhaps heal. And not just for myself but for them as well.

I used to joke that my father started to like me and cease his anger at my shortcomings because he forgot what he was so incensed about. My personality was no longer infuriating, my choices didn't vex him and when I hugged him, he held me long and tight. I never wanted those hugs to end because I had been waiting for them for as long as I could remember.

The last time I saw my father, he had no clue who I was. I wasn't surprised and weirdly I didn't feel sad. My mother and I, after too many years of acrimony and displeasing each other had become friends. She unburdened herself and I tried to be there for her. I did for her what I had needed and craved countless times in the past and never received. My daughter would watch me in wonder. She and I had talked at great length about where I had come from and she was no stranger to the shortcomings of her grandparents. She found it odd. This new found ease between my mother and I, but she would then say she understood....sort of.

My father passed away just over a month ago. I feel sad because he and I never really knew each other. I wish that the hitting and yelling never had to happen. I wish I had been the daughter he wanted and would have therefore never wanted to hit. I wish his early life has been easier and his resentments assuaged by having a family. In my imagination, he is watching me write this and nodding in agreement. Hannukah is less than 3 weeks away. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to wishing I could make my parents latkes and imagine them sitting in their kitchen lighting the candles. Maybe I wish things had been different. Probably I do.

November 20, 2020 21:09

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Beth Connor
22:14 Dec 02, 2020

This was really good, bittersweet, but well written. I felt really moved because there were so many things I could relate to. Although it was a smaller part, the relationship you have with your daughter felt important and valuable to the story.


Tamar Goodman
22:29 Dec 12, 2020

Hi! Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your kind words. I always feel lacking as a writer and sort of frightened of mean remarks. I truly appreciate your generosity.


Beth Connor
22:28 Dec 14, 2020

I agree- an open forum like this is terrifying to me. While I love the objective critiques and feel like they help me to grow as a writer, there is always a fear that someone is going to say something unkind. Fortunately, I have found this community to be very positive. I hope you keep writing! (do you write under the Tamar name too?)


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