How does holiday tradition shape shift with tragedy?
It always gave me a low-grade headache waking up those autumn mornings to clatter in the kitchen, voices of terse disagreement that tried and failed to whisper. Sometimes the smooth jazz station played on the TV before the parade, followed by the dog show, hours of unstimulating programming that were, so I was told, for the sake of tradition.
We held dinner at our house. Not because it was the biggest, the most convenient, or the nicest even, but because Mom never made an enemy out of anyone, so she was the even-tempered host. The crooked woodcut framed above our kitchen sink said, Bless This House And All Who Enter It. I remember hearing the hum of Aunt Joanie’s SUV roll into the driveway and poking my head through the curtains, seeing Cleo and Benji bounding up the steps before their mother cut the engine. They were thirteen and fourteen to my six, and made a contest of knocking the hardest at the door. I tried to answer but I couldn’t work the lock. Inside, they laughed about people at their school two states away and internet videos I hadn’t seen. I sat silently on the big chair while they stretched out on the couch and drank the soda I wasn’t allowed to have before dinner.
As we grew older I tried harder to connect, but the two of them still had a shorthand I struggled to pick up, the tragedy of my development lagging too far behind theirs. Still, they were enthralling: I loved the easy way they cursed when the adults were out of earshot, the underground music they insisted I listen to, their stick-and-poke tattoos and piercings I could only imagine my mother crying about if I followed suit. Late into their teenage years, they became the family entertainers, cohosting the yearly game night, coordinating the anonymous gift exchange, charming us as amateur musicians. I adored them and knew I’d never catch up.
Then Benji got sick and it was sad, so sad I haven’t found a way to deal with it quite yet, and I see him hobbling up the steps with his cane that last holiday, Cleo a support beam latching to his arm. How he tried to speak but the words came out garbled and he often shook his head in frustration followed by sadness at our pity. “You’re fine,” said Aunt Joanie, smoothing the fabric of his button-up on his shoulder, “Take your time. We’re listening.”
With Benji gone we lost Cleo also. She moved coasts and conjured vague reasons for not attending family gatherings. Too much work. The cat has to go to the vet. My car doesn’t have enough gas. For her there was no life without Benji, so she went out and created a new one that had nothing to do with any of us. Not that I could blame her— holidays were thenceforth somber affairs, tangibly filled more with absence than presence. I, too, avoided them when I could, spending the Thanksgivings of my collegiate years with the international students who stayed put.
The year Mom died, the remainder of us, including a rare Cleo, gathered at Aunt Joanie’s third-floor walk-up, and she set two chairs out for the deceased: a picture of Mom on her wedding day on one, Benji’s yearbook portrait on the other. While we waited for the food I reached for the television remote to offset the miserable silence. Aunt Joanie shook her head. “That good-for-nothing numbnuts landlord,” she muttered. “Been broken for a month. The oven, three.” Hours later she brought out the turkey, its innards still partially frozen. She read fast and low from a small prayer book, pausing only a couple of times to wipe a tear and regain her composure. Afterward we said Amen and ate what we could. Cleo grabbed her coat before dessert.
Families bloomed from the friends I once had, until everyone I knew was traveling elsewhere, to in-laws, friends of friends, or their parents for Thanksgiving. I offered to host a couple of times, but it was too much for the elders to travel to the far south of the city, plus I hardly had room for myself there. Aunt Joanie grew too sick with grief to carry on the holiday. The handful of aunts and uncles I had left at that time were too broken in other ways to push for celebration. One was always in the middle of a messy divorce. Another booked a Darwinian cruise to the Galápagos Islands one year and never returned. And another drank himself to death and they found him in an alley next to a Waffle House. So on until it was just me.
I don’t know what to make of this imperfect life. Most often the easiest thing for me to do this time of year is watch the parade, even if I don’t recognize the cartoon characters on the balloons anymore and the performing acts look so bright and young and unbruised.
It’s a simple action, but it’s one within my reach.
In its first iteration, this fiction piece was inspired by a prompt from the True Crime Poetry workshop with Cynthia Pelayo, in which we were encouraged to write a poem about crime. One suggestion was to write a memorial piece for a loved one who has died. Afterward, I felt a ridiculous amount of relief, as if I’d just confessed the biggest secret of my life. And that was the moment I knew that writing from a place of pain would be one of the most reliable ways out of it. At its core, this piece is about family, control, and the randomness of the cosmos.
Julia Andresakis is a writer born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She is a former mentee, intern, and digital media producer for Girls Write Now — if you’ve scrolled through the Resources section of the website, you are familiar with her work. She holds a degree in film and creative writing from Brooklyn College. While an undergraduate, she placed first in fiction in the 2019-2020 CUNYwide LaborArts “Making Work Visible” contest. An aficionado for all things surreal, uncanny, and liminal, her work typically focuses on lonely souls pursuing unconventional obsessions. Julia is excited to support Girls Write Now in a more involved capacity.