Breaking Tradition

Yesterday, I wrote about one of our family’s favorite Thanksgiving traditions.  Today, there is a different story to share.

Growing up, I used to come up with all kinds of ideas to hopefully draw our family closer together.  There weren’t many fun times that I can remember living through 2 divorces, a very frightful childhood with my stepfather and my mom dying of cancer when I was a teenager.  Still, something inside me just couldn’t lay down and die – though at one point I thought it may be my only hope to escape the stress and trauma I knew as our “normal.”

My mom said I was an eternal optimist.  I didn’t know what that meant, so she described it as always trying to see the positive in people and situations.  I’m not sure I understood that either as a child, but I knew that something inside me always wanted to look at the bright side of life – even if I had to search hard to find it.

To lighten the unrelenting heaviness that hung over our house laced with financial woes and other issues, despite my mom’s tireless efforts to provide as best she could, I tried to start little traditions.  Most of the time I was the only one who wanted to keep them going.  It’s okay.  I understood.

One tradition I came up with was at Thanksgiving was (this is not a new idea, but it was new to our family) when we gathered around the table with my grandparents and immediate family, we would all say one thing we were thankful for before the blessing was offered.

This tradition stuck for a while…until 1994.  By then, I was married (at 19) and was making the annual trek to my grandparents’ home for Thanksgiving – where our very small family spent all of our holidays.

However, this year, my grandfather was dying of lung cancer.  He was an honorable man.  Everyone in the community knew him and respected him.  He began his work career unloading shipments on the docks at 13 years old and retired with the same company at 65 in upper management.  He was faithful to his wife, said what he meant, and counted every penny.  I feared him – in a good way.  He was steady, consistent – something my home didn’t offer me.  He had a soft side that only we saw and was quietly generous toward others.

Thanksgiving 1994, Bruce and I came over like we usually did for the big feast.  I really didn’t have a thought in my mind about the day, as I had taught myself (for better or worse) to navigate holidays with a sense of numbness.  I allowed myself to feel happiness, but nothing else for those 24 hours.  I was a master compartmentalizer, if you will.

But, not so with Granddad on this day.  He most certainly had something on his mind.

We didn’t know at the time he was dying.  He was very sick, but we thought he was still fighting with hope of beating the odds.  Whether or not he knew differently, I’ll never know.  He pulled me aside.

A private conversation with him was rare.  In fact, I think this was our only one ever.

He surprised me by saying, This year, Kristi, when we sit down to eat, I don’t want to go around the table and say something we are thankful for.

My response was what it always was, Yes, Sir.

He walked away without another word, but I stood in the darkened hallway speechless, with my breath caught in my throat.

First, I was surprised he paid attention to my little tradition.  Being the baby of the family, I grew up feeling completely unheard (Thus, this blog! Hmm.) and oftentimes humored and even laughed at.  Many of my thoughts, convictions and opinions were discounted or just plain ignored by my family.  I really couldn’t believe he paid this one tradition any mind at all.

Second, which was more impactful to me, was that by him saying this to me, it was the first time since he became sick that I saw him as a fragile man.

He had always been larger-than-life to me.  He was…Granddad.  The military veteran, loyal employee, devoted husband, church-goer, excellent golfer and manager of their house. He was also a man of very few words.

When he pulled me aside, he allowed me to see a vulnerable side of his heart.  All of a sudden I saw him as human, not superhero.  I saw his cancer through fresh eyes and realized how serious it was (I was 24 at the time).  It’s like I saw a different man standing before me.  An aged man, weathered from life and illness.

He rarely, and I mean if ever, let his innermost feelings show.  When he asked/told me this, he was heading me off at the pass before we could reach the table where I would blindly begin the tradition.

I was stunned.  Humbled.  Somber.  Sad.  Grateful.

It was the first time I felt he looked at me as an adult.

Out of great respect for him, and for his risk in sharing with me his most private feelings, it was an honor not to bring up the tradition of telling what we are thankful for at the table.

Ecclesiastes 3 says there is a season and purpose for everything.  This was not the season for this tradition.

Although I can be very stubborn for the cause, pulling myself up by the bootstraps for what I believe in and fight for it, it was a humbling decision to lay this down that year.

He died a month later.

At the holidays, traditions can help us relive fond memories, create new ones, and make the season simply more fun and special.  But, sometimes traditions can hurt.  Even if they don’t hurt us, they may hurt someone we love.

I’m all for traditions, but Granddad taught me that it’s not all about me.  Other people are involved and have feelings, too.  Sometimes traditions need to be paused out of consideration of others…and that’s okay.

With the world spinning in chaos, who I am today, because of Granddad, approaches holidays light-footed.  I try to be sensitive to others around me whether it is: inviting those without family to be a part of ours for the holiday; to simplify things so as to not cause a financial burden on my husband; or even quietly let a tradition slip by unnoticed if it helps someone else through a difficult season.

We may not have practiced our thankful tradition that year, but I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give my granddad the gift of compassion.  Something a hardworking, proud man doesn’t easily receive.

No one ever knew about this moment between us until now.  I’ve kept it close to my heart, but want to share it as I know I am not alone in wondering how to approach the holidays – which are no respecter of problems, come what may.

I have found that if I step back, breathe and ask God how to handle certain traditions, He gives me a perspective different than the one I see from where my feet stand in the longitude and latitude of life.

If a special tradition isn’t observed this year because of a difficult situation, it’s okay to grieve it and let it go – for now.  However, sometimes it’s important to celebrate a tradition in spite of the situation, but it can be difficult to discern which way is best.  Rest knowing that God is bigger than all circumstance and loves us so much He is only a prayer away.  He’ll carry your burden and give you wisdom if you ask Him.  He may even give you back an unexpected blessing in return.

For me, the blessing was getting to share a moment with Granddad that we otherwise never would have had.  That moment is now one of my most special memories with him.  And when my family sits around the table this Thanksgiving and says what we are thankful for, I’m sure I’ll have lots to say, but one I will be feeling in my heart is the Thanksgiving of 1994 when, for the first time in my life, I could give back to the man who always selflessly sacrificed for me.  And for that, I will always be thankful.