I’m not sure if a Medicare card qualifies me for matriarchal status, but if it should, I am herein going on record as eschewing the title Matriarch, and the role. For all time. I’ve heard too many stories this holiday season of the women in our assorted lineages who believed they (and they alone) were charged with the upholding of the family traditions and so did so -- with an iron fist. Many have left daughters and daughters-in-law bruised, if not scarred, for years and years of Thanksgivings and Christmases, fearing that leaving the oysters out of the dressing or failing to fill each wedding-gifted and/or inherited silver serving piece with the requisite vegetable (peas and onions? green beans almondine?) might indeed be the end of the world as we know it.
A bit of perspective can be gleaned from a story told from the pulpit recently: A woman preparing pot roast for her family, when asked why she always cut off the end of the roast before cooking it replied, “I don’t know. That’s just the way my mother did it.” So she asked her mother why, and elicited the same response, “I don’t know why. That’s the way my mother did it.” So she asked her grandmother, who thought about it for a while and then recalled, “I just cut the end off because I never had a pan large enough for the whole roast!” So much for one holy tradition.
I actually love many of our family traditions and have fond remembrances of many my grandmother and mother established before me. But I am also finding new joy in letting some of them go and figuratively as well as literally taking just another place at the table rather than the head (or the foot, as the case may be). This Thanksgiving, for example, we had a progressive dinner staged in the homes of our two married children who happen to live five doors apart in Austin. They did the turkey and the stuffing -- fabulously, I might add! -- prepared new, fresher, tastier sides (would Grandma have ever served brussel sprouts?), and invited me to make (traditional) mashed potatoes, Grandma’s gravy and my pies, which had already morphed from the usual pumpkin to the more popular apple and pecan. It was delicious, fun, and tremendously liberating. I didn’t have to be in charge of anything except mashed potatoes -- really -- imagine that! After 40 years of trying to keep everything under control, I could simply let go. . . and enjoy. The kids don’t have full sets of “good china” and their wedding gifts were decidedly not silver, but the table was full of laughter and love, which may, in the end, be the only tradition worth keeping.
Their weddings were that way, too -- not traditional except for the bridal gowns, but creative and joyful, full of laughter and love. They stretched me, made me grow, insisted I relinquish the (illusion of) control I once thought was my matriarchal due, and taught me new depths of wonder -- at the world and at the very interesting people our children were becoming. Traditions -- and matriarchal roles -- can be so limiting.
Still, they can be comforting, too. And Christmas is one of those times when I easily get caught up in both the must-do’s (and yes, I have to do it all, because it won’t get done if I don’t!) and the disappointment of not being able to make it happen just the way I want it to (traditionally), no matter how many dozens of cookies I bake or how thoughtfully I think I am shopping. If I cling to my traditions, though, I can only be disappointed: married children can’t always come “home” for Christmas (and don’t necessarily want to, especially once Santa can come down their own chimney); and there’s no one left from our parent’s generation to join us. I know some matriarchs who demand that homage be paid to The Way Things Are Done (and have always been done), but I’m just not inclined to put Duty and Obligation ahead of Joy and Love (and Flexibility) when it comes to the Christmas holidays, much less when it comes to Family. Not that I haven’t had my meltdowns about who’s coming or not or the occasional vegetarian substitute for turkey or goose or duck, but I’m learning: it’s so much easier and far more pleasant to just let it go. Just as I now pick the ornaments I put on the tree and no longer overload it with every single one I ever bought or was given just because it’s in the closet, I pick -- for me -- the “traditions” I personally need to enjoy Christmas (the tree, a card, fresh flowers, shopping, my Christmas cookies) -- and then celebrate with everyone I get a chance to whenever I get the chance. This lets me totally delight in my place at the table, wherever it is this year, and frees me from the constraints of being a matriarch. This may be women's liberation at its best -- the perfect gift.
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