Growing up, my family had a very simple set of family traditions. If it was a holiday, we went to my Grandmother’s house, bringing the entirety of my mother’s smallish side of the family together. It was simple and got the job done and there were never any questions as to what we would be doing for any given holiday except for whether or not there would be peas. When Maddie and I first started dating, I began to catch glimpses of a much more hectic and disorganized mash-up of family traditions. She would spend her holidays running from one relative’s house to another, trying to see every one while trying to sort through, what seemed like, an ever changing compilation of traditions that could crop up at a moment’s notice.
Now, as many people are aware, Maddie has quite the colorful family tree, which leads to this chaotic array of families all trying to spend quality time with each other. Over the years I have slowly joined Maddie in this mad dash from place to place and family to family. Through it all I have begun to see the small traditions that take place no matter how crazy the holiday schedule becomes. One of those traditions was something that stood out as really special, but which at first I didn’t quite get.
Maddie had a younger sister who passed away from cancer before we met. This was, of course, devastating to the whole family. I wasn’t around when it happened and never knew Stephie, but shortly after Maddie and I began dating, I became included in a family tradition that revolved around her.
It was always hard for me to grasp the gravity of the loss because I had never gone through anything that even approached such an event in my own family.
So I felt doubly the outsider, being new to the family and also new to what seemed to be a deeply emotional and personal tradition. But here’s the thing—this isn’t a sad tradition. It is extremely upbeat, where everyone gathers together not just to remember but, more so, to spend time together and appreciate everything they still have and the people who are still here. Christmas Eve morning starts off at McDonalds, and then on to the cemetery to decorate the two pine trees growing next to Stephie’s grave.
There is usually a lot of laughter and catching up, with the dogs running around and the kids usually throwing a football. At some point everyone is wrangled together and gets to share something they are thankful for. There usually are some ducks that are accosted by either children or dogs at some point too.
I can’t really express how much I have come to appreciate this little tradition, which before understanding I had been reluctant to attend. It solidifies all the things I love about my in-laws and has helped to bring me closer to them in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But this is what building your new family foundation is all about, isn’t it? It can be confusing, hard to navigate, and sometimes you might feel like an outsider, but in the end it’s so worth it for the things you gain—for the things I’ve gained.
Photos by: Maddie’s Personal Collection