December 5, 2010

Holiday Grief. Holiday Humor.

In 2000, I self-published a little gift book ("more than a card, not quite a book") titled "What Saved Me: A Dozen Ways to Embrace Life" under my pen name, Claire Starr. One of the dozen "ways" I wrote about was humor, and I share that with you now.

Next year, Lucky Press will bring out a revised, second edition, of "What Saved Me." This time, I will use my real name!

“Life can be wildly tragic at times, and I’ve had my share. But whatever happens to you, you have to keep a slightly comic attitude. In the final analysis, you have got not to forget to laugh.” –Katharine Hepburn

“Humor is the basis of dignity, and when it goes you are lost.” –David Gebernter

.......When I was a teenager, I loved shopping for school clothes in August with my mother, a busy woman who worked a full-time, demanding job when the majority of middle-class mothers were at home. I remember trying on new shoes and dancing around the shoe store light-heartedly. My mother, as she did so many times over the years, would shake her head and say, “You are a funny girl.”

.......My parents identified my eldest sister, Joan, as smart, my next-oldest sister, Joyce, as loyal; I was known as funny. Mother once told me that I was the one who made my father laugh, and, considering the fact that he suffered from depression for much of his adult life, I guess this was an accomplishment. I certainly see this sense of humor in both of my sons, although each expresses it in his own way. I’ve found humor to be very healing for all of us.

.......When battling depression right after my divorce, I would borrow, from the library, books and videos that made me laugh, certain that it was similar to providing my body with a much-needed dose of vitamins. I bought The Big Book of Humor and watched movies like What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Turner and Hooch.

.......One of the funniest things that happened to me took place a few years after my divorce, when money was tight. Joan, who worked at a job in "Corporate America" had always been generous with her clothes. At the start of a new winter season, she (in Ohio) would send me (in Florida) a nice box of hand-me-downs. As she had great taste, I was happy to get them.

.......In late November, I learned a box had been sent. My sister had mailed it from the UPS station within her local department store. The clothes had slipped my mind until she asked me about the box a few weeks later. I had never received it. Calls were made to UPS; they were unable to find it in their tracking system. Later, I was told the box might be in Nebraska; they would try to find it or would send a check if it didn’t turn up. Another week went by — no box. Christmas Day arrived. Then, a few days later, the box was found.

.......The clothes had been neatly packed by my Virgo sister inside of a box that had previously held cookware, Faberware. After being checked in at the UPS counter, the box made its way into the department store’s inventory system and eventually to the cookware shelf, where it sat patiently until the Christmas holidays. A few days before Christmas, a perfectly innocent young husband, with the best intentions, purchased a box of Faberware cookware for his wife for Christmas …

.......All I have to do is picture this woman’s face when she opened the box and found my sister’s shoes, sweaters, bright-colored socks, and slightly worn nightdress inside, and a smile will inevitably appear.

.......For many folks, December is not just about Hanukkah, Christmas, gifts, shopping, baking. It is about sadness, sorrow, loss, and grief. In our family, a first-cousin was murdered around this time of year, another first-cousin died in childbirth and we received her Christmas cards when she was in a coma. My deceased grandmother and father's birthdays are this month. My husband's mother and brother are both gone as well. Both my mother and Mark's father have December birthdays. They are 90 and 91, respectively, and thankfully still with us, yet each year is precious

.......I think of the infant son, born to my parents when I was three, whom I missed so much as a young girl, thinking how much fun it would have been to have a little brother. When I grew-up and had children, then went through divorce, I wondered what holidays would be like "after."
.......If we are in the midst of sadness, the temptation to smile might seem a slap in the face to whatever it is, or whomever it is, we are grieving. At some point the shock and disbelief of our circumstances become less acute. We are forever changed by events, but find a way to integrate reality into our daily life, so that we can go on. In this middle space, the demilitarized zone between incapacitation and acceptance (or the closest we will get to it), will be moments when we perch on the edge of some enjoyable experience and have to make the decision to fly forward, to feel something good, or to stay. We can decide to smile, to laugh, but then we remember what has happened ...

.......We may, consciously or unconsciously, feel guilty for finding a reason to smile when we once thought we never would again, or when someone close to us has lost that opportunity forever. But if we allow ourselves to embrace life, those we love are honored, and the part of them inside of us has a chance to live on … one form of eternal life. Of course the ability to enjoy life after a death or a shock takes time, and we must allow ourselves and others time to heal, without requiring them to “put on a happy face.” Harriet Rochlin is quoted as saying, “Laughter can be more satisfying than honor; more precious than money; more heart-cleansing than prayer.” I think she was right.

.......In Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me, Charles Schulz wrote, “You cannot create humor out of happiness … Drama and humor come from trouble and sadness, and mankind’s astounding ability to survive life’s unhappiness. It is a virtual miracle that we have existed over these millions of years against such deplorable odds, when everything is against us.”

.......The human ability to cope and to heal is a miraculous thing. I encourage you to allow humor to enter your heart and mind and help the process of healing.

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” –Walt Whitman
© 2000 Janice Phelps Williams


Jessica Bell said...

This is a very heartfelt post and I can sense a deep grief within you for things that happened in your past. I truly hope you have found peace within yourself and aren't 'masking' your pain with laughter, which I find myself doing sometimes.

When I was a child, Christmas for me was tripple exciting. We'd celebrate on Christmas Eve evening, because my mother is German and it is tradition - and again on Christmas day with my step father's Greek family - and again on Boxing Day with my biological father's family. I miss those days when all my family would unite. This hasn't happened for me for years.

I don't have any 'reason' to grieve during the Christmas season. But I have 'lost everyone', so I do most of the time. What I mean by that is, that here in Greece, the only family I have close are my parents (and even they're 8 hours travel away). On top of that, Christmas isn't really celebrated - New Years Day is the day people exchange gifts traditionally here. So I grieve for the Christmas I once had, and unfortunately spend Christmas feeling sorry for myself - with just me, S and my dog Holly. I feel lonely. I want 'Christmas' to come alive again. But for as long as I am not a mother myself, Christmas is going to feel dead to me, I think.

Lucky Press, LLC said...

Thank you for your post, Jessica. (I just realized a paragraph was deleted in the post and I'm going to go fix that in a minute...)

I do not feel sad or feel like I am grieving. But I feel "thoughtful" at this time of year. Full of thoughts and memories, but also great thankfulness for what I am experiencing now and looking forward to in the new year. I want to encourage others who may be experencing what I did years ago.

I can see why Chistmas would feel grey for you now, but I can promise you that as time goes by you will create new traditions and experiences related to Christmas that will become stronger in your mind and as important as the holidays in the past. One day you will have 30 years of holidays to balance out the 30 years you've already have.

There will only be Mark, myself and Bryce at our house this Christmas day, and that seems so small. But we have much to be thankful for. It's the spirit that counts, right? And that doesn't have to happen right on the day. It's interesting to know that New Year's Day is the big day in Greece!

sbyrd said...

Janice, I really related to this, and have some similarities in my blog this week. I especially loved the UPS lost box story. I'll bet the lady would rather have kept your sisters hand-me-downs than the cookware!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! This post is probably my favorite thus far? They are all good. My next blog has been rolling around my head and heart, but my heart has been saying to not write openly and become vulnerable with the it necessary to tell all? It can be if I whisper it to someone who is in like circumstances. Well, we'll see. I so appreciate your candidness. And I just love the way those used clothes ended up in a department store. I love to laugh...belly laughs, uncontrollable, pee in your pants laughter. Thanks, Janet!

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Thank you, Sarah and Cynthia.

Cynthia, the choice of how much to tell, how much to reveal, must surely be a big issue for writers who focus on the universal in individual experiences. I continue to wrestle with this question and stretch my comfort zone.

The used clothes being sold as new cookware is one of the funniest stories of my life, and I love telling it. My sister felt comfortable sharing all of her various items of clothing with me (bras, for instance). I can only imagine the woman's face when she opened that box! Or her husband's! I can see him trudging off in the snow to the department store the next day.

Thank you for reading my blog!

Post a Comment

Comments are closed at this time. Thank you for visiting Appalachian Morning. Please connect with me via my website:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.