This past semester I was in English 425, an advanced essay writing course focused on immersion writing. Throughout the course we’ve focused on personal essay writing and immersing ourselves into a wider story covering a pertinent or engaging topic. For my first assignment I wrote a personal investigative essay about the life of my father’s mother, Gail Grober.
She was a 5’3” Jewish woman who died at age 47 from breast cancer, leaving behind her young sons, Bobby and my father Vic. I was interested in writing a piece about her and investigating her life because everyone on my father’s side of the family constantly tells me I take after her despite the fact that I’ve never met her.
I spent 72 hours writing the now 13-page piece, breaking down in tears more than once as I discovered more intimate details about the life of this elusive woman. The most important thing I learned about her was from her high school yearbook. Beside each senior portrait is the word “ambition” with a colon next to it. All the students included their post high school ambitions and upon searching through the yearbook the vast majority had put college, higher education or secretary. But Gail is different. Printed next to her “ambition” is the word “undecided.” While every other student in the yearbook felt so pressured to amount to greatness or reach for insane heights or brag about a seemingly perfect future ambition, Gail was apparently alright with not knowing. I fell in love with this ancestor of mine, one that nobody speaks of but clearly remembers dearly. Thank God for technology and for memory.
I thought of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen the entire time I wrote this essay. I thought about how there’s no essay to write about her because every single year I come back to my grandmother’s home on Christmas day. It is warm, she is wearing an apron and slippers. There is a lack of words for the sheer joy that swells inside this sweet blue home on Jersey Avenue. There’s luck in the fortune of knowing at least half of where you come from. There’s no essay to be written, researching a history that’s tangible and breathing and mine because I’ve lived it. I have the ability to live it every single year. There’s a heart on Jersey Avenue. There’s life. And I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to call to say “Dad, Mom: What was she like? Tell me a story.” Instead, I can come to my grandmother’s house and simply watch her cook in the kitchen on Dec. 25th. I can sit down for Christmas dinner every year surrounded by people who know me and always will. It’s tangible. It’s full of life. None of us are history.
Christmas time is nostalgic for me. It always has been a time of reflection and celebration in the midst of joyous December. Five years ago, I found out I didn’t get into Yale University. A few days later on Christmas Eve, everyone else at my high school had heard back from the University of Michigan and I’d heard nothing. I assumed I’d been denied. But even that year, when I’d assumed I was denied from two of my top choice schools right in accordance with the holidays and felt neither festive nor celebratory, I went back to my grandmother’s home and felt whole again. It’s cyclical — tradition and memory and life — and in the unexpected places we find the pieces of ourselves we couldn’t find or perhaps didn’t know we lost.
Tradition may be expected or ritual. It is something that regularly comes back up each year, something that we know and anticipate. It is easy to take these types of dinners and mornings and festivities for granted, especially around the holidays. This year I will not let it pass me by: dinner at my grandmother’s, the silly game we play in the living room, the dancing on tables that takes place early in the morning in my kitchen on Christmas day still dressed in glitter. It’s important, it’s here, it’s not history and for now, it’s mine, it’s ours.