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Ashley Kelsch on Navigating the Complicated Holiday Season with Family

After dealing with the recent loss of her own mother, the mom of two reflects on her holiday experiences and traditions

For some reason, whenever I think of the holidays, my mind can’t help but bring up the classic 1980’s Folgers Coffee commercial.

You may remember it. It’s a picturesque snowy morning. Pete, who I’m assuming is a college-aged kid, arrives home unexpectedly while everyone is still in bed, except for one little girl, and Pete knows how to wake the family without having to go upstairs. The camera zooms in on him opening a fresh tin of Folgers. As it brews, the scent works its way through the house and everyone, like they are being cast from a spell, wakes in curiosity to follow the aroma downstairs, where they see Pete by the tree with all the presents.

Believe it or not, I can be moved to tears just thinking about this commercial. Perhaps it’s my unconditional love for coffee — and my dream of my one true love making it and bringing it to me each morning. I imagine it has more to do with the fact that my holidays growing up, so far as I can remember, did not bring with them that feeling. 

And isn’t there so much pressure for us to create that feeling? Dear reader, I want to warn you ahead of time that this column isn’t going to be addressing how to stay jolly this time of year. 

The truth is my mom died yesterday. As I write this, I struggle to remember the last holiday I spent with her. I’m hoping by the time we wrap up this column together, I’ll have an answer. 

When Nick and Faith’s dad passed away and we moved to Texas, I took it as an opportunity to not be that grieving family. As we met new people, I withheld that information. We could talk about anything else, but not our loss. That anonymity was shattered one night at dinner with new friends when someone asked that the mashed potatoes be passed and Faith, who was 5 at the time, announced, “My dad died.” The sounds of forks matched their jaws dropping. 

I’ve spent much of my life hiding the truth and circumstances of my life, family dynamics and relationships. Everything’s okay. I’m fine. This is life. But, at this stage in my life, I can honestly say that the struggles and losses that I’ve experienced with my family, friends and romantic partners, were not all okay. And the idea that for the next two months, we will hear endless glorification of family being home for the holidays will not be fine for many. And that’s okay.

I have many more memories built around the table with this community than with relatives.

Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go home for a few days.”

I bet many of you are entering a season of high stress and deep emotion. I can see you sitting across the table, holding your breath, slightly panicked that one of your relatives might make a remark that would offend the in-laws. Or, one of your parents might comment on your looks with, “Why bother coloring your hair, Ash? You’re aging out of finding a relationship. Go gray.” Perhaps you’re worried that the turkey will end up burnt because someone was sipping on sherry all day. Or — the worst of them all — maybe you’re alone and without family, longing for these complicated, family-filled days.

As an adult, I came to understand my mom couldn’t last long between four walls that contained family or involved any event revolving around family. It was too much for her. I could time perfectly where we would be in a meal when the fight would begin and a door would slam. Honestly, that was our family tradition. Once I had kids, I had to start new traditions, ones where fists didn’t hit tables and dessert didn’t include making amends. 

Most of my memories of my mother are entangled with loss, betrayal and grief, except the last few ones we had recently. It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life — visiting her and not making it about me. Letting her be her. I know it’s a gift that gave her the peace to let go. I know it’s a gift I was given to be left with. 

Perhaps I’m lucky that I can’t remember holidays with her the way some of you can with your families. That won’t be what’s hard for me at the table in these coming months with my family. 

I also have so much to be grateful for. As I write this from New Mexico, where I’m taking care of the final details of my mother’s passing, I received a text from Faith in New York. They are coming home two days earlier than planned. Both of my kids are eager to bake pies, a tradition I passed on to them last year. We have the Turkey Trot. My ex-boyfriend, who I’ve written about, will of course be at our table. He is insisting I not cook due to what has been going on, but he forgets that cooking will be one major factor in soothing my soul. A dear friend of mine who spends the holidays with me messaged offering to help in any way possible. 

This is only a small look at the outpouring of support I have received from my community. I know that I will find a great deal of comfort from my people in the coming weeks — and mashed potatoes! I have many more memories built around the table with this community than with relatives. 

Which reminds me — my Folgers commercial moment. It was at my second wedding in December of 2010. My immediate family came, and my parents, who hadn’t seen each other since I don’t know when, were the first to hit the dance floor. I had never witnessed them like that. I remember thinking, “I’d marry this man over and over just to see my parents together like this.”

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