It may have been the taste of madeleines that provoked Marcel Proust's involuntary memories, but for me it seems to be the preparations for Christmas. And this year, perhaps because of an abnormal level of tiredness, I am finding it a particularly emotional experience. I am reliving all the memories of my childhood Christmases, and mourning all the lost times and lost traditions that I never realised were so transient. At the time, everything about Christmas seemed permanent, immutable and Christmassy. My maternal and paternal families celebrated Christmas in more-or-less the same way, so no matter where we were, or who we were with, I could expect a very similar, reassuring, comforting, family Christmas*.
I haven't spent Christmas with my brother in eight years.
I haven't visited my South African family for Christmas in twelve years.
I haven't spent Christmas with my English cousins in twenty years.
I'm not seeing a single member of my family, beyond my own two bears, at all over this Christmas period.
We've all grown up. We have our own children, our own in-laws, our own families, our own traditions. BigBear's family traditions are not the same as mine, and we don't seem to have formed a core of our own, beyond the quirk of having an octopus on the top of our Christmas tree. I haven't yet found a way to incorporate the things that seem to me to be essential to Christmas into our own lives, and I can't enforce them upon my in-laws when I'm a guest in their house (as we are every Christmas-time, though never actually for Christmas).
So here I am, feeling again as though Christmas won't be quite right still. The house won't be full of family, the table won't be groaning with food, every chair in the house won't have been roped in to seat us all. I won't have bucks fizz before lunch while we all open presents, as nobody else drinks it. I won't pour brandy over a Christmas pudding and set fire to it, as nobody else eats it. I won't make GrannyBear's special very rich Christmas fruit cake as nobody else likes it. There won't be any arguing over who gets the last of the bread sauce, as nobody else likes it. Nobody will wheel out every single Asterix pun about bacon and ham, batting word-play back and forth across the table, as I'm the only one who knows the Asterix books back to front. We won't make a futile attempt on the King William quiz, because nobody can do it**.
Neither my own beloved Granny, nor LittleBear's Granny will appear mid-afternoon with the tray of "afters" for us to binge on while we play cards. There won't be a sugared almond, a crystallized ginger or a date in sight. I won't spend the afternoon playing board games and cracking nuts,
seeing who can get a brazil nut out of its shell intact, and how much
turkish delight it's possible to eat before feeling sick.
I feel lost and tearful at my inability either to know what our Christmas should be, or how to recapture enough of my own Christmases to assuage the immense waves of loss that are sweeping over me as I contemplate the past. My grandparents are long gone, as is my own father, and now my uncle too. I feel as though I'm single-handedly trying to cling on to all the precious memories and habits of times gone by while the other branches of my family have moved on and left me behind. They have forged new paths and new families and they have their Christmases, of which I will never be a part again. I feel as though I have lost something infinitely precious, and I never even got to say goodbye.
I know that we will have a wonderful Christmas, and that I will rejoice in my LittleBear's joy and excitement. And I hope that in doing so we will make memories and traditions for him to love and cherish and return to. There will be more that defines a Bear Christmas than just an octopus atop a tree, but at the moment, I don't know what it is. Despite decades of adulthood, I feel as though I'm starting from scratch. And I don't know what I'm doing.
* Obviously, no family is perfect, and we have some excrutiating memories mixed in there too, but I'm glossing over those at the moment.
** None of us has ever been able to do it, but my grandfather's answers were always able to make us feel as though we were at least slightly competent.