My mother's annual Chanukah party always took place on Christmas Day—even when Chanukah fell weeks earlier. No matter what the calendar decreed, we always ate latkes on December 25th, which also happened to be my parents' wedding anniversary. This had less to do with our roots in tradition than with logistics. Since the family was dispersed geographically, Christmas was the only day we could figure on everyone gathering under one roof. And yet it was like playing the lottery: We came close but always seemed to miss one number.
One year, it was my 24-year-old niece, Mother's second grandchild. She was moving out of state with her new husband.
When Mother heard the news, her eyebrows scrunched together in a sign of distress. Of course, she was happy about Emily beginning a new life, but all she wanted to know was, "You'll fly home for Chanukah, won't you?"
"I can't, Grandma." Emily explained that her husband always spent Christmas with his family in Pennsylvania.
"Can't you celebrate Christmas with them some other time?" Mother persisted.
Emily laughed. "We go to Mass together on Christmas Eve."
"I thought the advantage of interfaith marriage would be that you don't have to argue about which parents to spend the holidays with," remarked Emily's older sister. Each holiday, she and her husband negotiated among parents, in-laws and grandparents. They juggled eating appetizers with one family, savored the entrée portion of the meal with the second family, and breathlessly sat down to dessert with the third.
My mother kept reiterating, "I'm so disappointed. I thought the whole family would be together."
"We'll be together a week later," said Emily, hoping to console her grandmother.
"I'm not getting any younger, you know. This could be the last year we'll all be able to get together," Mom said, even though she still played 18 holes of golf in her eighties, often outdriving men a decade younger. She had more energy than I did, but recently she'd viewed every family gathering as Maybe The Last One.
It was the same age when my Prussian grandmother, who spoke five languages, started behaving in a similar way. Grandma Regina lived with us during summers, escaping the Florida heat for refreshing breezes from the Atlantic Ocean near Brighton Beach. Every Sunday morning, from May to October, she baked ruggelach, cheese danish and apple strudel. When she was in her early eighties, packing for her trip to Florida that grew more difficult each year, Grandma Regina would sigh and say, "I'm too old to bake anymore."
Yet, the next year, she was back—preheating the oven again.
My mother continued to bake her signature brownies for our annual December Chanukah feast. But the first time Emily broke the news that she couldn't join us, Mother anguished over it for weeks, as if grieving over a death. There was always someone missing. And one day, she must have been thinking, that missing person would be her.
Our Chanukah gatherings started to shrink. And then suddenly they grew, grandchild by grandchild. One year, Mom aimed her camcorder at her nine great-grandchildren, all in her living room, a boisterous affair of babblers, pacifiers, diaper-changing and not enough chairs. She labeled the videotape: "Naches on December 25th." Hank joined our annual rite, a sweet romance my mother enjoyed five years after my father died.
When my mother became too frail to cook for her extended family, I arrived earlier to plan, shop, cook and serve. She began to order ready-made latkes from a local delicatessen, cutting down on the labor of hand-grating potatoes and cleaning up an oil-spattered stove. I noticed her struggling with the guest list, trying to write down every name for a head count, ripping up the paper in frustration before attempting again. I didn't know it at the time, but she was in the early stages of Lewy body dementia, a little-known and often misdiagnosed form of dementia, second in occurrence only to Alzheimer's.
Today, my mother is no longer here to host, and I've taken over her role, re-creating her famous brownie recipe and making sure there is fresh cream to whip the way she always did. But after my daughter left for college, I never knew when we were going to converge for Chanukah, a gathering now including friends I made when our children were toddlers. Chanukah always depends on when finals are over and the kids trickle home from school. December 21st, 22nd or 25th: We always pick one and light the first candle on the menorah. On our own time.
This year, it will be easy, as Chanukah falls on the evening of December 24th. It feels like a miracle, or at the very least, the best possible gift for the holiday season. As I watch my daughter snap the beaters into the electric mixer, I hope we'll always live in the same city to share the holidays, continuing my mother's tradition. And if not, we'll just pick a date when we can all be together in the same place.