Grandpa in the House: A Wheel Coming Full Circle on Celebrating the Holidays

Childhood Memories Impacts A Family’s Festive Season

Around the age of 10, I began to use the holidays as an excuse to bring out my parent’s wedding china from its usual home in the cupboard.

Holidays were the loneliest days of my childhood. I knew from books and movies that families and friends often came together on holidays, seated at large tables, eating homemade meals, sharing time with loved ones from near and far. The festive feel of the season seemed to rely on a change in daily routine and seeing other people.

In my family we saw each other – my mom, my dad and me, the same as any other day. We did eat a special meal, a canned version of traditional menu items, easy to heat up and clean up from. We sat at the same table we always ate at, half of it cluttered with piles of stuff. No attempt at setting the table happened at my house unless I made the attempt myself.

Around the age of 10 I began to use the holidays as an excuse to bring out my parent’s wedding china from its usual home in the cupboard. My dad allowed this but only if I agreed to wash it myself. He did not like to wash fragile items and would have preferred that I stick to the usual plastic plates and bowls. I could cut myself if the items broke. But I was determined.

There was a time when we saw extended family on holidays, those on my mom’s side who lived near us, the people who gave my parents their wedding china. They died when I was quite young and that was when our holidays became the cloistered events I came to associate as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Their deaths sunk my mother deeper into her illness, making her even more isolated from the wider world than my Aspie dad. Neither of them ever had friends over to the house. Other family members lived far away. Our conversations after holiday meals were the ones the characters on TV had with each other.

If such an expression existed in the 1980s I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with a case of FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. I didn’t need Facebook to know that I was missing out on something pretty important.

Conversely, I loved Christmas and still do. My dad worked hard in his way to give me a nice holiday. We had traditions –an artificial tree put up on my December birthday, an Advent calendar, midnight mass at church. Santa somehow came even though our 1920s bungalow did not have a chimney. I felt the sacredness of the shortest days of the year even in the bright California sunshine.

But the day always ended with an ache, something deeper than the expected post-holiday sadness. After the presents, the meal, and the movies on TV, I retired to my room, imagining what other families were doing. I was sure it was fun, in a cozy and beautiful home, with others. Did they feel the ache too?

Now that I am a parent I see myself doing what I imagine many other parents do. I want to replicate the magic of childhood rituals for my son. I also want to prevent the loneliness I felt. Even though the holiday break offers the chance for respite from our overscheduled life I cannot bear to give my son a holiday without others. The by-product of my parenting of my son is that my dad now spends his holidays with his extended family, large and boisterous gatherings just like those I imagined as a child. We open presents under a lovely tree. We eat a fresh homemade dinner. We talk and catch up with people we have not seen in months. Friends come over to visit and we visit friends. New Year’s Day arrives and I feel that sadness that is unique to the moment festivities end. But the deep ache from my childhood is gone.

Holiday gatherings can be challenging for those with Asperger’s. My dad seems to enjoy ours and I can tell that he is grateful that we plan them and include him. He soaks up the energy in the room even when he seems miles away. It is rewarding to know that I am providing him with connection and ritual and I remind myself that he did his best to make my childhood holidays special for me.

Some great pointers on juggling Asperger’s and holiday gatherings can be found here:

Local resource! A support group for women who identify as an Aspie or on the spectrum will begin meeting in Wendell on February 1. For more info, email

[Photo credit: (cc) Karol K]


Wendy Somes

Wendy is an educator and history geek who lives in a century old summer cottage in Goshen with her family, dog, and two cats.  She recently left her work in museum education to become a full time stay at home caregiver to her young son and elderly father. Her column touches on the juggle of the sandwich generation and issues surrounding elders on the Autism spectrum.  When not playing, cleaning, cooking, or chauffeuring, she reads local history, mommy blogs, and celebrity gossip – but she will never admit to that last one.

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