When I was a short little mini Keegan, shorter than I am now, about the age of 5 or so, I dreamed of having a younger sibling. I grew up with a single mom, as an only child, and every year for Christmas, I would ask her for a little brother. That would be my only request for Christmas. And of course at the age of 5 I didn’t understand the whole process of conceiving, no one gave me “the talk”—I would just point to my mom’s belly and say, “can’t you just grow a baby brother for me?” She would laugh and play it off, finding some way to brush away the whole birds and bees conversation. Every Christmas came around, I did get a little baby….in the form of a cabbage patch kid or some other sort of baby doll. My mom didn’t have a lot of money and worked several jobs to support us, yet she made it a point to make Christmas special, and even tried to keep the whole Santa Claus thing real for me.
I remember one Christmas, I was about the age of 7, I noticed the packaging that my presents were wrapped in were also in our closet. I asked my mom, “hey, why are all the gifts I got from Santa and Mrs. Claus the same wrapping paper in our closet…I don’t understand”. Obviously, no one had shared the spoiler about Santa. She said, “Well, Mrs. Clause was in a hurry and needed us to hold on to her gift wrapping, so she could make it to all the houses tonight.” I believed this creative response my mom came up with as I imagined the whole scene in my mind. This was one way my mom showed me love during the holidays— making up stories to keep my imagination going as far as I wanted it to go. Just to make my holiday super special. As a kid, I couldn’t really see this love my mom offered me as a child. I just assumed she was making up a really great story.
I spent a lot of my holidays with my grandmother, who also lived in South Florida and I loved visiting her house, especially during the holidays as it was always a magical scene. She would go all out, and when I mean all out— twelve or more Christmas trees of all sizes, lights galore, those little Christmas village sets with the fake snow all around, train sets, and so much more. This was back in the eighties, so if you can imagine how tacky it got during the holidays, it got pretty damn tacky.
My grandmother invited everyone off the street to join for holiday dinners and that usually meant people from all walks of life, ALL walks of life. She was the OG of the orphan Thanksgiving, inviting in people who had no local family, who chose not to be with their family, or those who had no other place to go. She was determined to make every holiday meal special for everyone who walked through her doors.
I remember walking into her house and smelling the turkey or ham roasting in the oven, depending on what holiday it was (lamb and ham was for Christmas, and turkey was for Thanksgiving) and I would hear the sounds of Frank Sinatra blasting from the speakers. I would often help her with setting the dining room table, which was curated with every utensil— three forks, two knives, gotta have that butter knife, three plates, and these ornate, funky goblets for drinks. For my grandma, the holidays were a time of pulling out the all the china and the polished silverware. I think she wanted to show that even those that were the loneliest deserved the finest spread, deserved to be loved. It was her way of showing love to others, to host a party with a really delicious meal, and it didn’t matter who was seated at the table. I remember sitting down at one meal and she had these globe-like candles that looked like they were wrapped in white cream frosting. When you lit them they would light up like glowing orbs floating on the table. It was the strangest thing, but that wasn’t even close to the strange that occurred during the holidays.
Many of the people who came to our holiday meals were suffering from a cocktail of dysfunction— alcoholism, depression, or any other recipe that wasn’t apparent until they arrived. My grandmother had a lifelong friend and companion, who was in and out of rehab. He was one that would drink a bottle of vodka a day. He would wake up, have a glass, go to work, have another glass in the middle of the day, come home and finish off the bottle. No cologne could ever mask the scent of vodka that surrounded him. This one particular Thanksgiving when I was about 10, he had just gotten out of rehab and we had a fine crowd of degenerates. In the midst of the gravy being passed around, I heard a noise from the end of the table. I hear a banging noise and I see Charlie’s head tilt back and him banging his arms on the chair. I just sat there in shock, gravy pouring all over my mashed potatoes. Next thing you know his chair falls to the ground with him in it and everyone rushed over. I just sat on the sidelines unsure of what to do, just in shock. His eyes rolled back, foam spewed from his mouth. I had heard about what this was in school. Finally, the ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. After Charlie left, we all continued with our meal and the drinks started to be poured. It was an effort to mask the major disruption, a disruption that reminded everyone of how dysfunctional their own lives were and how close they were to that very thing happening to them. I looked around thinking as a kid, this is insanity, “what the hell just happened?!”, and thinking “damn at least they’re having a great time.” There was also a sadness. My grandmother didn’t really address the situation with me, no one in my family did. It was just another episode or person overlooked, brushed under the rug.
My grandmother also heavily used alcohol and often during the holidays was the heaviest consumed. By the end of the night, her cheeks would be rosy as her and her friends would start belting out random songs I didn’t know while they strum on a guitar. I looked at her and her friend and they looked so happy yet I felt so disconnected. I felt like a wallflower, like my grandmother was having this great time with her friends and didn’t realize there was this child in front of her, wishing to be loved and included in some way. I didn’t really know how to be in this space. Tt was fun and it was also really strange. I just thought this was the way it was for the holidays, drinking and eating and laughing. I really actually admired my grandmother and even all the characters who came to the table.
Things were different outside of those holiday parties. She taught me how to work hard, taught me how to cook, taught me how to set a table, taught me how to have kindness and compassion for others no matter their circumstance. Sitting at those tables for so many years, I wished things were different. I wished that I wasn’t surrounded by people who smelled of the deep oak of a whiskey bottle with bloodshot eyes, or who stumbled into their chairs to only eat a few bites of my grandmother’s homecooked meal. As I became a teenager I found ways to avoid those chaotic and crazy holiday meals at my grandmother’s house and started to attend my other friends’ holiday parties. I started to realize how fucking crazy my family was. I started avoiding those family holidays and spending it with others, even if every other family was just as crazy as my own. It was an escape and a way to run away and redefine what I thought was normal.
Eventually, all the crazy characters in my grandmother’s life moved on, as did I. I left South Florida when I was 18 and never came back. I would come back for the holidays, but was really hesitant to join in any affair. I encouraged us to create new traditions, like going out to dinner or having a picnic brunch at the beach. Anything to avoid the full on dose of insanity. As an adult, I began to host my own holiday parties in an effort to create what seemed like the perfect holiday my friends always had. And funny enough my parties were very similar to the ones at my grandmother’s house—an orphan holiday, with lots of wine, laughing, singing and music blasting, and much debauchery. There’s a reason for the saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I spent my entire life running away from the family who just wanted to share time with me and show love to others. I spent all that time seeking love from other people’s families, to experience what I thought was a better holiday than my own family. And after 39 years of experiencing this external seeking of love, I came to a point where I realized that love lives within me. Love lives within you. Love lives within all of us. Love lives everywhere. And we walk around this world searching for this love in external places, at holiday gatherings, searching for our families to see us fully, to love us fully, and we’ve forgotten that love lives everywhere, even in the messy, dysfunctional parts of ourselves and our families. I wouldn’t have changed any of those crazy holiday parties I experienced, after all this time, I’m grateful to have experienced them, as I truly see now where love lives. Love lives everywhere.