Sorry Grateful

Many of the high school students I accompanied had a real fetish for the music of Stephen Sondheim.  Knowing he wasn’t one of my favorite composers, they would sheepishly hand over their music notebooks open to a tattered Sondheim piece.  Several of the boys latched onto “Sorry Grateful,” a song with a melodic line and rhythmic feeling which are just as odd as it’s title.  Even though I heard the song dozens of times, I always cringed at the juxtaposition of these two words.  “Sorry” and “grateful” never seemed to work together in my mind.

Today, though, I feel as if they finally make sense to me, this odd combination of emotions piggy-backed on top of each other.   Perhaps I’m feeling sorry enough for myself this Thanksgiving Eve that I can tap into the memory of adolescent angst which serves as a magnet for introspective songs like these.

You’re always sorry
You’re always grateful
You’re always wondering what might have been…

You’re sorry-grateful
Why look for answers
Where none occur?

You always are
What you always were…

Confession time.  I’m one of those people for whom holidays are simply – alright, I’m going to say it – agonizing.  I fall into a huge, funkous depression every year around this time, and it lasts clear through until January 2, when I heave a big sigh of relief, pick myself up, dust myself off, and start living again. 

This may have its roots in the horrendous holiday celebrations I was forced to endure when my in-laws were still around.  My father in law, an evangelical charter member of the John Birch Society, usually launched into his “Armageddon” speech right about the time we passed the first platter of turkey.  My mother in law would do her best to quiet him, which usually involved her own brand of excoriating criticisms and declamations.  My husband would continue eating through gritted teeth, until, grim faced, he would push angrily back from the table.  “Enough!” he would  shout.  “I can’t take this anymore.”

Ah, yes.  Sorry grateful.

My anathema toward the holidays could also stem from a regrettable pattern of childhood illness which always found me laid low at Christmas time with bronchitis or asthma.  Whether it was the cold weather, the forced air heat in the furnace, or (as my mother insisted) too much excitement, I was inevitably too sick to attend the annual Christmas party with all my paternal aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Unbeknownst to my mother (whom I’m sure thought I was just as glad as she was to be spared this hoopla) I was heartsick every year when I had to stay home in bed while my dad went off alone to the party.  I didn’t care so much about the sackful of presents he brought back for me…I wanted to be right smack in the middle of all those noisy kids and laughing adults.  Instead, I was tucked safely into my bed at home, slathered with Vicks while the vaporizer chugged and hissed, filling the room with hot, moist steam.

Ah yes.  Sorry grateful.

Where’s the grateful part? you ask.  Well, I’m aware I have a good life – always have.  I’m grateful for my health, my relative wealth, my home(s), and most of all, the people who love me.  But every holiday season, I go looking for something that just isn’t there.  A sense of well being or belonging, a feeling of excitement or anticipation – all the things that the world prods us to hope for during this season.  I keep hoping it’ll turn up, but it never seems to be there.  This year, with my family more fragmented by distance than ever, that elusive spark of holiday happiness seems completely out of reach.  More and more, I feel myself turning inward, longing for a closet to crawl into for the next six weeks, so I can come out into the clean light of a new year with all that holiday nonsense cleaned up and tossed in the dust bin where it belongs.

Sorry grateful. 

All of life is an alternating pattern of sorry grateful, everyone knows that, and Stephen Sondheim was only one of many composers who capitalized on this dichotomy.  I really want to be happy during the holiday season, I’m really sorry that somehow I just never can be.

And I’m truly grateful when it’s over.


8 thoughts on “Sorry Grateful

  1. Not so much Thanksgiving, but Christmas is like this for me. As the years pass though, I’m learning to reshape my picture to one that’s in line with my reality…that helps. Best wishes to you…

  2. Becca, I marvel that you can bring simple truths into the light.

    Maybe that thing you look for during the holidays that isn’t (usually) there might glimmer, might wink into life, this year. Why?

    Well, I say this all the time, but it’s true – you’ve brought together an on-line workshop and though I haven’t a clue who anyone really is – couldn’t pick out any one of you in the crowd – you have done so very much for me, for many of us – in little invisible ways.

    I raise a glass in holiday salute to Write on Wednesdays and to you and to your abiding kindness.

  3. This post resonates with me. I love New Year’s Day because all the fuss is over, and because there always seems to be fresh hope. The family holidays are very difficult, though. I hope you and yours have a peaceful Thanksgiving, Becca.

  4. I really have a love/hate relationship with holidays as well. For similar reasons, albeit different circumstances.

    We now have very laid back holidays, but sometimes that rankles. I wonder if my son won’t have good holidays because we don’t do more.

  5. I have always felt a bit like this once my kids lost that child wonder. I’ve decided this year I’m going to chose to embrace the parts I love about the holiday. Decorating, eating holiday foods and being grateful. I’m forcing my inner scrooge out of the closet. I’m keeping negative family away and will reinvent my Christmas.

    It’s not going away, so let’s make it our own. Want to join me? This year of all years we need to find joy where we can. XXOO

  6. The holidays are always a mixed blessing, still a joy, but filled with expectations that seem to increase every year. It is a relief to reach the barren landscape of January.

  7. Although the holidays don’t bother me in the way you describe, I also find myself longing for a “belonging” during the holiday season. I have no brother’s and sisters, my parents are gone, my only cousins are up in years and a whole state away. I want a holiday season like in The Waltons where there are lots of family members who like each other and friends gathered around the table.

    Years ago when I was growing up we went to my aunt and uncle’s home for Thanksgiving and they came to our house for Christmas. When I was a young adult they ended the tradition by moving to Florida and I think I always held it against them. They took away my family holiday tradition and left me and my parents alone. They’re also gone now and Christmas is just me, Daddy Dawg, and my ex who is still on good terms. Daddy Dawg has family but his mother has never been one to be hospitable in a family home tradtion sort of way and whatever we do with them during the holiday season just isn’t the same. I long for the Christmas gatherings I’ve never really had.

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