Parting ways is on my mind. I think because I just parted ways with my family after our annual trek to southeast Idaho for a noisy Christmas together. These gatherings have evolved into a sweet, predictable pattern that we all count on and look forward to returning to the next year.
More than 20 years ago, our family Christmases had reeled out into a display of shocking holiday excess. One watershed Christmas morning, we found ourselves, after hours of gift opening, hip deep in wrapping paper and boxes, and we still hadn’t opened all the presents. We were exhausted and embarrassed and close to quitting Christmas.
Out of that bedlam, a self-appointed Boss of Christmas (my sister) raised an iron fist and imposed order and structure to our gift-giving and activities. We bent to the boss’ will and still do, even as the iron fist passed to a new generation this year.
The boss’ structure birthed traditions like a family game night, like forcing the youngest among us to put on a Christmas Eve show (they complain, but they love it), and a Christmas Day that includes a big Norwegian breakfast, and a mass departure to the latest blockbuster movie. I’m talking “Star Wars,” baby!
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Still, as much and as intensely as my family comes together, we must also always part ways. And when we do, we carry something deep with us into our individual lives away from each other.
This year, the partings began the day after Christmas. A nephew, his wife and toddler had a long, wintery drive through Utah back to New Mexico. But before they hit the road, as we’ve done since my father’s passing, we all gathered in the morning at his and my brother Michael’s side-by-side graves.
There we acknowledge with gratitude our extraordinary luck in having each other and them as family. And we toast them with my father’s favorite bourbon. Then we walk our children through the snowy cemetery and tell them the stories of their family that came before them. I’ve been making this trip my whole life.
We stop at my charming, horse-crazy grandfather’s grave. His last ride broke his body in a Bozeman rodeo arena while my mother was still a toddler. The spurs engraved on his stone have faded through the years, but his bold and fearless life helped shape who I am today. And I catch glimpses of his wildness in myself and my children.
Next to my grandmother’s grave is my Aunt Ida, who by all accounts was the most sane and saintly of the Idaho clan. She died at 18 of a deadly fever burning through the community in the days before public health. Her death sent my grandmother into labor. My mother was born four days later, and named Idaho.
A few steps away in one direction is my forever fun Aunt Betty and in another direction my baseball-loving Uncle Lester. Uncle Wesley, who I loved to watch clean and cook fish, is nearby, as is my wild Aunt Anna, who always had a harmonica in her purse.
We visit them all and recount our memories out loud; in the cold their stories carry on the vapor of our breath. To each grave, my brother carries a smoldering sage stick and we wash ourselves in the smoke.
When our circle breaks and we part ways, we take the connection to the loving and strong-willed people we came from; we take the warm brace of our farewell hugs and the smell of sage smoke caught in our clothes; and we take the bond of family that will last long after we do.
I write these words at the cusp of a brand new year, which is itself a kind of parting. In 2015, I took up the challenge of writing this nearly monthly column. And with this final column, I part ways with The Olympian Board of Contributors.
I bring into 2016 a deep gratitude for the opportunity to write about what I care about for a year and to work with an outstanding editor. I take a better understanding of myself and my family that strengthens and steadies me for what may come in the next year. I’m looking forward it. So should you.
Happy New Year.
Kellie Purce Braseth is strategic communications director at the city of Olympia and a member of the Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.