Why is the most wonderful time of year so depressing?

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I remember when I loved this time of year.

My memories of Thanksgiving are peppered with car trips literally over the river (either the Mississippi or Missouri, depending on which side of the family we were visiting) and through the woods to a grandmother’s house.

I close my eyes and can see through the VW van windows the trees rushing past, many still clinging to their golden and orange leaves, some already stark wintry silhouettes against a cloudy November sky.

My memories are of good smells and laughter, cheek pinches from elderly relatives we saw only once a year, too much pie and the dim roar of a parade or football game emanating from an ancient television.

My birthday fought with Thanksgiving for attention, and some years, they shared the day. Those were the special years, the years my mom would tell me the whole country was celebrating my birthday with a day off from work and school and a New York City parade to boot! I felt pretty special.

And then I grew up. And the grandmothers died, along with the other relatives we saw on Turkey Day. And it became not as much fun to mark each passing year, to realize I’m now the age my maternal grandmother was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

When November dawns each year, my heart feels heavy. I never wanted to feel this way, to struggle to celebrate the present because I can’t forget the past. I spend my working life now helping others leave their pasts behind so they can move forward, but I’m having a hard time doing that myself.

One thing my new career as a therapist has taught me is that I’m not alone is clinging to these idyllic visions of past holidays. Many folks wish for what they remember as the salad days, happier times when no one fought and the turkey was perfect and the whole scene looked like something out of a painting.

And for that, I’m blaming Norman Rockwell.

He’s an easy target. For one thing, I don’t know him personally. And for another, he’s dead.

But seriously – think about it. He painted scene after scene of an idealized America. His paintings showed the America we always wanted, and the one that stands out in my mind is that of the Thanksgiving holiday:

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This is what I think of when I remember my childhood holidays.

Yet a few weeks back, I heard an interesting story on NPR about Norman Rockwell, best known for his idyllic images of America that graced so many covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell grew famous painting life in Stockbridge, Mass., which became a stand-in for Anytown, USA. The neighborly police officer. The schoolteacher. The kindly doctor. The postman.

Rockwell lived with his family in this quintessential New England town – that fact is well known. But what isn’t so well known is that he moved his family there so his wife, an alcoholic who also suffered from depression, could receive treatment at the Austen Riggs Institute, a psychiatric facility.

And Rockwell became an Austen Riggs client, too, seeking treatment from the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose Theory of Psychosocial Development became a cornerstone of the study of human behavior.

In the NPR story, author Deborah Solomon explains what Rockwell was doing when painted his famous depictions of American life: “”I think he painted a view of America as a caring, concerned place,” Solomon told NPR report Robert Siegel. “He certainly was not painting his own reality, but he was painting, I think, his longing.”

His longing is everyone’s longing, though. Don’t we all want to only remember the good times or think of life as it should be, not how it sometimes is?

This year, our immediate family had to change our Thanksgiving plans. For the past several years, we’ve had the main meal with my husband’s side of the family, then driven to my parents’ farm for the rest of the weekend.

But a variety of events conspired against us this year, and we aren’t going to the farm. Which was OK with my husband and me, since we could use the extra time at home to catch up. But our elder son expressed deep disappointment.

“Honey,” I said, trying to comfort him, “sometimes it’s crazy there. And it’ll be cold, and we’d all be stuck inside. Remember how you and your cousins sometimes fight?”
Nope, he said. He didn’t remember that at all. He just remembered the good times.

Which made me realize that’s what I’m doing, too. If I try really hard, I can remember the Thanksgivings past when we had some family debacle in the middle of dinner, or the time a distant uncle showed up drunk, or the year my mom dropped the turkey on the floor (much to my dad’s delight, since he can’t stand poultry anyway.)

Maybe Norman Rockwell had the right idea. Just long for the good times and try to forget the bad ones.

Think I’ll try that next year.

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One thought on “Why is the most wonderful time of year so depressing?

  1. That was beautifully written and a sentiment I sort of share. “Sort of” in that I always longed for the big “Norman Rockwell-like” family with two sets of grandparents and cousins and multiple siblings, but pretty much had a peaceful, but brief Thanksgiving meal with two parents and a much older sibling. Said sibling left at age 18 so I pretty much consider myself an only child. Since I moved out of state, my Thanksgivings and Christmases with my own family were sporadic but pleasant. Interesting to know that Rockwell hoped for a family that existed on canvas and not necessarily what he possessed.

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