WORDS BY: RAMON LONTOK
PHOTOS BY: MALISSA RAMOS
Families are not about being picture perfect. Sometimes, we rarely get a picture, and when we do get that picture, the picture is not often what we expect.
“Get ready. I’m picking you up,” my best friend Joan said one Thanksgiving night, circa 2011.
I was alone for Thanksgiving that year, and it was not an entirely new scenario. Having lived through different cycles where my mother missed out on certain holidays for work, I had predicted the situation in advance.
“Come out,” Joan texted. She was parked out front.
Holidays are often reserved for families. They are reserved for the special type of dinner where the bad uncle makes a sexist joke. The same dinner where an aunt questions us about our relationship status, where siblings fight for power and attention, where we are forced to interact with the cousin we secretly hate without rolling our eyes at every word they say, all the while trying to chew our food in the presence of our racist grandmother.
For others, however, holidays are a time to sulk. They are a time for existential questions that not even Nietzsche could answer; a time to binge on holiday movies, a time for make-believe scenarios about, maybe, our future family, and a time to feel the irony of not having an actual family member by our side on a day specifically reserved for family.
Joan took me to her family Thanksgiving that night where her sister, Juvy, and her cousins Rica and Jordee were also in attendance. I have known Joan since the seventh grade, and have also developed a close friendship with her sister and cousins since the time I’ve known them, but that Thanksgiving was the very first holiday I had spent with them.
“Where’s your mom, Ramon?” Rica and Jordee’s mom, Auntie Lennie, asked.
“She’s at work, auntie.” She looked at me, half frowning and half smiling, before placing her arms around my shoulder. “Okay, well you go eat now.”
After dinner, the five of us—me, Joan, Juvy, Rica, and Jordee—met in the living room for an obligatory group photo. We sat on the couch and I forgot who took the photo, but I remember the caption Rica posted the minute she uploaded the photo on Facebook.
“Thanksgiving with the cousins and Ramon. He’s practically family.”
All of a sudden, I pictured dozens of Auntie Lennies giving me the exact the same facial expression I had received from the original Auntie Lennie earlier that Thanksgiving night, possibly asking the same question or something similar.
Where’s your mom? Where’s your dad? Where’s your family? Do you have a family?
Everything came back.
From my vantage point, those questions had their way of bringing back snapshots that made me resent the holidays. My mother had a responsibility to her family, and I understood that. My father was never around, and I understood that, too. But the picture of me not having a family? That one I never understood.
While the memory of that Thanksgiving often reminded me that, sometimes, being surrounded by people is the loneliest place in the world, it also reminded me of a mesmerizing picture I’ve always had in my head.
In the picture, there are two children opening presents by the fireplace on a Christmas morning. Their parents are cozying up on the nearby couch, while the grandmother sits by the Christmas tree, petting the old black cat. I wanted this picture, and perhaps more than anything, I wanted what it represented.
When my mother missed last Thanksgiving, I began to wonder how long it would take for the picture to develop, or if it would ever develop.
In one of my childhood photo albums, there’s a photo of me when I was around five or six, standing in front of a Christmas tree, dressed in garish '90s microfashion. The photo was taken at a Christmas reunion for my mother’s side of the family, and as I recalled the photograph, I had trouble remembering the young boy in it who seemed enthusiastic to be there for the holidays.
things you missed out on.
Instead, think about the things
you can do later.”
Looking back, it’s not difficult to imagine why the memory of that young boy had been pushed to the back pages of the album. In the years after that Christmas, there had been multiple events that never made it to the album, but were vivid enough that actual photographs were not necessary: my parents’ divorce, my mother’s struggles as a single parent, my father’s death, and the unbearable holidays that only a fragile family could bring.
After my parents divorced, my mother firmly believed in the idea that she didn’t need anyone’s help to raise her only child. And she was right.
When my mother wasn’t working in the nursing home, she was working at her weekend job as a private caregiver. When she wasn’t working, she would spend her days off buying groceries, running errands or managing the bills.
“Don’t think about the things you missed out on,” my mother said to me once. “Instead, think about the things you can do later.”
The first time I heard those words, I thought my mother was just being motherly, saying all the right things to comfort me. But as I replayed those same words, I began to realize that perhaps my mother was speaking from a place of familiarity where she, too, had once thought about the things she could no longer do anything about.
“I won’t be working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” my mother said last year. It was the same year she missed another Thanksgiving, and the same year I lost my father to heart attack.
When my mother told me she’d be home for Christmas, I felt a silent enthusiasm that, maybe, the little boy in the photograph from my childhood photo album was feeling at that moment.
Not wanting to spend a dull Christmas Eve that was defined by the kind of food we had on our table, I had decided to go out and rent a copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to play that night. After dinner, my mother and I went to my room, with our red velvet cakes for dessert, and watched the movie.
There’s a scene in the movie, my favorite scene, where James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, talks to Donna Reed’s Mary Hatch about his dreams. George wants to see the world, and at one point during the conversation, he asks Mary what she is dreaming about.
“What do you want? You want the moon?” George asks, looking into Mary’s eyes. “Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
I wanted the moon.
As the movie came to an end, I saw that my mother had fallen asleep next to me. It was past one o’clock, and already Christmas morning.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” I whispered to her.
Our Christmas was not picture-perfect, but I knew after early years of practice that holidays would never be perfect. Families, most of all, are never about being perfect, but more about appreciating time with one another, knowing how fragile moments can be and how limited time often is for the people we care about the most.
My mother and I didn’t miss out that Christmas, and I was glad for both of us. That Christmas wasn’t the mesmerizing picture I’ve thought about. But it was mesmerizing enough that being one step closer to the moon seemed possible.