100: Traditions

100: Traditions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Traditions

Perhaps all the dragons in our life are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

I parked the car and stared at the Walmart entrance for a minute, not wanting to go in. I avoided Walmart as much as I could these days. It was the second week of November, and we were in full-fledged holiday territory. But I couldn’t even consider Thanksgiving or Christmas, because this year I didn’t know how to celebrate either of them.

My two-year-old son had been diagnosed with autism only a month earlier, although we’d known for a long time what the diagnosis would be. And, as many in the autism community are painfully aware, sometimes autism comes with peripheral issues — digestive sickness, seizures, allergies, and the like. Our diagnosis came with celiac disease and a host of food sensitivities. Any exposure to gluten, dairy, soy, or corn (even a single bite) would cause copious amounts of vomiting and an otherwise miserable little boy for the next week.

Once I finally made my way inside, I grabbed the dish detergent we needed and made my way across the store to the shampoo aisle. I paused by the newsstand. I saw cover after magazine cover, each heralding holiday tradition and cheer. How to make the perfect Thanksgiving stuffing. How to make the best Christmas cookies. That reminded me of the neighborhood Christmas cookie exchange party. Half-eaten cookies lying around everywhere, cups of cider waiting to be spilled, plus crowds, tons of noisy children, a grabby gluten-allergic two-year-old, and the probability of epic autistic tantrums. What a logistical nightmare! Probably better not to go. Another thing to avoid.

But it wasn’t the lack of cookies, parties, or stuffing themselves that bothered me — it was the lack of tradition. As a kid, I had things I looked forward to every year. Things that were the same every holiday season, even when I came home from college. If it couldn’t be extra church services (the crowds are a problem around high holidays), or cookies, or parties, or travel, then what could I give my children? What were Thanksgiving and Christmas going to look like for our family?

By the time I got back to my car, it had started snowing. First snow of the season. I can’t say I cared. These magical holiday bits and pieces felt like they would just float by us this year, maybe forever. I cried my way home.

My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter was shouting when I walked in the door.

“Mama, look at the snow. It’s snowing outside. There’s snow falling out of the sky. The snow is on the ground and on the car and on the stones and on the driveway and on my rock collection and in my room!”

“It’s in your room?”

“No. It’s outside on the grass and on the roof and on the cat and doggy!”

“Really, you see a dog outside?”

“No. I see the snow. It’s snowing outside and everywhere.”

Her excitement spilled over until we had her and her brother bundled up and ready to play in the inch of snow on the ground. My husband took them out while I made dinner.

I watched them tumble around and scrounge up enough snow to make a snowman, which they showed me through the kitchen window. They were all rosy-cheeked and runny-nosed, and even my little guy ran back and forth in the snow, tentatively bending over to touch it every five or six paces.

And that’s when a sudden inspiration came to me.

My mom had recently made mashed potatoes with almond milk, and I remembered thinking they tasted normal. Maybe that would work for hot chocolate. Did we have any almond milk?

Check.

Did we still have those allergen-free chocolate chips Grandma got for us?

A third of a bag. Check.

Voila! I poured almond milk in a pan and slowly melted chocolate chips into it. I’d expected them to lump up in a goofy way like most every food substitute seemed to do, but they dissolved like butter. “Ha!” I yelled. My first victory.

My family came tumbling in through the kitchen door, snow flying off scarves and boots, chattering and shouting about how it should snow forever. I triumphantly raised my chocolate spoon and cried out, “Hot chocolate! Who wants hot chocolate?”

The kids paid no attention, but my husband looked at me, shocked.

“You made hot chocolate? Can he have any?”

“Yes, dear. It’s safe.”

He laughed and started pouring while I began pulling off coats and hats. That’s when I realized my daughter was shouting about getting the Christmas tree out.

I looked at my husband. He smiled, and set to work with the kids.

Our boy was running in circles in the light of the Christmas tree, stopping to glance at it every so often and take a swig of hot chocolate from his Sippy cup. He picked up an ornament with bells on it and resumed his running, jingling. My husband and our little girl were clinking their mugs together in a toast to the first snow, Christmas lights glowing off their faces.

There it was. I thought it was completely impossible, but here, I was witnessing our first holiday tradition, everyone participating in his or her own way. And it was beautiful.

~Maura Klopfenstein-Oprisko

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