Opinion | Celebrating the light of my first Chanukah

Michelle Talsma Everson
Michelle Talsma Everson (Courtesy of Michelle Talsma Everson)

By Michelle Talsma Everson

A few weeks ago, a package arrived from my aunt. I opened it to find presents wrapped in light blue wrapping paper with white dots. The words, “Just a little care package for your first Chanukah! I’m glad you’re in our family!” were written beautifully in cursive.

I have yet to meet my aunt in person, but she has provided life-saving support during one of the most turbulent years of my life. Getting the package brought tears to my eyes, and it was a beautiful change of pace to cry happy tears.

I’m 35 and my son is 11, and this will be our first Chanukah.

Last March, my identity shifted forever when an at-home DNA test revealed that the dad who raised me wasn’t my biological father; instead of being fully Hispanic, as I’d always thought, I am half Jewish.

The aunt who sent the care package was the first person I connected with when I made my discovery. I’ve since met my new-to-me sister in person; I plan to meet my aunt and her family next year in person; and I have connected via video chat and text with other family members. What started as a search for my dad’s other children turned into an unexpected journey of mystery, grief and gratitude.

Chanukah will come with mixed emotions, but I’m used to that at this time of year.

In 2008, my mom died 12 days before Christmas; we held a bedside vigil as Christmas carols played. In 2010, my dad passed away 10 days before Christmas, my son’s first. So, the holidays have always felt heavy, but also light. I learned to mourn the anniversaries of my parents’ passing each year, but also to see the holiday season from my child’s perspective. I’ve learned to allow myself space to grieve, but I don’t allow myself to stay there too long as there’s a child to celebrate with.

Grief and gratitude exist side by side.

But this year I could feel the emotions coming earlier than usual. It’s my first holiday season post-DNA discovery, and it just feels heavy. I grieve for the relationships that didn’t turn out as expected and for relationships that have changed. But I am also grateful for amazing new family members who have embraced me, and my friends and family who have supported me through this journey — not just me, but us.

And I’m looking forward to Chanukah. After months of tears (both good and bad), therapy and navigating an experience that there’s not a lot of guidance for, I want some light.

I started by asking Jewish friends if celebrating a holiday that technically isn’t mine is OK. Because I’m Christian and new to all of this, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t offend, that I wouldn’t step into a space that wasn’t mine. Everyone was kind, friendly and welcoming.

I learned that the Festival of Lights is just that — a celebration of triumph, miracles, togetherness — of light in the darkness. I need a little of that.

So, I went over-the-top ridiculous one morning at 2 a.m. and bought my son a present for each night (I know, not needed!), a menorah and candles. My aunt sent me a dreidel, a book and a waffle maker with a dreidel imprint on it. She also sent presents for my son, who’s completely on board, because, let’s face it, what kid isn’t about more fun stuff to celebrate?

I still have some reading to do on exactly how to do this celebration. I’m not going to lie, I’ll likely do something incorrectly. But I will do some things that matter right: A friend from Tucson and I will Zoom one of the nights; my supportive family will join us one of the nights; my sister and I will coordinate one night as well; and, on the first night, I’ll likely Zoom in with family I didn’t know existed until this past spring as they gather to celebrate.

The last few months have been hard — so hard. (And trust me, I’m well acquainted with hard.) But even though everything seems upside down and inside out in my world, there are still so many examples of good in this story. I was texting with a friend, and she said, “Hold onto the bright spots.” I plan to do just that.

Grief and gratitude walk side by side, because without grief, the bright spots — comprised of amazing people and experiences — wouldn’t shine quite as brightly. So that’s what we plan to celebrate during our first Chanukah. It’s the Festival of Lights after all, and they continue to glow even when there’s no explainable reason why. That’s the miracle of all of this — let’s celebrate the light.

Michelle Talsma Everson is an editor, writer and PR pro. Her work can be seen at mteverson.com. This originally appeared in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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