The lessons learned from experience

When I was growing up, my grandmother, "Teedy," lived with us.

Teedy introduced all kinds of exotic things to our lives, such as eating fish, putting salt on your cantaloupe, chewing with your mouth closed at the dinner table, and "The Golden Girls" on TV.

My sister and I both remember our grandmother being sort of like Judge Judy. She was tough and strong and fair, and surprisingly funny.

For class I once had to interview her for stories about what her life was like growing up. Teedy told me that when she was little she would sneak out of her room on Christmas Eve, unwrap all her presents, and then quietly rewrap them all before going back to bed.

A few moments after the story ended, Teedy took a little pause, and admitted that she continued this habit well into her adulthood, and certainly into her marriage. She never told, but I strongly suspect, that at 80 years old she was still sneaking out to have that private moment with her presents, in the dark, under the tree. She always claimed to love the Christmas cups and pins and magnets that we bought her; I think she just didn't like to be surprised.

Teedy always took charge of baking the Christmas cookies as well. We made sugar cookies every year, with the same cookie cutters. When I was about 3 or 4 I was finally deemed old enough to help mix the dough. I probably wasn't quite old enough to really be able to help, as Teedy kept having to tell me, "Zoe! Get your hair out of the dough!" Then later, with increasing frustration, "Zoe! I told you to get your hair out of the dough!" Finally, Teedy reached that pinnacle state of frustration when you think it's possible to reason with a small child: "Zoe! Can you imagine anything worse than finding a hair in your cookie?"

I was a very thoughtful child, so I considered this for a while. Finally I told Teedy, "Getting bit by a whale."

Now, as an adult I realize that I am very much like my grandmother. I'm impatient and don't like surprises. I like to know things before anyone else knows things, and I'm surprisingly tough, like the chicken I tried to make last night.

In some ways, I am also still very similar to my 3-year-old self. When I have a cold, I think, well, at least I'm not throwing up. When I'm throwing up, I think, well, at least I'm still able to sleep. When I burn the dinner, I think, luckily we live somewhere that has delivery pizza.

I'm continually thinking about how things could be worse. But I don't feel like I'm a pessimistic person; I think this trait makes me an optimist. I can always be happy in any situation, no matter how terrible, because it could always be worse, we could all get bitten by a whale tomorrow.

My son, Silas, will one day remember our Christmas traditions of half-heartedly putting up one small strand of lights, making yards and yards of paper chains with no place to put them, and leaving the Christmas tree up in the living room until Easter.

The way we celebrate our traditions doesn't just shape our memories of the holidays, but our very personalities.

Zoe Abel is always on a mission for the cheapest Christmas tree, and trying to pass it off as endearing in the style of Charlie Brown. She's burned one batch of cookies so far, and the Happy Holidays sign fell off the door. Nonetheless, son Silas is thrilled. You can contact her at

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