The Family You Choose | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Family You Choose

Over the past few years, helping decorate Mike McRee’s Christmas tree has become an annual event for my downtown family.

Over the past few years, helping decorate Mike McRee’s Christmas tree has become an annual event for my downtown family. Photo by Julie Skipper.

The holidays are a time of traditions, and of family. Some traditions stay the same year after year; other new ones start as our lives—and the people in them—change over the years. I’m sure I’m not alone in reflecting on the blessings of the people with whom I share my life as the holiday party season descends.

Not having any siblings makes me particularly appreciative of friendships and the people I consider the family I’ve made for myself as an adult. These are the friends who are like brothers and sisters to me, on whom I’ve relied through the years for unconditional support. They are my downtown neighbors who are like a sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes rowdy family (or fraternity). There are the folks with whom I work on efforts to make this city a place we can all enjoy and love to live, who inspire and challenge me. And there’s a Special Someone, too. Around the holidays, well, we all get together and celebrate. A lot.

I suppose Thanksgiving serves as the jumping-off point to holiday traditions and celebration, but it’s never been a big deal in my family, particularly after my mom’s parents’ passing. Let’s face it: Three people do not have any business cooking a whole turkey. This is why I nodded with only-child understanding when Toni Cooley told me she and her parents ate sandwiches for Thanksgiving and said, “The last two years, we ate at El Portrillo.”

This year, though, I decided something more traditional would be nice. My downtown apartment is too small to accommodate a dining-room table, but luckily, I was able to use another downtown apartment with more ample space. Thanksgiving this year included homemade soup, turkey breast, roasted vegetables and football watching with loved ones. It was simply lovely, and set the tone for what’s become a holiday season of gratitude and love.

The following night brought what’s become another annual tradition—the decorating of Mike McRee’s Christmas tree at the apartment above Underground 119. Because I have a secret love of stringing lights, three years ago I volunteered to assist with his. Now, it’s my annual job. Because I think every occasion is better as a party, I invite a group of downtowners to join in the decorating.

As Christmas music played, a group of Mike’s friends and several downtown couples enjoyed each other’s company. This year, there was even a child, which made the holiday spirit even brighter. After trimming the tree and popping a bottle of prosecco as Mike put on the topper, we sat down to a pasta dinner over good conversation. Looking around at the table full of friends of all different ages, races and life experiences, I was grateful that we could all come together.

And then there are friends who reappear. For a number of years, downtown residents knew Raymond as the homeless man who washed our car rims. Raymond was always polite, and kept an eye out on things in the neighborhood, but like many of the homeless population, he struggled with substance addiction. Nonetheless, we did what we could to help him, and considered him a friend—he even helped me move from one downtown property to another. One memorable year, we invited him to join us for our annual neighborhood Christmas party. He dressed as Santa Claus and sang Christmas carols with more gusto than I’ve ever heard.

Downtowner Michael Rejebian was always particularly fond of and good to Raymond. About two years ago, Raymond disappeared, and I know that Rejebian often wondered about him. Last week, he was standing outside his building when he saw a man pull up in a car with a woman and smile at him. After a moment, Rejebian realized that it was his old friend, Raymond. He’s married now and has completely turned his life around. I’m so happy for him, and grateful that he serves as a reminder for why we shouldn’t give up on people.

And so, as the Christmas parties continue and New Year’s plans are made, I hope that all of you take time during your traditions to be grateful for the people you’re with—the family you were born into and the friends and family that you’ve chosen.

I know I will.

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