The Matriarch and Traditions, Death and Change – by Cheyenne S. Lemm. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and

The Matriarch and Traditions, Death and Change – by Cheyenne S. Lemm. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and


(A four generation picture. [left to right] My grandma holding my niece, my mom, and my sister.)

Like so many other families, the planning and celebration of holidays was dominated by my grandmother. She was in charge of deciding the menu, which didn’t often change much. She would delegate tasks to other family members and we would fall in line. She would decide when to begin eating and when the celebration was over. She was the glue that held different parts of the family together and ensured we got together a few times a year to eat well and enjoy each other’s company. For some of us she was a second mother. She seemed to always be making sure we got something for our birthday, Christmas, or Easter.

In her older age she relinquished the role of doing the large share of cooking for our gatherings. Some years it was a combination of my mom and older cousins, sometimes my sister was involved. In the last few years of her life, my sister and her fiancé moved in to help with her end of life care, this seemed to hand the task of cooking holiday meals at grandma’s house to my sister. This is where I come in, I was co-cook for a few of these meals and I always was home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The job is easily adoptable because my grandma taught all of us to cook her recipes, we know them by heart and without measurement.

My grandma passed away last August, days after her 83rd birthday. Fortunately we were able to care for her until the very end. A loss of a loved one so dear to us left us reeling. Many firsts were now in the form of “first _____ without grandma.” We didn’t have the energy to hold a large family Thanksgiving. I didn’t celebrate my birthday, I wouldn’t have a wacky cake or brownies. I was a little apprehensive about Christmas and New Year’s, two holidays I had almost always spent in the company of my grandma. Christmas was a time to spend time around loved ones and eat an unreal amount of food, while New Year’s was always celebrated with a thimble full of brandy to bring good luck in the upcoming year.


(Christmas cookies galore.)

Christmas was different. It wasn’t bad, but it was new. My mom, sister, and I made many batches of cookies on Christmas Eve. We decorated the tree, and this year it featured “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments. Our Christmas was very much about us being together as a family, but also about my niece. Spending so much time watching her open her presents made my top 10 most memorable holiday memories list. New Years was fun and goofy, my sister and I had a few drinks to celebrate my new legal rights as a 21 year old, and we even took a family picture complete with cheap, sparkly crowns.


([left to right] Me, my brother in law, my niece, and my sister on New Year’s Eve.)

The role of patriarch skipped a generation, as my sister now seems to be the one to take on the full role of organizing holiday gatherings, though I am always available to stir things and ‘baby sit’ a turkey or ham. I know that because my grandma is gone, our family gatherings will not be as large as they used to be; rather they seem to be more intimate, immediate family celebrations. As I look forward to Easter with my sister, brother in law, brothers, niece, and parents I am both nervous and excited. No longer will I see 20 plus cousins at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I am grateful I have my parents, siblings, and my niece to make new traditions with.

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83 responses to “The Matriarch and Traditions, Death and Change – by Cheyenne S. Lemm. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and

    • Maria Nowak

      Wow, what a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing. I think a lot of people can relate to the traditions your family has. My grandma is also a very important person in my life, and it seems she has the same role as your grandma did. I am very fortunate to still be blessed with her presence, and every year I look forward to going to her house for holidays to celebrate. My grandma is also the glue that seems to unite my family together, which makes her that much more amazing. Does your family still come together just as much as when your grandmother was present? I think it’s hard for everyone to accept such a tough loss and try to find who they are during those times of coming together without such a strong person. Thank you again for sharing this story.

  1. McKenzie Ketcher

    For me, death is a hard concept to grasp, and once it occurs thing generally aren’t the same. I can easily relate because my grandparents are also the glue in my family and I can’t imagine a holiday without them. My grandpa is currently very sick, so I can imagine things in my life are about to change a lot as well. Family is a blessing, and taking as much time to spend with them is very important.

    • I hope you are able to spend a lot of time with your grandpa. I haven’t had a grandpa in my life since I was 15 and I cherish every memory I had with both of mine.

  2. Matt Breeze

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother! The matriarch of a family is always a powerful position on both sides of my family. They hold the family together and bring everyone to the same place while also being, at least most of the time, a voice of reason. At least thats how it is in my family. I really enjoy how you talk about the traditions being handed down and your pictures of multiple generations. Keeping traditions and learning from the older generation and teaching them to the next generation is an experience unlike any other. Thank you for this piece.

  3. Jenna Algoo

    I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like an integral part of your upbringing was lost in your grandmothers passing. However, I love hearing stories of making it through times of sadness and heartbreak; such as this! You and your family have bounced back in such a wonderful way. While change is hard, its really admirable to me that you wrote about such an intimate and hard time of change. Thank you!

  4. Sofia Pineda

    In my family, and I would even say my culture, elders are given the utmost respect. They are often seen as wise and generous individuals. My relationship with my grandpa was very strong, and ever since he left everything has changed. This was my first Christmas with out him and it was different – something that will take time for me to get used to.
    However, my family has avery special bond – all of my cousins and I grew up together. So every time we get together to celebrate any holiday or birthday we remember our grandparents are thankful for teaching us the importance of family.

  5. Sarah Burton

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am very sorry for your loss. I think that it is great that your sister is able to continue the traditions, even though it will never be the same as when your grandmother was alive. My grandmother is also the one who keeps the family together for all of the holidays and cooks a large meal for everyone. I have no idea who will take over the family tradition when she passes. It is great that your family has a strong bond and will hopefully be able to keep up the traditions in honor of your grandmother!

    • It seems that because my grandmother was wheelchair bound in the last few years of her life, we had a period of transition where we figured out how to host family get-togethers with the guidance of grandma. We were truly blessed to have spent so much time with her, I hope you have many more years with your grandma!

  6. Gina Palmi

    This is something that is very relatable to me. My grandpa passed away a couple of years ago and it’s been really hard. My grandma doesn’t do the things she used to anymore and a lot of the time she asks someone else to host holiday gatherings. This is challenging because it seems like no one can get an entire family together the way a grandma can. But while it is different, family is still family and we all must adjust.

    • We had this issue when my grandpa passed away 6 years ago, but we bounced back from that with grandma’s firm spirit. I know that change is hard, but it sounds like your family is doing its best to adjust. Thank you!

  7. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. Change is not easy, especially when so many tasks remind you of the person who once did them. It is wonderful though to have those memories of your loved one. Whenever you have a Christmas dinner or a birthday celebration you can think about that person and how you celebrated so many days with them. When a new person takes the place of someone who has passed away, it is difficult but there will soon be a new normal that will fall into place.

  8. Holly Kampa

    Cheyenne, thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry for your loss. The loss of a loved one is never easy. As time goes on traditions change, but I’m glad to see that you continue and adapt you family traditions. Every holiday my family gets together and eat a big meal, share stories, and each other’s company. It’s hard to think about what family get togethers will be like once my relatives are no longer with us. I know I will try my best to carry on our family traditions. Thanks again for sharing!

    • I’m glad to hear you still have a large gathering, such fun! Carrying on traditions can be as small or as big as you want them to be and I’m glad you are dedicated to that task.

  9. Emily Ciernia

    Cheyenne, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I can relate to this story because my grandmother passed away a few years ago and it was definitely a big shift our family. Instead of huge gatherings at her house, all of the aunts and uncles/family kind of went our separate ways and see each other very rarely, probably about once a year. It is sometimes difficult to change those traditions because they have been a part of our lives for so long. But it is nice to hear that you are making new traditions and memories with your family!

    • Grandmothers seem to be a special brand of adhesive. Is your immediate family still practicing all the main components of your holiday gatherings? I think this new, more intimate style of gathering is a blessing in itself.

  10. Elisabeth Bergstedt

    Even though it is under sad circumstances, I am happy to see you have made the most out of this big change in your family. It is so unbelievably hard to lose someone that is special to you, but it is very important to cherish the memories and do things in her name…as you are with your new holiday traditions! I also lost my Grandpa this September, so our Christmas was new also. It was the first year we didn’t celebrate Christmas day in Madison with all my Dad’s side of the family…which is very large! Instead we just had a small, intimate Christmas with just my parents, siblings, and I. Although it was different and I missed the big celebration, I accept the new tradition and will cherish the memories I have with my Grandpa.

  11. Rachel Reicher

    Thank you for sharing your story, Cheyenne! This is quite similar to what I experienced the past two years with the passing of my great grandmother. She always hosted a very large Christmas Eve party at her home, and when I mean always, it was 40 years tradition. When she passed our family did not really know what to do with ourselves. Do we continue the family get together? If so, where and who would continue the tradition? Luckily, my mothers cousin was able to step up and host this tradition each year in her home. Similar to you Cheyenne, the party seemed smaller and less attendees but the important part was that we tried our best to continue a long-standing tradition of the Christmas Ever party my great grandmother once hosted.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your loss. The continuance of your family gathering must be a great comfort, especially knowing you were trying to honor your grandma’s life.

  12. Sandy Davidson-Hunt

    I am very sorry for you loss but thank you for sharing the account of your family’s transition. Change is never easy, especially when it comes in the from of the loss of a family member. Despite this, it is good your family and yourself have traditions passed on from your grandmother that will honour her life. I am sure over time everything will go back to feeling normal and the thoughts of your grandmother will be nothing but gratitude and good memories.

  13. Jacob Carson

    The holidays have always been a time for family and friends. In the loss of someone important to the traditions we build up over the years we find ourselves with more questions than answers, but the fact that these holidays will remain a bonding time with family and friends allows us to carry on. We celebrate the lives of those important to us by keeping their memory alive in stories and traditions that they gave to us. So in a way they really never are excluded from the traditions of the future.

  14. Kyle Dosan

    Your story is one that just about any person can relate to. Personally, I have noticed how different holidays are with the passing of loved ones. It is very cool that you and your sister are starting to carryout and plan the special family occasions. Sounds like your grandmother had taught you and your sister very well, since you all know the recipes by heart. Traditions tend to fade away, and we are left with the memories of the people you spent time with. Now it is time to start new traditions with your family. Thanks for sharing your story!

  15. Catherine McConnell

    This is a wonderful article that beautifully articulates how family traditions shift as children get older and dynamics change. I am so glad you were able to be together with your extended family for so long. Personally, my extended family is so large we never made the effort to be together so I am partially aware of the joys of having everyone around. I hope you continue to develop new holiday traditions as your own immediate family gets larger and find out what you guys as leaders of a family will choose to celebrate and how.

    • Thank you, Catherine. At times I saw the large gatherings as a burden, but now I only look back at them with fondness. I am excited for this new chapter and look forward to spending future holidays with my niece!

  16. Thank you for sharing your memories and traditions with your grandmother. I am very sorry for your loss. I agree that the matriarch of a family has the power to hold the family together. My Nana has just turned 93 and my relationship with her is very strong, despite being an ocean apart from her! I don’t know how many more celebrations I will get to share with her, but I know that I will cherish every remaining one. My Nana has been a widow most of life, raising her three children by herself. She has always stressed the importance of family and love, something I value and respect deeply.

  17. Andrea Ramler

    I am very sorry for the loss of your grandmother. I also lost a grandma who was very close to me, who I shared so much with. I loved hearing about your many traditions and memories you shared with her. It really helped me to self reflect and relate in many ways to your story. It also showed how much family traditions change as time goes on through generations. I think holidays is the hardest thing that I have had to deal with, without my grandmas presence. Its hard living without someone who was so influential but I just know she wouldn’t want me to morn, remember her in a happy way. Thank you so much for sharing it helps knowing that someone else is also facing what I have had to deal with.

    • I’m sorry to hear of your loss. I’m glad I could help you with your reflection. I found that by doing things my grandma enjoyed such as singing and drawing I feel closer to her.

  18. First off i am very sorry for your loss. Second off I think it is interesting that when your Grandmother died that the extended family didn’t meet the next holiday. What was it that kept them coming while grandmother was there? Im sure your family is still very important I just found this odd. A huge part of my growing up was being handed down the time old recipes of my Great grand mama, grandmother, and my mom. While my grandmas are still living I hope to continue the large family gathering but the question is which sibling will take it up? will duties change?

    • These are all great questions. I think because each of my cousins had such a close relationship and tie with my grandma they felt untethered with her passing. Because my sister now lives at my grandparent’s home my immediate family still has our usual meeting place for holidays. I hope you have many years with your grandmothers!

  19. Nichole DeBoom

    Thank you for sharing such great memories. Death of a grandparent is one of those things that brings the whole family together one last time. Once my grandma passed, no holiday was the same and not everyone came. It seems as though grandparents are something needed to get everyone together and keep traditions going. Once they are gone the duty is put in our hands. Continue sharing your traditions, great story.

  20. Donovan Blatz

    I am very sorry for your loss of your Grandma. I’m sure there will always be a missing link to your holiday celebrations but I know she will always be there watching over you all and being there in spirit. It’s amazing how going from celebrating with so many people then going to your immediate family can be quite soothing and less hectic. My family and I just began to make our immediate family celebrations a tradition because my sister is expecting a baby soon so I know I am excited to watch the baby open presents just like you were. Thanks for the story!

    • Thanks, isn’t it interesting how a new generation and the loss of an older one changes our family so much? I am excited to teach my niece how to make my grandma’s famous wacky cake!

  21. Jessica Richart

    I am sorry for your loss Cheyenne! Going through a loss is never easy and it always seems harder on the holidays. Thank you for sharing your family traditions. It does sound very similar to my own. Fortunately I still have one set of Grandparents left and they are the ones who host all the holidays as well. It is hard to see a sense of tradition ending/changing as your loved one passed away, but it does not mean you can’t carry out her ways! Sure it won’t be exactly the same, but now you can put a little new with the old traditions.

    • Thank you, Jessica. From endings come new beginnings, or something similar is what grandma would have said. I hope to continue making yams with Christmas dinner for a long time!

  22. You’re so lucky to have been so close with your grandma. It’s amazing that love, a source of such incredible joy in our lives, can also cause the deepest pain. At least when she was with you, she gave you a strong sense of family and tradition, that you’ll then be able to carry on to future generations, which you illustrated beautifully. This was a great article, thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  23. Nancy Thao

    Thank you for sharing your story Cheyenne! It is a sentimental topic when it comes to losing a loved one and traditions at the same time. I think it is wonderful to share beautiful memories with a large group, but also very memorable when it comes to spending time with only immediate families. I am glad that you and your sister took the time to learn the recipes from your grandmother. It is something that you can definitely passed down to another generation and keep those recipes alive!

  24. Thomas Landgren

    I am so sorry for your loss Cheyenne. I feel like this is a problem many families face. I feel that once my grandma or my grandpa dies my family will go through a similar process as yours did. It is a scary thing to think about because change can be scary sometimes. But we should always look to the brighter side, you now have your niece to share these holidays with. Thank you for sharing this story and your traditions! Great Article!

    • Thanks, Thomas! Having her memory and our recipes will be a gift for the rest of my life. I look forward to passing them down to younger cousins as well as my niece.

  25. Cheyenne, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. My grandmother passed away when I was 13, the shift in family affairs happened almost immediately. All of the sudden, the table seemed empty, and not just where her chair usually was. I can still taste her baked beans!

  26. Courtney Banks

    Wow, what an amazing woman! Clearly she had a great, supportive, and loving family. My grandma is also the leader of holidays and it used to be my great grandma, who is super stubborn and I can’t believe that she has been allowing my grandma to take over. Holiday preparation is tons of work. I remember working with my grandma and being super tired after just making cookies! Cudos to your sister and your family.

    • Thank you, Courtney. The smaller gatherings this past holiday season allowed for a lot more relaxation and time to focus on my niece. She was an angel and taught us well.

  27. Sara Desrocher

    Thank you for sharing this story of your grandmother. It seems that you have a very close family that you can rely on. I have noticed gradual changes in my family that I was reminded of while reading your story. My cousins and I used to go to my grandma’s house for dinner once a week but as my grandma’s health has deteriorated we have had to stop that tradition. The roles that she played have slowly been passed down to the next generation.

    • I would say that my grandma had stopped cooking and baking about 10 years ago, but there were times when she’d grab a knife and tell me to go pick some rhubarb because she was ‘so stinking bored of sitting around.’ She loved to make rhubarb sauce, that was one of my favorite things in her last few years- her sheer refusal to be told no. I hope you still have plenty of time with your grandma!

  28. Nick Campbell

    This was a good way of remembering and paying tribute to your grandma. My family operates the same way, with my grandma leading in most family gatherings. I believe most families operate in the same way, with the elder family members making sure to gather on special holidays. I think this has something to do with those older family members understanding the importance of family.

  29. Roman Schnobrich

    Sorry to hear about the loss of such a close grandmother! I can tell she has some lasting impacts on her family and grandchildren, in a sense living on through all of you. Do you find yourself taking after her in any obvious ways? I’m glad you could create so many memories with her, I know I take my experiences with my grandma for granted and it’s a real shame.

    • In some ways my sister reminds me of my grandma, but I’ve been told I am just like my Gauma (my great grandma, though I have no memory of her). I do use the same lullabies as my grandma did with us, and of course I inherited her spectacularly messy form of cooking that doesn’t require true measurements. My piece of advice is to always let your grandma know you love her, it means a lot more than you would think.

  30. Bryce Gadke

    My apologies for the loss of your grandmother. I am in a very similar situation with my great-grandmother (the organizer and glue of our family) passing away a few days before Thanksgiving of this last year. The funeral and processions after were effectively the holiday gathering because everyone was too worn out from the funeral. Different is the only way to describe the following Christmas: the new place, not seeing her, and not enjoying the same dedication in food production. I appreciate how your grandmother taught many members of your family the recipes. That is extremely important in the preservation of her memory for you. Great article, thank you very much for sharing!

    • My condolences. I don’t have any memories of my great grandma, she was in charge of many celebrations, but my grandma took over as our family grew (I have an enormous family), and now we are rebuilding our structure it seems.

  31. Jena O'Byrne

    Thank you for sharing this nice story. It is interesting how the grandparents hold such an important role in families. They are what keeps families so closely bonded. Then when a grandparents pass away the roles change, a new family member fills that role. Even though a new person is filling the role, things are never the same. Traditions may be kept, or lost when you lose someone who did such a good job keeping them alive. Hopefully you and your family will be able to keep some of your grandmothers traditions alive so you can continue to pass them on.

  32. Thank you so much for sharing this. It makes me glad to hear that you’re able to hold on to your grandma through recipes. I also have lost my grandmother, and we have some of her recipes to look back to. Losing a loved one is such a hard thing to go through. Even almost a decade later, my mom and grandpa still feel the pain as if it was yesterday. Holidays seem so much different, but it is the food that helps our family remember her being there. Great job!

  33. Jodi Moran

    Cheyenne, thank you for sharing your story about your grandmother, she sounded like a great women. I never met my mom’s mom, and I am unfortunately not close at all with my grandma on my dad’s side. However, I do have a great aunt that I would consider to be a grandmother figure. It is so amazing how an older individual can have such an impact on ones life. They definitely show you how you want to act! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jodi, great aunts are amazing. All of my grandma’s sisters passed before she did but I have such fond memories of my great aunts Vivian and “gum lady” (Louise).

  34. Martti Maunula

    The loss of a loved one is always hard and always different depending on who you lose. I lost both my grandpas when I was in elementary school and each one definitely affected my family but in very different ways. On my dad’s side, my Pappa’s death hit him very hard as my Mummu has always had to rely on him since she has had back problems for most of her life from a card accident in your teenage years. I’m sure this contributed to our move from Canada to the States as we were much closer to both my grandparents.
    On my mom’s side it was hard but definitely easier as my Grandma has another son who lives very close to her and also she was able to be more independent as her health has fortunately been strong even into her 70’s. Loss affects multiple things in multiple ways, it also has a way of helping us to appreciate what we have left. It’s just terrible that it sometimes takes such a great loss to begin with to get us to notice what we used to have.

    • My grandma was on the decline for quite some time. We joke that she was so stubborn she got 2 extra years. All four of my grandparents have/had heart issues so whatever time we got with them seemed like a gift. My last remaining grandparent is my dad’s mom, she lives in Missouri and it’s hard to never see her. May you have many years left with your grandmas.

  35. Mike Zupfer

    Thanks for sharing about your grandmother. I faintly remember my grandma on my Mom’s side of the family and all i really remember is that she had Alzheimers. My grandma on my Dad’s side of the family i knew quite well and always looked forward to hanging out with her at family get togethers. She did live a jaunt away so some times it was hard to get out and visit with her. I know some of the traditions that my family holds today come from both sides of the family, but we have also lost some that they used to do.

    • Alzheimers is so very difficult, my grandma had it along with many other health issues. I’m sure if you asked more you’d learn a lot about your mom’s mom. Family histories are so interesting.

  36. Isabella Williams

    I relate so well to this article; my only grandmother (my only grandparent in general) passed away 5 days before my 15th birthday. She organized family holidays since my mother was born. After she was gone, the house was empty and sad on holidays. My family had a falling out with those who had just barely held on for my grandmother’s sake. But it’s new and different to create new traditions, new firsts. I’ll always miss unfolding several card tables for thanksgiving and Christmas though…

    • I lost my grandpa (who at that time was my only father figure) when I was 15. We were devastated. And again when we lost my grandma this past year. We still remember and celebrate. Wildrice and wacky cake will remain very important foods for me. I look forward to future holidays with my niece and my immediate family.

  37. Kyle Hellmann

    I have also experienced the same process as you have with the death of my grandparents. We would travel east to Ohio every year, but this past Christmas was the first time we didn’t make that trip. Its amazing to see how one person can be the glue that holds everyone together, and it can be hard for groups to fill that void. Thank you for sharing!

    • It was a new experience not having everyone in the family come to my grandma’s house this last holiday season, but in some ways I look forward to celebrating with my immediate family. Large family gatherings are wonderful, but so are intimate gatherings. Travelling for a holiday will surely be a memory that you can always hold onto!

  38. Carley Nadeau

    This is such a wonderful story; I loved it! I love it because of the tight family bond that your family encompasses. Also, you are so lucky that your grandmother taught you all her recipes. It is like even though your grandma has passed on, she is still there in the food (the cookies look lovely and delicious by the way). She is still there as you make new traditions with your family on the holidays, and that is a wonderful thing.

  39. Breena Alfredson

    I really enjoyed this story and made me feel the nostalgia of my family traditions. I remember the feeling that my family shared when my great grandmother was confined to the nursing home and was no longer able to join the whole family at the holiday gatherings. I can identify with that fear you expressed about feeling that things were changing. It’s very powerful to think about how families carry the traditions from the respected elders of the family and how that bring you all together. Thank you for this essay!

  40. Eleni

    Thank you for this wonderful article! It is very brave of you to share a personal story like this for people to connect with. I am very sorry for your loss, but I know that every downfall has the potential to bring about something beautiful and just as incredible. You said that your sister took over your grandmother’s roles (with you by her side) and that there was less people at your family gatherings, I think this will change as your family grows (you children and their children). You and your sister will play the role your grandmother played for you for them and the cycle will go on.

  41. Eleni

    Thank you for this wonderful article! It is very brave of you to share a personal story like this for people to connect with. I am very sorry for your loss, but I know that every downfall has the potential to bring about something beautiful and just as incredible. You said that your sister took over your grandmother’s roles (with you by her side) and that there was less people at your family gatherings, I think this will change as your family grows (you children and their children). You and your sister will play the role your grandmother played for you for them and the cycle will go on.

  42. Megan Bingham

    I am so sorry for your loss. I know how hard it can be to loose close family members. I enjoyed learning about your family traditions because they are similar to mine! I am a very big family person. I love spending time with family and continuing traditions. I think that this relates very well with our class discussion because it involves story telling and teaching of traditions. Thank you for sharing. Family is something special and a bond that can never be broken.

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