The traditions they left behind

Shirley Hixson's tasteful table decorations make an appearance as her family gathers to celebrate her birthday.

Holiday traditions are built on memories: Grandma fixing up a pecan pie like only she can; Grandpa reading holiday stories by the fire; Uncle Larry dressing up as Santa while you and your cousins pretend to believe he's the real deal.

But what happens when those loved ones pass away? Celebrating the holidays after a death in the family is bittersweet, but keeping their memories - and traditions - close can bring much-needed peace this time of year.

Here, locals share stories of their departed and show how remembrance can bring new meaning to the season.

The Merged Tradition

For Michael Hankins, 48, special occasions have always been tinged with tragedy.

The day before he turned 6, his mother lost her battle against leukemia. He no longer celebrates his birthday.

Six years later, his father was killed in an accident just two days after Christmas. The Yuletide season is now a time of mourning.

With so many should-be-joyous occasions turned sour for Michael and his older sister, Tammy, the two became fiercely protective of Thanksgiving, the only remaining holiday in which they could find solace.

Every November, Michael would journey back home to Spencer, Tennessee, from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, or whichever city he found himself living in during his young-adult years. There, he and his sister would cook up a storm. The work would begin the day before Thanksgiving, with the two siblings side by side in the kitchen, talking, laughing and squabbling as they concocted elaborate meals and enough desserts to feed a small army.

"We would just have these huge spreads that no one could ever finish," Michael laughs.

By the time they sat to eat with Tammy's husband and her three young children on Thanksgiving Day, the siblings would be simultaneously exhausted and elated by their time spent together.

"It was kind of like a special time together that we got to share with each other. It was just a big deal for us to spend that time together," Michael says, a hint of sorrow creeping into his voice. "Those were truly some of the best memories I have of my sister."

In January 1996, Tammy had a cerebral aneurysm. She was 29 years old, the same age their mother had been when the cancer took her life.

"There was no warning and no signs," Michael says of his sister's passing. "I just woke up the next morning and my aunt and uncle came to my house and told me she had passed away."

For the next six years, he stopped celebrating Thanksgiving, too.

"It was just it was so hard to not have her there being a part of it," Michael says.

It wasn't until 2011, when he met his now-husband, George, that Michael found himself being pulled back into the holiday spirit by his new family's traditions.

Each year, the star of the Thanksgiving event was Michael's mother-in-law, Shirley Hixson, who planned each and every detail of the meals to the T.

"It wasn't simply shooting a text to say, 'Hey, can somebody bring rolls?'" Michael says. "She would sit down and plan how the meals should be, and they would meet to discuss who was bringing what."

Of particular interest to Shirley was the table decor. She took great lengths to ensure that every bread plate was positioned just right and that the cutting edge of each dinner knife was facing its respective plate, but her focus was about far more than just providing a formal plate setting.

Adorning the dinner table each Thanksgiving were a tasteful collection of what Michael likes to call "little extras" - the bronze pumpkin centerpieces she and her husband, Everett, had found in a little shop in Europe, for instance. Or the silverware set she had picked out when she and Everett got married because it was identical to her mother's set, which Shirley knew she would one day inherit.

Each item on the table was deliberately chosen not only to impress, but also to tell a story, Michael says.

"I always 'oohed' and 'aahed' about the way she set the table," he laughs. "She always went out of her way to make these little gestures that people just don't do anymore. I think people just put food on the table and maybe put some flowers on the table and that's it. She made it special."

Shirley's penchant for elaborate furnishing meshed perfectly with her new son-in-law's compulsion for elaborate baking, a tradition he'd finally revived from his Thanksgivings with Tammy, resulting in a new holiday custom of sorts.

Each year, Michael's health-conscious mother-in-law would beseech Michael to bring fewer cheesecakes to the dinner table. Each year, he would gleefully disobey.

Michael laughs as he recalls the weeks leading up to last year's Thanksgiving, when he overhead George on the phone with his mother. As was now practically part of the tradition, Shirley was chiding Michael's proposed dessert offerings. This time, however, he could hear Everett, an unabashed fan of Michael's pumpkin squares and caramel cakes, chanting "No restrictions!" over and over in the background.

Finally, after years of misfortune, Michael felt like he had once again found his family. So his heart broke once again when Shirley passed away this August shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

"This Thanksgiving's going to be really hard. It's going to be a struggle because she truly was the center of that family," Michael says.

Still, just as he kept the tradition he'd built with his sister with him, Michael has no intentions of letting Shirley's traditions fall by the wayside. The epic spreads prepared with Tammy and the meticulous table-setting insisted upon by Shirley will continue to be Thanksgiving staples for him, he says. Michael hopes to encourage the Hixson family to keep those precious customs alive this year, and he's already begun sharing his and Tammy's tradition with his sister's three children - often borrowing Shirley's table linens to make sure the meal is extra-special.

The Family Recipe

As a caterer, Mary Jo Keith was well known among friends and family for the delectable dishes and exquisite desserts she could whip up from scratch.

As her daughter, Susan, prepares to face her first Thanksgiving since her mother's passing, there's one recipe she knows she will miss the most: her turkey dressing.

A constant favorite, Mary Jo's dressing recipe had been passed down for three generations, starting with Susan's great-grandmother, Suzie, for whom Susan was named. Over decades, Susan watched her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother grow their own herbs and bake their own loaves of bread for the dish. They would then let the bread sit out for the perfect amount of time so that the dressing's bread cubes were nice and firm.

"[Mom] always made double portions of it because we have a big family and everyone would just plow through it," Susan laughs.

Last year, at age 75, Mary Jo decided it was time to pass the family recipe on to her daughter. As the two began their preparations on Thanksgiving morning, Mary Jo turned to Susan, who was whipping up a batch of deviled eggs.

"You need to come over here and watch me do this," Mary Jo said as she began to make her dressing. "I'm probably not going to be here next year."

Having lived with her mother for the past 10 years following the death of her father, the very suggestion broke Susan's heart.

"Mom! Stop it!" she told her. "You're going to be here. You're going to outlive me, probably!"

Still, her mother insisted, but Susan wouldn't hear it.

"I said, 'I ain't doing it, I'm not listening to that,' and I wouldn't go watch her. Then, sure enough" she pauses as she recalls the heart attack that took her mother's life just three months later.

Susan has thought about that Thanksgiving morning conversation a lot since then.

"I just feel like the Lord had maybe given her insight that that was her last time," she says. "And that recipe is going to die with her, because I have no clue how to make it."

Though, Susan has not given up hope.

"I don't know that I've ever seen her dressing recipe, but I'm going to try to see if I can find it, and I'm going to try to make it," she says with a determined smile.

While eager to keep that piece of her mother alive, Susan hopes to also come up with a few new traditions to add to the existing ones she holds dear, which she believes will help with the grieving while honoring Mary Jo's legacy.

The Last Christmas

Even though the grief is still fresh, it's hard for Curtis Ottinger, 57, to recount his older brother's last holiday season without laughing.

Last year, during Del's final Christmas with the family, which included the four Ottinger brothers and their families, Del was bursting with "over-the-top silliness," remembers Curtis. He grins as he recalls a lively game of Heads Up!, when his 58-year-old brother was jumping up and down in the middle of the room as he attempted to act out scenes that would help players guess the word depicted on the smartphone held to their foreheads.

"He had the best time. I've never seen him laugh so hard and carry on such silliness and foolishness and craziness!" Curtis laughs.

Of course, the behavior wasn't out of character for Del. His antics that day were a reflection of his fiercely competitive nature, says Curtis. Del was that way when he played tennis, softball or golf. And he was that way when a sudden case of pancreatitis put him in the hospital less than a month after Christmas last year.

"He did not like to lose," Curtis says. "I think that might have been one of the reasons why Del held on for 22 days even though he was on life support and there was really no hope. I think he was fighting because he was tough and he was not one to give up easily."

Looking back at his last Christmas, Curtis realizes that night would never have happened if not for Del, who orchestrated the entire gathering.

Having lost their father the December prior, the four Ottinger brothers had more than enough reason to feel devoid of Christmas spirit, but Del refused to let them wallow.

"He kept saying, 'We need to get together, guys. When are we going to get together?' He was the one that wanted to do it so bad," says Curtis. "Had he not pushed for that, we probably would not have chosen to get together as a family, and I'm so thankful that we did that, not knowing that he was going to leave us."

Now, as the holidays approach, Curtis says he knows there will be tears. But he also knows those tears will give way to smiles as they remember Del's over-the-top silliness and competitiveness - memories that remind them to always make time for family and to cherish each moment as if it could be the last.