Well, we still live in the double-wide,
But Bubba’s added on,
A bass-boat shed and a workshop,
And new flamingoes for the lawn.
We took down the front yard tire swing,
Now that Junior’s in the pen,
But it looks like a happy new year:
They moved him off death row again!
—Ray Stevens, Xerox Christmas Letter
I used to write a rather lengthy personal note on each Christmas card. I vaguely remember a time when this was a pleasure, in an era before the responsibilities of adult life kicked in so emphatically. Three years ago it had become a dreaded chore, one I simply couldn’t face. (This was compounded by my hand-making each card.) But I also couldn’t bear not to send Christmas cards. So, I did what our family had never done before: I wrote a holiday newsletter. Each year I confront the question anew. Is it tacky? In bad taste? Categorically offensive? Or does it depend on the content, the wording, the tone?
We’ve received many holiday letters. When H and I were first married, one grandly worded missive reported the husband’s acceptance of “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It was also noted that he already had a perfectly good job when this fantastic proposal came his way. We were quickly removed from that couple’s list, because we never sent a card (or letter) in return.
Most of the newsletters we receive are generous in spirit.The humor is self-deprecating, the tone is not boastful. They account essential family milestones, ages and interests of the kids, and a few funny incidents. Most of all, they refresh old friendships. They help maintain a real connection with those we can’t see on a regular basis. I enjoy and look forward to letters like these. I would worry if a regular writer didn’t send one. Was their year too dire for words? Or was our letter considered inappropriate? Did we sound smug, self-aggrandizing, too pleased with ourselves? Or, on the other hand, were we too pitiful or too boring for further correspondence?
In my first letter, I was hesitant to include anything of substance about my husband or me. He went to work and I moved the family’s stuff around. I was more comfortable writing about our daughter and dog. The next year was filled with bad news, which I tried to report in a comical way. Following that, there was a frightening medical diagnosis that nevertheless ended on a good note. This year has had fewer obviously low points, so once again I’m wary of sounding boastful. H doesn’t help. Each December, when I show him my first draft, he asks: Should we really send this? I know exactly how he feels, but I still get angry because I spent two days writing it.
Will it go out this year? Probably. But I’m not sure. Still pondering the question of the holiday newsletter. Maybe just one more revision.
This Thanksgiving, as for several years past, we will not be traveling. We will miss the blessing of giving thanks with our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. But the two sides of the family lie in opposite directions. Neither Atlanta nor Rochester, New York is an easy destination during this holiday season. The only easy destination, of course, is one in the immediate neighborhood, and we are fortunate to be heading there. We are grateful to our good friends who, once again, have invited us to their Thanksgiving table with their extended family. Our daughters have been in school together since Kindergarten, and we’ve grown close over the years. We know the day will be easy and pleasant. Thanksgiving with our gracious neighbors reminds us that friends are family, too.
As an adult, I’ve probably spent more Thanksgivings with friends than with family, due to the difficulties and expense of travel. During graduate school, I never flew home for Thanksgiving, but I was lucky to have friends who included me in their celebrations. I’ve spent the holiday in various spots along the East Coast, from South Jersey to Boston. One year I fell into a great house-sitting gig in a lovely Princeton neighborhood, and I was able to extend Thanksgiving hospitality to a group of international friends. Together we represented Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and the U.S. (Sweden, also, if I count my husband. We had recently begun dating, and he’s half Swedish. ) I cooked my first turkey and prepared our other family standards. It was a festive, happy day, and it felt good to be the host, instead of the guest, for a change.
Another Thanksgiving during our student days was less pleasant, although the details are vague. For some reason, it was just H and me, and we were preoccupied and dispirited with our research. H was spending long days in his lab at the E-Quad, and I think I was in limbo, awaiting much-delayed advisors’ comments on my dissertation. Seems like I cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen. As students we each lived in a dizzying variety of low-cost rentals, and we were frequent house-sitters. The temporary homes blur together indistinctly now.
My only vivid memory of that day concerns the potatoes. H said he preferred boiled to mashed, a declaration that shocked and somehow insulted me. Boiled potatoes on Thanksgiving? Are you kidding me? But I decided to take the high road, and so I cooked only boiled potatoes. I quickly fell off that road, though. I was angry about the lack of mashed potatoes, angry at myself for overestimating my strength of character, and angry at H, the source of the problem. I made a couple of cutting comments. H retaliated, the dispute escalated. Our heated exchange ranks up there with the more recent Family Dog-Walking Fight (see earlier post). That night we had planned to see the annual tree-lighting in Palmer Square, but I don’t remember if we went or not. (I have since learned how easy it is to reserve some boiled potatoes and mash the rest; I’ve done this nearly once a week now for the last fifteen years.)
I thought about my episode of Thanksgiving pettiness a few days ago during the youth Sunday school class I lead. We had been discussing the story of Jesus healing a group of lepers (Luke 17:11 – 19). Of the ten that are restored to health, only one returns to offer thanks. Apparently the others are so immediately caught up in their earlier lives that they miss the magnitude of the transforming event. No longer slaves to a disfiguring disease that made them grotesque social outcasts, yet they forget to thank their healer. I was like one of those ungrateful, unthinking former lepers that day, lost in the distractions of everyday life. I forgot about the blessings that surrounded me: the presence of H, a kind and loving person who had linked his life to mine, the luxury of higher education, a comfortable place to live, a delightful environment, and most of all, God’s unwavering love. I let the absence of mashed potatoes poison the day.
Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for life’s tremendous blessings, for friends and family. I won’t let a lack of mashed potatoes* blind me to God’s grace.
*I can proclaim this with confidence, because our friends agree that mashed potatoes, not boiled, are the Thanksgiving standard!
Kiko had a reunion this week with an old pal, Beau the Boston Terrier. Their friendship was sealed the day they met in the neighborhood, nearly four years ago, when Kiko peed on Beau’s head. During their puppyhood they were best buddies, frequent companions for walks and exuberant doggie play-dates. The question “Kiko, Want to go see Beau?” was answered by an especially enthusiastic tilt of the head. Celeste, Beau’s owner, is a lovely, easy-going woman (she laughed when Beau was sprayed by Kiko), and I liked her instantly. Twice a week, for an hour or so, she and I would talk and watch our dogs tear around her spacious, fenced back yard. We had no fence at our house then, and running free was a great luxury for Kiko. Beau is highly proficient at Frisbee-catching and tennis ball retrieval. Kiko does not excel at these pursuits; he cannot grasp the concept of running away from the object as it’s thrown. But he is fast. He used to be lightning-fast. He could turn on a dime, reverse directions in a flash, and leap like a deer. He very nearly flew, and it was exhilarating to watch him.
Our dogs’ lively play-dates were cut short when Beau required knee surgery. Several months later, his leg had healed, but before we could meet again, Kiko was injured, in our own newly refurbished yard. When we moved in, the area behind our house was not a yard but an expanse of cracked concrete that might surround an aging gas station; there was considerable room for improvement. By this time we were almost finished with the renovation. We had our wrought-iron fence, a grassy area, stone patio and a new porch that still lacked screens and railings. Kiko and I had returned from a walk with two friends and their dogs, and I invited them in for a short off-leash run. This was the very first time Kiko had played with guests in our new yard.
He appeared thrilled at the opportunity to impress his large lady friends, a Lab and a Doberman. He sped around crazily, a blur of red fur. When he could run no further, he paused, panting mightily, to survey his domain from the porch. Then, going for the big finish, he leaped off into the grass. He must have landed wrong. Kiko is tough, and he didn’t whine or cry. But he was hurt. He sat down at once, holding up his hind leg gingerly. He flattened his ears against his head, looking up at me imploringly and pitifully.
At this point, my mind launched into the absurd, frustrating routine I think of as the “If Only” game. I try to rewind recent unfortunate events. If only I could move time backwards and not let the dogs play. If only I could keep Kiko from taking that jump. If only, etc., etc., until I feel like screaming.
Had Kiko simply broken his leg it might have been easier. Instead, the injury was ambiguous, perhaps a micro-tear in the Achilles tendon, perhaps something else. A complicated surgery was a possibility, but because the outcome was uncertain we didn’t seriously consider it. For six weeks he wore a bright green splint. Tight and itchy, of course he hated it. The splint was to be kept dry. We were given an I.V. bag to tie around the splint during rainy-day walks. This was not a good solution. He had only to kick his leg a bit to send the bag flying. Duct tape and plastic wrap were no more effective. Sometimes I didn’t notice the missing bag for a while, until I turned to see it lying in a distant puddle. When this happened, all I could do was carry my dog home. On many occasions I could be seen trudging through the wet leaves, Kiko in my arms, the rain pouring down my face. I felt like an actor in a made-for-TV post-Apocalypse drama.
It’s been two years now since Kiko’s fateful jump. On most days he seems fine, but he has lost some of his amazing speed. And he will probably always run a little strangely. His back legs tend to move simultaneously. We don’t encourage him to run for long periods, but since he’s older, he tires more quickly anyway. There is always the chance that he could re-injure his leg.
This week marked the first time Kiko and Beau have played in our yard. Kiko looked elated to see his buddy, and he showed him that he can still move. They ran together with something close to their former energy and speed, but only for a short while. Celeste and I leashed them and went for a walk. By then they were subdued. As a puppy, the excitement of being out with Beau often incited Kiko to bursts of frenzied circuitous sprinting. If Celeste and I weren’t vigilant, we’d be tangled up in a pretzel-like configuration of leashes, dogs, mailboxes, shrubbery and bystanders. This time there was no such juvenile behavior. Our dogs are young adults. How quickly they grow up!
My trip to Atlanta was occasioned by a reunion of old college friends from the University of Georgia. We met as freshmen living in the basement corridor of a wonderful old dorm, Rutherford Hall. We were saddened by the recent news of the decision, despite much protest (including ours), to demolish Rutherford and build a larger, more luxurious new residence hall in its place. Out of six former Rutherford girls, only three could rearrange our lives to attend. But three good friends together again after so many years is nothing to sneeze at.
Sarah (all names have been changed) had recently moved back to Atlanta, after years in England with her family. Always the gracious hostess, she volunteered her comfortable home as our headquarters. The last time I saw Sarah I was moving to New Jersey. Then recently married, she offered her guest room in Delaware as a stopping point on the drive up. Her hospitality and sense of classic style remain flawless. She retains the ladylike reserve that made her seem wise beyond her years at eighteen, but it’s a reserve that she lets slip a bit when she’s in the company of old friends.
Jackie was flying in from Montana, where she has lived now for two decades. I’ve known her since middle school when were both on the school newspaper staff. She was renowned for her articles on European travel. My first memory of Jackie is a newspaper photo showing her seated in a Venetian gondola. I was impressed, and somewhat envious. Our typical family vacation involved visiting relatives in rural Kentucky. Knowing her background, I expected her to be conceited and snooty, but she was nothing of the sort. She was, and still is, a person of kindness and integrity, as well as a magnet for fun and adventure.
Jackie was among my closest companions when our 8th grade French class, amazingly, took a spring break trip to France and England. (This was unheard of in the Atlanta Public Schools in the 1970s, but we were blessed with a remarkably spunky French teacher who was determined to turn us into citizens of the world. She found a study trip that was extremely bare bones and thus affordable.) On my very first airplane flight, I sat next to Jackie the seasoned traveler as we flew to New York and then on to Paris. I felt incredibly lucky. By day we saw the famous landmarks I had pored over in library books and old copies of National Geographic. By night, we sat up late giggling with our friends in French lycees and London dorm rooms.
Jackie and I roomed together during our freshman year in college. I remember vividly my surprised happiness the day she called to ask me. I had planned to accept a luck-of-the-draw, university-assigned roommate, and I probably would have landed in a soulless freshman high-rise. Jackie’s older sister had lived in Rutherford, and she recommended it for its large rooms, atmospheric appeal and central location. Had I not roomed with Jackie, my first year of college would have been far less memorable. She drove a flashy Firebird, which wasn’t really her style, but it was the car her dad bought her, and she piloted it with flair. (No one else in our group had any kind of car.) She also had an affable older brother in a fraternity. The night before classes began, Jackie took our Rutherford group over to the Kappa Sigma house. My social life was set for the next couple of years. As time has passed, as we’ve reveled in life’s ups and weathered some significant downs, our friendship has grown stronger.
Jackie, Sarah and I had much to reminisce about. We were first drawn together by a shared housing woe. Water seeping into the foundation had flooded the room next to Jackie’s and mine. It was pouring across the hall toward Sarah’s room and trickling up to ours when we got to work with towels and buckets to keep the water at bay. The girls living in the flooded room had to vacate, which was too bad, but it left us with a convenient guest area for visiting friends. We weren’t bothered by damp and mold so much in those days, and we didn’t expect a hotel lifestyle. That spring, after another flood, we brought in masses of bamboo from a recent luau and our little hall became as atmospheric as a cloud forest. Instead of being irked by the inconveniences of living in an older dorm, we saw them as creative opportunities and part of Rutherford’s ramshackle charm.
During our first quarter, Jackie enjoyed an especially active social life. She rarely cracked a book, but on the weekend before finals, she decided to start studying. While she crammed in the library, the rest of us camped out in our room and zealously created some comically spectacular cut-and-paste art in her family photo album. We used pictures and captions from my National Lampoons and a magazine coyly titled For Women Only that one of us had received as a joke gift. (We were respectful in our mischief; we did nothing that couldn’t easily be undone.) It took a while before Jackie discovered our many-leaved masterpiece, and the anticipation of that revelation made it even better. When she finally removed the album from its shelf to show a friend, several of us were there to witness the hilarity of her shock. As we had expected, Jackie appreciated the humor and recognized the prank as the twisted compliment it was intended to be.
Our best times that year arose from similarly mundane circumstances. We kept our doors open nearly all the time, to encourage frequent socializing and pronounced time wasting. We had great fun paging through the Freshman Register (a Facebook predecessor) and making silly phone calls to cute boys. If, by chance, we received a prank call, we were prepared. We’d pass the phone around to everyone in the hall, each of us adding some outlandish comment, to puzzle and embarrass the unsuspecting caller. Glorious fall days like today remind me of freewheeling Sunday afternoon drives in the Athens countryside. With Jackie behind the wheel, we’d discover local eccentricity and explore the occasional abandoned farmhouse or unexpected University-owned structure.
Our little Rutherford reunion brought with it the realization of how precious and fleeting is the sense of community that flourishes so vigorously during the college years. It’s made more profound because we’re away from home for the first time. That closeness cannot quite be duplicated in the so-called real world of work, parenting and routine daily responsibility. This, I believe, is one of the saddest aspects of growing up. Fortunately we can capture it again in a diluted form, when we reunite to reflect on the good old days.
Now that another Halloween has come and gone, I find myself reflecting on the evening, considering some ideas that may improve next year’s experience.
This Halloween we welcomed fewer trick-or-treaters than in previous years. The weather was chilly, but a cold, clear night seems to pep up the kids, not keep them home. The main reason for the deficit, I believe, was that Halloween was on a Monday night. A Monday night! For children, it was a day of school and homework, with another early morning to follow. For working parents, it meant rushing home in traffic to handle costumes and try to deal with dinner. There is no way around it—Mondays (and all weeknights) are awkward nights for Halloweening.
There is a solution. Halloween should be celebrated on the final Saturday of October. If we can move Presidents’ birthdays, why can’t we move Halloween? Congress has the perfect opportunity to make things right with the American people for the distress they caused during the debt-ceiling debacle: they can pass a Halloween-observance law. I am almost serious when I suggest writing our representatives. This is the chance for legislators to do something worthwhile, something that would benefit Americans in all income brackets. This is the first step towards improving Halloween.
The next step is to encourage trick-or-treating among teenagers. I know it’s become acceptable to gripe about “all these big kids” expecting Halloween handouts. But why should we mind so much? Isn’t it good for the collective health of a neighborhood and our country that teenagers are out with the younger children accumulating treats? On this one night each year, shouldn’t we reward their continued interest in the childhood pleasure of candy? Would we rather they be elsewhere attempting to buy alcohol, cigarettes and drugs? These older kids, of course, should abide by the same rules we try to instill in the younger ones: wear a costume, say “Trick-or-Treat,” be polite and show gratitude. I agree that a logo T-shirt is not a costume, and a sullen silence at my door will not earn candy.
We found the teen trick-or-treating presence negligible this year. Our daughter and her six middle school-age friends were among the very eldest of our trick-or-treaters. The only more senior group consisted of three courteous ninth-grade boys who came to the door toward the end of the evening, almost as an afterthought, as though they wanted to see if they could still get candy. We were more than happy to give them chocolate. My daughter will soon be a teenager, and I hate to think her trick-or-treating days are severely numbered. This is only the second year that we have allowed her to go out unaccompanied by an adult on this night. She and her friends are just starting to hit their Halloween stride; it would be a shame for them to have to stop.
It seems to be the tallest children who provoke the most negative feedback when trick-or-treating. Short kids may observe Halloween without community comment until they go off to college, but those blessed with height better stay home once they reach sixth grade. Isn’t this height-based discrimination alarming? My daughter is on track to be taller than me by next year, so I am understandably worried.
If anyone is really working the system, it’s not the teenagers, but the adults who tote around their babies costumed adorably as peapods, caterpillars, fat pumpkins and such. Parents who would never think of allowing their six-month old to put one pearly tooth near a Snickers bar are out on Halloween encouraging tiny fingers to pick out something good and big from the candy bowl. But that’s accepted behavior, and my husband and I capitalized on it, like everyone else, during the first few years of our daughter’s life. An essential part of the Halloween social contract is pretending that the candy is intended for those babes in arms. Because babies are small, cute and very short (again, it’s a height issue), they therefore deserve mass quantities of sugary treats.
And finally, one last point for Halloween improvement: enough with the healthy snacks! On this topsy-turvy night, when the focus is on the weird, the unusual and the unexpected, let’s get with the spirit and allow our kids (the tall and the small) to indulge in the glory of real candy. And let’s stop trying to pass off raisins and pretzels as coveted treats; they have their merits, but they are for the other nights of the year. Halloween should be a much-anticipated departure from the norm. If we start eating healthier on the other days, we’ll really be able to enjoy breaking the rules on that last night of October.
On the first Sunday in October, our church tried something different. We canceled regular worship services so we could go out into the community and be the church. While we church-goers know the point of our faith is to do God’s work, we tend to forget this central truth as we sit complacently in the pew. It’s easy to become a passive consumer or a critic of church theatre. It’s also easy to become disheartened, to despair at the enormity of the world’s problems. Our change in routine was intended as a reminder that we must be active in our faith, and that with God’s help, even the smallest of our good deeds is magnified.
There were several projects to choose from: providing lunch for the homeless at a local shelter, renovating an elderly woman’s home, assembling kits for AIDS caregivers, decorating placemats for use in a prison ministry, and a music and fellowship program for nursing home residents.
My family and I took part in the music program at the nursing home. I knew it would be rewarding because two of our most talented and versatile musicians were the headliners. They are the heart and soul of our monthly Bluegrass Night, an event that draws performers and their vintage instruments from all over Virginia.
When we arrived, about fifteen residents had assembled, and the long, narrow room was already filled to capacity. I had envisioned a more spacious, less awkward setting that allowed for a larger audience and more freedom of movement for the musicians. Obviously, trying to be the church affords no guarantee of a cathedral-like work space. Our church that day recalled Christianity’s earliest era, when members met in cramped hidden rooms.
The bluegrass duo kicked off the music with a couple of rousing old standards. I’d like to say that the audience was spirited and enthusiastic from the first bright banjo note, but this was not the case. A few residents smiled, some kept time with nods and light clapping, but the initial responses ranged from torpid to tepid. We invited requests, but the group remained inert.
We had a wide range of musical talent available, so we pressed on. One of our younger members sang and played her guitar beautifully. Another offered two lovely flute selections. A lively original song by one of the bluegrass pair was well received. With each successive performance, the crowd became more visibly appreciative.
A burst of energy accompanied the unexpected arrival of one of our youth, bearing both guitar and cello. When her mother sang a moving a cappella version of In the Garden, we reached a turning point. A frail, pencil-thin man knew every word. He sang along and moved his hands gracefully as though directing the choir. Everyone joined in on the chorus. The audience had finally warmed up, and the group had achieved a sort of unity. The differences between residents and volunteers, so striking at first, were less apparent. When our bluegrass veteran offered an old Gene Autry favorite, a tiny quiet lady in a wheelchair burst to life. As she sang heartily, eyes closed, head back, we could sense the warm rush of memories that swirled around her.
My daughter and I had planned to play a few violin and piano duets. As we arrived, I realized with dismay that I had left my hymnal on the kitchen table. While D has the gift of playing by ear, I do not. My husband made our performance possible; he jumped in the car to locate a United Methodist church and borrow a hymnal. We were in an unfamiliar area, but he was successful, as I knew he would be. By the time he returned, the division between performers and audience had decreased further. Our group had become a pleasant circle of fellowship. The piano was out of tune, but I played softly and minimized the notes so that D could carry the melody. I was especially glad to be her mother that day.
Most people would agree that music is a powerful connector. But given the opportunity, it’s also a vital conduit for the Holy Spirit. That Sunday morning, it was not just the music that drew us together in ways that words alone cannot. God was with us, just as he was in those early house-churches of the first century. With His help, we took some baby steps in our quest to be the church. We didn’t end war, illness and poverty, but we brightened up a little corner of our world. The music carried the breath of God’s presence, immediate, dynamic, and enduring.
My husband (H) and daughter (D) recently threw a surprise party for me. I was completely shocked, but in a good way. My birthday, which is best described as a significant one, was still eight days away, and I suspected nothing that evening.
I had never had a surprise party before. I hadn’t had a real birthday party since I was twelve, when I invited ten friends for cake and ice skating. That was somewhat of a letdown, and it made me appreciate my family’s typically low-key marking of birthdays. H’s family, however, takes the opposite approach. They retain a remarkably resilient enthusiasm for celebrating all of life’s events. This includes the birthdays of the middle-aged, which are considered by my side of the family to be, at best, an excuse to go out to eat. While I thought I would be OK with a subdued acknowledgment of this birthday–I had said I didn’t want a party–I was glad to be overruled.
H and D took great pains to organize the event and to keep it a secret. To their credit, they are usually terrible liars. Yet apparently, if justified, they can pull off any number of untruths. They set up a complicated scenario that ended with our wandering, somewhat aimlessly, I thought, into a local music cafe. I heard H say quietly, “Happy Birthday,” but I was still surprised to hear it echoed, loudly, by a fairly large group of my closest friends.
I was still soaking up the surprise when I saw Robin and Linda Williams (and Their Fine Group) on stage setting up their instruments. Their music is an engaging blend of folk, bluegrass and gospel. I had discovered it years ago as a grad student studying for exams. Since then, for nearly every emotion or major life event I experience, there is a corresponding song by Robin and Linda. Their melodies, whether hauntingly sad or exuberantly joyful, are matched by evocative lyrics and accomplished instrumentals on banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Their music is the soundtrack of my life, especially now that H and D love it, too. Each year as we cross the Sagamore Bridge onto Cape Cod, we sing Southern Shores, their song about escaping to the Outer Banks; it works for going north as well as south. The presence of the Williamses (who happen to be kind, friendly, and completely without pretense) and the promise of their music brought tears to my eyes.
Both H and D had prepared sweet and thoughtfully comical tribute speeches. As they spoke, it struck me that I am extremely fortunate to share my life with these two caring and admirable people, these two people who know me so well and yet still love me.
It was uplifting to see my good friends representing the various aspects of my life: neighborhood, church, and my daughter’s school. It brought to mind our small wedding, when H and I were surrounded by dearest friends and family. Our families had never met, and it was sort of magical to see, for example, my Uncle Bill laughing with H’s grandfather. I got the same impression as I watched my friends mixing happily together, some for the first time. Throughout the night, I was conscious of a powerful sense of community, a certainty that the issues that divide us are insignificant in the face of those that unite us. I found myself wishing that my parents could have come up from Atlanta to attend; they would have agreed that sometimes, indeed, celebrating in earnest is essential.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.