family


You have to understand: my mother wasn’t the sort of person you could imagine ever turning eighty years old. She was blond and beautiful and so sure she’d always be young–and she was so disappointed as each sign of aging came to her: the arthritis, the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the watery eyes. I mean, no one likes that stuff, but she seemed shocked that such things could dare to happen to her. Shocked!

“How can I get so old?” I remember her asking me one time when she was probably 50. “How can I ever not be pretty?”

It’s a little sad to think of, I suppose–someone who was so taken with looks that the thought of them disappearing made her feel as though nothing at all would be left of her. Wasn’t this the same woman who had told me when I was 10 years old that it was important to develop a personality because cuteness just wouldn’t see you through?

When she went to hospice four years ago at the age of 76, the nurse told me she was the first nursing home patient they’d ever had who insisted on wearing a toe ring.

And we laughed, my mother and I, because, as she put it: Cancer takes so much from you. You don’t have to give up your TOE RING to it, too, do you?

I’ve been through several deaths with people, but none quite like hers. When my father was dying, he simply got more and more quiet and introspective, stared out the window for longer intervals, whispered his requests for songs he wanted to hear on the CD player, and occasionally he’d rouse himself to try to make pleasant conversation about the cardinal outside at the bird feeder, or just who I thought might win the World Series.

My grandmother told me three days before she died that she’d be coming to my house in the spring–a fact I knew was untrue since she was in a hospice, hooked up to feeding tubes, with a terminal diagnosis. When I tried to talk about actual endings, she shushed me. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

But my mother talked about it.

She’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Where do you think I’ll be when I die?” and “How can I just not exist? What do you suppose that’s going to feel like?”

My uncle, her brother, was planning his wedding for the summer, and she and I would sit outside in the late May warmth, watching the azaleas bobbing in the breeze, and she’d say, “It’s the weirdest thing, talking to him about the wedding. I won’t still be alive then.”

“Maybe you will,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she wasn’t even particularly sad when she said it. “I won’t.” She was the one who had heard the cancer diagnosis, the prognosis, and then marched over to the phone, called hospice, signed the papers, and even joked with the startled, soft-voiced man who was being so delicate and careful. She was facing death head on, unflinching.

But now she looked out at some children playing across the street. “I just can’t picture how it’s all going to happen.”

I was worn out with grief and regret and arrangements, and I didn’t know quite how to be with her. I sat next to her for hours on end and let her talk. It was all I could think of to do for her. It’s sad now, thinking of her imagining not existing–sitting there so alive, so full of opinions and thoughts and regrets and remarks.

“I like this toe ring a lot,” she said. She and her toe ring. They were going to part ways.

She and I were going to part ways, too.

“I’ll contact you if I can,” she said one day out of the blue. But it wasn’t out of the blue, not really. It was just that we’d been at that moment discussing the banana pudding in front of her, pudding that she was pushing away from her. She had stopped eating by then. She was preparing to go, and she was sure it was coming soon.

When they called me at 6 a.m. a few days later and said she had died, I wasn’t surprised, of course. She and I had talked about this moment so much. I went to the hospice and sat with her in the room for a long time, or the part of her she’d left behind that really no longer seemed much like her. I couldn’t figure out if she would want me to see her like that or not. Maybe she would want me to turn away.

I knew she wanted me to take the toe ring, and so I did.

She would have been eighty today. She always said she hated growing old, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could have gone to my uncle’s wedding that summer. She could have seen her first great-granddaughter born, could have met the two great-grandsons who were newborn infants when she died, infants she never got to see.

I don’t know where she is, but sometimes I still feel her around. I know sometimes what she’d say in situations, or at least I’m pretty sure I know. I can summon up the sound of her laughter. Is that just a memory or is it the same as her contacting me?

I’m not sure. She would have been eighty today. Would that have been so bad?

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I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love Thanksgiving.

Oh sure, everybody admits it’s a lot of work, and often it’s a strain getting a bunch of people who are all related to each other to be under the same roof without, you know, things being said. But all in all, pound for pound, you will hardly find a nicer holiday than Thanksgiving. Never mind that they’re trying now to attach an adjunct holiday to it, by calling the day after Black Friday. We see through that completely…and we are NOT going along with it. Charlie, who is 6, put it best. He said, “I don’t really celebrate Black Friday.”

And I think that is the wise way to approach a day that asks you to get up in the middle of the night and go shopping, of all things.

Anyway, so Thanksgiving came and went. We had ten people here, in a house designed for maaaybe five, which can often be just the thing that magnifies even the slightest difference.  (“What?! You like steamed broccoli? Were you raised by wolves or something? Don’t you know the only way to eat broccoli is to saute it?”)

Despite all this, we had a wonderful time. This year we had two vegetarians, a gluten-allergic person, two 2-year-olds, a pregnant person, a few people with asthma, a 6-year-old, some people who think the minimum acceptable indoor temperature has to be in the very high two digits, others who suffer from hot flashes (mostly me), and plenty of food to keep us all groggy and busy. As usual, we had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green beans for the meat-eaters—and Indian food for the vegetarians. This has been the family story for years now, that we serve food for both the pilgrims and the Indians.

By Friday, naturally, everybody was ready for Chinese food. And on Saturday afternoon, there was a blow-out feast with a little bit of everything on each plate. I myself had turkey, saag paneer, dumplings, pork egg foo yung, and pumpkin pie. Others ate stuffing, lo mein, and tikka masala.  The babies settled on raisins and whipped cream. (There’s a wonderful picture of one of the 2-year-olds face down in his chocolate cream pie. I think it’s a symbol of Day Three of the Thanksgiving holiday.)

It was loads of fun. Over the three days, we managed to replace a computer router, two cell phones, and a camera—as well as play Beatles Rock Band as often as possible, in each conceivable configuration. The two-year-olds made wonderful drummers, using my bamboo knitting needles as drumsticks. Josh, who is 2, loved stuffing our decorative baskets with random objects and distributing them all over the house. I expect to find the bag of onions any day now.

Basically hardly anyone slept. People were up all night, wandering through the house getting drinks of water, changing diapers, or taking to the living room couch where they hoped they might find silence. 

And it was over far too soon. Right after Saturday lunch—a lunch interrupted by the whole family needing to get to its feet to do the celebratory Miles Pooped On the Potty dance, I could see that time was running out. Everybody started sauntering through the house, packing up their items that had managed to get scattered all over. Teddy bears, computers, cameras, cell phones, BlackBerries, pacifiers, Play Stations, leftovers, blankies, and luggage all were packed up into the station wagons.

As Miles, age 2 1/2,  put it so succinctly, “Pack up my potty chair. I’m going home!”

It’s only Sunday night, and I’ve since called everybody at least twice. I’m afraid I can’t wait for Christmas.

I just realized I’ve spent practically an entire month away from this blog that I truly do love writing…and I can’t for the life of me remember why I haven’t even stopped by to dust the place off, sweep away some of the cobwebs, and open the windows and let the air in.

Oh, wait. I know. I’ve been in recovery from writing a novel. Rehabbing, as it were. I cleaned the house, started washing dishes again, threw out a bunch of things I was sick of having around me, and did practical things like the taxes and the FAFSA (the student aid application…trust me, you don’t want to know)…and then I went to Florida to visit with my stepmother.

She and I have no right to love each other as much as we do. She was my father’s childhood sweetheart, and he probably would have married her except that one day when he was 21 and she was 20, they had a lovers’ spat. In the only impulsive act he ever did in his life, he packed his suitcase and took off for another city, where he got a job as a civil engineer and waited to see what life was going to serve up to him before he went back to Helen.

But–and in the movie of his life, the ominous music would play here–life had other plans for him. When he rang the doorbell at a boarding house where he hoped to rent a room, the front door was opened by my mother. He later told me that he’d never known anyone who painted her toenails before. She later told me she’d never met anybody so handsome and so lacking in confidence.

They got married five months later, and I was born ten months after THAT.

Thirteen years and three children later, they had a bitter divorce…and after a time, my father found his way back to Helen and spent a very happy twenty years with her, before he died of kidney cancer in 1989.

My mother considered Helen her sworn enemy, and for the rest of her life, I had to hide the fact that Helen and I had long, meandering, wonderful conversations about love, writing, creativity, God, children, politics; that sometimes we would get on the phone and three hours would pass in the blink of a minute. Sometimes, for days after one of these long talks, I walk around speaking to Helen in my head, arguing, showing, explaining.

And so last week I went to see her. She is frail now and has trouble walking. She has Crohn’s disease and there are very few foods she can eat without her stomach (she calls it “The Boss”) giving her fits, so we don’t eat much. We sit on her screened porch, surrounded by azaleas and impatiens and roses, and we talk and talk and talk. We need a flow chart to keep track of all the conversations we are having simultaneously.

We have lost many, many people between us, so many that we think of ourselves as survivors. She tells me about her childhood, I tell her about mine. We talk about love and writing and friendships and the reasons that we stayed friends even though we might never have discovered what was good about each other.

She asked me what it feels like, writing a novel and trying to hold these ideas in my head, and how do I know when it’s right, and what keeps me from going crazy with the sheer uncertainty of it all? And I, having just finished writing my novel–and having just gotten the reassuring news that my editor LOVES it–was so full of myself, saying how FUN it is, and how the words just COME OUT, that they can’t be stopped. I heard myself saying all these things, saw myself forgetting that a video of the last few months would instead show me walking hunched over, brow furrowed, eyes staring blankly in space, spending my days pacing in Starbucks with not a plan in my head, and then jumping out of bed in the middle of the night and feverishly writing until the sun came up.

Isn’t it funny, how one mood doesn’t remember the other? How we go through such times and then say of them, “Oh, it was GREAT. I LOVE writing a novel!”

I didn’t email much while I was in Florida, but a friend sent me this link to a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love…and in it, Gilbert says everything I wish I could have said about that state we go through when we create something: the panic, the fear, and the moments of feeling as though we have been touched by something divine, something that we secretly know has nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Take 20 minutes and stretch out and watch it. You’ll be so glad you did. Not only is the message so reassuring, but the quality of her voice alone is enough to calm your nerves.

Well, I hardly qualify as a blogger anymore, since it’s been so long since I’ve wandered over to my own blog and looked around. I have to say, it’s pretty dusty and abandoned-looking around here, and there’s no place to sit. So I’ll just move all these things over THERE…and push this over HERE.

Now then. Happy New Year.

We had a wonderful Christmas, filled with 11 people staying in our surprisingly tiny house (a house that seemed to contract over the several days). As happens when you get 11 people together over a few days in the winter, many of them will be teething, while others will be coughing, sneezing and running fevers at various times. I have learned that when we are all expecting to get together that I must raid the local pharmacy in advance and stock up on as many pharmaceuticals as the U.S. government will currently let me sign for.

However, despite all, we laughed and cooked and did Wii bowling, and we all agreed that it was probably our best Christmas ever, even though nearly everything that could happen did happen, including the television set simply exploding. Which made quite a few of us fall over laughing for reasons we still cannot explain.

I did learn a few things over Christmas:

  • Five year olds are way better at Wii bowling than you will ever be. (Charlie reached the pro level while I was still proud if I broke 100.)
  • Lobsters make a fine Christmas dinner. No, a spectacular Christmas dinner. There is no need for turkey to come into the picture at all if you have enough lobsters.
  • Sudafed PE is not the same as regular Sudafed and actually DOES NOT WORK AT ALL.
  • Two 19-month-olds, liberated from their high chairs while the rest of the family finishes gorging on lobsters, can empty the lower half of a Christmas tree in thirty seconds.
  • Ornaments being thrown down a hallway make a satisfying crunching sound that makes babies laugh.
  • If your TV explodes, it’s good if it happens when the landfill is open because there is a special place there for horrifying electronic disasters.
  • “The Night Before Christmas” is still a riveting read.

 

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  • I wish all of you a wonderful new year, and I want to thank you for coming to visit me on my blog and for leaving comments and writing me emails and for reading my books and telling me about your lives. Your words and your encouragement have meant the world to me this year. And here’s to a better, more hopeful and optimistic 2009!

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Ack! I am no good at this, I realized yesterday. Saying goodbye to friends. Even on the phone–I have trouble. I find myself taking up new topics when it comes time to hang up, making new plans and arrangements to get together, as if saying “goodbye” is just the very hardest thing. I do this even when I’m the one who wants to end things, even when I’m late to something else, even when I’m going to see the person soon.

It’s kind of a curse.

And so I have been good friends with this dog for twelve years and nine months. We got him when he was nine months old, a darling golden retriever puppy who had flunked out of championship school due to a bad hip, and was just looking for some family to play with. He immediately showed himself to be a lovable clown, tracking down dirty tissues in the trash, going completely bananas with exuberance whenever we would come home, taking us on fun, highly aerobic, merry chases/hikes through the woods. He was a snuggler who just had to be on the couch with us, or finding his 75 pound way onto our laps, unlike our previous dog, who didn’t much want to be in the same room with us. And he was, as somebody described him, “drop-dead gorgeous.” And so lovable and calm and kind that my nine-year-old called him “Jesus in a dog suit.”

Yesterday he came to a calm, quiet end. After an illness that left him dizzy and blind, lame and weak, we had to take him to have him put down.

You never know when the right time for this kind of thing is, I realize. I went on the internet and typed into google, “How do I know when it’s time to put my dog down” and there were hundreds of stories of people grappling with this problem, and all kinds of opinions. The one that guided me the best was from Jon Katz, in a column he wrote in Slate, which was subtitled: “How to make a decision you never want to make.”

Among the wrenching stories, was this bit of wisdom:

It is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than ours—just eight years, on average—and it has always been my belief that to love and own a dog is to understand and accept that along with loyalty, love, and devotion come the ever-present specters of grief and loss. This is as integral a part of the dog-loving experience as going for walks.

There’s no Idiot’s Guide for this question, no handbook. The many points of view are strongly held. One vet I know says a dog should be euthanized “when it can no longer live the life of a dog—and only the owner knows when that really is.” A breeder says she puts her dogs down when “their suffering exceeds their ability to take pleasure in life.” A trainer I respect believes her dog should live as long as it can eat.

Another friend and dog lover says she always knows when it’s time: “when the soul goes out of their eyes.”

I looked over at my poor dog, who had not ventured from his bed in hours, who stumbled and fell and bumped into things whenever he tried to get up, and whose eyes were cloudy and filled with pain.

He was not living the life of a dog. And his suffering clearly seemed to exceed his ability to take pleasure. As far as the soul in his eyes, I wasn’t sure about that. He always had a soulful look about him.

A week ago, a friend of mine, a hospice nurse who lost her golden retriever years ago and still gets all teary when she thinks about him, said to me, “You have to consider if you’re keeping him around just for you.” She said it was okay if I was, no one would fault me for that, she said, but that I should start to think about letting go a little bit.

I cried.

Yesterday, though, was the day. I spent the day with Jordie. He slept most of the time, and I sat beside him working on my novel and talking to him. I listened to music, he slept. At dinnertime, I gave him cream cheese (his very favorite thing) and he licked it off my fingers and then, even when the cream cheese was gone, he licked my fingers for a long, sad time. When my husband came home from work, we took him outside and let him go to the bathroom, and then we put him in the backseat of the car, on his favorite towel. I petted him while we drove to the vet.

It was quick and calm and peaceful. The worst part was that he had to be at the veterinary hospital, a place I imagine that he does not like much, even though he never reacts one way or the other. We carried him inside, and we and the vet and the assistant all petted him and talked to him, and then they gave him the injection while my husband and I cradled him, and I watched as he gradually just relaxed his body and all the tension went out of his face, and the vet said, “He’s gone.”

My friend Lily, who writes the wonderful blog, Bloglily, wrote to me in an email the other day something that I read again when I came home yesterday afternoon with my heart just so full it felt as though it would burst apart:

The thing about 

being a dog owner is that they never become independent of you, and 

that you care for them through every phase of their lives, including 

almost always, their deaths and it is the hardest thing humans have 

to do, I think, to bear that with their beloved dog and to make the 

difficult decisions about this, knowing they will be separating 

themselves from all that love because it is the right thing to do.  

It’s the last gift you give to your dog, that kind of caretaking, and 

it is heartbreaking to have to do it.  But it is fair and right, 

given what they mean to us.

And that is what is getting me through. So, please. Go kiss your doggies for me.

It’s true.

Every year we go to the Cape–pack up the cars, bring the kids and sometimes their friends, and stay in the same house we’ve stayed in for years, a 3-bedroom house that comes equipped with lobster pots and playing cards, good paperback books, electric fans, feather pillows–and beds that sag in the middle. (We joke that it’s those beds that finally make us glad to go back home–we practically need a team of chiropractors to get us up in the morning by Day 7.)

Over the years, as you can imagine, the vacations have varied in their quality. There was the year Hurricane Bob struck on day two of the vacation, catching us completely unaware. Apparently everyone else got the memo and knew to bring batteries and lanterns, filled-up ice chests, and buckets to fill with pond water so they could flush the toilets…but  not us. We had a policy then of not watching TV on vacation.

Instead, we stood there dumbly while 70 mph winds blew down trees all around us, and by the time, three days later, when we managed to work our way out of the woods of Wellfleet and into civilization, all the batteries, ice and candles were long since sold out. Because this was Our Vacation, our one time of the year to be away, we stayed there for another five days which I will not describe to you because you would know then how utterly insane we are.

In the vacation journal we keep, there is one line, written by me, which sums everything up: “Tonight for dinner we had crackers and potato chips. Warm beer for us and warm water for the kiddos.”

But why am I talking about that? This year was perhaps the culmination of everything that is GOOD about the Cape.

For one thing, there was day after day of sunshine, beach days with actual warm water (up to 66 degrees, in the OCEAN). There were stars and evening beach walks. There were steamers and mussels to eat. There were early morning runs on the bike trail. There were babies to play with in sand that was as soft as flour. There was a campfire one night, with a million stars sparkling in the Milky Way above us. And there was a lot of drawn butter.

And there was no internet.

I LOVE the internet, of course, but I have to say it was kind of nice to be back to the elements of sand and water and sun and fire and drawn butter. I didn’t even work on my novel, although I meant to. Instead I played in the water with babies.

My characters would speak to me every now and then whenever I wasn’t talking to anyone else (which was rare), but they seemed busy, too. The main character, Annabelle, pointed out that she really does love her husband a lot, even though she complains about him. She thought maybe I should emphasize that a little bit more in the opening chapters. “I’m not REALLY wanting to be done with him,” she said. Then she wafted away and wasn’t heard from for the rest of the vacation. I figured she was on vacation, too.

One evening, walking on the beach, though, looking at the nearly full moon on the water and catching the white tips of the foam, I suddenly knew the title of this novel. (Here I’ve been writing this book for six months and am over halfway through and haven’t had even one inkling what its name might be.)

It’s going to be called The Year You Think of Nothing Else.

There. That was enough work for a vacation, don’t you think?

And now that I’m back, the characters came back, too, with lots more to say. I’m back on the internet and vow to be a better blogger than I was in August.

And I gave Annabelle some nice things to say about her husband.

I’m still tanned and spoiled and fat from all that drawn butter, but it’s fall. Time to get shaking. Tomorrow I might even go to the gym.    

When I was young and used to make my living by babysitting, here is how things usually worked:

1. Someone called me on the phone and asked me to babysit.

2. I said yes.

3. At the appointed hour, I went to the house, and the parents left, while the children screamed and carried on as though the world had come to an end.

4. It was then my job to restore their will to live by feeding them snacks, rocking them, singing nonsense songs, playing games, WHATEVER IT TOOK, etc., etc., until at last they were so tired that I could finally put them to bed. After that, my job was mostly to make sure the phone line was kept busy until the parents came home.

But these days babysitting, like so many other things, seems to have changed. 

I know this because Stephanie, my college-age daughter, makes all her spare money by taking care of other people’s kids. And although sometimes her babysitting jobs resemble something like the above scenario, mostly they don’t.

Unlike in the past, when parents seemed clueless about the fact that they were leaving their little darlings rending their own garments and shrieking their lungs out, today’s moms and dads can’t have fun if they know they’ve inflicted the syndrome of Separation Anxiety on their own offspring. Plus, they’d be terrified of ever having a sitter return under such circumstances.

Stephanie has had actual long-term assignments with children who have never once awakened while she’s at their house. Once a mom told her that if the unthinkable happened and a child should happen to wake up and cry, just to please ignore it because the kid would be so shocked to see someone other than the mom appearing at the bedside that all hell would break loose. Mental anguish would ensue. Therapists would have to be summoned.

But wouldn’t it be worse, Stephanie asked, for a child to cry and cry and have NO ONE come?

Won’t happen, said the mom. And thus it didn’t.

I can hear you asking: But what about a parent who wants to, say, go out of the house alone during the hours when the child wouldn’t normally be asleep? Is there any hope for that kind of recreation?

Ah, yes, there is.

Recently Stephanie had just such an assignment. She was asked to babysit one afternoon for a toddler she’d actually never met before–the mom was the friend of a friend–and rather than go through all the painful introductions of a new sitter to the 15-month-old, the mother (we’ll call her Heather) just decided that Stephanie should meet her downtown while Heather was taking the baby for a walk.

Through elaborate choreography designed in advance, Stephanie was to come up to Heather from the side and then gently take the handles of the stroller, while Heather would gracefully drop away…and then, UNSEEN BY HER CHILD, Heather would head out to the movies. Stephanie would then walk the baby around for the next two hours, never once stopping or leaning over the stroller…and then she would meet back up with Heather after the movie was over…when Heather would simply resume control of the stroller, presumably handing over cash with one hand.

If the baby (whose name Stephanie never was actually told) whimpered, she was to hand her a bottle of apple juice, carefully reaching over the baby’s head and placing it in her hands without coming to a halt. Luckily when the baby was finished with the juice, she simply dropped the bottle onto the sidewalk, in true toddler fashion, and Stephanie scooped it up without missing a step.

It was a brilliant plan, and it worked divinely.

The only weird part was that Stephanie kept seeing people she knew, people who kept coming up and saying, “Wow! Who is this cute baby?”

If you pride yourself on your babysitting professionalism, you never want to admit you have no idea.

The truth, she said later, was that in an odd kind of way, the people who were approaching the stroller knew way more about the kid than she did. They at least knew what she looked like…and whether or not she had at last fallen asleep.

My novel misbehaves in the middle of the night. Last night it woke me up with a start at 2:14 a.m., insisting that I get up out of bed and FIND MY NOTEBOOK and a pen QUICKQUICKQUICK, which are not easy things to locate in the dark at somebody else’s house. (I have been visiting Boston for the past two days, where Ben and Amy live.)

Now it’s daytime, and I’m sitting in Panera with my laptop, and even though it’s waayy past lunchtime–already 2:45–the place is just teeming with humanity! Much of this humanity consists of people under the age of one, all of them munching on pacifiers and flirting, or occasionally flinging bottles of formula to the floor just for the pleasure of seeing perfect strangers react with surprise and then jump up to retrieve those bottles. Again and again and again. 

I have not had much sleep. With a novel waking me at 2:14, and real live adorable children coming in to see me at 6:30, there wasn’t a lot of truly good rest time in the middle.

I awoke this morning to find Charlie (a deep thinker of four years of age) sitting cross-legged next to me on my bed. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said when I opened my eyes. “I was wondering what you think about the light fixtures in here. Are they interesting?”

I looked at them. They were nice, but on the whole, as I told him, I’d rather think about them after 7 a.m.  So then I persuaded him to get under the covers with me and go back to sleep. We got exactly twenty more seconds of shut-eye, and then Josh (ten months old) woke up, and the day had officially begun. We all went upstairs (their two bedrooms and the playroom are on the third floor) where we played drum-like instruments and read stories and changed one person’s diapers and found Mickey Mouse underwear for another person, and got dressed–(“comfy clothes, no pants with snaps today!” said Charlie), and then Ben came and we all went on the Breakfast Train to the first floor, where we cooked eggs and ate pears and waffles and Cheerios. And then Ben took Charlie to preschool, and I put Josh down for a nap, which was THE most luscious time of all. Just sitting in the glider with a fat, cuddly baby drinking from a bottle with his eyes closed, is a divine experience, even when you’re tired. Maybe especially when you’re tired. Just looking upon those plump, pink arms and hearing those wonderful sucking, sighing noises he makes. The lashes on the cheek. And the way he just tucks himself right in, snuggling as close as can be. He drank and drank and drank and then, in his sleep, pushed himself away from the bottle, with milk running down his chin like a drunken sailor…and I reluctantly put him in his crib and went to take a bath.

And now I’m in Panera, and just a moment ago, I dived for my notepad to see what I’d been so driven to write in the middle of the night, since I have absolutely no memory of what was so vital, and here’s what it says, in nearly indecipherable handwriting:

“And you know what? My mother became my real mother again, just a bad year, not w/father but w/__________.

Also, in telling of past, goes on and on. Then talk about Mentor. Way he was at fault somehow. THEN we see Jeremiah. Surprise?”

This, I don’t have to tell you, is Novel Misbehavior of the highest order. The first rule I have for novels (in the middle of the night, or any time) is that they try to make some sense. And if they have to wake a person up for some all-important news flash, they need to phrase it in something approaching coherence. Something one can find the way back to, eventually.

The sun is shining on me here in my armchair here in Panera, and I see the way this could so easily go…Maybe this is the kind of message from the subconscious that will make more sense to me if I just go back to sleep for a moment or two more before I head back home to my Real Life, where there are no babies with fat arms and children who want to discuss the interestingness of the light fixtures with me, or any other deep subjects.

Yesterday when I picked up Charlie from preschool, he stared off into space in the car, clearly lost in thought.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked him.

“Well, I’m thinking about blame,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”

Yeah, me too.

He may end up writing novels, himself. I just hope his novels let him sleep through the night.

I haven’t been writing much lately because, like the rest of the country apparently, I have gotten just a tiny bit addicted to politics. I am reading politics online and in the newspapers and watching politics on television and following every last “he said, she said” waaaay too much. If Obama ever gets tired and doesn’t want to deliver his well-worn speech, I am ready to jump in and deliver it for him. I think I could do it verbatim, even without the teleprompter. (“McCain can’t say I supported the war…because I didn’t. And he can’t say I gave George Bush a blank check, because I wouldn’t.  … I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two, and I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents…”, etc., etc.)

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE this speech! It plays in my head day and night. I could listen to it for ten more primaries if necessary.

Luckily I had some major distractions come to visit me this weekend. And Mike (he’s the one on the left) put my camera on a chair in the dining room and then had us all face forward (how we got babies to face forward was a minor miracle, and then he ran and jumped in the picture–and this is what we got. Amazing!

 

Here is just one of our runner-up pictures…before we got the main one to work.

And what is a day without a little puppy love? Jordie, who normally runs when he sees anyone under five feet tall coming toward him, was patient and submissive for this kiss. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Miles had his nose in a vise grip.

It was a lovely Christmas, really. Besides the usual presents under the tree and stockings hung by the chimney with care, and carols playing on the stereo, we had babies taking baths, crowing at each other, sucking on washcloths, and splashing. img_0120.jpgAs my friend Nancy said, “Now we know why God invented double sinks.”

We had my husband and me, sitting on the kitchen floor with the three grandchildren, laughing. That is Charlie and Josh, measuring each other, while their cousin Miles looks on with envy. He is clearly wondering who you have to know to get your own big brother around here.

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And we had the dog posing as William Tell’s son, although I’m happy to report that no one shot an arrow at him.

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For a while life was so chaotic here that we all seemed to be doing triage, rushing from one tumultuous situation to another. But there was plenty of food, and laughter, and music–and lots of time to cuddle children and read stories. By the time Christmas was over and we had packed everyone off to their respective homes, we were so tired we had to pretty much take to our beds. The next day I got up and mailed off all the things they had forgotten to take home with them.

Then today, Hospice called.

“Sandi? How are you doing?” the social worker said.

“Well…I’m fine,” I said. The caller ID hadn’t said anything about Hospice.

“Really?” she said. She sounded surprised, like it might not be okay to say you were fine. Not after you lost your mom to cancer just six months ago.

“It was a good Christmas,” I told her. “Of course, I miss my mother terribly, but there were babies here, and my whole family came, and there was a lot going on.”

She was silent, respectful.

I didn’t tell her about the dog with the apple on his head or the double sink, or how I played one of my mother’s favorite songs on the stereo but didn’t mention to anyone that it had been her favorite song. Or how sometimes lately I wake up at night thinking about those Christmases I had a long time ago…when my mother decorated the house with little styrofoam ornaments with toothpicks and sequins, and how she would whip up Ivory Snow detergent into what looked like snow, and have my father coat the boughs of our Christmas tree with it. Bowls and bowls of it. One year she used 24 boxes of Ivory Snow. For years the smell of Christmas was for me the lovely fragrance of laundry soap.

But when I hung up, I sat there for a long time thinking about all of that.

The best Christmases are mixed, I think. The fun of being with little children and seeing family members try to reach out toward each other…all that new bright happiness can’t help but be more lovely when it’s mixed in with the awareness of loss. And the fact that when you look around, you realize that everyone else is struggling with some form of loss as well. No one gets by untouched.

I miss my mother now almost more than I did when she first passed away. As time has gone by, I’ve replaced the memory of those last hospital days with the larger memories of when I was a child and she was the person I depended on most in the world.

It’s a wistful feeling, of course. And fleeting–just like the smell of pine needles drenched in 99 44/100% pure Ivory soap.