holidays


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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.

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!

My mother wasn’t really a fan of Mother’s Day. She always said it was one of your hokier holidays–just filled up with enforced sentiment and guilt, and whether her kids remembered it or not was no big deal to her. But we did it up just the same, the way children love to do: breakfast in bed, consisting of runny eggs and burned toast; necklaces made of pasta;  little two-leafed seedlings barely thriving in a paper cup, and of course the piece de resistance, the construction paper card.

I am proud to say that I had a signature design that I presented year after year, made the same way for each and every holiday that might come up. I drew a bird on the front and wrote, “This birdie has dropped in to say…” and then you opened the card and it read: ”HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!” (or whatever the holiday might be…Happy Birthday and Happy Valentine’s Day worked equally well, and so did your lesser holidays, like Arbor Day and St. Patrick’s Day, if need be.) I felt this card was brilliant for its versatility, and I was quite taken with its rhyme scheme. It was easy to produce, could be dashed off at a moment’s notice (after a day of forgetfulness about the big day), and always was guaranteed to bring a smile.

I guess I grew up not really thinking much about Mother’s Day, once I was too old to make my fabulous card anymore. 

Last year, though, two days before Mother’s Day my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and two days after Mother’s Day they told her that it was incurable. It had spread to her liver and lungs and bones and was on the march to every other organ it could find, in a mad sweeping rampage across her body. 

She had, it seemed, been ignoring some symptoms for a very long time.

And so we started talking on the telephone every day during the next five weeks. We’d sit up late at night–her in Florida and me in Connecticut–and I’d hold the phone to my ear, hearing her laugh and cry, listening to her stories, to her fears, to all the random, stream of consciousness things she wanted to tell me. She’d light up her cigarettes and take sips of her beloved Pepsis, coo to her little dog, and we would stay on the phone for hours and hours.

What did we talk about? Just ordinary things, nothing momentous at all. We’d talk about songs playing on the radio, about the men she had loved and the crazy things she had done. Why she liked to sunbathe but didn’t like to swim. What the lady across the hall said last week. She had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder years before, and she talked sometimes about why she hated taking the medication for it (“it makes me feel so colorless, like all the red has gone out of the world”) and we talked about the delicious freedom she felt in ordering madly from Home Shopping Network, buying jewelry and diamonds and kitchen appliances and makeup, even though she knew she wasn’t going to pay for any of it.

Whereas I had once seen it as my job to lecture her about all this, now I didn’t anymore–not when she was dying.

But now, in her final illness, she seemed real to me, neither manic nor depressive. She just talked, and I just listened. I felt it was the least I could do, to listen. Sometimes I would type the things she was saying to me on my laptop. My family was fast asleep, and I needed to be sleeping, too, but it was as if I were connected by this umbilical cord of telephone wires, hissing with static, holding me fast to her, even as the time grew short.

She said: I can’t understand how it’s going to happen that I’m going to go from being the fun-loving, lively-spirited person you see before you to being a dead person. Just how is that going to happen? How is it that I won’t be here on the Fourth of July? What in the world is going to happen between now and then that I don’t know about yet?

She said: I think I’m depressed. Or I would be depressed if I weren’t in denial.

She said: In this whole nursing home, all any of us want is to get naked. And they won’t let us.

And then she said: I’m not going to put up with this. I won’t live under these conditions, feeling as bad as I feel. I am out of here. Will you write about me someday? 

And then she stopped eating and let herself fade away. I flew down to Florida and sat beside her and played her favorite songs and held her hand, and she’d smile and squeeze my hand sometimes, silent now.

“Are you scared?” I asked her the day before she died, and she shook her head no. Emphatically NO. 

These days I think of her a lot, even without Congress enacting a Mother’s Day holiday to bring to mind all mothers.

My mother, like probably a lot of women out there, was often not that great a mom. Now, a year out from her death, I think that she was probably consumed with her illness, fighting to stay above it, to remain as clear as she could. Whereas for so much of my life–even as a child–I was the adult in our relationship, the one who needed to protect her and to try to manage her finances and her medications and her adventures, I’m so grateful to have had that winding down time with her. At the end, we were just two people, not mother and daughter necessarily, but just two people who had shared a whole lifetime (mine) together, having made mistakes and come to a place of talking and maybe understanding and forgiveness.

That is grace, I think. That lightness I feel now when I think of how, in the last five weeks of her life, she poured out all she had to me, and that I wrote it all down.

It is the last day of the year, which is as good a time as any to look at the present moment.

So here it is: a moment.

It’s 1:45 on a Monday afternoon, and I am sitting at my desk in the family room, with my laptop in front of me, and I am listening to a Nellie McKay song called “Gladd.” I just heard an interview with her on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross while I was in the car, and so I came home and downloaded some of her songs on iTunes. (When my New Year’s resolutions kick in tomorrow, I will not be downloading quite so many songs on iTunes.) I’ve just realized that this song is from someone who died–it’s kind of a hymn of comfort, the type of thing a dead person might want to say to those left behind…and since this has been a year in which a lot of people close to me died, it seems particularly fitting to listen to right now. You can listen to it for free on the npr website…here’s the link, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6719830, and then you click on Listen. (I promise you: it’s not a sad song. It’s really beautiful and comforting.)

Anyway, back to the moment. (This is why I can never be a Buddhist; I can’t stay in any one moment.)

It’s now 2:26, and I’m just back from making a pot of white needle tea, which is wonderful–warm, light and delicious. The dog is stretched out asleep next to me, but you can see by his flickering eyelids that he’s not deeply asleep. His feeding time is officially 4 o’clock, but he gets ready by 2, and so any time I shift in my chair, he comes to hopeful attention.

Outside it is sunny although we were supposed to have a snowstorm today, so the sky–which is a delicate egg-shell blue with little white wispy clouds–seems like a particular blessing today. One of my children is snowed in in Boston; another had snow yesterday in Pennsylvania, and the third has gone off to meet New Year’s Eve in New York City. The house still looks like a post-Christmas apocalyptic catastrophe. I managed to get the wrapping paper out of here for the garbage pickup today, but there are still stockings lying around, looking indolent and self-satisfied, and a few stray boxes that should either go up to the attic or politely out with next week’s trash.

If I were to make a list of all the things I should be doing, it would be long indeed.

  • I should be interviewing the subject of my next newspaper story, a 16-year old boy who will tell me why he believes exercise saves him. (I did try to call him; he’s not home. No doubt he’s out being saved by exercise right now.)
  • I should call Jennifer and Stacy and Alice and Butch and wish them all Happy New Year, because it’s been too long since I’ve checked in with the extended family, and I would actually LOVE hearing what they’re all doing.
  • I need to make an appetizer for the New Year’s Eve party we’re going to tonight with friends. While I was upstairs waiting for the tea to brew, I read the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook and thought for a long, hard moment about launching into a huge cooking project, and then decided, “Nah. I’ll go buy some shrimp and make shrimp cocktail. Everybody likes that, and why wreck the moment of being alone in the house listening to music by myself?”
  • I could do laundry. I think it’s been weeks.
  • Empty the dishwasher–those dishes in there have been clean for a few days, I think.
  •  Go the gym and see if exercise saves ME.
  • Send out Christmas cards, which now would be called New Year’s cards and may yet have to turn into valentines.
  • Make some more New Year’s resolutions, along the same lines as STOP DOWNLOADING ITUNES.

But you know something? This day is just too marvelous the way it is. Just a perfect moment in time–the heater roaring softly, the music, the taste of the tea, the knowledge that soon I’ll have to go out and buy shrimp and cocktail sauce. I will go back to reading my novel and making the last little tweaks, the last Ridding of the Adverbs as I think of it.

Nellie McKay is singing her last line: “It’s been a long time coming, but all the pain has passed and there is peace.”

To all of you who stop by for a visit, Happy New Year…and may 2008 bring you much joy and peace.

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.