Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The New Old-Fashioned Way

I broke tradition and listened to some Christmas songs that I came across when station surfing in the car the week before Thanksgiving.

Usually, I refuse to do anything Christmas-y before Thanksgiving has concluded, but with the two huge snowstorms we’d already had, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, anyway.

I sang along with Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to town, and then Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on my way to pick up my son.

What the heck does Brenda Lee actually mean by “new old-fashioned way”? I had always wondered. It sounds like an oxymoron to me, I scoffed inwardly.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, standing at the kitchen counter circled by hopeful dogs, I was picking apart a rotisserie chicken and mulling over a comment from an older relative as I put soup ingredients into my crockpot.

She had lamented that no one honors traditions anymore. “Look at all these people! Working women don’t cook today…” Our family had gone out to eat in a restaurant for our Thanksgiving meal.

Well, au contraire mon frère (as Bart Simpson would say), because there I was, a working woman, cooking; Cooking something traditional in a crockpot – on a Sunday afternoon while I could hear the football game in the next room. It doesn’t get more stereotypically traditional than that. The only thing missing was an apron.

It got me thinking about traditions.

First of all, what is tradition? Merriam Webster says it’s an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior.

My kids count on certain traditions year after year. For example, at Thanksgiving, we have a
Gratitude Tree where we hang leaves upon which we write blessings we’ve counted. We usually eat turkey dinner and pie, regardless of where we are. At Christmas, everyone has favorite ornaments to hang on the tree, including the hand-painted ones from my grandmother that have been handed down through the generations. We make fudge and peppermint bark to give as gifts.

I do, indeed, honor traditions.

However, our family traditions are different than they were five, 10 and even 20 or more years ago.

As a child, I went over the river and through the woods to our grandparents’ house the night before Thanksgiving. When my brother and I got to high school we were too busy with “spirit week” and the Thanksgiving Day football game for that.

It seems that the passing down of the holiday torch occurs directly in relationship to the grandchildren growing up. For example, in my senior year of high school, my mother inherited the role of the family matriarch and hosted the Thanksgiving meal after the football game. On Christmas morning, she made us all homemade monkey bread (except she called it Hungarian Coffee Cake) that we ate while opening gifts.

Ten years ago, when my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, I was left holding the torch. My kids were far from the grown-up, which is why it was especially important for me to carry it and carry on.

Here are some things I realized about the importance of traditions.

  • Traditions give us a sense of security and continuity.
  • Traditions are a way to pass on family values.
  • Traditions vary from family to family and that is okay.
  • Traditions evolve as families evolve: we blend families; we invite friends; we become parents and realize why it might not be a good idea to serve our young kids monkey bread and Christmas candy for breakfast, and suddenly our grandparents’ tradition of putting fruit and nuts in the stockings makes sense.

My kids used to make gingerbread houses at Christmastime, but we haven’t done that since my oldest’s 16th Christmas. I still have an unused gingerbread house kit sitting on a top shelf that I look at wistfully from time to time. That is okay.

All of a sudden, Brenda Lee’s song made perfect sense to me. Our “old-fashioned ways” change when they no longer work for us, such as when we can’t bear to look at that empty chair at the dining room table.

Since traditions are still important, we must create – and honor – new customs. Life goes on and so must we. That is why my “new old-fashioned way” is going out to eat at Thanksgiving every year. And that is okay!

Sorry I ever doubted you, Brenda Lee. I get it now! I thought as I put the lid on my crockpot. Then, since I wasn’t wearing an apron, I wiped my hands on one of the Christmas-towels I’d pulled out of storage the day after Thanksgiving.

Monday, December 17, 2018

My escape

How many times had I wished I could run away—from the whining, arguing, refusal to eat dinner, and sass and disrespect along with my subsequent redirecting, reminding, and sanctioning. And laundry, cooking, and responsibility. From everything.


If I drove past a “1 BR Apartment for Rent” sign on my way to work, I imagined what it would be like to have a place of my own.


I remembered what life was like when I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself and I could do what I wanted when I wanted to.


I imagined taking a shower where I could wash my hair AND shave my legs, eating grownup food (anything besides chicken nuggets), and watching things other than G-rated shows on TV.


But then it was never long before my mind wandered to how could I fit bunk beds and a crib in a one-bedroom? And I’d laugh to myself when I realized it wasn’t running away if I brought everything and everyone with me.


Read the rest of the story here

Monday, December 10, 2018

Falling-down drunk

The other day I went to a fundraiser for a person who has late-stage cancer. The guy is in his early 30's. I was feeling kind of stressed out about the fact that I had so many social obligations in one day (this was just one of several, and I didn't know anyone) until I thought about how fortunate I am to have my health and if you have that, what is there to complain about, really.

Anyway, my husband and I had a lot of raffle tickets so we were wandering around dropping them into the various baskets when we ran into another couple my husband knows. They were just the nicest people. The husband played golf with my husband a few weeks ago and I guess their history goes wayback. The wife was shitfaced.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon.

She was staggering, swaying, and overly exuberant (hugging me more than once even though we had only just met).

At one point during one of her animated and noisy stories, she stepped back and tripped over an easel that was displaying an enormous mirror, nudging it back half a foot and causing it to sway a little. I caught her arm and pulled her back towards our circle, as I exhaled the gasp that had caught in my throat. She was oblivious to the potential disaster. (There was another easel-mirror combo on the other side of the aisle that would have fallen in a domino effect if the first had bumped it.)

I've heard the saying, "God looks out for drunks, fools, and small children." He was definitely looking out for this woman that day.

We didn't stay too long at this event because we had another commitment, but I thought about the drunk woman for a while.

I have been that drunk woman -- the woman who is just a little too loud, a little too friendly, a little too sloppy. I envisioned several scenarios about how the night could go for her, based on my own experience.

1. She could maintain her happy buzz. Maybe she'd get something to eat to temper the alcohol. She'd pace herself so that she didn't cross the line into blackout territory. If she felt her buzz slipping away, she'd swill off her husband's drink, or maybe get another one (or two) of her own. Maintaining takes a lot of conscious energy but is the ideal scenario.

2. She could just keep drinking, fortunate to avoid any embarrassing disasters, but maybe go pass out somewhere for an hour or so. It would still be early when she woke up so she might begin round two for the night (or three for the day, as the case may be. It was Saturday.)

3. She could cause a scene. Maybe she fell or threw up or knocked something over. The band would stop playing and everyone would turn to look at her while she stumbled around picking up the pieces and trying to put everything back together again. The silence would be deafening and her face, neck, and ears would burn with shame. Maybe someone would come to help her, or lead her away from the mess she just created, while she slumped somewhere in a corner, sobbing tears of self-pity and remorse, lighting a cigarette and swilling another drink that one of her well-meaning friends brought her (or that she simply found on a table somewhere). She'd keep drinking until she either forgot what she did or convinced herself it wasn't that bad. Best case, someone else would create a bigger scene and she could deflect with a sense of schadenfreude, "Did you see what So-and-so did...?"

If she was lucky enough to live out scenario 1, she wouldn't feel too bad about herself the next day. She might have remorse about overeating, but will probably congratulate herself for staying in control.

If it was scenario 2, she'd have to work a little harder to convince herself that she had everything under control, but it's still possible since she doesn't remember doing anything to call attention to herself. Social drinkers don't get drunk, and they certainly don't get drunk more than once in a 24-hour period.

Scenario 3 would definitely require a morning drink. It would be the only way to dissipate the shame, guilt, and remorse and convince herself it wasn't that bad. She might call or text some of her well-meaning friends who would reassure her that it was not that bad; that yes, indeed, what So-and-so did was far worse. She'll fish around for details, discreetly, since she can't exactly remember the whole night. (She can't remember anything after 6:00 p.m. actually, and has no idea how many hours she lost because she doesn't have a clue what time she got home.) She'll be mixing cocktails and smoking cigarettes while she drinks and dials.

In any scenario, she'll be drinking again the next day.

As horrifying as it is to live like that, I actually said to my husband, "I would have liked to drink with her."

He's a social drinker, but his ex-wife crossed the line and brought everything from the dark side into their marriage (which is why it's over) so he might have more of a clue than many about what I mean.

However, unless you are an alcoholic or an addict yourself, you will never understand how you can simultaneously adore and be reviled by the demon spirits that rule your life; to be at their mercy, to resent being an utter slave to an addiction, yet at the same time feel complete joy when you've got a full bottle in hand.

My new friend, the drunk, told me she was a nurse. To me, this demonstrates the ability to uphold two opposing ideas in one's brain at the same time. Surely a health professional is well schooled on the dangers of alcohol abuse, yet somehow compartmentalizes that into a different part of the brain that she uses when justifying getting drunk. And yes, she's definitely a drunk. She was breathing, spitting, and exuding alcohol, no doubt completely saturated.

When I first started drinking as a young teen, I thought alcohol was the answer to all my problems. When I quit drinking in my late twenties, I knew alcohol was the root of all my problems. ALL OF THEM.

Getting sober was one of the biggest do-overs of my life.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The most meaningful Christmas ornaments are handmade

Amongst the many boxes of Christmas decorations that we unearth every year is a small bin of delicate keepsakes. Each precious treasure is wrapped individually in tissue paper nestled within its own box, many labeled with my mom’s or grandma’s handwriting.

While I do cherish these ornaments, they are not the most meaningful to me.

Having a Martha Stewart Christmas tree is nice and all but I prefer ornaments made out of Popsicle sticks, yarn, pipe cleaners, beads, or wood colored with markers.

We also have cut-out photos, real birds’ nests, and origami creations fashioned from standard-issue sticky notes, as well as crinkle paper garland made from the discarded left edge of perforated notebook paper that chronicle my boys’ lifetimes, in yearly chapters.

My ultimate favorite story is told by the hand-painted less-than-delicate tin can “ornaments” from my mother’s childhood.

About the size of a small vessel of tomato paste, the cans are painted with bright stripes, candy canes, and dots.

When my grandparents were first starting out, during World War II, they did not have very much materially. Legend has it; they drove an army surplus jeep with holes in the floorboards (this story always made me think of Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car).

I came to understand that the tin can ornaments were an embarrassment to my grandmother: she was ashamed of not being able to afford “real” ornaments and the hand-painted ones symbolized hard times.

We all have hard times.

There have been Christmases where I have wondered how I could afford the dog and pony show I thought I should put on for my boys to make their Christmas “magical.”

There were a couple of years that I went to the local food pantry and our community closet for help with Christmas gifts for the kids.

I love my grandmother’s ornaments because to me, they represent the assurance that throughout my family’s history, Christmas always comes and there will be light at the end of the dark times.

Read a longer story about my grandmother's ornaments here.

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...