Category Archives: Christmas

To Be Loved: The Greatest Gift

When I was young, I married my best friend, a cliché dismissed as sentimental until it happens to you. In my husband, I found my home. Now, ensconced in midlife and traversing the terrain of family life, inherent with its joys and sorrows, I’m filled with deepening gratitude for his presence and a love that grows stronger — and simpler — with time.

A scene from the movie “Valentine’s Day” illustrates the enigma of mature love. Shirley McClaine says passionately to her husband of 50 years, Hector Elizondo, after a devastating rift: “I know I let you down. And maybe you don’t think I deserve your forgiveness, but you’re going to give it to me anyway. Because when you love someone, you love all of them — that’s the job. The things that you find lovable and the things that you don’t find lovable.” He quiets her pleading and whispers: “Shhhh. I understand. I’ll never leave you.”

This truth struck a chord. The springtime of love, while authentic, is not sustainable, and when the veneer wears off, we’re left naked and exposed. Love the compulsive idiosyncrasies, the annoying habits, the abrasive characteristics? The graying hair and sagging skin, the morning breath, bed head, and restless legs, the flatulence and cellulite and soft bellies? Love these things, too? Yes. Especially these.

Deserving or not, I know my husband loves me. And it’s not his abundant declarations that tell me so; it’s the gifts. From the start, Steven showered me with gourmet dinners, roses, lingerie, a gorgeous engagement ring, and a perfect proposal. He decorated the house with hundreds of hand-cut paper hearts. He wrote poetry. He saved me the Biscoff cookies from his flights. He also paid off my student loan, supported my mother financially, and raised my young children as his own. Consummately generous, it’s his nature to give. Of his time, his efforts, his resources.

For nearly 25 years, he’s lived his love with daily gifts, making coffee in the morning, brushing the small of my back as he walks past, letting me sleep in on Sundays, surprising me with my favorite wine. He replaces my brakes, manages the taxes, and does the laundry. He senses my moods and makes me laugh. He feeds me.

Yet, of all his gifts, the most profoundly affirming is his desire for my happiness; he acknowledges my dreams and helps me to realize them. No strings attached.

This year we spent Christmas at our little cabin in the woods. Out the front window is a pastoral view of the meadow sloping downhill to a pond. At the water’s edge sits a gazebo Steven constructed for me to write in. I unwrap a homemade gift certificate entitled “Writer’s Retreat” and glance from his eyes to the window then back to a photo of the gazebo. Beneath it is printed, “You seldom have the opportunity to enjoy time for you, for writing, for breathing, and I want to help facilitate that. Please take a weekend for yourself, at the farm. Leave on a Friday, come back on Sunday. I’ll take care of the kids. I’ll plan your food, buy your groceries, and pack your car to send you on your way. Merry Christmas, honey. I love you.”

Through tears I look to my beloved’s face where the map of our lives is written. With this gift, my best friend speaks a love language that says, “I know you.” And to be loved like that — it’s the greatest gift of all.

Published March 28, 2019 in COMO Living Magazine

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Filed under Aging, Christmas, Marriage, Motherhood

And So This Is Christmas … Let The Grief In

Image by Pixabay

It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. All my albums — traditional, classical, contemporary, instrumental, pop — are on shuffle and iTunes is creating our playlist. The music stays pleasantly in the background of my awareness until I hear the opening phrase of Happy Xmas.

“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”

The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause my work. I close my eyes and listen to the familiar, comforting melody.

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Filed under Aging, Christmas, Enlightenment, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood

To Believe or Not to Believe

Christmas 1970

“Mom, is Santa real?”

My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.

“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.

I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.

“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”

Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.

When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”

“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.

Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”

“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”

This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.

“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”

Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.

Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.

But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”

Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.

He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.

And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.

One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”

Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”

It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.

“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”

“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”

My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.

“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.

In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.

The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:

“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”

Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.

“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.

“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”

Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.

“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”

I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”

“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”

 
 
 

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Filed under Aging, Babies, Christmas, Enlightenment, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Memories, Motherhood, Siblings

Enough

I actually did it. For once I followed through on a threat. I’ve battled my children for years — no, decades — over the condition of their bedrooms. When the eldest two were teens, I all but conceded the fight. Their dark, damp rooms devolved into giant petri dishes, emanating mysteriously mingled odors. Clothes covered the floor, and dishes littered every surface; drinking glasses half-full and film-covered, cereal bowls congealed with the remnants of sugary milk, plates smeared with dried-on leftovers. Trash and treasures alike were shoved into nooks or carelessly strewn about, unprotected, revealing a laissez-faire attitude toward expensive teenaged paraphernalia: Game Boys, skateboards, headphones, stacks of loose CDs. The horrific messes frustrated me, but my kids taking everything for granted, that disheartened me. The situation resolved — when they moved out.

I can’t wait that long with the second batch. I’m old and basically one apoplectic fit away from a heart attack. I vowed things would be different and set out with two basic tactics: 1) Stay on top of it; get organized and maintain order, and 2) Teach them to be respectful; expect responsibility and reward compliance.

Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

I organized the play room with color-coded tubs on corresponding shelves. I arranged drawers, cabinets and cubbies. I used LABELS. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I intoned, and for whole hours at a time their rooms looked like a Pottery Barn catalog — such a sweet sensation! But there was no way I could keep up the relentless policing and cajoling and reinforcing. Even with control issues, I was no match for the destructive force of my children. When I let down, even a little, it all went to hell in a hand basket; the little monsters annihilated my beautifully orchestrated design. Their energy was tornadic — toys, games, books and dolls were flung everywhere. And all those tiny pieces — broken crayons, Barbie shoes, key chains, pennies, paper clips, empty wrappers from Halloween candy and crunched-up chips smuggled in and hidden under the bed. The wreckage sent me into my own tailspin.

 

Prolonging the inevitable, I’d shut the door and walk away. I did not want to see it. Eventually I’d muster the strength and supervise the restoration of order by the demolition crew themselves. And by “supervise” I mean losing patience with their lackluster, apathetic efforts and cleaning it all up myself as they stood by, repentant and cowed into silence by my ranting.

“Look at all this stuff! It’s too much. Seriously, if you girls cannot change, you are destined to become hoarders. You’ll live alone!”

This cycle has repeated itself ten-thousand times, but the last time was different. I was different. I had enough.

“That’s IT. I am DONE! I’m NEVER doing this again. The next time you leave your things all over your room, they will BE. GONE. I MEAN it. I’ll come in here with GARBAGE bags!”

They didn’t believe me, but it was no idle threat; I followed through. Well, Steven did. My husband seemed to think I’d back-pedal, so he waited until I was at work to do the deed.  I came home to 12 heavy-duty black bags sitting in the garage where I park my car. And an empty play room. Epic in scale, their messes flat wore me out, but it was what those messes said about my kids that truly bothered me. It said they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are used to getting what they want; they’ve certainly gotten anything they’ve ever needed. And they don’t value it or the hard work and money it took to purchase their luxuries. As a parent, it’s a hard truth to face: having more than enough has not made them grateful, it’s made them greedy. And I’m to blame.

When we were in high school, my brother, sister and I lived with our single mother in a double-wide trailer. Parked on farmland in southeastern Idaho, we hunkered down for subzero winters and dug ourselves out of snow that began in October and stayed until April. To fight off the brutal cold, we fed a wood stove throughout the night and burrowed into heated waterbeds. My brother and I drove our one car to school after we dropped off our mom at work. Our clothes came from K-Mart, our furniture from thrift stores and when we worked potato harvest, our wages went to the household rather than in our pockets. I got good at pretending I wasn’t hungry on Friday nights at McDonald’s with my friends.

When I became a mother, I wanted my children to have what I didn’t, but in filling that void, maybe I denied them the opportunity to develop something I did have, in spades: a work ethic and sense of responsibility, an appreciation for material things and what it takes to earn them. Gratitude. Perspective. In hindsight, while they were tough, those experiences made me who I am today.

At Christmas, especially, when the anticipation of presents dominate my young daughters’ thoughts, when the reason for the season is buried under retail consumerism and drowned out by advertisements of aisles and aisles of bright, shiny treats, I grapple with how to adjust their attitudes. I long for them to recognize their bounty and share it freely with those in need. At heart, they’re not selfish. Sydney is so sensitive to other people’s feelings and generous. She has literally tried to give people the shirt off her back — or the iPod in her hand. And Haley, who has a special love for little ones, latches on to anything about sick kids. She filled out a donation slip for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and tucked $15 of her own money inside, asking me to mail it for her. My girls are kind and compassionate; they just need a chance to express it. And I need to lead the way.

Where to start? The world is full of hunger and pain and loss — the need so great. What could we do that would make a difference? The answer is simple: Whatever you can give, give. Whatever you can do, do. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

In Columbia, you don’t have to look far to find ways to give. Organizations such as The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Rainbow House, Coyote HillTrue North and Harvest House are among many worthy causes working tirelessly to serve humanity. Technology makes it possible to impact lives globally as well as locally. One mom I know coordinates an annual packing party for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. This year, I took the girls. On a Friday night, we gathered to fill shoeboxes with school supplies and hygiene items, socks and hats and flashlights. And toys, of course: dolls, trucks and stuffed animals; things that will surely become prized possessions rather than yet another plaything to be taken for granted. Packing the boxes full, Sydney and Haley topped them off with handwritten letters and their school pictures to add a personal touch and sent them winging their way around the world to be received by children who might not have access to clean water or health care, let alone presents on Christmas Day.

By giving their hearts, my girls realized it’s not about the stuff, and in fact, excessive stuff gets in the way. Material things are not what bring us happiness. Connection, service, love: These are the gifts I want to give my daughters, and the knowledge that they can make a difference themselves, right here at home and across the universe.

So far, it’s sticking. Greed is giving way to benevolence. We’ll keep it up, finding opportunities to reach out. It is far better to give than receive, and they know that now.

The bags containing evidence of their overabundance sat in the garage for a few weeks, giving them plenty of time to think and allowing them to discern what they cherish, what they appreciate and what they can let go of. And in the process, they learned how good it feels to have, not too much, but enough.

 
 

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Filed under Adolescence, Babies, Christmas, Family, Growing Up, Motherhood, Parenting

Snow Day

snow

I fall for it every time; I get sucked in as soon as the text buzzes on my cell phone, the email lands in my inbox, and the answering machine picks up the recording (no more need to check the scrolling list of school closings at the bottom of the TV screen): “Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”

The kids yelp and run around in circles. “SNOW DAY!!”

Mentally I do a little happy dance as I fantasize about sleeping in and snuggling up. I envision making a big pot of soup and catching an old movie. I love the snow; it’s magical when it falls thickly and blankets the ground. I love it even more when I can stay home. Thoughts of relaxing with my family for an unexpected day in make me all warm and fuzzy.

However … the imagined cozy scene is short-lived. In the morning I’m quickly reminded of how things really go. Haley, my 5th grader, is literally bouncing off the walls; she careens into the kitchen after banging into the doorframe, slides across the tile floor in her socks and wipes out, smacking her elbow on a chair on her way down. She’s wounded and howling.

“Ow, ow, ow!  Ouch!!  That huuu-UUURT!”

But just a few seconds later she resumes her litany: “I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake. The sun is awake so I’m awake.”  The refrain continues with a rhythmic accent placed on WAKE.

Coming off of winter break, the girls have already been out of school for 2 weeks. This is our 17th day of togetherness, but who’s counting?

“It snowed, it snowed, it snowed, it snowed!” Haley twirls around singing, “Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire! In the meadow we can build a snooooooowwwman.” She stops abruptly. “Hey!  We can build a snowman!”

Suddenly she’s pulling her snowsuit over her fleece jammies and stuffing her bare feet in snow boots. “I’m gonna make a snow angel!” Her enthusiasm is boundless, but so is my exhaustion as I watch her dig through the winter gear, flinging coats and hats and gloves far and wide until she finds, at the very bottom, her scarf.

“You haven’t even had breakfast yet,” I say, realizing I haven’t even had coffee yet either. No wonder. “And you haven’t had your pill,” I add.  No wonder.

“Come here and just chill.” I call her back to the kitchen.

“I need to chill. I need to chill.” She closes her eyes and repeats the words, slowly this time, as if in meditation, “I need to chill. I need to chill.”

Her eyes snap open, her quest for serenity over. “I need to take a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill.”

“Haley, you are a diva,” Sydney says, standing quietly in her bra and boy shorts, watching as her sister cavorts around the kitchen. Sydney is the antithesis of her sibling in personality. Four years older, Syd has Down syndrome which makes her pretty chill by nature.

Smiling, I hold out my hand to Haley. “Here’s your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, her daily Ritalin in my palm.

“No, it’s not,” she says.

“Yes, it is,” I answer.

“No, it’s not,” she quips.

“Yes, it actually is your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, gesturing emphatically with my palm. Why, exactly, am I engaging?

“No, it’s NOT!”  she laughs. “It’s my chill and grill pill.” Grabbing it from my palm, she gulps it down with a swig of milk and takes off again, running to the back door.  Looking through the glass she says, “Oooh! OOOOOOhhhhhh! Look at the snow! It’s ba-ba-ba-blowing. Look at the drifts, the way the wind moves it and the, . . hey, birdies!  Hello birdies!”

She does eventually get outside, dragging Sydney along with her, Sydney who hates the cold and hates the snow and hates being bundled up even more. Wrapping a scarf around her neck, I say, “Honey, it’s really cold out there, you have to cover your skin.” Sydney yanks it off in an uncharacteristic display of defiance, pulling her own hair in the process.

“Oookay,” I concede. “Let’s just zip you all the way up then.”

They waddle outside and around the back to a sweet little sledding track that runs between our house and the neighbor’s. We’re letting them go out by themselves this year, checking occasionally out the window. Assuming that if anyone is screaming or bleeding I’ll hear about it, I feel pretty comfortable taking advantage of the free time to talk on the phone while I take the Christmas tree down.

Removing bulbs of all sizes, I place them gently in their boxes. As I unwind the lights from the branches, my earphone feeds me my sister’s voice from Oregon. I pass by the window and see the girls together, having a blast. I can vaguely hear their shouts and laughter as they slide on plastic discs down the hill. I continue my conversation, thinking all is well suddenly, Steven comes stomping up from where he’s working downstairs–somewhere with a clear view of the back yard.

“Ha-ley!”

“What now?” I say to my husband.

“Do you need to go?” my sister asks.

“She’s got garden tools!” Steven growls, going around to the front, yelling out the door.

“Haley! Come up here and bring those with you. Right. Now!”

“What’s going on?” I ask him. Then I see. Haley is using large sharp metal tools as walking sticks—or pickaxes—to stab the snow and pull herself up the hill.  Sydney, watching from below, holds a sled and looks miserable.  She’s done.

Once inside, Sydney sheds her wet clothes in a heap by the front door and disappears. The sound of a laugh track from some Disney show or another emits through her closed door. She’s warm, she’s dry, and on a screen away from her sister. She’s happy.

Haley comes dragging in after returning everything to the garage. Dejected and sad, she says, “Sydney won’t play with me. There’s no one to play with!” For emphasis she adds, “Huummppph,” and tries to fold her arms, but her snow suit is too big.

“I’m bored!  Bored, bored, bored.”

Electronics to the rescue. The Kindle Fire Haley got from Santa this year provides amazing opportunities to download books like Robinson Crusoe and David Copperfield. She also plays Candy Crush and Mine Craft, but hey, they stimulate her mind, too, right? Sydney’s had an iPad for a few years now and uses the math and spelling apps, but left to her own devices, she’s either singing along to a music video or filming a DIY cable segment: “How To Make A Cheese Quesadilla.”

It’s true, we’re a high-tech family. We use phones, laptops, tablets and game devices daily. My sister just told me she’s limiting her son’s screen time. I know we should, too. But not today.

Sydney comes out of her bedroom in a daze and opens the fridge. She stands and stares. Then she reaches very slowly inside, her hand outstretched towards the egg carton.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I was just, um, just feeling like, um, I just love eggs?”

“Do you want something to eat?” I ask.

“Sure!” Sydney’s eyes glow.  Haley talks to fill the time. Sydney eats.

And now the kitchen is breached.  They swarm as the food comes out . . .  again.  The dishes pile up . . . again.  I’m bombarded. Both girls talking at once, telling me what they want, what they’re doing, what they want to do, what they’ve just read, what they’re going to read, what they want me to read.

Fragments, words, bits and pieces of sentences float around me. I have lost the ability to form complete thoughts and respond patiently and coherently to my children. Tuning them out has moved beyond a survival skill to a habit.

“Uh-huh.”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“Right.”

“Really?  Wow.”

“That’s awesome.”

An image comes to my mind of the aliens in the movie, Mars Attacks.  Upon hearing Slim Whitman’s piercing yodel, they drop to their knees, clutching the clear globes that protect their huge, exposed gray matter. In agony, the creatures writhe on the ground until their pulsing brains explode and green goo coats the inside of their helmets.

Snow ice cream and blanket forts and frozen bubbles. Projects and puzzles and playmates. This is what they need from me and it’s what I just can’t (or won’t?) give them 100% of the time. Part of the reason is probably my age and the fact that I’m just plain wearing out on the mothering front, but it’s also because I’ve never actually loved getting down on the floor with my kids or going to the park or making crafts or baking cookies.  And though I’ve spent a fair amount of time feeling guilty over it, I’ve come to terms with it.  I know who I am . . .  and so do they. Why I was thinking that staying home, confined to my house with my bored, squabbling children was going to be fun, I can only guess.

“Look, look!  Mom! Come here, I want you to watch. You have to come here to see.”

Haley has moved to the hallway, incessantly filling the air with words. I glance up.

She’s lying on her back with her legs lifted. “See!  I can open and close the door with my FEET!”

“Can you close your mouth with your feet?” Steven, walking through the kitchen, drops the one-liner with perfect timing.

As I’m chuckling at my husband’s quick wit, my text tone sounds.

“Honey, your phone,” he says.

I pick it up, swipe and read:

“Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”

“NOOOoooooo!”

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Filed under ADHD, Christmas, Family, Motherhood, Parenting, Sisterhood, Special Needs

Just Like That

Melissa

Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over.  The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year.  My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.

But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard.  I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories.  The presents have been opened.  The food has been devoured.  The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.

All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family.  They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events.  As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.

And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love.  Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now.  She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come.  Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily.  The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be.  I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.

Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together.  It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.

“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir.  He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”

“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”

Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out.  It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish).  Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.

The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star.   Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house,  We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin.  We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped.  We got out the good dishes.  We baked and we cleaned.  We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.

And then they were here.  Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant.  Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary.  And just like that, my boy will become a father.  7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs.  I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.

Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding.  We told stories.  We played games.  We ate and then ate some more.  We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.”   And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan.  We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity.  Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels.  Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten.  The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.

We also watched our own home movies.

“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’

“Let’s watch ‘em!”  He said with his typical enthusiasm.

We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR.  It disappeared, sucked inside with a click.  The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.

A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend.  She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange.  She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.

She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn.  A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it.  Giggling she says, “He likes me!”

A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly.  He wears top-siders with no socks.  In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go.  Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car.  He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”

He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off.  Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might.  Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn!  My turn!”

A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies.  She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm.  She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.

Time bent.  I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children.  They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.

Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often.  She was innocent and sweet and unassuming.  Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here.  She was pure, authentic.

Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable.  He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention.  Whatever he felt, he expressed.  His motto was life is great—what’s next?  He was eager, energetic.

Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.  She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers.  Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her.  She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world.  She is pure and authentic.

And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic.  He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit.  His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence.  He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent.  He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.

This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment.  And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead.  Just like that things do change.  And I am brought up short.  I’m in awe of the gift of my family.  My family, here, now, together.

We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most:  Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.

Just like that it’s 2014.  I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go.  I can take it all in and savor it and relish it.  And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.

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Filed under Adolescence, Aging, Babies, Childbirth, Christmas, Down syndrome, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Parenting, Siblings, Special Needs