Tidings of Comfort

I gave Christmas a fair shot, but I was a bit off my game. A week before, I just picked up any ole’ wrapping paper from the grocery store. While secretly wrapping the gifts, I ran out of paper. Rookie Mom mistake. The Pfeffernusse weren’t spicy enough. I tried to make springerle mold cookies, but those online reviewers were being awfully polite when they mentioned that the dough is “hard to work with.” I made nothing but a mess and tossed the poorly cut cookies. The Swedish tea ring I serve every Christmas morning was lopsided, and I overcooked it. My heart wasn’t in it, clearly.

And then there was the cable tv. On Sunday, I hatched a plan to order cable tv and surprise daughter on Christmas Day, so that she could watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the tribute to Matt Smith. They assured me they could send a guy to climb the pole and flip the switch in time. He didn’t come Monday, but I did spend, literally, two hours on the phone and three trips to the cable office to deal with the new modem we needed for this new package. I could have been ruining another batch of springerle cookies in all this time! The next nice person assured me he would come Tuesday. Guess what happens next? All of these nice, but ineffectual, customer service folks screwed me over. I found myself on the phone on Xmas Eve night begging them to send a guy out. I needed to give her that gift, that gift of knowing that the unexpected is possible, that she can have things, just like other people do. I’ve read about people fighting over Cabbage Patch dolls in the Toys R Us, and I always cluck-clucked at the violation of the Christmas spirit, but while on the phone with the cable company I knew what it felt like to want something so badly, for all the wrong reasons. I checked myself and noted that this momentary lapse of reason, too, was a gift.

I played Santa and then sat in the dark living room with the Christmas lights on, and I felt so wretchedly lonely.

And then, on Christmas morning, Daughter cooed at the piles of gifts. (After I ran out of wrapping paper, I just bought a few rolls of shiny red paper and color coded them with ribbons. It looked charming. It looked like I planned it that way.) The kids have given up all pretense of Santa, so they thanked me directly and took their time and tried things out, and hours passed, quietly and in good cheer. I didn’t even buy very much this year, but after every last present was unwrapped, daughter clipped on her new Doctor Who belt, wrapped herself in her new Tardis blanket, draped herself over her pile of presents to gaze at the Christmas tree, while the teenager commented,”These presents are so thoughtful. It’s not just a big pile of gifts. You thought about these things.” And we just sat and soaked all of that in.


We could have called it a day there, but instead we pulled out board games and played, for hours. Literally. Hours. There’s a game called Porto Rico that involved our colonization and establishment of plantations, and Daughter and I thought it would never end. The teenager hoped it would never end, so tickled was he to have someone in for the long haul with him. He asked if anyone would like tea and duly served it. I pulled out the fancy cheeses, and the kids have pronounced Cotswold a favorite cheese. And so it continued, until the sun went down. I whipped up a quiche out of the leftover veggies from the Christmas Eve fondue, seasoned and roasted some potatoes, and baked some tofu for the teenager, who wasn’t going to touch veggies that we’d been poking around in. We lit the candles and ate at the dining room table, and the food was hot, just like a real Christmas dinner.

It was a gentle day, back like we had when they were roly-poly babies and toddlers, when our home was full of kindness and warmth. I got that feeling again, of what it was like to just enjoy one another, to love one another, back before husband got so sick. This Christmas Day, the kids were so comfortable. We tried on this feeling of comfort as if it were a new coat, or a hand-me-down, because it felt new, but familiar. I got the feeling that they felt…safe.

I made one, perfect Old-Fashioned at dinner and stopped there because I wanted to take a sleeping pill later. Daughter and I streamed some old Vicar of Dibley Christmas episodes and nodded off. When I woke up, Christmas was blessedly over and I had a blessed full night’s sleep. I felt like Scrooge when he wakes on Christmas morning, gets on his knees and says, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

This Christmas was not painful but it was, nevertheless, ponderous. We muddled through and were taken off guard by its gifts. I will keep it in my heart, always.



Light from Light

I had friends over for cocktails last night. One of the friends backed out due to illness, so I texted around to round up a third visitor, making it an occasion for friends to meet other friends, which now started to feel like a party. It turned into a small, but festive, mingler, with four of us sitting in the light of the Christmas tree sipping on Old-Fashioneds and dipping into the delicious food they brought. 

As I tidied up the house in preparation, I looked at it through a host’s eyes. I still haven’t replaced the rug on the stairs or the missing tile in the bathroom. Those are on the big-home-repairs list. The rails of the slide-out recycling cabinet came undone, so I just removed them, door and all, until I get a handyman to help with it. A slate tile popped out of the hallway floor. The hallway closet light has been getting wonky. A few of those things are just general state-of-the-house issues. The mounting list of things-falling-apart just looks downright shabby. An image of Daughter and I knocking around this crumbling structure, Grey-Gardens style, flashed through my head. I decided to fix something.

I climbed on a stool in the closet, took apart as much of the light fixture as I could, and snapped a picture of what was left in the ceiling. I made a mental note to add “paint the hall closet” to the list, and set that aside. There was a task at hand.


I took the photo and the pieces of the fixture to the local shop, where nothing is computerized, there isn’t much merchandise, and a guy or two sits behind the long counter, and I don’t understand how these guys stay in business against the Big Box stores, but I’m glad they’re there. I deposited the light fixture pieces on the counter and showed him the photo. The guy didn’t blink or laugh or mock me. “Right, you’ll want a whole new one. Want to go with porcelain or replace it with plastic?” I preferred the porcelain but worried about the cost. I shouldn’t have. It cost $5. If I replaced the whole thing, though, I’d have to rewire it. Yes, I would, but I can do it, he assured me. He explained how to do it. So I did it. In undoing the old wiring, I could see how to do the new one. I was a little confused about screwing the fixture in. Figured it out. Had a few zany moments of finagling the circuit breaker to turn everything back on. Figured it out. The new replacement comes with a white string, rather than the old metal chains. I appropriated the pull from the old fixture and attached it to the new one. I haven’t seen one of those “coupling mechanisms” in years, but I got a little thrill as I remembered how to use them, since I used to use them all the time. For what, I can’t remember, I just had a feeling of deep nostalgia for, vaguely, the 70s.

I went to another local hardware store and realized that you just need to find the right product for the job. I bought some adhesive for the slate tile, slapped that down at home and weighed down the tile with a stack of annotated Federalist Papers. Ends up you need to wait a day or two to grout it. Now I know. By the time the guests arrived, I removed The Federalist Papers and made a little band-aid around the tile with black duct tape, and it looked kind of cute and definitely much better than a void in the middle of the hall.

I was glad for the company, because I’ve been wanting to try my hand at Old-Fashioneds. There are all sorts of local bitters being made these days, of all different flavors, and regional bourbon and rye. I even bought a handcarved muddler from a local woodworker. I’ve been wanting to try out all these local products in Old-Fashioneds, but that’s probably not the kind of thing I should be doing alone. It was a nice excuse to have people over, a normal social function that I’ve stopped doing. I guess that’s how I can ease back into social life–hey! come on over for mixers/local bitters/cheese tasting/whatever, it doesn’t matter. Three or four guests is a good size. I was reminded how much I enjoy hosting. And the house looked so pretty. And my friends are so funny.

That’s the extent of my holiday socializing. There are no other parties or invitations. A few people have given me the “We should get together” spiel, but I’ve learned to receive that with the same commitment as “If there’s anything you need….” which is to say, I don’t get my hopes up. The children and I will spend Christmas Eve and Day alone. I guess we’ll play a lot of board games. Maybe the dogs will get some really good walks. I’ll probably do a Buche de Noel, not to make the perfect Christmas, but because it will help me pass the time. Heck, I’ll have so much time that I’ll probably whip up some meringue mushrooms. If I really get lonely, I’ll make some marzipan woodland creatures. But just in case one of those invitations pans out, I’ll have a plate of cookies or quick bread or something at the ready. And there’s a lot of bourbon and bitters left over. Maybe I’ll try another round of cocktails at my house, if I can round up a guest list.

I’ve stopped feeling resentful of our exclusion or whatever’s become of us, socially. As I cycle around to our second Christmas, I can accept how isolated and…forgotten we are. It’s real. And it isn’t awful. The living and dining room really do look pretty. There’s a certain superficiality to it, because our festiveness does not run very deep, but it’s not fake, either. Last year, the decorations just shouted “loss” to me. That’s not happening this year. I have the runner on the dining room table, which signals a secular sort of “waiting” for Christmas. On Christmas Eve I’ll lay out my grandmother’s holly tablecloth. On Christmas morning, I’ll do like the Episcopalians taught me and go with a red tablecloth. There are our traditions. There’s a funny feeling I get when I sit and read a book in this pretty space, knowing that it’s not going to be shared and being okay with it, anyway. It’s ours. In an unexpected way, knowing we’re going to have a lonely Christmas and having Christmas, anyway, means something.  


And Above All This Bustle You Hear

Since I stayed home Friday with the actor-with-a-sore throat, I wasn’t able to grade my final exams. After dropping off the much-improved-actor at her call for the matinee on Saturday, I set up my laptop at the little coffeeshop at the other end of the town square and graded away. A familiar older woman from our town sat at my table, since the (little) coffeeshop was so crowded, and we introduced ourselves, after all these years. I introduced myself to a woman I’d seen at the show the night before. Ends up she’s someone involved with the show that I’ve only known through e-mail. So, great, I met some new people, and I plowed through the grading, too. When a local librarian walked in the door, I figured the matinee must be over, so I packed it in and moseyed on down the street to fetch my favorite actor. We popped into the shops, then I treated her to dinner at the gourmet restaurant, where the staff said, “Nice to see you again so soon.” Daughter put her napkin on her lap and said, “Oh, this is fancy.” (To think, just two weeks before, she’d seen a matinee of Richard III featuring the greatest-actor-of-his-generation, followed by dinner on the Upper West Side, and now here she was, joining a local acting company in a vibrant local production, appreciating the local charm of dinner on the town square.) I made sure she drank lots of tea with honey, then I deposited her for her call for the evening performance and went home, for another Saturday night alone. As I pulled into my street it occurred to me that, given the weekend that it was, there were probably holiday parties I wasn’t invited to. I shrugged that thought off. The day wasn’t so bad. So long as I don’t think about what I’m missing and just enjoy what I have, then it’s okay, I guess.

Remind me of that next time I’m glum.

I suspect I’d be a whole lot happier if I could leave this town and start over. I’m sure that I’d be healthier if I had more control over my everyday life. Some of my household duties and family circumstances are holding me back from that leap that widows seem to make right around this time. I’m game to make the leap, but I’m stuck, without control over my schedule or environment. (I’m being evasive; I can’t write about everything here. Just know, it’s rough.) Sure, I know we can’t control any of these things, but I lack a sense of agency that I can even move around within this world. It’s constricting and stifling and not healthy, at all. The heartening development is that I’ve been sleeping better, and some regular sleep is fortifying me, making it easier to withstand these things I can’t control. I even feel a little glimmer of hope once in awhile.

Sleep is good.

A wreath was delivered to us via UPS. It’s beautiful. I’ve never had a wreath as an adult, and I checked the front door in the hopes that some previous owner had placed a nail there. No such luck, and I didn’t want to mar the nice door with a nail, so I went to the local gardening store and asked for “something to hook over a door to hang a wreath. Am I imagining this, or does this really exist?” and the owner said she had one left. The wreath looks gorgeous on my front door. Daughter says it looks really nice at night, when she gets dropped off from play rehearsal. I sure do appreciate those rides home, and I appreciate the scent of the wreath as I unlock the door, in that moment between working out there and opening the door to work at home, I savor the fragrance of fresh pine. Thing is, there was no card in the box, so I don’t know who sent this wreath. I look around and think, “Did you send it?” “Or was it you?” That’s the thing about anonymous gifts; they invite you to think that the sender could have been anyone, and I should see the possibility in everyone around me, and feel gratitude.

Now that’s a gift.


Because We Need A Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute

During my Black Friday online shopping, I tossed a few reduced-price holiday kitchen towels into my Crate and Barrel shopping cart. When we opened the box, daughter cooed, “Ooh, Mommy, you’ve really got the Christmas spirit.”

She sounded more surprised than I was.

Last Saturday I decided, on the spur of the moment, to attend the annual holiday craft fair. As I put on my coat, it occurred to me that I should have called a friend. We could have gone to the craft show, stopped for coffee, caught up, made an afternoon of it. But I just went alone. All the vendors were there from previous years, including the wood turning guy, who made that beautiful rolling pin that Husband and I dithered over, for years, until we splurged. It was totally worth it. That rolling pin is great. It wasn’t easy to see him, though, reliably there in his booth, year after year. The building was also the site of Husband’s memorial service. Let’s just say, this was not an easy craft fair for me. I ran into people, who were invariably with their families, or with a friend. There I was, alone.

Rookie mistake.

At the end of the day I peeked on Facebook to see that many people had spent the day in a Currier & Ives painting, surrounded by the warmth of their families, laughter, friends, husbands capably setting up the tree.

Note to self: stop doing that.

In the course of my solo shopping I picked up a few things that I mailed out to relatives on Monday morning. It felt good to give, even if it was just a little.

This weekend is the opening of Daughter’s play. All week, she has been losing her voice. She’s been so worried. She’s performing with a professional acting company, and she needed her voice. When she awoke Friday morning with her eyes swollen, I made her stay home. Her science test can wait. I pumped her with throat-comforting tea made by a local tea lady, each cup mixed with a generous dose of honey. I continued dosing her with the over-the-counter meds. Cough drops, ginger ale, an episode of Downton Abbey in bed. By late morning she was much improved and I figured we might as well get a tree.

Her rehearsal and performance schedule is so rigorous that I’ve hardly seen her in recent weeks. I’m going to get a tree this year, but I’m not going to do it without her. I figured this sick day was the most time I’m going to spend with her. So we bundled up and drove out to the tree farm. There was one couple there finishing up their purchase, then a young guy pulled up after us. We found ourselves in country-time, with folks chatting as if there’s nothing better to do. Once the chatting with the couple stopping, the tree guy turned to the guy who’d arrived after us. Maybe the young guy had gone home to get cash and they were resuming an earlier transaction. Anyway, realizing he wasn’t getting to us anytime soon, we wandered away from the display trees toward the bundles of trees lying on the ground. I was worried about the tree set-up at home, not sure if Daughter and I could do the tree wrangling on our own. We picked up a tree together, and it was so much lighter than I’d expected. I laughed. With a little heave-ho and wrestling with branches, I could even do it on my own if I had to. As we stood there, with the tree standing, we were like, ‘This is a great tree!” even better than the ones on display. So, thanks, got-all-the-time-in-the-world tree farmer, for welcoming us into your time warp. The 7’ tree slid into the back of the car with the seats down, so we didn’t even have tie-the-tree-to-the-top-of-the-car excitement. During our turn chatting with the tree guy, he told us that ours gives off a citrus scent. We enjoyed that scent on the ride home, with snowy hills all around us, and the tip of the tree poking between the front seats.

I put on a jazzy Christmas music station on Pandora. We got the tree upstairs and in the stand, no problem, and the lights strung up. Daughter organized all the ornaments into categories on the dining room table. She ooh’d and ah’d, just like you’re supposed to. She got a chuckle at some of the crafty kid ornaments that came home from school over the years, laughing at her own youth. There was an atrocious handmade Santa that we can’t account for. We have no idea who made it, or why. We have pronounced him a stowaway.

There was a cast party scheduled after the show, so I gave her a Christmas present early–a folksy, knit Hannah Andersson dress (on sale, natch). She held it up, her eyes bright. She is just so appreciative, of everything. She teaches me so much. And she looked so pretty in it.

By the time the tree was decorated and she was showered and in her new dress, we still had a few hours until the next dose of Mucinex and Call for actors. “How about we play a game in the living room?” I suggested. “With you?” she chirped. She dashed upstairs with Mastermind. I guess it’s been a long, long time since we’ve just sat and played a game together. We used to do it all the time, as a family. In the past year and a half I haven’t had the spirit for reindeer games.

I dropped her off for her early call and had nearly two hours to kill, alone, in this tiny nearby town. I browsed the few shops, then I hit the local restaurant, which is surprisingly gourmet for this tiny town. I could sit at the bar, all casual like, and order a drink and an appetizer. But the bar is the first thing you see, and I’m not ready for folks to see me drinking alone at the bar. So it seemed much more appropriate to request “Table for one, please.” I snagged a table tucked away, where I wouldn’t be on display and I couldn’t really see the rest of the dining room. I settled in and enjoyed it. The food was delicious. I savored it. I found a book in the car that I’m assigning next semester, so I read that between courses. It wasn’t so bad, really. There might have been people I knew in the main dining room, but I walked out of there with purpose. There was a couple I knew waiting for their table, and I chatted with them, as if it wasn’t at all weird that I was leaving a restaurant by myself. I sat by myself at the show, too, but right behind the director, so we got to catch up, and I got to gush over all the improvements they’ve made to this show. Besides wanting to burst into tears, it was fine. One of the other moms came to talk to me at intermission. It was nice of her to do that. It began with standard mom talk, but soon we rambled into a genuinely witty conversation that left us laughing as the house lights went down.

This was not a rookie mistake. Last year I had a companion for each of the shows. I even enlisted a friend’s daughter for one of the matinees. I really needed someone at my side last year. This year, I was a lot more comfortable going solo. I can engage with people I run into without melting into a pool of mush, and I’m making my peace with sitting alone. My friends are at an age when they have family commitments. I can’t steal away a friend during prime family time. In ten years, there will be a whole lot of empty nests and social opportunities. For now, though, this is it, and I can do it.

And, look, I’m doing Christmasy things. Our best moments may be instigated by sore throats and slow customer service, but so it goes. We’ve lost the elements of a Currier & Ives painting. But, golly, are we good at facing inconveniences and disappointments and moving past them, and making the best of them, and appreciating the good moments when they arise. We’re good at the moments. The moments are all we have. The moments are all there is.

Careful what you wish for

A few weeks ago I found an overnight summer camp that would take both kids and immediately searched for nearby escapes for myself for next summer. A cabin in the woods where I can read, walk, write? Sounds private…maybe too private. So how about an old-fashioned inn in the mountains, where I can sit on the porch, and chat with other guests as in an Agatha Christie mystery?  I searched and found, “Click here for romance getaway packages!” Um, how about a yoga/new age retreat, instead? Clean and sparse and serene and amenable to solo travelers. As I began to appreciate the merits of a yoga resort, I looked at the prices. Goodness. Not cheap. I might as well stay at one of those spa resorts and get pampered. So I upgraded my search to a spa resort. Sticker shock set in. I set this project aside.

All that putting-these-ideas-out-into-the-universe worked, oddly enough. Two weekends ago I found myself in a cottage, alone. But, be careful what you wish for. I was in a little cottage behind my niece’s house in New Jersey to see my mom, who has metastasized colon cancer. Complications during surgery warranted an emergency visit. I got the word Thursday afternoon, called a few friends for help and advice, left the kids in the hands of these trusted friends and hopped in the car the next morning for a 9-hour trip. I got my alone time in a little cottage, all right, like some kind of curse. When my mom was stable I returned home, where the kids were consumed with play rehearsals, a science fair project, big AP Bio and Math exams, and a conceptual art project for AP English. When they were through, I packed them up in the car and returned to NJ for Thanksgiving. We sat in my mom’s room in the rehabilitation center, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, not talking about next steps.

It was scary, and it was sad. Brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews were holding up and falling apart, in little ways, everyone in their own particular way at their own stage of grief. I felt so bad for everyone. There was some tension, and there was a lot of love, too, and laughter. I was glad I was there. Driving there and back and there and back again was exhausting, but I was capable of it, and I was grateful for that.

We’d planned to be there Thanksgiving weekend, anyway. The great British stage actor, Mark Rylance, has brought his all-male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway for a limited run. We bought our tickets way back in in July for Thanksgiving weekend. Good thing, too. These plays are a hit, and it’s hard to score tickets now. Twelfth Night, especially, was utterly entertaining, and we laughed heartily. I’ve never seen an actor like Mark Rylance. What a privilege it was to be there.

One of the neat things about these Shakespeare productions is their authenticity–the all-male cast, first of all, and the costumes, which had period fixtures even in their under layers. (We know this because the actors got costumed on stage pre-show, and we peered at them carefully with our binoculars from our cheap seats.) The music and instruments were faithful to the period, too. But the dialogue sounded utterly modern, not the caricature pompous Shakespearian voice but a clear, funny conversational dialogue that was so easy to follow along, and laugh to, and be moved by. It was some kind of radical move, in which the move toward the past made the plays fully present, and made us present in the past.

This post looks odd, with chatty references to science fairs and Shakespeare alongside my mother’s pain and our deep sorrow and fear. Illness and sorrow and disappointment exist alongside plays and exams and cottages and laughter. Gifts can be curses and curses can be gifts.