Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: To Herald the Coming Holidays–or Not?

I know, I know–it is not even mid-November and I dare to display this wreath! But we are bombarded with seasonal themes and items in stores and ads everywhere; I am made to think on the holidays despite my distaste of the early advancing of the madness. I write in a general protest. I am having second and third thoughts aplenty.

If I was an artist of considerable ability (not just a lazy wanna be who sketches and dabs paint now and again) I would create a spare but lovely watercolor and ink picture of a cozy, snow-laced cabin in the woods. White tapers would burn softly in two front windows, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney; a deer and fox would be peeking out from beneath frosty green boughs. A cardinal would fly by. I’d be standing in the open front door with Marc, arms opened.

Then I’d turn that bit of imagining into a card and send it off to family and friends some weeks ahead, with this message inside:

Skipping the holidays’ material madness at last, but come on by for a good hug–and a mug of something tasty–if desired.

That’s how I’m feeling about Christmas. I have given it my thoughtful attention. This may be the year some variation of that idea comes to be, rather than remain considered.

Thanksgiving is another matter, made for cooking and eating and convivial conversations around the table. Well, Marc cooks these days; I’ll toss a salad and prep veggies, make the drinks and pretty up our old oak table-and am happy to clean up. But even my long-standing love of baking has cooled. It seems to have slipped out the door with our five children, although I baked with and for grandkids here and there; even they have flown the coop. (Must wait for the six month old twins to grow up a bit and we’ll fling flour about and indulge in likely forbidden sugary delights.)

We will likely have Thanksgiving at our place until the adult children indicate they have lost interest or can’t manage it with their hectic lives and own broods. We’d be alright with someone else cooking up a feast, setting the table and cleaning up one of these years, too. Yet we enjoy the family gathering–with an occasional friend–tremendously. And this year my oldest daughter, Naomi (an art prof) is flying in from South Carolina to lecture at Portland State University and will stay on for Thanksgiving. This is a luxury visit; we are quite looking forward to it. (One thing I do love to do is talk with family– and others, the more the merrier.)

Still, then arrives Christmas. What is it that has me with knuckles to teeth as we try to determine the best way to celebrate?

That nostalgic scene I have the urge to create–cabin in snow, deer and fox, a cheery cardinal; candlelight and inviting fireplace and woods about–all enticing one indoors to see what else awaits–is just that: nostalgia. I don’t own a cabin or cottage and never experienced a Christmas in either but it sure sounds good, evokes the peace and pleasures that deeply appeal. (There are people who live out this fantasy. I have a niece whose family convenes in her Colorado mountain lodge. The photos posted are wonderful.) I did grow up in Michigan. There was often a glittering white blanket silencing the outside noise as we crowded about a festive tree. We sang around the baby grand, familiar hymns and carols; our family made a natural chorus and music was a huge part of Christmas. So maybe all that set precedents which are not now met as once before.

In any case, I have not been a child in my parents’ home for 50 years; they are gone. Christmases have long been my own–with the tradition of many gifts, good food and large gatherings. When you have a bunch of children and then they have children, it gets bigger each year. And I do like to “do” for others, to decorate, to find special gifts for the 14 (more including friends) I shop for, and most of all share this time with them, all in one spot. Or mostly. Not the entire five adult children, generally, as two live out of state and one is a chaplain with an overload of duties that time of year.

I used to host big gatherings for extended family. I loved preparations and the spread on the dressed up table and the congenial intersection of lives, the laughter. The love. But my older sister, brother-in-law; a brother and a nephew have died; my niece is not as available; my other sister and partner live in a retirement community and are not that well. All this changes the way family interacts more than I anticipated. It is a little sad, but it is the way of things and I have adapted year by year, loss by loss.

In any case, I’ve been thinking this over for many years: what would it be like to not have a fluffy freshly cut tree in the living room; to not have underneath it the usual heaping pile of presents, to not have everyone over at once for gift opening and brunch on Christmas Day? This has especially weighed on me since our daughter with the new twins confided that she almost dreads the coming holidays as there are now more family wishes to fulfill. (Her husband’s family lives in WA. state so they must travel back and forth. Though it may take only 45-60 minutes to get to WA., it is a challenge, no doubt.) And since we moved in March things are less easy for everyone to get together. Who would have thought moving from a northeastern part of the city to a southwest area would make a big difference? In part it is congested roads that complicate meet ups. Before, everyone was more or less central to one another, a short drive or even walk away.

There is also the fact that our current apartment is smaller, not so much square footage but in its spacial configuration–the old place accommodated a large family well. But one has to make decisions based on what works best for current needs and this place made sense–Christmas, etc. gatherings notwithstanding. So here we are. I can still put in two table leaves to seat 12 if needed; it just gets crowded here.

There is a spiritual component to my musings. I have long seen this holiday not so much as a genuine celebration of Christ’s Birth than a time of gentle merriment, of family, of meal sharing and gift giving more in the spirit of ole St. Nick. We would go to church, yes, but the fact is, it is really a re-imagining of a long enacted pagan holiday, also known as Yule. Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year is on 12/21 this time– which is lovely no doubt but it is not my religion. Many of the same traditions were entwined with Christmas. Yet Jesus was most likely born in the spring. In 350 AD Pope Julius I decreed that 12/25 would also be designated Jesus’ nativity celebration.

The reigning materialistic aspect has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming into the world with his revolutionary message of love, mercy, faith and forgiveness. The bottom line is, engaging in Christmas is more a secular event than a religious one even if I go to services on Christmas Eve. My faith is deeply rooted and less dependent on a ritualistic, institutional structure. So this holiday has been a broad conundrum at times: faith and tradition versus materialism and those ancient beliefs to which I do not subscribe, despite s tendency to incorporate more spiritual experiences than is typical of a traditional Christian.

I do suspect I’m not the only believer who ponders all this and yet each year follows the usual path–buy gifts, fancy up a tree, hang a fragrant wreath on the door. Even among those not of my faith yet enjoy the celebratory nature of it can discover a community bonding, sharing of conviviality, and an inclusive hopefulness. I enjoy this, too; it is heartening that many can find any common threads with which to connect us even for a short time.

And yet.

Each year in the midst of hectic tasks, or as we clean up the detritus from the surrounds, my husband states with wry laugh, “Next year Hawaii!” But we choose to stay, to put Hawaii–or any adventure in December–on the back burner. Because we love our family. We love any caring intentions of this season and even pretty trimmings. The money spent–not so much. That many gifts gets very pricey. Many donation requests get filled. And I often wonder why this needs to be done when we do give gifts on special occasions and share our money all year. Also, by the time kids become preteens these days it gets very hard to shop for them. And the twins are far too young to care one bit about any of it, thankfully. Is it the lifelong habit that keeps us tied to this kind of Christmas?

Since it is getting tougher to corral everyone for a few hours, this can be a frustrating time. There are some who do not have families all in one home so must travel to have their kids part of the holidays; some who have to work up to the last minute or beyond; those who have vacation plans or partners with other ideas; and those who are feeling stressed financially.

So when all is considered, what precisely is the point? Yes, yes: demonstrating more attention and care toward family. Yet that is always available, often in more meaningful ways. Fun celebrations? I get that; it would be missed. But a growing array of gifts? How much stuff do we need? I personally need nothing more. I don’t want to tax my children’s cash limits. Marc and I don’t even care to exchange gifts, anymore.

My brother reportedly gives his grandkids gift cards and skips his children. I see the wisdom in that even if it seems less…jolly and fuzzy. He and his wife sing in a couple of choirs at Christmas church services; otherwise they travel as they do most of the year. It isn’t cash reserves but other priorities that have altered. And that works for them. I find it more refreshing than not.

This year Marc and I will decide, finally, what works even better for us. What seems reasonable yet more fulfilling. The family comes first so much of the time. Christmas is one of these. But we also matter as an older, long-wed couple. It sounds good to have less busy-ness and more relaxation as Marc takes off his holiday time from a pressurized job. I suspect we would rent a huge alpine lodge, then ask family to join us if we could; perhaps another year we will. In the meantime, we want to make sure that Christmas has meaning and magic that stays true to what we both need in our lives, not just the larger family’s. Who knows? Maybe our adult kids will let slip a sigh of relief.

Mostly-grown grandkids would enjoy a good gift card–with a special gift wrapped up pretty under the tree (I still have to have a real tree). But we sure don’t need to deluge them with things. I know for sure those baby twin girls will enjoy the lights and, of course, music. They already are held in thrall to it. Alera, particularly: upon hearing a classical choral piece, she stopped moving, slowly held her hands palms up in the air. She barely stirred the entire time, she was so entranced, her face an expression of wonder, large blue-grey eyes staring into space, head turned toward speakers. I have a photo of her that moment, and would happily share it if not for lack of approval from parents regarding baby photos on social/other media. But I do I study it, mulling over her expression, as if she is hearing angels so struck is she by the music. She loves all classical and much jazz–her sister, Morgan, enjoys it but is currently less entranced.

And music is a true and abiding joy to experience years to come. These are moments that matter, do they not? How can we forget and get caught up in holiday frenzy? Trying to make everyone happy–at least, what we believe makes them happy– we often find that happiness is not even in the places we think it was.

In my home, we will certainly share good meals, share well wishes and blessings, cheery and sacred songs. (My husband has been playing his acoustic guitar for the first time in a long while…) And how else can we demonstrate a steady, active gratitude for life and love for one another, as well as a devotion to a faith? The ways are endless– the coming holidays or any time at all. And American culture and the wide world needs much more of this, far less of the other.

Friday’s Quick Pick: Boat Cruise on San Diego’s Bay

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Since we both love boats, a ride around North and South San Diego Bay beckoned us. Hornblower Cruises seemed the way to go. We lined up, boarded and soon plowed across deep green-blue water.

If San Diego is anything, it appears to be a boating town. Everything from various-sized sailboats, motor yachts, tall ships, small sport motorboats, dinghies, fishing boats, battleships, submarines and so on share the harbor waters. The recreational boats tantalized me more than the Naval Air Station or the history/missions/repair work of naval destroyers and frigates, but the Captain and First Mate gave very good narratives, Marc assured me as my attention drifted here and there.

We passed 50 landmarks and historic sites along the way, but I recall most of all the chug and surge, the lulling slice though vast water. There is something invigorating and soothing, both, about being on a moving aquatic craft. With that temperate breeze and clarifying sunlight, I felt carried farther than the radiant bay to a place of blithe rejuvenation. I had a moment’s fantasy of becoming a genuine, permanent boat dweller….oh, I wish! Join me in viewing many of the sights we saw.

 

We head to Coronado Bridge, 2.1 miles long and 200 feet tall. It links San Diego to a peninsula of land called Coronado Island, on which is the resort town of Coronado. The northern two-thirds of that land mass is the Naval base operations. A sailboat glides before a background of Point Loma, which juts into the into open ocean. Mexico is approximately ten miles from the bridge. We could just make out a blurry coast due to a lingering marine layer of fogginess. Along the southern coastline of the city are naval destroyers and frigates, one of which was dry-docked and being repaired. They are duly impressive. I hadn’t realized how mammoth they are, that they can hold a crew of around 6000 people. There is also a shot of a white NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ship. I have a fascination with the weather so this compact ship excited me!

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We passed the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, now a museum at Navy pier, is the longest serving US  carrier of the 20th century. It was also the largest ship in the world for ten years. More than 25 restored aircraft are displayed but we did not visit the museum this time.  Next comes the elegant Star of India, still in use; it also appeared in the film “Master and Commander”. My husband, Marc, is seen enjoying the salt air and  narration as we venture north (his jacket billows in the wind so that he looks a bit like “the Michelin Man”!), passing more sailboats. We slip close to contented California seals, a lone floating pelican. The two bright Navy tugboats are powerful, used to move gigantic Navy vessels. Next, inactive sailboats bob along a palm-lined shore of the North Bay.

We head back to the dock and onto dry land to explore more streets on our way to finding dinner. The public sculpture is “Pacific Soul” by Jaume Plensa, 2017; an admiring person can easily fit inside it. We later settled on Liberty Public Market out of curiosity. It has been a successfully renovated group of large–at first glance austere–buildings, once a part of a military complex. It now offers attractive shops and restaurants with courtyards. There is all manner of food in the Market and I enjoyed a dish of freshly made, varied vegetable pasta with a scrumptious marinara. (Another night, Argentinian chicken empanadas.) After the meal, we sat outside in a courtyard, chatted at the fire pit as others joined us. We thought it entirely appropriate when we read the colorful sign on a building near the fire! A good way to end our second full day of vacation.

 

Catalog Heaven

Image from www.wishbookweb.com
Image from wishbookweb.com

I positioned myself on the worn brocade sofa and propped up on a pillow a heavy book bigger than my lap. A catalog to be specific, Spiegel, Sears or JC Penney, but it seemed a cousin to a genuine book with light, satiny smooth pages and bright, orderly pictures. The words, of course, were minimal but they had to be read to get the whole story. The entire enchanting tome was greatly valued in my youth. It provided not only indulgence in wishfulness, it educated. Within its flimsy, welcoming pages were all manner of tools, entertainment devices, machines for anything from cleaning to tilling, a variety of food preparation and serving options, clothing for all ages and shapes, toys made for infancy through adulthood, objects for every home space inside and out. It took my breath away any season it arrived.

It captivated attention from the opening moments with fresh scent of paper and soft crinkly sound of pages turned, each one rife with possibilities I’d not very often, sometimes never, considered. It meant a half hour of leisure if all chores, studying, and practicing cello were done. Sometimes it was hauled out when a friend was over. We huddled over the pages. It became an opportunity to compare likes and dislikes, to offer opinions about what was useful or interesting or not, and might evolve into a guessing game as well as a conversation extender. This could go on a very long time.

“I bet you’d like these shoes, they look like you.”

“No, I need boots and these look fuzzy-warm, neat.”

“Those are just…ugly!”

“They need to be cozy for winter!”

“You can get cozy and good-looking, can’t you? But wait, which dress-up shoes do you like?”

“This pair. They’re fancy but you wouldn’t break your ankles walking.”

“Not me–the high heels right here! Look at the pretty toes, leather bows on them.”

“Let’s check out the sleds and skates and stuff.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait to skate again on Currie pond and Central rink!”

“Wow, will you look at that great Radio Flyer? Ours is so banged up it steers kinda wrong.”

“Well, that’s what happens when you go crashing down City Forest hills.”

“Yeah…maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll get decent snow.”

“I hope so. We’ll all go tobogganing!”

But a few of our favorite pages were those we were sneaky about if my mother or siblings weren’t close by. The lingerie section. It was amazing to see what you wore when you grew up. Boys undergarments were so boring and silly to look at; I had two brothers so this was not news. We girls would one day get to use things that were both practical and pretty. I couldn’t imagine being that old, having those body shapes, needing to cover so much up. It was more than underwear– it was under clothing of mystery–a whole different life out there somehow. It all baffled and drew us. My older sisters seemed out of reach by then, busy managing expectations at home and school, moving through adolescence with bumps but lots of victory. But there were various intrigues– and they kept them to themselves. I was called a pest often enough with my endless questions and poking about, glimpsing their worlds. I knew very little about much except for what I could see, hear, read and imagine. Sleuthing with the aid of a Sears catalog made it easier.

That was a wonderful clarification of life–all by catalog. Everything had its purpose. The hundreds, even thousands of choices were pictured well and labeled, smartly described. Objects came with a guarantee, a warranty, meaning that if they stopped working right or fell apart you got a replacement–I loved that idea even though my father usually just fixed broken things.

The big family of models was smiling and healthy. Anything you needed could be had in those pages. Everything you wanted might be gotten for a price. In fact, you could get a lot of stuff you never even thought you wanted. That part shook me up, the sheer volume. How was it so many things were actually made somewhere before appearing on page 120 of a catalog? Where did that happen? Who came up with the ideas and created them? All those little pieces and parts, it was stupefying. I could barely envision a world that immense, the production of possessions so complicated, the workers that skilled. It was awesome to wonder about and a little disconcerting.

What was the actual need for a shiny red riding lawn mower, a big boxy television, unusual gadgets for kitchen and workshop, fancy bathroom products? A cashmere coat that cost a fortune?

Our house had plenty of unique and mundane items occupying  surfaces, shelves, cabinets and corners; it didn’t need more from what I could see. I rarely wanted for a thing, but there wasn’t much extra cash enabling me to just point to this and that and my parents would get it. Besides, my father believed in thriftiness. He never paid for what he could manage and fix, himself. He didn’t take out loans except for a house, perhaps an occasional car though I believe he paid outright for those–he had to have a car or motorbike he could tinker with. He found bargains, and used his cash; he also saved and saved. He did not take financial risks. My mother, on the other hand, was one who might study a catalog, too, at a quiet end of day. She had a natural instinct plus good eye for design and quality, and owned a few fine things rather than a surplus of cheaper stuff. But she often browsed, and said it gave her ideas for sewing or decorating as much as for gifts or replacements of worn items.

To be absorbed in a good catalog was (and still can be) respite from troubles and demands. Recently my spouse, sister, then brother have had health challenges and I’ve tried more often to take mental or physical breaks. The past two weeks my mailbox has been stuffed with all sorts of catalogs since Christmas and other holidays are coming, ready or not. I receive them from clothing and outdoor/lifestyle companies; The Smithsonian; National Geographic; the Audubon Society; World Wildlife Federation; Writer’s Digest; Heifer International; The Vermont Country Store and more. Some of these induce me to I take a break from my daily agenda.

Image from www.wishbook web.com
Image from http://www.wishbook web.com

It might not be the old Sears Wishbook, (first published in the 1930s), which I once wore out gawking at, long before Christmas. But there is still page after page to peruse. I find a few intriguing things: two ivory Belleek claddagh mugs, weirdly cute Black Forest mini cuckoo clocks–and what about that retro classic flashlight based on a 1919 patent? Marc would like that. And in the country goods catalog, odder ideas : family matched sets of cartoon flannel pajamas, sock monkey mugs, cheese studded with blueberries or cranberries. Well, if I could happily indulge in dairy, I might try the last though I don’t think of cheese arriving with fruit installed.

I thumb through the others quickly, if at all, and toss, recycle. Wait, haven’t I gotten this one a few times already? What possibly could be of interest again? Very little. That nostalgic childish delight can also wear thin as I pile up paper wasted in an effort to try to part money from me.

 

The truth is, I won’t buy many gifts via mail order though it’s enjoyable at times to linger over  peculiar and beautiful things, say, when listening to the radio or trying to not watch the news. Sometimes I purchase famously juicy pears or other treats from Harry& David; they please the giftees and us. I might order a dependable cotton sweater from Land’s End. But I tend to search locally for presents as we have a myriad of small businesses here to support, tucked away shops to explore. Though I may not buy much at all this year. It might be homemade candy, gift cards or a couple small things for this large family. I am trying to simplify traditions, save money rather than toss it about, worry less and enjoy more. Focus on what matters: people, my faith, my home, writing, creating, enjoying the fabulous outdoors. Oh, a few meals, which I help Marc whip up for gatherings.

But those days when there seemed fewer things to snare our attention or stoke covetousness–how sweet are those memories as I write. How soothing it was to do nothing on a rainy/sleety/snowy Saturday evening, stereo lulling me with a Dvorak symphony or–a couple of my father’s rare musical diversions from classical fare–a Benny Goodman tune or Rogers and Hammerstein song. Stretch out against that sofa with a fat catalog of nonsense and cheap dreams. It was an avenue of exit from our sort of life and somehow encouraged my curiosity to question the known and consider the lesser knowns. A way of creating a different emotional state, as well, one of superficial ease. I needed that as a kid–an experience without pressure to achieve; time when I didn’t have to be on guard for the predator who repeatedly tracked me down; activity that required nothing of me but releasing of cares, dreaming of nothing relevant. I found a small relief in the common world of neutral objects. But mostly, it was simple fun. Thinking of essentially nothing as well as making no notable gains acquire an attraction and value all their own when practiced. If you’ve forgotten how to waste a little time, see for yourself what’s to be discovered in your own pile of  miscellaneous–now likely holiday–catalogs. You might find yourself comfier, even content a moment, readied for a catnap.

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Dear Holidays: Let’s Take It Easy

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What do carved pumpkins, specters lazing on porches, rustling cornstalks and twinkling orange lights do for you? Bring a robust cheer to your routine day? Provide inspiration for your own DIY frenzy? Or do they trigger a mixed response– as they do me?

Creative Halloween decorations make me a bit nervous. It’s like being pleased by something that also provokes wariness: what is behind this rampage of homespun design? The first displays of skeletons and gargantuan webs stretched across porches and climbed by black spangled spiders are fun but don’t seem entirely benign. And it’s not that I have an abhorrence of Halloween. As a kid I had a blast running (gently) amuck in energy-charged neighborhoods in my funky costumes, thrilled as my hand-decorated paper bag filled with cavity-inviting, scrumptious treats. For many I years enjoyed going out with grandchildren, though times changed and everyone is more cautious.

But these fanciful decorations are a precursor to all that follows–Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sure enough, as I wander the neighborhood chuckling over decor, I’m trapped, thinking of holidays when I prefer to not be. It’s October. Bring on bonfires, hot mulled cider and apple strudel, crispy vibrant leaves, that shock of wind with a hint of an edge. But please hold the smorgasbord of Thanksgiving displays and those creeping  signals of impending Christmas hullabaloo.

Lest you get the idea that I don’t enjoy a redolent spread on our old oak dining table or getting a fresh-cut fir tree from foggy country acreage–I do. And this year is no different. I am also a Christian so Christmas narrates events that resonate deeply. But all the holiday celebrations that are touted as essential to my well-being take a low spot on a list full of other things. That is part of the problem: I don’t really have time for all of this. It matters little that I don’t work for a paycheck now. I’m more than busy with what matters–plus a fair amount of frivolity tossed in daily. Why mar it with mad pressure to make these holidays jollier than last year, expectations of “hostess with the mostest”? And a panoply of gifts? We have five adult children and their partners; five grandchildren and additional folks. I love to give interesting items to others, do so any old time of the year. I don’t so appreciate hunting and foraging amid throngs for stuff trotted out and designated for commercialized holidays. Gifts that may not click with me or, likely, the giftee.

And I don’t crave a lot of visual stimuli to remind me of holidays. My home doesn’t need to be orange pumpkin-marked, scarecrow-adorned–nor cheaply tinseled, swathed in massive red bows, fake snow sprayed in clumps and bits. I do like baking my few favorite holiday cookies and treats; we all love eating them. I am no longer truly cooking–I gradually opted out–so you can’t count on me to stuff and baste that turkey in November, though my spouse will (and enjoy it, too). I’ll make hearty salads and cut up veggies for steaming. And enhance the table with a variety of candles, a centerpiece and my good yellow (or pine-green or deep burgundy) tablecloth.

I can assure you I’m not stingy or curmudgeonly. In fact, as others grumble about the holiday season, I’ve tended to anticipate the fun, richer moments it affords. But the last few years we’ve privately said: “Let’s skip the holidays–maybe go to Hawaii!” as if we mean it a little. We’re a little older, and perhaps less enthused as well as underwhelmed by commercial overkill. Plus, let’s face it, there is no sprawling country domain to which our family comes to gather–the one adorning Christmas cards or gazed upon in movies when a child. No bell-ringing sleigh ride over hill and dale to Grandmother’s (our humble, cheery) shining bright house.

But it’s more than that for me. And I am trying to sort it out.

My niece and nephew-in-law are moving today, all the way to Texas. This may seem irrelevant but they are two more whose exodus changes life’s greater landscape. I didn’t see them often over the twenty-eight years my niece, Lori, lived there–they resided in suburban Seattle. I saw them more at Lori’s mom’s, my oldest sister’s home, whenever I visited her and my zestful brother-in-law. I’m wondering why now–I could have made even more of an effort. We could have made more memories–I enjoy being an aunt and I don’t only like my handful of nieces, I love them, of course.

Last week we got together with much of the Portland family in attendance to send them off. But she also wanted to bring items she had sorted from her mother’s last home. Because my sis, Marinell, passed away a year and a half ago; her well-loved husband, six months later. Still, I hummed as I shined up our apartment and put on an outfit that reminded me of my sister and our gabby shopping trips. Recalled the good times Lori and her husband and we have shared in the past. We would be a small, chattering, motley group. I made coffee and tea, assembled shortbread cookies on a floral glass serving plate. Lit two small candles in amber owl holders as a nod to October’s wiles.

We assembled: my remaining sister, my oldest brother and his wife, a niece and her guy, Lori and her husband and my spouse and I. Lori opened an photgraph album. Family energy seemed to spill from pictures, those noteworthy or ordinary moments created by siblings and parents, our large extended family. A faint shiver fell upon me–those gone were with us. As we reminisced, I thought of the remainder. Moved to different geographies if not in the land of the sentient. My other brother and sister-in-law are in Virginia; most of our grown children thrive in other states.

This is the way it goes, I well know, and want to believe I accept: we are born with fanfare; hopefully live to the fullest and the best we can; exit the world alone or surrounded by whomever cares. We make our transitory marks in the world, are forgotten. We come together, are broken apart, share joys, sorrows and countless mundane moments that structure our lives.

Lori unwrapped from tissue paper some hand-sewn clothing belonging to Marinell, and preserved for fifty years or more. Dresses and a blouse and skirts my mother had once expertly made. As she held them each up, I saw Marinell once more in her features and mannerisms. My hands smoothed the taffeta and polished cotton, lace and netting, examined the interesting old buttons. Lori offered any my vintage-loving daughters (or I) might enjoy as a gift. I chose ones that seemed suitable and knew how pleased they’d be pleased to keep and even wear, finely made one-of-a kind pieces by their grandmother. (For more about her creations, please see this post: Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter)

Suddenly fresh sadness caught me off guard. I looked at Lori. Saw it in her eyes, too, but we decided no, not then, not such tender sadness to complicate a last visit. I appreciated the past but wanted to celebrate her movement forward, toward new possibilities now that her sons were grown and her mother and stepfather (really her second father, she felt) gone. We all went off to an Italian restaurant, filled up with good food, stories and debated ideas, then pffered a delayed Bon Voyage. It was hard. I wondered what Christmas would look like in Texas for Lori and her husband, prayed it might be imbued with times of ease and joy as well as any fanfare they desire. I want you to be truly happy I thought as we blinked back tears, exchanged warm hugs.

So when I think of the holidays, I also think of this: how many have gone on in one way or another. Family has always been a high priority. I was the last born, a surprise to a woman who was already swamped with four close in age and teaching other children, as well as my father’s more public career. Forty years old at my birth (five years after her last), I never knew her as truly young though her spriti was bright and strong. I grew up with an overachieving, colorful family and then, at age 13, my siblings were no longer present. They were all college students and after that, they followed their careers’ paths. Two remain in the Pacific Northwest and are in their seventies, both engaged in full lives. (And we remain here partly because of my husband’s career–perhaps we’ll away, who knows?)

It is now much the same with my children’s situations. One, an arts center outreach and marketing manager, lives in California with her husband. Another is a chaplain/minister in Virginia. A third is an associate art professor/sculptor in South Carolina. They are working where they have jobs and count their blessings. They are, excepting the California offspring, very far from here and she is unable to get away from work around holiday seasons. Two more reside in our city; three grandchildren are also here. But the crowd around our table or living room is becoming smaller than I’d like it.

My parents passed away decades ago. I think often of visiting my mother-in-law, in her late eighties, in Florida. I bring it up to my husband often, with a growing sense of urgency. I so appreciate Beth’s inquisitive mind, exacting language and positive attitude. Her faith and will to persevere. She’d be so pleased to see us again. So tonight he is researching our options. It’s possible we’ll go before or after Christmas. I’m getting excited by that idea. Hawaii can wait–maybe next year. Maybe not.

Suddenly the holidays are feeling more enticing. I don’t have to worry; I can take it easy. Keep my priorities clear. Who needs what will be put aside or eventually tossed away? It is family, always family that sings to my soul outside my individual creative endeavors. I don’t need fancy or unique or glittery or snowy. I’d rather give and receive love, time, talk, a variety of activity. I vow to stay well focused on the essential core I value. Whether a small grouping or bigger one, whether family and friends or others in need: I want to share myself. Kindly, wisely, with laughter and hugs. Even without splendid trimmings which can distract too much. Alright, I do admit one small orange straw pumpkin and a white ceramic one came out for my niece and all. Just for the table centerpiece. And there will be an evergreen (with berries) bough or wreath on our door. Meanwhile, it is still October, the days shaped by brightly drifting leaves and the musical rain, evenings made better with a big cozy blanket and fragrant mugs of clove and cinnamon tea. I’m keeping it simpler from here on out.

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Welcome: A Coming Together

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As the days creep toward the holidays, there seems to be a cluster of fluttering moths convening in my center, nervy wings that startle and annoy. I am not usually an anxious person so could find no reason why it was happening. It took days to decipher but I’m onto the root cause: family. You might imagine I’d be sharp enough to understand this from the get-go, i.e. holidays and family equals love/wants/needs/complications. They arrive as a package deal. But I will have to face again the reality that all is seldom plummy perfection within hallowed halls of tradition and (most earnest) good will.

I have a decent-sized family, notable for its combinations of five: I am one among four other siblings (now three, as my oldest sister passed in April). Parent of five grown children. Grandparent of five grandchildren. There are more–nieces, nephews, in-laws, cousins too far away and so on. It’s like many constellations of relatives. Not all reside in my city, which is a shame, because I happen to like my family very much, most all the time.

But there are those particular moments that have come and gone, even likely to surface again. Or newly develop. Everyone is spectacularly themselves. Every person has traits beloved and others less pleasurable. Any room outfitted with persons who share a well-defined gene pool and/or personal histories can become a stage. And the many players get to suss out connected or opposing themes, elucidate unique thoughts. It gets sticky. It can get painful if one dwells on a snide remark. Perhaps even dislocating as a sad or embarrassing event is revisited by several–as if such times require detailed recall. But wait, holidays are supposed to be fun or at least congenial. Affectionately shared.

So is that what’s going on in there, this jumble of restlessness like bouncing balls looking for a target? It’s not simple but neither is the feeling impenetrable. The sudden flashes of uncertainty are emitted from a deeper source. I’ve turned this thought over and beneath it is the source: my own fears. They live within the gauzy, clinging mythology of family ties.

We grow up despite ourselves, I suspect, and when we get closer to a sense of personal cohesion we find there are still more loose ends. For years I nurtured a vision of my life and extended family built on ground I imagined as above a flood zone. Deep in the center of me resides a powerful belief that despite any difficulty life will prevail and do so beautifully. No one would drown if my will was involved. I was taught to maintain this regard for family. And always to show our best sides. But it hasn’t always been a rock solid or as fine a unit as I want to contend. Let’s face it: we all–meaning homo sapiens– have issues.

Another person who is pulled to family connectedness is a brother’s daughter, a fine amateur genealogist. She has excavated curious, fascinating bits and pieces over decades. Like my maternal grandfather Kelly, a farmer, being an enthusiastic inventor albeit with a hot temper that could alienate. Or a paternal distant cousin who was an opera singer and another, a travelling faith healer. Our blood ties us to stalwart, innovative German and poetic, resilient Irish-Scotch-English stock (if I may generalize a moment)–that is, all viewed in the best light. I claim my heritage, despite the anomalies. I have claimed myself as more or less acceptable despite spiritual trials, impulsive adventures and a few life and death scenarios. The tough stuff has been a not very honorable contribution to the family schemata. There are a few tales of those distanced or lost to our family, as well. We have absorbed tragedy and triumph as families do, with occasions of fanfare but often in quietness, with due respect.

Which brings me back to those pesky moments of anxiety about family. I mean to interrupt or allay them here–and hereafter.

I have a habit of daily taking stock of my thoughts and actions. I know my spiritual routine depends upon honesty, at least all I can summon. This arose somewhat from decades of life embedded in the landscape of recovery from alcoholism, but also from a childhood instilled with the ways of faith. No, rather sprung from faith, for I cannot recall a time when I did not feel responsible for the quality of my life and the impact it might have on others. I take my daily review seriously, yet know I am not alone in the inventorying. God’s wisdom shores me up; compassion rescues me from the rubble of errors. I can even laugh at my follies. One cannot upbraid one’s self without a dose of humor–lest we become self-flagellating and ego-intensive (a bore to even myself).

And yet… as I review all this, I root out that niggling of worry: will I hold up well enough, ensconced in peace during the annual gatherings, amid the  spectacle and sacredness and sumptuous feasts? I admit I am not a jolly cook (check the debit box); I mean all the rest which is, as you know, considerable.

The holidays are arriving, anyway, despite a sudden desire to hold them off. (Okay, we considered taking vacation but rejected the idea fast.) I am now just busy adapting to the dynamic mix of falling leaves, our deluges and November winds. I power walk daily for as long as desired. Languish in ordinary passages of time fraught with nothing more than the next story’s opening paragraph, a movie with a friend or a short grocery trip. I feel wistful already for the hours of writing and solitary mornings, the evenings during which my husband and I dissect TV commercials and show scripts, share music discovered on radio or a few lines in a book. There is comfort in knowing what’s coming each day. There is comfort in not having to explain myself much. Or tick off endless items on a list.

Oh, why can’t I get to the point? The anxiety comes from wondering if I have, in actual fact, built a life on whole truth or not: have I been a good enough mother? Have I been kind to others, not just at holidays but most days? There, it is said. Have I been enough. A good grandmother and sister? I think of our children who will be here and wonder if there will be what they need and want. Will they still be reasonably pleased with our home and food, the gifts chosen, the conversations embraced, the events I want to include them in? And what of those not here? I think of them all year, in specific ways during holidays, and wonder if they truly miss us. (One is a chaplain. Is she also a bit frayed at Christmas?)

Or will I be found… wanting? And why, at sixty-five, does it matter much what my children think? Well, I’m a mother who loves her own wildly yet steadfastly. But I have also been an individual who has not always pleased them.

Years ago, so long that these events are close to forgotten (if my reaction was not), I got a couple of letters at different times from a biological child and a child brought to me by marriage. They had decided to clue me in. On my errors. Page after page informed me of their displeasure, how my faults had impacted them and a couple of bigger decisions caused insecurity or hurt. How my drinking (a few years off and on, toxic times despite my being “high functioning”, as my profession calls it) had caused heartache. Disbelief and a torrent of sorrow scooped me up. I couldn’t imagine that children to whom I gave so much, whom I loved beyond measure, could pronounce seeming judgement. They had held onto anger, and asked me to listen to their personal baggage, their hard work of growth. Apparently part of the journey included their viewpoints  of me delineated, then held up like mirrors into which I was to unblinkingly gaze.

It worked. I registered their pain. I closed dreamed of their childhoods: wonders and crises, mountains of laundry finished at midnight, the emergency room visits. And awake, I berated myself–and then, them. I sank a couple inches into that swamp of mothering misery. Until my merciful sisters responded to my calls.

The first sister: “They were being quite brave and expecting you to be, too. Remarkably, they trust you enough to speak and be heard. I don’t think they intended to so hurt you…they know how you love them; you know they love you.”

I balked. “Do they? Love me? Do they really know I would do anything for them and have? Can they imagine my life at all or must I just witness theirs?” I wiped away tears, regaining a bit of dignity. “Because I don’t get this brand of honesty. Do they take such measure of their lives?”

The other sister: “No, kids don’t know how much a parent has to manage until they become one… and no, they cannot imagine your life. We can’t fully know theirs, either…and thank goodness. But they’re responsible and caring; they want to live right. You sure helped teach them all that.”

Thank God for my sisters. It took awhile to staunch the seepage from sharp words. Those which held me so responsible, asked me to be more aware, showed me they were working to find their places in our family and even within my embrace. And as citizens of a greater and harsher world. I searched myself and gained insight. I had to let the rest go. And lest you suspect my children ghoulish or at least seriously insensitive, let me give full disclosure. They did and still do offer me deep care and tenderness, joy and affection. Heck, they call me, text me, hug me! I yet find them all wondrous, worthy in and of themselves. It’s part of this mothering job, but it is also a privilege and blessing.

I recall when my mother died shortly after I turned fifty-one. The loss was unfathomable, a grief beyond my ken. I realized I was basically an orphan (my father had died years before). There was much we hadn’t experienced together, told each other, come to better terms with or understood well. I had questions. But we may never have been done, of course. There is only a certain amount we can know of another’s life, even family members. And who is to say we must know much less understand everything, anyway? Our words fall from our mouths and land where they like. Our actions are well-considered, or not. It all gets interpreted. Our lives entwine with many; a number are our historical, blood family. And we can choose to let certain things be or make them more complicated. Difficult. The mystery of love is that it exists, even thrives despite mistakes or demands, separations or regrets.

It seems I entered earth’s atmosphere with a drive to do more, be better. Yet I have floundered and stumbled, fallen far many times. The hope that I have held onto is that I can make amends, repair downed bridges, learn how to make stronger the points of stress within me that weaken. I have it on good authority I am not alone in this seeking. It is a human dilemma. We all are in the same fix, creating a whole life from many parts we are given. I want still to be a useful, compassionate person. A good woman made of vibrant colors and designs.

A very good mother who is a constant. The caring goes without saying–as do disagreements that may come along. If I still sometimes fear letting my family down, it is part of the territory. I accept I am miles from flawless. I am full of spirit, too, which originates in the eternal Light of God. I am tethered to this magnificent love; it keeps me grounded, even overflows. It is a fortunate thing, as I’ve found it takes a certain courage to consciously hold one’s place in a family whatever it consists of–to take the knocks, mishaps, other gaps in stride. We are part of one another, after all, through the thick and thin of it. And we  never know when it will be our last celebration, as it was for my adored oldest sister.

So bring on the holidays, after all. I’ll be alright and better. I already long for those who will not be here, those passed over or just absent. I’ll light clusters of white candles, hold them up in prayer. But I am preparing for the good times as I start to plan. This quivering I feel is also anticipation, a growing excitement. It indicates a rising up of my soul as it accumulates energy. It will leap up, embrace others as it has before. Dare to be present among them, just as I am. My holidays will be well come, then soon gone again. I hope you, kind reader, find many ways to share your times of abundant heart and soul. 

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