Both Sides

One year, shortly before we were to leave for Christmas Eve mass, and hours before the entire family was to descend on our house to celebrate the holiday, the basement pipes exploded. My father---not the handiest, to be sure---valiantly tried to patch the pipes, while balancing precariously on a folding chair. My mom’s parting words, as we fled the scene and my dad was almost electrocuted by the water gushing through the overhead lights, were not thoughts of concern, but threats in regards to my father fixing things FAST---and most certainly before our guests arrived. It turned out that the busted pipes were the result of a backed-up garbage disposal and 100% my mom’s fault. I can’t remember the culprit on this particular occasion, but she was known to put literally everything but the kitchen sink down the disposal---and that was only because to do so would have been impossible. Everything else was fair game, including the carcass from the Thanksgiving turkey. The actual events that unfolded on this particular holiday were unusual, but the stress and anxiety that came with the busted pipes were par for the course. My mom had a habit of spending the majority of the day, before a holiday or other special event, in a state of panic. She rushed all of us through showers and outfit changes, erupting from time to time as her stress level rose throughout the day. But without fail, regardless of the outbursts and pacing and hours of unnecessary tension, a much different scene played out as we, a family of five, were seemingly ready to leave the house.  While my sisters and I sat waiting in the backseat of the family car, arguing over who had to sit in the middle, and my dad stood waiting at the front door, my mom’s coat in hand, she slowly---patiently, even---applied one last coat of nail polish. She wore acrylics at the time (it was the ‘80s---who didn’t?) and I remember them as long and bright. My dad then led the way to the car, opening and closing doors for her, to prevent any smudged nails. She never seemed even slightly ruffled by this last minute detour, while the rest of us huffed and puffed, now waiting on her. Punctuality was not her strong suit back then, except when it came to weddings and funerals, a golden rule she reminded us of repeatedly. My aunt captured this perfectly, noting that “Your mom is always speeding, yet always still late.”

Oh yes, and the speeding. My mom came close to losing her license more than once, due to her propensity for putting the “pedal to the metal," as she called it. There’s folklore in the family of one such incident, involving a swim lesson drop-off for my sisters. I was still a baby, too young for lessons, but along for the ride anyway. With three kids packed into the car, and most likely running late, I screamed for the entire ride. A mile from swim lessons, speeding through a notoriously monitored area, you might guess what happened next. A police officer pulled out from behind my mom, turning his lights on. With a screaming baby and two whining kids in the car, my mom made the only logical decision: she ignored the flashing lights behind her. For five minutes, she calmly led the police officer to her intended destination. Once there, she finally pulled over, delivering my sisters to their lesson on time and feigning innocence to any and all infractions of the law.

My mom wanted things done how she wanted them, when she wanted them. She was known to direct my dad about a given household task in one breath---power washing the back windows or painting the family room, for instance---and in the next, pull out the ladder to start the painting herself. We hosted a bridal shower together a few years ago, planning to cook much of the brunch food ourselves on the morning of the shower. I woke to the smell of eggs and ham and the sounds of a very busy kitchen downstairs. She just could not be bothered waiting for me---or anyone, for that matter. Once, while visiting my sister in Atlanta, she decided that the pictures in the bedroom were hung entirely too high. Rather than waiting to discuss this observation with my sister, she took care of it in her own way: by re-hanging each and every picture while Meg was in the shower. I wasn’t there, but I have no doubt that she also told my sister exactly what she thought of her decorating skills, or lack thereof.  Her now infamous statement, “I’m not going to say a word,” was always followed by the exact opposite, and I’m not proud of how often I cut our conversations short when she didn’t agree with me. What I wouldn't give to hear her opinion on anything right now, solicited or not.

The thing is, my mom wasn't perfect. She was impatient and opinionated, bossy and loud. She broke rules that she didn't find important. She lived by her truths, her own moral code. A note I received after my mom died has stuck with me, almost a year later. A friend's mom wrote that although she did not know her well, she got the sense that my mom was fun. And she was right. My mom was also loving, and kind, and generous, and open-hearted, and funny, and honest. She will forever be the mother, the matriarch, the friend, the hostess, the woman that I strive to be. And not in spite of her imperfections---but because of them. As time passes and my memories mellow, I need to remember it all: the good and the bad. Both sides.

More or Less Like Family, Part III

the gambian

By Molly Bradley Read parts I and II

“Mama! Mama? Mamaaaa!”

Already Khady’s wake-up call felt routine. She’d done the same the first morning, calling urgently through my door. I’d thought something was wrong until I saw it was just that she wanted me awake. If she wasn’t sleeping there was no reason her tubaab should be. With my braids, now, I was pretty much just another Khady.

I rose and stuffed my grimy contacts in as fast as I could and came out to assuage my anxious alarm. We had breakfast, and only got a half hour or so of the morning soaps before my father came in. He stood and watched with us for five minutes or so, impassive to a disconcerting degree. There were more physical shenanigans happening on a show this morning, ones I could understand. There was dancing and falling and laughing and more dancing.

Finally I looked to Khady. “Are we going?” I asked her, glancing at Dad.

She looked up from where she sat by his ankles, tugged his pant leg, and said something swift in Wolof. He bowed his head and muttered something in reply.

“Yes, he’s waiting for you,” Khady said.

“I’ve been ready,” I said in my defense. As soon as I stood he led the way out of the room and out of our sandy yard.

We took a path out of town that I’d never noticed before---not that I’d spent a lot of time outside the house. Still sand, sand, sand---then suddenly sand with growth on either side of the road. Somehow growing out of the sand. First just dry, unhappy grass, and then shrubs, bushes, trees. Growing.

Somehow we managed a little conversation while we walked. We’d never really spoken before, only nodded our hellos in passing. He was rarely around the house.

He spoke slowly enough, and I had just enough Wolof, to answer some basic questions: Was I alright? Did I need anything? Was Khady being good? Was I hungry? Had I brought water? (No---I should have, but I was, for no reason, playing stoic. Maybe I thought I needed to challenge myself some way or another, if I wasn’t doing anything else.)

The road seemed endless. Finally at one point we cut through the bushes to the right, up a gentle rise to an area sparsely studded with trees and, as it turned out, other homes. I wasn’t sure if these belonged to Mouit. Were the people who lived here part of the community? Did they commute, so to speak, to town to get things they needed? Or did they just survive out here on their own?

I wished I had more words to ask my father.

Despite the nothing substantial that we said, the walk was companionable. My father greeted the few people we saw as we passed. He seemed to know everyone.

Finally we came through a more densely wooded area into. . . green. Bright green. Rows upon rows and fields upon fields and hills upon hills of green. I had no idea this was out here, in the middle of this sandy, desert-like land. I had no idea how it could exist out here at all. Even when I’d gone with my sisters to gather wood the previous day, the “woods” had turned out to be very, very short shrubs with sturdy branches. Nothing like this. It was idyllic enough that I almost didn’t believe it: almost too green, too perfect. Endless bursts of green all in neat rows. The Jolly Green Giant was growing children in the ground, and all you could see were the tops of their curly green heads of hair.

We walked awhile through the fields. My father greeted every man working there---there was at least one person tilling every field. I trailed behind, so lulled by the color I almost forgot why we were there.

Finally we found Mamadou. I’d spotted him before we got there. He was wearing only a pair of loose linen pants and a hefty bandana on his head, to soak up the sweat. It was beyond hot.

Mamadou raised a hand in greeting and I raised mine back. My father gestured for me to sit on the ground at the edge of the field. He walked slowly toward Mamadou, keeping between the rows of onions, placing one foot carefully before the other, watching them as he walked.

He and Mamadou talked for a long time. There was a good deal of gesturing back and forth between the two halves of the field. Once my father left, Mamadou told me why.

“He thinks I am not taking good care of this side as that side,” he said. He sat beside me and got out the bowl he’d brought his lunch in. “You see that side is more green. This side, not so green.” He was working on this side today.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“You can take the weeds.”

I scrambled to my feet. There were weeds everywhere. I started by bending over each row, but quickly I got down on my knees and got efficient about it, crawling down the rows. Mamadou laughed.

“You really want to do a lot,” he said.

“I just want to help.” I was hardly doing anything. There were so many weeds. And there was Mamadou, doing the real work (that he explained to me as he did a first round): pumping the water up from the well, filling two buckets, running with them back to the row he was working on, and dousing the soil. The running kept things quick and efficient, because he had to cover the whole field four times, really drowning the onions at each pass. The running was also necessary because one of the buckets had a leak. The more water he lost, the less there was to cover the onions, and if it didn’t do the trick he’d have to do the same patch twice in a row. If he had to do that every time, that would make eight times watering the field in its entirety.

He kept at it and barely paused. It was hot, and the prickles on the weeds started to sting my fingers, but all I had to do was glance at him to feel embarrassed and start tugging again, reinvigorated.

The water started to sound really good coming up from that well. I wished I were working on the same row as Mamadou, at the same time, so I might catch some drops from the leaky bucket on my hands or feet or head. The four remaining water bottles on the floor of my bedroom back in the village kept materializing before my eyes.

Finally he finished his round on the less-green half.

“We go back now,” he said. “You can’t be in the sun for so long.”

My indignation was smothered by relief before it had really even arisen.

 ***

At the house that afternoon, Binta found me helping Khady wash clothes. Really Khady was washing them. I was trying to imitate her motions: soggy cloth grasped in both fists, enveloping the knuckles, and the knuckles of one hand scrubbed vigorously over those of the other. When she did it somehow the cloth, or probably her hands and the water, made a sharp and satisfying squelching sound like a brazen bird.

I couldn’t do it. Khady laughed at first but then became impatient.

“Just let me,” she said finally, and I resigned myself to brushing the suds around the rim of the plastic tub of water.

Binta sauntered over with a lilt in her step that could fit only her.

“Viens,” she said. Come.

I ought to have curbed it long before, but my immediate reaction to commands like this was to ask, “Why?”

Whether she took it as the curiosity it was or the insolence I didn’t intend, Binta didn’t let on.

“Viens boire attaaya.” Come drink attaaya.

Attaaya was a strong, sweet black tea boiled so many times over it almost caramelized. It smelled like it, anyway; the little cobalt blue or easy green teapot on the stove would start to shiver, and warm amber bubbles would begin to peek over the surface. Then whoever was tending it would come turn the fire off, take the teapot by its hot handle with a rag, and pour some into the stubby fluted glasses on the tea tray. The method was then to pour the steaming liquid back and forth from glass to glass, keeping one firm on the tray and lifting the other as high as possible, sending the liquid down in a perfect graceful arc. The height gave the surface of the tea a thick foam of those caramel-colored bubbles that tasted as good and sweet as it looked.

I’d never tried the technique myself. I wanted to learn but knew the first time would be a catastrophe of hot liquid streaming across the floor. This rural village with its limited stock of tea would not be the place to learn.

Binta led me to the bedroom she’d moved into with a sibling, or maybe Hangout Girl, or maybe a sibling and Hangout Girl. I was still pretty sure Hangout Girl didn’t belong to this family and did, in fact, have a home of her own, but I believed this on blind faith. She hadn’t missed a family gathering here yet, be it mealtime or TV time or watching-the-tubaab-struggle-to-cut-the-fins-off-the-fish time.

In the room were my oldest brother, the baby Mama, and, naturally, Hangout Girl. The room wasn’t tiny, but small enough that once I was inside, Binta could take me by the shoulders and sit me down on the bed in only a few steps. She sat down beside me, plucked the baby up from where she was rolling on the bedspread, and put her in my lap.

Hangout Girl was sitting in a chair next to my brother. She started snickering. “Mama mak ak Mama bundaw.” Big Mama and Little Mama. She pointed first to the baby and then to me as she said it. Fair enough. The other Mama was here first.

My brother was brewing the attaaya on a makeshift portable stovetop, something like a Bunsen burner. He took the teapot off the flame. The tray with the glasses was on the ground. He lifted the teapot to the level of his eyes and began to pour. Once the head of the stream made it safely into a glass he lifted it high above his head, meeting my eye and grinning as he did so. Sort of showing off, sort of showing me.

“I’m sorry, I never learned your name,” I said in French.

“Malik.” He finished pouring from the teapot and began to pour the liquid back and forth between the glasses. I smiled. Two brothers named Malik. This Malik was older, but he asked the same questions my Malik at home had asked me when I’d first arrived in Dakar, when I’d first become part of the family.

We ran through the topics and drank our tea. With four of us---not including Mama---we each only got two rounds of about half a glass, rather than three ample servings.

Different families do it differently, but typically attaaya is served three times a day, with three rounds each time. Guests tend to complicate the system and leave everyone with a little less tea.

I didn’t mind so much---but then, it was a bonus for me, an extra cultural treat in my day whenever I was offered attaaya. For them, it was the norm. They had to give up a little of their lives to give me this brand new one with all its experiences.

I’d gotten used to thinking of these temporary homes as home, and these fleeting people as family. There were so many of them there to take care of me there was nothing else to call them. What was I to them?

When they had no more questions for me we sat in silence. Companionably enough, but it still seemed strange. Then I realized why. I’d thought I was slipping into their world as it was, simply a new addition to what existed. Really they were simulating it for me.

Matera, A Gem Of Italy

word traveler

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust

I have never had an easy relationship with my country. Until the "American period", when I moved to Washington DC and taught Italian for three years, I had lived in Italy my whole life. My hometown is Bergamo, a city close to Milan, where I studied, made intimate friendships, met my husband and lived happily with my family. Yet, when I graduated, I felt the urge to leave. It was a strong feeling, something from deep inside. I needed to find my own way, my way of thinking and living. I am happy I left for a while---America was a land of opportunities to me, a place where I felt free and happy.

As weird as it may sound, during the time in the United States I grew to know that country much better than my own---I was living every day like a tourist, surprising myself like a baby for every doughnut covered in chocolate, cinnamon, sprinkles, maple iced, lemon filled and so on. Places like Barnes & Noble were new to me---could I really take a magazine from a shelf, read it for a while and then place it back? In Italy, that was (still is?) quite unimaginable. And what to say about sports---I am a couch potato, oh yes, and seeing all those people running at all times was a kind of culture shock. I was about to convince myself to go running, too (not sure I could survive a mile!) but well . . . I made it back to Italy before even trying.

In the last couple of years my family of two rooted between Bergamo and Milan. Husband and I made a promise to ourselves: stop thinking that traveling means going to the most faraway places, and start exploring Italy a little more. So this past Halloween we left the north and drove all the way to the south to visit a real gem, a place which is unknown to most of the people who visit Italy, and a little out of the main routes. The city is Matera, and this is why I call it a gem . . .

We arrived in Matera in the evening, and here is what we saw, a landscape that at first sight was very similar to Jerusalem.

At night, the cathedral's tower jetted out in the black sky, and the rest of the sassi glimmered in shades of yellow and orange. Have you heard of the movie "The Passion", by Mel Gibson? It was shot here.

We dropped our bags at the Hotel in Pietra and asked the receptionist, a very nice lady, to recommend us some good restaurant to taste local food. After a few minute walk, I had already fallen in love with Matera, and there was still more to see the next day! We spent the night in a tiny and beautiful room at the hotel (by mistake, Husband had made reservations for a single room, and since it was too beautiful to give it up we squeezed a little!) and the next morning we had breakfast with homemade cakes and foamy cappuccino. Everything was so delicious, and the atmosphere was quite relaxing. Imagine a 12th-century Benedictine church converted into a hotel, where the rooms are dug in the rocks.

After breakfast, we explored the sassi and the cave churches. The sassi left us speechless and in awe of its beauty. It’s hard to describe the feelings–when you see such places, you can’t help but thinking there must be something beyond this world, some holy entity that gave us all this beauty to enjoy.

Matera was a gift, and now it is one of my favorite places in Italy. I can’t recall having met such wonderful people elsewhere. Everyone was smiling and ready to help, the food was great and the sassi were so unique and beautiful you could easily get lost in the small paths by looking up and around all the time.

This trip to the south helped me to recall that Italy is an amazing country. We struggle with politics, unemployment, financial crisis, but still we find our way to smile broad smiles and treat each other with welcoming hospitality and warm hearts. I’m happy I took this trip. It opened my heart and mind to places I didn’t know, that felt so far but were yet so close.

[gallery exclude="6939, 6938, 6937, 6931, 6934" link="file"]

Lessons from a Birthday...

lessons for clara

Dear Clara, Birthday season has come upon us! In our little family of three, there is yours, then mine, then the holidays, then your father’s, and then the new year, all in a row.  And our extended family is pretty close to our timeframe too–I guess we were all fated to be together.  But the rapid succession of all our celebrations made me think of what I’d always like you to keep in mind on your own birthdays in years to come:

  • Wear something new: Even if it’s a little thing . . . there’s something about bringing something new out of the package, cutting the tags and having that new, shiny, or crisp feeling.  It just adds the right start to the day, and going forward you’ll always associate that item with the day you celebrated another year.
  • Call you parents: I never really thought of this growing up, but your birthday is actually more emotional for a parent than for the person celebrating.  It is the day, after all, that their life changed forever when you came into their world.  Don’t forget the fact that they are celebrating in their own way too.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate in your own way: When you’re younger, celebrations come easily.  There are parties, there are friends, and there are always much-ado’s about birthdays.  But as you get older, and work schedules set in, and bills need to get paid, and hundreds of other things crowd our mind, not the least of which is our uncertainty about being yet another year older, it’s easy to say that we don’t want to celebrate.  That’s bogus.  You don’t always need a big party, but do something to mark the occasion---you will be more likely to embrace the year ahead and the gifts it brings.
  • Don’t be upset if people forget your birthday: It happens.  Some people are excellent about remembering birthdays, but some people slip, despite all of their best intentions.  If someone calls late, don’t hold it against them.  Accept their good wishes for you, that’s what counts.  Someday it might be you that forgets . . . despite all of your best intentions.
  • But remember how nice it feels when people do remember: Try to be the person that remembers.  Take notes of important days, keep a calendar, set up reminders.  You might not always get it right but if you try, it’s much easier.  Think of how special it makes you feel when someone goes out of their way to call or write a card or do a surprise for your birthday, and try to be the person that does that for other people.  They will remember you for it, even if they don’t always thank you.

I wish you only the happiest of birthdays over many long years, and remember that I will be with you, in some way, for all of them.

All my love,

Mom

 

 

Lucky Peas

uniquely southern

Happy 2013!  It's officially that time of the year when people flock to their favorite social media sites to proclaim their resolutions to the world. Realized or not, most goals are to lose and gain at the same time.  Lose weight, gain confidence; lose a bad habit, gain a healthier lifestyle; lose the bad attitude, gain a positive outlook.  My resolution for this year is to improve myself on a daily, not yearly, basis.  Every morning should be viewed as a fresh start, a clean slate, and a day that we can all choose to be a better person.  Whatever the goal might be, there is also another important component to this day---the food.  There is a variety of dishes deemed as lucky and many would argue are a necessity on any true new year menu.  A plate full of cooked greens and black-eyed peas symbolize monetary growth and good fortune, pork represents abundance and progress, and fish is thought to promote a long life.  Being a vegetarian means I usually go for double helpings of the greens and beans then hope for the best.  My favorite way to ring in the beginning of a year is to indulge in an overflowing plate of the classic southern dish known as Hoppin' John.  There is a variety of ways to make this dish, but I always take the simple, meatless route.

Hoppin' John
2 cans black-eyed peas (washed and drained)
1 cup vegetable broth
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 minced garlic clove
1 teaspoon dry thyme
lemon juice and zest
cilantro
fresh spinach
rice
In a pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until the aroma makes your mouth water with excitement.  Add peas, broth, thyme and bring to a boil.  Once the stew is bubbling, turn the heat down and simmer on low for 45 minutes to an hour.  Serve over a bed of spinach and a heaping mound of rice.  Spritz with lemon juice and garnish with lemon zest and a few twigs of cilantro.   Hoppin' John may not be the most eye popping dish, but it's definitely a recipe for good luck and a full belly.

Lessons from a New Year...

lessons for clara

Dear Clara, One year rolls out, and a new one rolls in . . . I love the fresh feeling of possibility that the New Year brings, the crispness of winter, and the sense that there is a blank canvas of achievements just waiting for us.  Here is always what I think about for the year ahead:

  • Reflect on the year past: I think it’s only fair that before you leave the old year with abandon, that you reflect on everything you accomplished.  And be generous.  We so often focus on what we didn’t get to on our lists that we forget what we were able to do.  Sit down with your calendar and think about all the good things that came your way, and you’ll have a new appreciation of what you’ve been given and what you were able to do with it, even in the tough years.
  • Buy a new calendar: Nothing says possibility to me like the crisp, white, blank pages of a new calendar (except for maybe the crisp, white, blank pages of a new notebook!) This is where your plans will take place.  And this will be your record for looking back on everything that you will still accomplish in your new year.  Find a calendar that organizes you, but also inspires you.  They’re out there.
  • List out your resolutions: I see more and more that people make fun of New Year’s resolutions, they say we should be doing these things all the time.  That’s probably true, but in all reality, this is a time of year where we have a bit of time to slowdown to think about the direction that we’d like to go in, whether it be personally or professionally.  Writing things down makes them more real.  Keep the list short, but mix a few tangible things with a few dreams, and I guarantee you’ll get to both faster.
  • Do something for your wealth: Think about where you are financially and where you want to be eventually.  Are you moving in the right direction? Do you need to save a little more? Do you need to invest in your education a little more? Think about what makes you feel more secure and plan a few steps on that path.
  • Do something for your health:  Remember that your health is a gift, but it can easily go away when we don’t take care of it.  Maybe it’s eating a bit smarter, maybe it’s moving a bit more, but think about one think that you can focus on to take care of your body in the way that it deserves.
  • And do something for your happiness:  Try to think of what you don’t make time for but that you know would make you truly happy.  For me, these tend to be creative things.  I don’t have what most people would consider a creative job during the day, although for me it’s still rewarding.  But I look for other opportunities to get the creativity that I crave, and because it doesn’t become part of my work, I do it just for me and it makes me happy.  Look for just those one or two things that you know you should make time for, because it would help you find happiness in the other things that you do all day.
  • Think hard about the changes that others would like to see in you: For the most part, our resolutions are about ourselves, for ourselves.  But I also try to think of a quality that I know others would like to see more of in me.  Patience comes to mind often . . . so does mindfulness regarding things like phone calls and correspondence.  These simply aren't always my strong suit.  Your job isn’t to turn yourself into the perfect picture of what everyone else would like to see in you.  But chances are, we all have a few things that could use a bit of improvement on, and that little bit of improvement could translate into a whole lot of happiness to those that matter most to us.  This isn’t a time to be defensive, it’s a time to be reflective.

In this new year, and in all of your new and many years ahead, may I be the first to wish you all the health, happiness, success, mindfulness and joy in the world.

All my love,

Mom

Grab bag.

grab bag

I don't know if you'd heard, but it's the holiday season. Things are festive and lit up and draped in tinsel everywhere you look. For the next two weeks, the world, my friends, is your disco ball. And while I love the holidays---being a fan of everything sparkly, gifts, and brown liquor, how could I not?---I can't help but spy feminist pitfalls everywhere I turn. The world suddenly seems littered with holly-draped, mistletoe-encrusted problematic situations. In celebration of the season, therefore, I humbly submit to you a grab bag of my feminist holiday dilemmas. Some of these I've come to terms with, some I'm still battling---where all are concerned, I'd love to hear what our lovely readers think, and what they do to cope, especially in these seven weeks of heightened sensitivity and exposure to less-than-perfect relatives. (Or whomever.)

His and Hers gift guides I know, I know. This doesn't seem like a real problem. And I guess it's pretty far down the hierarchy as far as problems go---let's call it, instead, a manifestation of a real problem. It's sometime in November when these types of guides start popping up in magazines and on blogs, and they drive me nuts. Invariably, the His side has something having to do with cocktails, whiskey, and wood, while Hers often features nail polish, cookware, and purses. (Stationery, to be fair, can usually be found in both the His and Hers columns, thank you notes being a universal post-holiday activity.)

The real issue here, of course, is that these routinely gendered guides represent and reinforce ridiculous standards. At the risk of stating the obvious: men like to cook. Women like whiskey and things that come in a burled finish. And sometimes, kids, the binary breaks down even further. Men wear clothes made for women, and women dare to buy tools and use them to fix things up around the house. I know---what will come next? The nationwide right to same-sex marriage? (We can only hope.) While I heartedly admit that most men and most women have different tastes, I'd argue that almost all of that difference comes from stuff like this---overt and insinuated guides to what we should want.

That said, I still totally want those pink J. Crew snowboots. Got it, Mom? (I told you I was still battling these things, right?)

The lyrics to Baby, It's Cold Outside I love Christmas music. I love carols, I love secular Christmas songs, I love the classical masses and oratorios. I. Love. It. All. One of my long-time favorites? Baby, It's Cold Outside, written by Frank Loesser back in 1944 and debuted, adorably, in duet with his wife at a housewarming party. It was sometime in college or just after when my friend Miles ruined my fun by pointing out that the song is, it must be said, a little rapey.

If you're not familiar, check out the song, then come back on over. Back? Okay then. Now you should go check out The Atlantic's recent discussion of how the song's problematic lyrics (most notably "Say, what's in this drink?" and "The answer is no!") might be addressed, and then you should pour yourself a cocktail (A Manhattan is really best for this.) and listen to the song again, appreciating how awesome it is despite the creeptastic undertones. As a matter of fact, those undertones (that tension) might be one of the reasons it's just so good.

Men who don't help with post-dinner cleanup This one is both the one that annoys me most, and the one we can actually do something about. Even with the advent of men to the holiday kitchen when it comes to meal prep, I've noticed something: they typically don't stick around afterward to clean up. After dinner on Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's still the women who are far more likely to be found performing the far less glamorous cleanup work while the men relax with a Scotch. Since we've already established that women like whiskey, too, I hope we can all agree to do one thing for our sisterhood this holiday season: confront the lazy men in our lives and make them clean up. Even if they cooked. Because they have quite a backlog to work off, as far as I'm concerned.

I hope you've enjoyed this tour of the little things that torture me during the holidays. I'll leave you now to go ogle some sparkly lights, drape myself in baubles, and order cookbooks for all the women I know. Because, let's face it: I, too, am a product of the patriarchy, and I can't fight it 24 hours a day. Especially when it's so pretty!

Lessons from a Christmas Holiday...

lessons for clara

Dear Clara, So many people think that once December 25th passes, that the Christmas holiday has come and gone.  But remember that Christmas is not just a holiday, but a season.  It’s both a time for us to celebrate spiritually but it’s also a time to celebrate on a very human scale, when our families and friends take first place, and our work and worldly obligations move to second.

  • Prepare yourself for the holiday season:  There is a reason why in many calendars there is an Advent season, in the sense of a time of preparation.  From the outside world, you’ll be tempted to leap right into things, but trust me, it becomes overwhelming.  Pace yourself, make lists, consider what you can get done, and carve of pockets of time for yourself so that you don’t lose the spirit of the season while barreling forward towards the holidays and the end of the year.  It’s an investment worth making.
  • Write on your holiday cards: There are a panoply of technology options that make sending cards easier.  And they’re wonderful, and many have their place.  Take advantage of the things that make sense---addressing envelopes, for example.  But keep in mind that while technology can replace process, it can’t replace you.  It’s better for your cards to come a little later, and have your own personal writing on them that shows people that you took the time for them.  It’s only once a year.
  • Make every effort to be at home: Remember, this is the time of year when those closest to us come first.  It won’t always be possible---sometimes practical things like money and geography get in our way.  But if you can make it happen, be in your home any way that you can for the holidays.  Eventually you’ll have your own home, and your own family, and you’ll have to figure out what works best for all of you.  But deep down, you’ll always know where exactly you should be.
  • Set an extra place at the table: It’s our Polish tradition to say that there will always be room for one more, especially on the holidays, and many visitors feel that you could knock on nearly any door on Christmas Eve in Poland and have a meal waiting for you.  It’s pretty much true.  If you have an extra place (or two) at your table, an extra guest is a welcome addition and not anything else.  You never know when you just might need to reach out to someone else and welcome them to your table.
  • Be on the lookout those sad and the struggling: We should always be on the lookout, I know, but pay extra attention during the holidays.  Different people struggle with different things around this time of year and they’re not always willing to talk about it openly.  Maybe they lost a loved one, maybe they had a falling out in their own family, maybe they are too far away from home, maybe they’re struggling to keep up with all the financial demands of the holidays . . . Watch for people, even those close to you, that might need a bit of additional love and care during this time of year.
  • Make room for your soul: I guess this relates a bit to the very first part, but again, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the activities and trappings that come along with the holidays, even if we do them because of our good intentions.  But regardless of what you believe in, just remember that the winter holidays carry a sense of spirit with them; don’t let that spirit pass you by.  Prepare a little room in your heart.

Wishing you all my love this Christmas and holiday season,

Mom

 

Since You Brought It Up: Good, Grief

since you brought it up

By Rhea St. Julien In the first five minutes of the 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, the main character pronounces himself "depressed", "let down" by Christmas, and lonely.  He dislikes the tradition of card giving, because it reminds him that no one likes him when he doesn't receive any.  He rails at the over-commercialization of Christmas, and despairs that no one seems to take it, and him, seriously.

Watching it with my toddler on Hulu, I realized that if it were made today, A Charlie Brown Christmas would be deemed too glum for mass consumption.  Characters on TV today have bizarrely huge smiles even in the worst of situations---Diego's grin at having to find the lost maned wolf reassures kids that "Sure, the mom lost her pup, but don't worry!  Everything is okay!  Al rescate!"  The expressions of the Peanuts gang look more like they have chili-induced indigestion, over things as small as decorations, unhelpful advice, and ill-thought-out letters to Santa.

I love that the Charlie Brown special depicts the big emotions of kids at this time of the year, because children are totally overwhelmed by all the bustle, no matter how tinseled it may be.  They act up, get scared more easily, need to be held during nap times and have melt downs in the middle of Target.  They are hopped up on sugar (when did Advent calendars start having chocolates for each day?!) stay up late for parties, and the stress of their parents is passed down to them.  It's a never-ending cycle, as parents get more stressed by their kids' behavior, and disappointed when special holiday-themed outings turn disastrous.  "I'm just trying to give you a good Christmas!" I saw a mom say thru gritted teeth, outside a store where other families were bopping around to carols, enjoying the discounts at the annual holiday party, happy it wasn't their kid that had filled their fists with cookies and ran out onto the street.

I felt her pain.  Just last week I took our toddler to a showing of The Velveteen Rabbit, a dance performance for children based on the Margery Williams book.  She had never been to anything like that, and though she overall enjoyed the experience, I did not.  She sat on my lap and asked questions throughout the entire show, at times scared, at other times just trying to make sense of what she was viewing.  All the kids in the audience were talking, laughing, and shouting, but mine seemed to be the very loudest.

The grandmother in front of us concurred with my estimation.  She turned around every five seconds, sneering, sighing, and shushing us.  I tried to explain to her that it was a children's performance and kids are allowed to make noise, but she proclaimed I had "ruined it for her" and I bowed out of the discussion before I got really angry.  What that lady thought she was getting when she bought a ticket to the 11am matinee is beyond me, but her shaming of my daughter while I was working really hard to parent her through the performance was horrible.  I left feeling defeated.  I had tried to do something special with my daughter for the holiday season, and had only managed to totally overwhelm her, myself, and the people sitting near us.

This week, at a winter-themed Story/Song/Dance time I was leading at my friend's store, I took homemade paper snowflakes out of my bag and let them drift down onto the children while I sang "Let It Snow", the closest those California kids would get to a snowstorm.  My daughter stood right in the middle and screamed, "Mama, I'm done!  Mama, no singing!"  I just sighed and asked my friend to take her for a walk so I could continue being all magical for the tots who were actually enjoying it.

Are we really so different from my easily-overwhelmed little one? I think not.  Everyone I know seems to be already over the holiday season, and we have at least two weeks more of it.  As adults, we dull our feelings with cocktails and present-buying, but they are still there.  That's why tonight, instead of heading out onto the wreath-lined streets to hit up a friend's pop up art show, I'm going to stay in with a book and a journal.  I'm going to write about how I miss my sister and my mother, who I am not seeing this year, and my father, whom I will never be able to spend another Christmas with on this earth again.  I'm going to take some deep breaths, and make some Charlie Brown faces.  I'm going to feel that good grief he keeps talking about, and create some space and patience for my daughter's feelings, as well.

***

We believe we can find more joy in the holidays by squashing the little voice that tells us bright spirits and good cheer are only possible when we’re perfect.  The magic of this time of year comes from connecting with loved ones near and far, reminding ourselves of all we have to be thankful for, and . . . covering everything in twinkling white lights. 

We’re embracing our present lives—foibles and all—so we can spend more time drinking egg nog and less time worrying we’re not good enough. Imperfect is the new black; wear it with pride.

Want to lighten your load? Read the post that kicked off the series, Ashely Schneider's Down, Not OutAdd your story to the “Since You Brought It Up” series by submitting it here

An optimist's perspective on resolutions

December is always a bit of a surprise, and then it rushes by (at least for me) faster than any other month. For many, it’s a month that hurtles toward Christmas and is propelled by shopping and parties and decking the halls. For me, that target date, bright and imminent, is New Year’s Eve. Despite the floundering public perception of New Year’s resolutions (Empty promises! So cliché! You’ll never keep them!), I can’t help myself. Somehow, January 1st always feels like a fresh start, and I can’t miss the opportunity to reflect on the past and set new goals and intentions for the future. In high school, I was almost always babysitting on New Year’s Eve, and I would bask in the quiet moments edging toward midnight after I put the kids to bed. I’d take the opportunity to record important themes from the year, gathering up the threads and carefully noting significant challenges and turning points. I would set goals for the future, and yes, some of them would fall by the wayside within the week. The first to disintegrate were the daily life goals, habits I wanted to create, like getting a certain amount of exercise each day or writing for a certain amount of time. It’s so hard to wrestle your day or your week into a new shape when the rest of your environment stays the same.

And then there are the goals that seem to work themselves out on their own, without my having to try so hard, or the goals that are completely displaced by new ones. What’s most important is not necessarily whether I accomplish each goal within its allotted time frame, but rather what I can learn from the changes and consistencies between my intentions from year to year.

In the past few years, I’ve recorded my intentions for each year in a wiki. I don’t look at it often, but when I need a time capsule or a snapshot of my priorities and intentions, I know where to find it. I’ve also started a habit, which I’m sure I culled from somewhere in the blogosphere, to give each year a theme, so that even if the specific goals change, I can easily keep the intentions behind them in mind. One year, it was mindfulness, the next was wellbeing.

I think the coming year may be the year for depth. It’s the first time I can look out onto the year and know that it will not be shaped by semesters. It feels less temporary, and I am so very thankful for it. I am comforted by the fact that my routines won’t be overturned at the end of each semester, and I don’t have to live in constant tug-of-war with the breakneck pace of the school year. It will be interesting to see how time unfolds on the other side of all that. I am excited about putting down some roots in my new life. I hope to spend less time worrying about what I should be doing and more time just doing things well.

And to All a Good Night

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What happens when you put your Jewish friend in charge of stringing the lights on the tree, is that you get to the bottom and have no way to plug them in.  “What I have here in my hand is two female parts, but it seems like I need two male parts,” I called out to my oldest friend.  She looked perplexed, herself, having never been the one to do the lights on the tree.  The tree endeavor (both selection and installation) had always been the province of her husband, who made a big production out of it with her kids.  He had been gone just three months and the whole operation carried a pall of sadness.  I was determined to establish a fresh tradition, help her feel confident in her new role and win the day with enthusiasm.  The kids had been good sports at the tree lot that morning, although it must have been terribly disorienting to be there without their father.  I felt the least we could do was to get the tree going before nightfall.  Ultimately, we had to call up our reserves---two effective and creative friends (with four children between them), both Mommies who were responsible for all things tree-related in their homes.  Within the space of twenty minutes, those two had stripped the tree, restrung the lights and carefully dotted the whole situation with ornaments.  That day, my status as “other” when it comes to celebrating Christmas and participating in the “Holiday Season” took a back seat to being present for a loved one. I returned home feeling decidedly less sorry for myself.  Even considering my pattern (like so many American Jews) of feeling a bit left out at this time of year, I had to consider the heartache of my friend and so many others who have lost a spouse or someone close to them, knowing the pain of a loss like that is much more acute during Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and the assorted benchmarks of life.

As much as I have my own issues with the Christmas behemoth, its value as a touchstone for many families in this country is undeniable.  It is a marker around which people create important memories with one another.  Children experience Christmas as an expression of familial love and have the opportunity to be showered with special attention by parents and extended family.  Adults take time away from work to be with their families and reflect.  Sometimes people even use the Holiday as a way to process wounds that haunt them from childhood.  The corrective experience of making your own Christmas for your own family as an adult must be incredibly powerful on a number of levels.

There still resides inside me, the smart-ass fourth grader who wrote an essay about how the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony was a violation of church and state.  This represented my desperate attempt to communicate the plight of the American, Jewish 8-year-old during the Holidays.  Back in the 80s, they didn’t really show much of Reagan lighting an obligatory Menorah somewhere or sitting down with his staff for a game of Dreidl.  And I likely would have argued that, to be fair, he shouldn’t be publicly participating in any religious celebration.  They also didn’t give Chanukah much air-time in the media in general back then, which made it even more critical that I drag my Mom into my elementary classrooms so that she could fry up Latkes on an electric griddle.  There is almost nothing more tragic than a bunch of disinterested school children carting floppy paper plates of greasy potato pancakes and dollops of applesauce to their desks to “enjoy.”  “Also, we get chocolate coins!” I asserted to anyone who would listen.

While I feel certain that I will be confronted with many uncomfortable conversations with my own children about why we don’t adorn our home or really do anything amazing at this time of year, I also trust that they will find ways to turn their outsider status into something interesting.  They might end up with a fantastic sense of humor about it.  It might increase their empathy for people that experience actual “other” status (people of color, immigrants, gay families) and who live permanently outside the mainstream.

I will always feel a little twinge at Christmas time.  I will try and remind myself that I can appreciate someone else’s traditions and how profound they are without needing to participate myself.  We have our own traditions on December 25th– Dim Sum!  Blockbuster movies!---and I remain grateful that I won’t need to cling to them like a life-raft, girding against loss.

 

Live to Eat

My mom used to say that there are two types of people, with a very important distinction to be made between them. There are those who eat to live and those who live to eat. We, as a family, have always fallen into the latter category. Growing up, dinnertime was serious business. We gathered night after night, with a properly set table, a square meal, and post-dinner coffee (for the adults, of course). Friends who joined us were always amazed that we didn’t just eat and run, but seemingly enjoyed the process. At the top of her game, my mom was a great cook. We have the photographic evidence from birthdays past to suggest she was capable of extraordinary baking feats (homemade Big Bird cakes, for instance) and family members talk about the elegant dinner parties my mom threw when my parents were first married, but really, her specialty ran closer to the classics---the dishes that don’t require a recipe. Our cousin summed this up perfectly, joking that, “A recipe calls for an egg and Janice uses a marshmallow.” Pot roast, linguini and clam sauce, a perfect spiral ham, roasted chicken, escarole and beans, Sunday sauce: this was my mom’s food. Unfussy, with no pretenses---the kind of food that invited you to stay awhile.  She went to the public market in Rochester, not because it was trendy to eat seasonal and local, but because it was cheaper. “Everything’s a dollar!” she would exclaim, arms full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce in the summer. As we grew up, and inevitably thought we knew everything, my sisters and I rolled our eyes at the predictability of her cooking. If she hosted a brunch, you were guaranteed an egg strata, ham, and a make-ahead French toast casserole. For summer barbeques by the pool, you could count on potato salad, macaroni salad with tuna, and a huge bowl of melon.

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My mom was the only person I knew who could pull together a meal for 15 with no advance notice. She kept a bag or two of chips in the pantry, and veggies, dips and cheese in the fridge, ready to be pulled out on a moment’s notice if friends or family swung by unannounced. One Christmas not too long ago, our group doubled hours before the beef tenderloin, double baked potatoes, and salad were to hit the table, and I can tell you definitively that we still had leftovers. To this day, if you ask a family member or friend about my mom’s cooking, they will most certainly tell you about their favorite dish, but more importantly, about the memories that the food conjures. Sara will tell you about coming over on Thanksgiving or Christmas and digging the remaining spinach dip out of the bread bowl that my mom saved just for her. She’ll tell you how even with a house full of people, my mom would stop and really talk to her. My friend Meg will tell you about the taco turkey chili my mom had waiting for us on several occasions, when we sought refuge in Rochester after a particularly long week of college. She’ll tell you how my mom always made her feel at home, even in the handful of times she was there. Nikki will most definitely tell you about my mom’s clam sauce, and how she didn’t even need to ask for it when she came to Rochester. It was waiting, along with a pot of coffee after dinner, to give us all an excuse to sit and chat even longer. For me, it’s zucchini sautéed in tomatoes (with a heaping scoop of parmesan) and sausage and potatoes; the food that reminds me of sitting at the table on a Tuesday night---in other words, the ordinary food. It's my mom's salad, generously dressed with oil, red wine vinegar and Marie's blue cheese dressing, begging to be eaten directly out of the bowl. It's the recipes that also remind me so much of my grandma: the pizzelles made at Christmas time and the Easter bread---laced with anise and lightly frosted---that my mom hand delivered to eagerly waiting friends and family each year.

As the years passed, my mom’s enthusiasm for cooking waned. On more than one occasion in recent years, my mom and dad were known to have toast for dinner. “You can’t eat toast for dinner!” my sisters and I argued, but my mom didn’t care. She told us that after forty years of marriage, she was done cooking---except for Sunday dinners and holidays, of course. My sister and brother-in-law took over Thanksgiving hosting duties in the past few years, but as we realized this year, my mom was still the heart and soul of the operation. This was the first year my mom didn’t buy the turkey and bring it over on Wednesday night, completely dressed, with explicit directions about timing and temperatures. This was the first year she didn’t make her mashed potatoes---made ahead of time and frozen (controversial until you actually taste said potatoes)---her stuffing or her butternut squash. This was the first year she didn’t save the wishbone from the turkey, to make a wish on. And so this year we did the only thing we knew how to do without her: we made her food. My sisters and cousins spent the weekend before Thanksgiving mashing forty pounds of potatoes and wrangling with a number of unyielding squash.  Weeks before Thanksgiving, we panicked, not remembering the recipe for my mom’s stuffing. Katie, in Australia, came to the rescue. My mom’s stuffing has been a mainstay in her Australian Thanksgiving for years; her friends actually refer to it as Mrs. Brady’s stuffing. We sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, surrounded by my mom’s food and the family and friends who have sustained us over the last year. A close family friend said grace and lit a candle for my mom. Danielle lost both her parents in the last decade, and told us it was my mom who allowed her to appreciate Thanksgiving again.

My mom’s legacy is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as clearly as at the dinner table. Whether it’s on fine china at Thanksgiving or pizza on paper plates, we continue to break bread together, sharing our food and our stories as we always have. It’s not just food, after all, it’s family.

There's No Perfection in Parenting

Parents are so weird about the funniest things. When we were at Legoland over the weekend I was watching this toddler girl and her mother wait for the rest of the family to get off of a ride. The little girl wanted to touch the leaves that had fallen into the dirt of a nearby bush. The mom kept swatting her hand away and telling her that they were dirty! “Here” she said, “Play with this nice green one instead.” And she pulled a new leaf off the bush for the girl to touch instead. How funny! I thought to myself, I would have done the opposite and chastised Charley for pulling leaves unnecessarily off tress. I’m learning every parent has a weird quirk that they impart onto their child. Some are obvious---restricted diets, no character toys. Others are less noticeable---don’t play with the dirty leaves. There are so many awkward scenarios in parenting that no one prepares you for. This is the first Christmas that Charley has really been super interested in toys and asking for specific things. Last year he was happy with whatever we picked out, but this year he’s extremely vocal and knows what he likes. The other week, Charley found one of his Christmas toys early. It was a specific discontinued toy I had found on Ebay and painstakingly bid on and hid from him. He spotted it in the loft and started yelling for the toy, “My Lofty! My Lofty!” Matt and I just stared at each other dumbstruck. He was so happy and confused at the same time. Why were we mad? Why didn’t we give him the toy? Christmas and waiting for presents is a tricky thing to explain to a two-year-old.

He only saw the one toy, so we let him have it, but then Matt and I got into a huge fight about it. I didn’t want him to have it, well . . . I did, just not like that. But did it really matter? To him it was just a toy, he didn’t know that he was supposed to get all of them at the same time on Christmas day. He still doesn’t know about Santa and the whole concept of the holiday. And I realized, that’s the story of my whole adult life. I’m happy where I am, but I didn’t expect to get here like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I didn’t expect to get pregnant at 22, or not have my dream wedding. I thought for sure I would have a baby girl (I didn’t). I just imagined myself being richer, wiser, maybe more organized as a parent. Instead, I’m still just me, but somehow managing to fulfill the dreams and expectations of this little person as well.

Parenting is all about lowered expectations. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a realistic way. Becoming a parent has forced me to loosen the grip on my perfectionistic ways. It also made me realize how hard my parents worked to make our holidays perfect. I don’t ever remember finding our toys early, or being disappointed in the presents we received. They really made the holiday special. Now I know how much work went into that. Hats off parents, you did a good job.

For the rest of us

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So, here we are again.  The Holiday Season is upon us.  Depending upon who are you are, this either means a great deal or almost nothing at all.  Whatever your traditions or affiliations (cultural, religious or otherwise), there is no escaping the Holiday Industrial Complex in this country.  Every year I struggle with the very mixed emotions that accompany my identity as a secular, Jewish but nostalgic and kind of sappy person.  I yearn for rituals and moments in which to touch base with family, consider particular stories/lessons about humanity, make special foods.  This year, as the matriarch in a new family, I am confronted with decisions about how to integrate “Holiday” traditions into our lives, for our daughter’s sake. Although in 2012, we say “Holiday” in reference to things that might take place in December (to include Chanukah, Kwanzaa), what we really mean is Christmas.  All jokes referring to paranoid conservatives spouting off about the "War on Christmas" or the "War on Jesus" aside . . . the popularization of Chanukah and Kwanzaa have always been simply a response to Christmas (and a pretty woeful one, at that).  Let’s face facts: Christmas will never not be a really huge deal and one that takes the cake.  Christmas is so embedded in our culture, our calendar, our winter and so beloved, there is no extricating it.  Beyond the gifts, music, food and décor, Christmas is also a Holiday onto which everyone’s personal psychodrama is superimposed.  The way in which families gather or don’t, the traditions people had as children or didn’t . . . the powerful dynamics at play during this time of year call up some of the deepest feelings of joy or longing for many Americans.  Oh and also, reverent people consider it holy and significant.

I grew up in a home that was very culturally Jewish, but didn’t really give much credence to Holidays, per se.  We typically belonged to a Synagogue, but mostly only went on the High Holidays, which, incidentally do not include Chanukah.  For Jews, the major deals are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Memorial Day-ish).  Tragically, our High Holidays don’t involve gifts.  And let's be honest---they aren't really all that fun.  Rosh Hashanah tries hard with apples and honey and talk of renewal, but is sort of a downer what with the stern warnings about being inscribed in the Book of Life.  Even the dressed up version of Chanukah has un-sing-able songs in minor keys and potato pancakes (?!).

Chanukah was a bit of an afterthought in my house and my parents often grumbled about how it is actually is a very minor Holiday, bastardized in this country to compete with Christmas.  As far as I know, we are the only culture in which Chanukah is celebrated with gifts.  The Americanized version of Chanukah can often look like a “Jewish Christmas,” with crass commercialism at the core.  Despite my profound yearnings as a child, my parents weren’t buying it or buying it, although some years they managed to go beyond the candle lighting and chocolate coins to bestow socks, pajamas or books.

While, as an adult, I can totally respect their philosophical stand on this front, as a child, I desperately wanted what I saw most other kids having---not just an embarrassment of gifts, but a whole season devoted to them.  I would spend time at friends' houses during December and watch as the tree was trimmed and all the rooms filled up with sparkling trinkets, bright parcels and the fragrance of cinnamon sticks.  The promise of this sacred time when everything got so cozy and everyone gathered together from far and wide (particularly salient for me, as my siblings were much older and lived all over the world) felt impossible to resist.

I also knew people growing up who were Jewish, but just threw in the towel and celebrated Christmas.  This was always sort of sad to me.  It spoke to two unfortunate realities---that Jews in this country feel so overwhelmed by the power of Christmas that they feel compelled to participate in another religion's Holiday and/or they feel their children can't tolerate December without the Bacchanalia.  Meanwhile, I totally get this.  I won't mince words, Christmas wins.  It is friggin’ awesome for kids.  And let’s not even consider families in which there is only one Jewish parent and they “celebrate both.”  I SAY AGAIN, CHRISTMAS WINS.

So how to make sense of it all now?  The fact is that my parents were consistently generous throughout the year with their love, their time and many of the material things we desired.  Just because I didn't score a payload at Christmas, doesn't mean I didn't have a wealth of toys and games.  I had way more than I needed, as so many of us did.  And despite my desire to be like the other kids, I never had to watch my parents grow anxious or irritable about shopping for a bounty of gifts or spending money they didn't have.  They also made it clear that it was highly inappropriate to develop a sense of entitlement about gifts, especially as a child.  These lessons were swallowed hard, but remain valuable.

I think this is what want for Isadora, ultimately.  I hope she feels loved beyond belief and that she lives with a sense of joy throughout the year.  I hope that she relishes how our family is different and feels confident and comfortable with who we are.  I hope we celebrate important milestones with good cheer and delicious foods in each season and take great pains to be together with extended family as often as possible.  I also plan to spoil her with frivolous gift items and possibly spend more money than is reasonable on things like a long sleeve t-shirt with a bulldog silkscreen.  And certainly most important, I intend to teach her about giving to others and being of service because we have so much relative to most.

(Images: Marco Ghitti via Flickr)

Blessed Table

As I sit down to type this evening I feel incredibly blessed.  I am after all, sitting down to write; that alone makes my heart soar.  I’m perched contentedly in the desk chair I found at an estate sale and painted a glossy candy apple red.  My desk is large square that used to be my great grandmother's dining room table.  Its glossy mahogany surface makes me feel connected in a way few possessions do. The small brass plate on the underside of the surface bears the name of a furniture company long out of business.  The raised letters of that little plaque remind me that the old saying is perhaps true: They just don’t make them like they used too.  This table is both sturdy and beautiful with rounded legs, beveled edges and has a perfection in shape and symmetry that I would have thought impossible outside of a factory.

After it was my great grandmother's, this table was my parents’ dining room table.  On holidays and special occasions we set it with my parents wedding china and covered its mahogany with a lace table cloth. Opposite the brass plaque there is a white sticker that no one has removed. It’s from the move we made when I was a sophomore in high school.  We moved a couple of other times, but I know that sticker as well as I know any graphic image, and it’s from 1998.  But that sticker isn’t the only marker of my childhood.  On the table surface is a giant scorch mark.  Some might call it ugly; some might even think it ruins the table.  I see the history, and I can’t help but smile as I think of the Advent Wreath that we all thought was so lovely: The tall purple and pink pillar taper candles surrounded by a ring of real evergreen.  I remember exactly what I was doing when the smoke detectors went off.

When my husband and I moved into our current home, there was no space for a dining room table, which I figured was just as well as we so rarely used it for such a purpose, but I couldn’t bear to part with my heirloom.  So I hauled it upstairs to my office and decided it would make a fine desk.

Tonight, I sit in my desk chair, a bottle of wine just within reach.  In front of me is, of course, the laptop I’m typing on. Two other sides hold my sewing machine and typewriter while the third I hope to someday organize into an organizational file system and not just a pile of paper.  From my chair I can see the cornfield behind my back yard, I can watch the light change as the sun sets, I can sip a glass of wine and write about a piece of furniture. How blessed indeed.

Looking Forward: What I Need.

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I ate Thanksgiving dinner this year perched on an ottoman, the kind that’s hollow on the inside and meant to be filled with throw blankets and extra cushion covers. This one, much to my glee, contained my roommate’s collection of high school CDs – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, and, best of all, a blink-182 cassette tape---the glory of which was revealed after I toppled off the ottoman’s lopsided lid while attempting to pass a tray of bread across the table. I wasn’t the only one who occupied improvised seating. Five-foot-tall Linda, who I met my first day of college, balanced on a disproportionately tall barstool; Lily and Megan, who dressed up as rats with me this Halloween, shared a wooden bench. My roommate Natalie’s brother, Andrew, and his friend, Dave---who I’d met for the first time that day---found seats on folding chairs borrowed from my brother; and Charlie, one of my oldest family friends, sat on a restaurant-style leather chair that Natalie had lugged home from her mother’s apartment in Bensonhurst.

To accommodate our many guests, we placed an old desk---which normally holds turntables and a hodgepodge of vinyl records---at the end of our dining table (mismatched tablecloths covered the dings and scratches). A lack of proper silverware forced us to get creative, using spatulas as serving spoons, ladles as ice cream scoops. And the food. There were two stuffings. Six pies. Enough cranberry sauce to feed a football team. This is what happens, I learned, when a group of fourteen collaborates on dinner.

It was the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever hosted (or co-hosted, as it were), and the first I’ve spent away from family. With our ever-fluctuating guest list, disorganized menu, and relative lack of space, I wondered beforehand whether the night would end up feeling like a real Thanksgiving.

But, as you probably can guess, it did.

My dad mentioned to me today that he can’t think of a past Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthday that wasn’t anything other than wonderful. Getting in the spirit of celebration---with family and friends and food---always makes those days special.

All of these things were there last week, of course.

And there was more. A candlelit apartment in a city I love. Great music. New friends, and ones I know I’ll keep for the rest of my life. I’ve realized this year, more than ever, that they’ve become family to me.

After dinner, we pushed the tables aside and arranged our chairs in the living room. “Everyone say what they’re thankful for,” someone suggested. Most everyone named family and friends, but there were more inventive contributions, too: 24-hour bodegas, neighborhood juice bars, bike rides through Brooklyn. (For the record, blog friends, one of the things I named was you.)

But Warren, another college friend in attendance, kept it simple and said it best: “I’m thankful to have what I need.”

I am, too. And I'm thankful to know that what I need isn't complicated, isn't out-of-reach. It's here.

On Thanksgiving Tradition

This past weekend got me thinking about traditions. They are a funny thing. As an adult, you cling to the smallest memories from your childhood. Recently my husband made me ‘egg toast’ and was so excited about it. He talked about how his mom had always made it for him for breakfast on cold winter mornings. He prepped the plate carefully by hand. But when it arrived, it didn’t look like a memory to me, it looked like a mess. The egg was cut up over the bread, the yolk oozing over the whole plate. And although I ate it, it didn’t look very appetizing. It’s kind of the same thing with Thanksgiving. Everyone has their weird family thing they have to do every year. Ours might be watching ‘Home for the Holidays’ and reveling in the dysfunction of Holly Hunter and her parents and brother. Or getting into heated family arguments and resolving it all with whiskey and a cozy fire. I once knew a girl whose family made stuffing from White Castle burgers mashed up. If you have ever had a White Castle burger you know how disgusting this is, and she fully admitted as much, and yet, there it was, year after year.

This Thanksgiving there were only four people at the table, the smallest Thanksgiving I’ve ever attended. It was my husband and I, and my parents; Charley was napping. We didn’t watch our movie, and even though we ate turkey, there wasn’t much tradition to it. And there was a moment when we were all quietly eating when I finally understand why people have more than one child. It was this, this loneliness. The food was delicious, and it was relaxing in a quiet, weird way, but mostly I just missed the chaos. I felt grateful that I was pregnant again, and Charley would have at least one sibling. My one brother was absent but came later. I just kept thinking of this being the example of what the New York Times referred to as ‘a back-end investment’ when having children. You put in so much work up front, but you hope it all pays off when you are in your fifties and sixties and have a busy, full table for the holidays.

My husband felt the same way, and later after we went back to our own house, we agreed we could even think about a third child. The idea of a Thanksgiving with only two people when we were aging seemed strange and sad. My tradition was steeped in chaos, in years of extended family members and cousins and babies. I knew I would want that again, that a part of me craved the chaos of family all around, and I was slowly realizing that you had to make your own family in the end.

Tradition

(If you’re a fan of old movies and/or musicals like me, I wish you luck getting the soundtrack to Fiddler on The Roof out of your head.) It’s probably no surprise that with the holiday season in full swing, my thoughts have turned to Traditions: the tried and true that I love and the possibility of making new ones.  As my sister and I have grown up our holiday family traditions have evolved.  We no longer leave cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve or receive a note from Santa with a paw print from Rudolf on Christmas morning.  But we still put presents under the tree and watch our favorite holiday movies: Holiday Inn, White Christmas, and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

This year I’ll be traveling on Christmas Day and won’t make it to my parent’s house until a day later. Surprisingly, I’m not bothered; I thought that I would be disappointed to be spending the 25th away from home.  But it’s just not true.  Instead I’m excited for a long layover in a place I’ve never been as I know that the traditions and holiday celebrations will be waiting for me when I get back.

Perhaps this is something that others have already learned, but it’s a lesson I’m just now coming to appreciate: When it comes to traditions, it’s not really about the number on a calendar or the address on a door.  When and Where don’t matter; Who you spend your time with and How you spend it is all that makes a difference.

A Very Paleo Holiday

Thanksgiving 2011 table

By Megan Flynn

A few days before Thanksgiving last year, my mother called to let me know that she had transformed her diet into one resembling that of a cave-woman. She had gone Paleo. No grains, no dairy, no sugar. And just in time for the holidays.

“So,” she said, “I’m still going to make mashed potatoes because I don’t want to push it on anyone this year, but do you really think I need to put butter and sour cream in them like I usually do?”

After trying to convince her that yes, she most certainly did need to put butter in the mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, she tried to convince me that yes, this time next year she most certainly would be making a Paleo-friendly meal for all of us, and that we were going to like it.

I was still really looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving, because who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? The food, the football, the family; it’s all good. Throw in some cocktails and the fact that my parents live on Smith Mountain Lake, and there’s really nothing else I’d rather be doing that weekend. Even if it means eating sausage and kale for breakfast in the morning.

On the day before the holiday, my family went to a shooting range and I found myself in the kitchen with nothing to keep me company but a mound of apples and even more yams, just waiting to be peeled. I was going to attempt to make a flourless, sugarless pie for my mother and anyone else who was brave enough to try it. I first made a traditional pumpkin pie, full of flour and sugar, for those of us who weren't willing to sacrifice our traditional eats for something as silly as life-long health. When that pie was in the oven, I began my challenge. And then something amazing happened: I got excited.

My skepticism and the negativity that surrounded it began to clear as I peeled the fruit and pre-heated the oven. I smiled as I rolled out the homemade pie dough, and I caught myself singing along with the radio as I cleaned up the counters and waited for my mysterious creation to bake.

The pie was terrible.

But we had a good laugh about it and my mom, who refuses to give up, swears that it makes the most perfect brunch with a side of bacon and eggs. It’s those moments—when something doesn't work and you laugh about it with the people you love the most, when the best parts of a holiday weekend are the quiet moments spent together around a table with a glass of wine—those are the things that remind us what the holidays are about. After Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and I know that when I once again return to my parents’ home, there will be no cookies set out for Santa. There will probably be no cookies at all. But I’m discovering more and more that I don’t really care.

One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that while traditions are important, the people with whom you share them are irreplaceable. And here I am, a whole year later; my own diet completely changed to resemble that of a cave-woman, and I eat sausage and kale for breakfast all the time, and that sugarless pie sounds like a perfect side dish for brunch, and I know that even though we may say that holidays are about the cookies, that’s not always exactly the truth.

So whether or not there is sugar in your coffee; even though you’re confused about the uses of coconut oil and the lack of flour in that crust, what really matters is that you've found your way home once again.