Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas spirit ... and other holiday casualties



I can't find my Christmas spirit.

I've looked for it everywhere. Somehow it's just gone missing.

I hope the kitten didn't get it. She's a feisty one. Always chewing the corners off Christmas cards and tearing up wrapping paper.

I would blame her if I could, but I know it's not her fault.

For a time, I thought that someone had stolen it. Shoplifted, as it were, from the storage room of my brain that usually contains all of my warm and fuzzy thoughts. Ordinarily it's not difficult to find. It's the room adjacent to the ones that harbor nostalgia and gratitude. The Spirit of the Season stuffed into a dented cardboard box with all the tinsel and construction paper ornaments I so carefully saved over the years.

But I don't think that's possible. Who would want my old, worn out joy?

Oh sure, the 24-hour news offers a lineup of possible culprits. …

There's no shortage of rampages, whether deadly or just damaging to the psyche. There's no shortage of depravity, which, over time, will tend to sap your reserves of good will.

Keep clicking through channels. Then turn it off. What else can you do?

Still can't get away from the feeling ...

As if the world around me has turned into a sales pitch.

But that's just white noise …

Something I should simply tune out.

I plug in the Christmas tree. Maybe the warm glow from “traditional” twinkle lights will thaw my icy heart.

It's a possibility, I tell myself. After all, I had rejoiced a little at the hardware store when I found strings of incandescent mini-lights at half price. I am done with the cold, lifeless LEDs.

Maybe this was all I'd need. A dose of white, environmentally unfriendly, light.

Still nothing.

Maybe it's the dread of more stuff entering the house, taking up space we no longer have. All the pretty parcels brought late at night by a guy in a sooty beard and wearing a red suit.

For a moment, shouldn't it bring happiness?

The hours he spent at the mall, or online, searching for the “perfect thing.”

Of course, you know there are no “perfect things.”

It's not about things at all. It's about change.

The kids are growing up. The Christmas card list gains one person and loses two others.

I try not to dwell in the inevitable future. I know it's unwise. The future exists in one form or another, not both. There's no point in trying to set up housekeeping there until it becomes the present and you know the address for certain.

I need exercise and fresh air. I'll take the kids sledding. That will help.

And for the twelve minutes the stars align and the children are racing the dog down an icy hill on their toboggans with unbridled glee, I am calm.

It doesn't matter that I wore the wrong socks and my toes are beginning to turn blue.

It doesn't matter that in a matter of minutes a fight will break out over who was faster, or who's allowed to use whose sled.

Christmas will come. I will find that stupid, ratty box in an unexpected place, and when I open it, it will be filled with the spirit of the season.

Hopefully, I can catch it before it gets loose again. It won't stand a chance against that kitten.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Snow day


Outside, the world looked like a juggled snow globe.

Fat flakes swirl around in icy water, frantically at first and then slowly, as if deciding where to land. It was all beautifully precarious.

Inside, our world seems equally tumultuous.

A boy and girl dance around the house, celebrating this unexpected day off with mirth and glee, as well as a fantastic fight over the remote control.

“It's my turn to pick the movie,” shouts one as the other hollers: “You picked last time.” Of course, it doesn't matter which one said what, they both believe it should have been their turn.

I used to love snow days. The sledding. The snow fort building. The snow-encrusted mittens drying on the radiator. A day made of frozen sweet confection, wrapped in white icing and offered up insistently by Mother Nature.

She wouldn't take No for an answer.

Unlike myself. I take No as a question.

Wouldn't you like to play a game? No?

How about we make Christmas cookies? No?

I suppose the idea of you kids going out into the snow isn't going to happen either is it? No?

No.

I didn't want to do any of those things either, truth be told. If we played a game, they would just fight over the rules. If we made cookies, it would just be the “Royal We” baking. And if we went out in the snow I would have to be out in it, too. Freezing.

Let's just skip to the hot chocolate, shall we? The kind with mini marshmallows, of course.

No cocoa? You've got to be kidding.

Of course, I'm not kidding … Now I remember what I forgot at the grocery store.

The snow has turned to rain. Freezing rain.

I feel better. The fact that we're not outside has shifted from failure to fortune. Which means now the kids want to build a snowman.

“This is the worst snow day ever,” says one of them.

It doesn't matter which one. They speak for each other, even if they don't admit such sibling harmony exists between them.

It's cold all of a sudden. In the living room. The fire's gone out.

As I get it going again, the kids huddle together on the couch under a blanket.

They are whispering, which is good, since the weather and the bickering have left me with a tension headache. And then they are gone.

“Do you have any boxes?”

“Can we have some wrapping paper?”

“Tissue paper?”

I am happy for the truce and show them where they can find such things.

They disappear upstairs, where I hear not a peep nor a rustle for more than an hour.

One after the other they traipse down with packages and bags festooned with ribbons and bows and rolls' worth of Magic tape, and tuck them under the tree.

Each strangely shaped package was marked with its intended recipient: Dad. Mom. Grandma. Grandpa.

The biggest ones were dedicated to each other: My Little Bother and My Big Blister.

So much for sibling rivalry and snow days.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

fixers and breakers


My friend had just arrived. We had made plans to brave the cold and go for a brief jog through the neighborhood. …

But I wasn't ready.

Instead, I was stuffing a small mountain of denim and Perma Press into the front-loader.

“I can finally do laundry!” I said with all the excitement I usually reserve for a sale on the pricey yogurt at the supermarket.

She knew exactly what I meant …

The washer hadn't been working for months. It wasn't broken, but there was something wrong with the outlet that connected it to power.

My husband had finally gotten around to “fixing” it.

“It must be nice for you ... that he's so handy,” she said, earnestly congratulating my husband for being a gen-u-ine Mr. Fix-It.

The equivalency of a husband who can repair a leak in a faucet or rewire an outlet in the laundry is calculated against an outrageous hourly fee. With or without plumber's crack.

I can't compete.

Even if one were to combine the wages of the babysitter, the maid and the school bus driver, who make up the basis of my unspoken worth, we're not even close. Of course a babysitter who swears in front of the kids, a maid who never mops the floors and a bus driver who plays inappropriate music on the way to and from school wouldn't likely have union representation in her corner.

But I digress.

Nice wasn't the word I would use to describe the way my husband fixes things. Humorous is more to the point.

Truth be told. It's not as if his skills are any more marketable than mine.

I still remember the cumbersome instructions we had to review for guests after he fixed the lighting in our first house:

"Ok. If you need to use the bathroom, remember to turn on the track lights in the dining room first. They are on the same circuit, and the bathroom lights won’t turn on without the dining room lights on. … And if you turn on the hall lights and they go off by themselves don't worry, it's nothing. Just turn them back on, making sure the switch located all the way to the left is turned on first. Oh. ... and the light over the bed works with a remote control. If you can't get them to come on you'll have to go to the main panel on the wall, make sure that the switch is pressed DOWN, and press the sensor – located on the right – seven times until the little green lights on the left side of the switch glow orange."

Yeah … those were the days … Strange no one ever asked to be shown the location of the fire extinguisher.

In retrospect, he has evolved rapidly since those early days of do-it-yourself electrical work.

In our current home, most of the lights do what one would expect with a simple flip of a switch. But not all.

Eventually. … the perfect confluence of boredom and ingenuity would meet one rainy afternoon … and he would descend into the basement to finish what he'd started.

Fingers crossed, I listened to clanging and muttered curse words as they wafted up from the cellar, and dreamed of doing laundry without tripping over an extension cord, which had snaked up from the depths of the house for far too long.

But I didn't need to be clairvoyant to understand the price for such a wonderful development in the at-home washing business had been paid inadvertently by the dryer. In 40 minutes – the time, it takes for a load of heavy-duty duds to cycle through all the prescribed rinses – that crazy thought would become a fact.

For one machine to work, it seemed, the other had to be on hiatus.

Breaker, breaker. … who's got the breaker?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saving grace


Growing up, my family sat around the Thanksgiving table, bowed our heads and said grace:

Bless us Oh Lord

and these thy gifts …

Which we are about to receive

through thy bounty …

Through Christ, Our Lord

Amen.

We never rushed through it to get to the meat. No one ever really seemed to pay attention, either.

Unless my uncle was visiting.

On those occasions, he would have the honor of leading the prayer, and he would lead as if the whole thing were a single, meandering word set apart by taking the lord's name in vein:

BlessUsOLordandthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivethroughthybountythrough JESUS! CHRIST! ourlordAmen. Someone, gimme the bird!

I loved my uncle. Bespectacled and bearded, he was a hippy and a mystery. Above all, he had swagger.

And boy, did he have stories. The way he told them, you couldn't help but to believe.

He had spent most of his 20s playing golf pros for cash until the greens were white with snow, and then he'd hustle pool for the rest of the winter.

At least that's how he claimed to have made his living up until he graduated college and began teaching juvenile delinquents how to type.

He had just the right amount of nonchalance.

Everything about him was irreverent.

The conversation over dinner was always preposterous. She'd just listen as he cracked wise. He'd laugh and drink milk. Tell us sweets were poison, and that he never ate them … and then polish off two huge pieces of Mom's special cheesecake.

And of course, my devout and reverent mother, loved him fiercely.

It seems odd, somehow, that we didn't make more of the ceremony of those occasions. The saying of grace.

It may have been a jumble of words to us, but to her the words had profound meaning.

My mother just closed her eyes, determinedly oblivious to those among us who would put all the emphasis in the wrong places or snitch bites from our quickly cooling plates.

I don't remember any other tradition. We never went around the table to talk about that for which we were thankful.

Being thankful, was something you kept to yourself. Like a superstition. Wouldn't want to jinx it.

Is it strange to wake up the day after Thanksgiving and realize you and the nine or 10 guests who sat across a table from one another never once shared in conversation the things for which we are thankful?

Is it horrible that we never took the time to reflect on what it was that got us to this place?

History?

Happenstance?

Luck?

Good or bad?

Perhaps.

For a moment I felt a twinge of guilt ... as if the failure to verbally examine gratitude made me as callous as if I'd spent the last Thursday in November greedily shopping for things I would never be thankful for.

It didn't last long. I know what I am grateful for and for whom, and trying to put those thoughts into words doesn't give them any more weight.

I am grateful for everyone who has ever made me laugh ...

or smile ...

or feel like a part of something more than just myself.

And yet, perhaps more surprisingly, I'm just as grateful for everyone who has ever made me irritated or anxious or feel at loose ends. For all the things that have frightened me. Saddened me. Made me think about the world and all the parts of it I can't control.

As I sit there, looking at my family, I feel thankful that we have this complicated history. I am thankful for unspoken acceptance.

And I know if I cleared my throat to make a speech about gratitude, it would seem more awkward than silence.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cat fight


What was I thinking? Bringing two cats to the veterinarian at the same ...

Don't answer that. There was no time for that question … 

I was late and there was a problem.

No sooner had I stuffed the winter-widened mound of aged feline into one soft-sided carrier, than the wiry, wiggling strand of kitten flesh had nudged her way out of another.

I followed the scamper of little feet down the hall and under the corner cabinet.

Darn it all to heck!

Of course, I didn't mince words.

I didn't have time. I had to haul a caterwauling kitten out from under a china cabinet, stuff her into a make-shift cat carrier and schlep her into the car. Careful to place her far away from the growling cat who has, thus far, been her nemesis.

But I was getting ahead of myself. First things first.

I patted the floor underneath the cabinet, and, to my surprise, out she came, covered in fluff and dust bunnies.

Got ya!

A five-minute car ride later – a ride filled with the howls and growls of my two, non-traveling companions – we arrived at the veterinarian's office.

I struggle up the stairs with my lopsided luggage. Ariel, the canned ham of a cat, weighing down one bag, while Mittens, superfly kitten, floated around in another.

They were all waiting for me ...

The vet. The technicians. Even the office pet, a paraplegic cat that goes by the name of “Hope.”

“Go right into Exam Room One,” said the smiling woman, flapping the wings of a crisp, new manilla folder. “Mittens is the new one, right?” she asked as she stole a peek into the bag hoping to catch some of the magic that we believe encircles all baby animals.

“What a sweetie,” she exclaimed.

“Oh … you just wait. …” I sneered under my breath. “She had us fooled, too.”

Hope had heard me. As she quickly dragged herself in the other direction, I could tell she knew what mayhem I carried under each arm.

It wouldn't be long before the tiny terror was unleashed.

“I'll take Mittens,” said the nice lady, grasping the handles of the bag and whisking the kitten away to the lab located just behind a Levolor door. I put Ariel's bag on the stainless exam table, unzipped it, and waited.

A long hiss came from behind the door, followed by a deep, wet roar that went on for longer than a natural breath. And again. And again. Ariel and I both stiffened at the sound of it.

I couldn't picture our tiny cat making a noise that big.

There was scuffling and the low murmur of voices. I held my breath. Ariel's ears pricked forward. I could hear the team regrouping.

Even bigger cat noises followed.

Then silence.

The door opened and our tiny kitten was marched in at arm's length by the scruff of her neck.

“She's a firecracker this one,” said the woman at the end of the cat, miraculously still smiling. “Though, I think you might consider changing kitten's name from Mittens to Boxing Glove.”

“She is a firecracker,” echoed the vet, stepping into the room, bearing good news. “Everything's negative.”

The doctor even downplayed the attempted disembowelment we had overheard from the other side of the door.

“There is an age where young cats can be feisty,” he explained with patented calm. “We might have just gotten her right at that age,” he adds with a shrug.

Ariel started to growl as the woman approached the table with the kitten, who was wide-eyed but now purring.

“Don't worry, Ariel. It's all over. Your friend is fine,” said the woman soothingly.

“I'm not sure she was worried about the kitten ... My guess is Ariel was rooting for the Vet.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Virtual tour


Dinner was over, the kids had scattered, but we adults sat silently in place with our hands protecting the remaining swallows of our stemware. In every dinner party there usually comes a lull in the conversation.

The door opened and a cold wind entered carrying my father and one of my re-sealable containers with a half gallon of homemade soup.

“Why, I'll take a glass of wine, seeing as how you're offering.”

I'm happy to see him. Happy to take the container and stow it in the fridge. Happier still when he sits down and sweeps away the silence.

He's the kind of guy who has a smile in his voice. It makes you smile, too.

In no time we are making connections, meandering around in our childhoods, which are separated by geography and at least one generation.

“Do you remember Montgomery Ward?” my father asks, painting a picture of the trips he made there as a child. How he had taken a bus from Troy to spend the money he made from his paper route on model trains. Money that burned a hole in his pockets. He went on to describe how he bought his first lawn mower there as well. A machine to expand his after-school earnings.

“I loved going to Monkey Wards,” I said, remembering only the toy department and a catalog that rivaled Sears' Christmas Wish Book.

I remembered my mother taking me there in person to see the doll I'd pined for in the printed pages.

If it was going to disappoint, she thought, better it do so before Santa set in under our tree.

“It's all offices now,” said our guest, who had worked there for a time.

Small world.

While we sat and chatted, I image we all were probably looking at the dishes on the table in front of us, but seeing the white, art deco behemoth in Menands with a million square-feet.

“Where is that again?” ask my husband.

“He grew up in Maine. He can't help it,” I whisper to my friends.

He shrugs his shoulders. His connections to this place are older than ours, even if the lines didn't stay tied.

His grandfather once told us a branch of that family tree was named Covenhoven.

Small world. Smaller world that our friends' parents may have traveled in the same circles. Probably know all the same people.

It's funny how a conversation that doesn't have much weight can still feel like a warm blanket.

For an evening, we travel around my dad's 1940s neighborhood. We meet his neighbors. We go with him over the train tracks and into the cemetery that was his playground.

As his story continues, I'm revisiting all the people who have faded from my life. Our guests are meeting them for the first time. … The stable hand who taught him how to hand-feed a horse. The train engineer who took him for a ride. The man at the Oakwood, who invited him to witness a cremation.

We hold our breath as he tells us about how he once stopped to tie his shoes and looked up to see a freight train 60 feet upwind.

“All I could hear was my mother's voice telling me never to play around the tracks.”

And just like that time reversed.

I saw my grandfather again as my dad introduced him. A postal carrier, whose only vice once paid off the mortgage.

“It was the late '40s and he'd gone to Saratoga with his postal pals. He won the daily double, it paid out at the highest amount at the time: $1,900.

“Of course, he didn't want to have that much money on him over the weekend, so they wrote him out an IOU on a brown paper lunch sack and a check arrived in the mail the following Monday.”

The room filled with a sense of awe, not only at the idea of being able to pay for an entire house after a day at the track, but to pay it off for under two grand.

For more than an hour, a steady stream of people – many we've never met in person – paraded past that table in a strangely woven tale of colorful, albeit minor, history.

Small world. I bet they all had their own fond memories of Monkey Ward.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Two old friends walk into dressing room ...


It was an epiphany. And it hit me like a cartoon train.

In a dressing room, at the mall, with a woman standing outside the door wearing a measuring tape as a necklace, I was staring into the mirror and seeing another woman looking back at me. And she was in her underwear.

This was a mistake, I thought to myself. I shouldn't be here. I should be searching through racks at a discount store. But there was no going back.

I had been wide-eyed and fully clothed when the sales clerk circled my torso in two places. Looking intently at the spot where her fingers had pinched the pink-colored ribbon, she announced a fact I wasn't prepared to accept.

“32DDD.”

I couldn't help but laugh even though I really just wanted to cry.

Those are cartoon proportions. Proportions that would have my husband -- Wild E. Coyote – calling me “Mudflaps” under his breath.

“What size have you been buying?” the sales clerk asked with an efficient flair as she flopped a handful of push-ups or demis or bralettes over the door for me to try.

“Medium,” I said sheepishly, knowing that I had never abided by the laws of base-layer structure.
“A proper fit,” it is well known, “makes all the difference.”

All these years I'd been lying to myself.

Lying, and squashing my chest into the undergarment equivalent of an ACE bandage, trying to rebel against all the authority vested in mother nature.

Stupid mother nature. And her vests.

Despite appearances, this epiphany didn't start in a swank lingerie dressing room. It started on page eight of a 34-page booklet my daughter brought home from a special “Your Changing Body” workshop she attended in fourth grade with the school nurse and most of the other female students of the fourth-grade class.

She, of course, wanted nothing to do with the “maturation kit,” which included the booklet and a few sample products. After the class, she'd stuffed all the things back into the drawstring bag and hidden it at the bottom of her backpack. Where I found it ... looking through a fist-full of homework assignments and graded papers.

It was fascinating. … all the biological facts that I suppose I already knew, but hadn't exactly thought about for years, or thought about in elementary-school terms.

“Starting at the Top,” offered a simple math equation for bra fitting that confounded me:
“Measure around your chest just below your breasts … If it's an odd number, add 5. If it's an even number, add 4. This is your frame size.

To find your bust size, measure around the fullest part of your chest. Compare your frame size to your bust size and if they are the same, you need an AA cup. If they differ by 1, you need an A-sized cup. If they differ by 2, you need a B. If it differs by 2, you need a C.”

But the grade-school equation only went up to D.

Which, I guess, is probably appropriate given the audience for the pamphlet I was holding.
Even so, I was getting an education in middle age that I had probably received in Middle School but likely stuffed into my own backpack after the presentation.

Honestly … I had NO idea THIS was the trick to properly measuring one's bust line. Adding. Subtracting. All these years television commercials had me believing it was all about lifting and dividing.

Numbers. Letters. I'm still at a loss for how all this mysterious algebra works.

“How do they get to 3Ds?” I wondered aloud.

“Are you ready to try more?” the voice called from behind the door as another set of garments flopped over the transom.

“I'm not sure I'll ever be ready.”