Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gaining perspective on a Sunday Morning

It’s Sunday morning. And since it is Sunday morning, more than likely my husband and I are on the couch watching “Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood. It’s practically a family tradition, one that dates back to the Charles Kuralt days ... before children. Before we even knew each other.

The kids complain for a while when they realize the tube isn’t transmitting their two–dimensional friends.

That’s practically a tradition, too.

They give up their protests, however, when it’s pointed out that parents sometimes get to commandeer the remote control, especially when there are copious amounts of toys corralled in their rooms. … Toys that are lonely. … And potentially in need of new owners. … Owners who WILL play with them. Nicely.

They'll dart away — eyeing us with squinted scrutiny — to make sure nary a plaything has been toy-napped.

In the peace and quiet I've cajoled with threats against forgotten presents, we'll listen to the segments enjoying music, art and nature. We'll laugh at Bill Geist and wish we had a job like his. Any job that includes visiting the National Taxidermy Championship or reporting on the ugliest of Christmas sweaters would be worth its weight in sculpted butter, especially if it included travel expenses.

For 90 minutes we sit back and are entertained. Time slows down.

There’s no Earth-moving scoops or stories that seem too far out of the ordinary. Instead of The News, It feels more like sitting down with an old friend who tells a good story.

But it's not always easy listening to friends. Sometimes their stories make you visit places you've heard of but try to avoid.

It's not as if I hadn't heard about Beads of Courage, a nationwide project that offers glass beads to children battling cancer. It was just the type of story I try to hum through, as if NOT knowing the details could protect the people I love. After all, it seemed so simple as to be insignificant anyway — glass artisans make beads and give them to children with cancer. But seeing the children on Sunday Morning and listening to their stories, I couldn't look away.

Just a token, perhaps, and yet each bead represents something that the child has endured: Hair loss. Tests. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Surgeries. Transfusions. A list that is daunting and seemingly never-ending. These beads, strung together, are weighty reminders of the strength and courage of the children who wear them.

I couldn't help but cry. Especially when the mother of a child who lost her battle spoke of how her daughter's necklace, now enshrined in a shadowbox on the wall, gives her strength to get out of bed in the morning and go on living.

I can imagine losing a child. What I can't imagine is having the strength to face it with such amazing grace and courage.

My face is puffy and red when my kids make their way downstairs again, having no doubt counted and recounted their most prized possessions until they were satisfied all was well. The show had transitioned into its closing segment. Ittybit wonders why the birds, gently chirping against the sound of water flowing downstream, have upset me so.

It's not as if I've forgotten how lucky I am. It's not as if I don't know that this luck I feel could change come Monday morning. It's just that sometimes we all need a friend to remind us that life really is beautiful, even in places and at times you'd least expect.

Happy Holidays to you and your family, from me and mine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On birthdays, bribary and brainstorming

Dear Ittybit,

I know I should feel terribly embarrassed by all the excess we’ve exhibited at birthday parties.

More than two dozen people invited to a two-hour event. At Christmas time, no less.

But I don't feel embarrassed.

Conflicted, maybe, but not embarrassed.

The much reviled gift bag is in full production mode at our house. You are busy choosing tiny toys and notebooks for each of the kids who will be in attendance.

I understand the disdain for such things. Before I was even born, I've been told, the party WAS the present.

However, when I was growing up a few kids would go home with prizes, which was probably how all this excess was born. Everyone, as they start having children and hosting yearly parties of their own, remembers feeling like a loser as they left time after time empty handed.

Here we are — adults, a whole lifetime later — trying to compensate for all the mild disappointments with small bag of trinkets to be handed out to the children we sugared up and are sending home with their parents, who will no doubt, at some point during the year, repay the favor.

Entitlement and consumerism are blamed for what happens these days.

Some of us — but not all — rent places and spaces, trying to create memories that will last until next year ... when we'll try to top ourselves. We hire horses and clowns and enthusiasts of all ilk to entertain. The naysayers tell us we want to be the envy of our friends.

In the abstract it sounds so much more of an indictment of modern life than it seems in practice: “It's only money” is nothing if not the polar opposite of “it's such a waste.”

I watch you as you plan and prep the bags. All my angst and anticipation channeled into a plastic and paper assembly line of things that don't really matter; things that will wind up forgotten at the bottom of a drawer.

... Except that they do, somehow, matter in the moment we are here together “brainstorming.” In the minutes we spend planning, shopping and producing we are sharing a moment that may be or may never be forgotten.

Only time will tell.

I had begun to think it didn't matter; that it doesn't matter. But I've shrugged that feeling off. It does matter.

The thing we lose by being so caught up in the details is the big picture; this celebration of birth and belonging and life gets lost in the minutia of the minute.

More than seven years ago, when I sat on an examining table in a paper robe listening to the doctor telling me I would have a Christmas baby ... I felt sorry for you, a person I didn’t yet know.

Back then, I thought you would be forgotten in the hoopla that is the holidays.

I had no way of knowing what a gift I would get in you that Christmas. I didn't have the forethought or clarity — and still don't — to understand how Christmas would be forever changed because of it. Each year brings a new revelation.

So as we ready for the day you will turn seven, I want to tell you to just enjoy this moment for all that it is and for all it could be. And I'll try to do the same.

Time has a way of changing things … not always for the worse.

Love and just-about-birthday kisses,

— Mommy

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sign of the times

The sign on the bedroom door — though affixed with a single thumbtack and curling at all four edges — couldn't have been more unequivocal: "Do Not Enter."

Whom it was supposed to keep out, however, was a little unclear.

We had just arrived at the party and the hostesses' daughter was sequestered in her room with several children who'd accompanied their parents to the late afternoon soiree.

Ittybit stood next to me at first, and then slid behind me, holding onto my jacket and hiding her face. I'm sure she thought it was yet another place she wouldn't be allowed. Even a year's difference, for a bigger girl, could make her out to look like a baby.

Whenever we go some place new it takes a few minutes for the kids to find their place in the fray. Ittybit observes for a while before she jumps in and tries to take over. The Champ usually hides in inconvenient locations and pretends he is a super agent spy.

Mostly he gets shooed out of bathrooms.

I didn't think the sign was meant for her. I knocked and poked my head through the paneled door. The tiny hostess smiled and greeted us warmly. "Come in, come in" she said excitedly to my girl.

Turned out the sign wasn't even meant to deter The Champ, our three-year-old whirling dervish, who doesn't readily take "No" for an answer anyway.

The sign remained a bit of a mystery as I made several trips from Adult Conversationland downstairs to the Fantastical World of Primary Folks happening simultaneously upstairs. ... just to make sure all was going smoothly.

The first time I trudged up the stairs I had noticed a chandelier over the dinning room table -directly under the floor on which they were bouncing - swing to and fro with the uneasy vibrations.

"Oh ... it's nothing. Just a pig pile," said my cherubic daughter, who peeked out of the door when I knocked. "They've decided to stop. Too dangerous," she whispered.

I went back downstairs.

Until I heard some screaming ... that could have been the gleeful shrieks of girlish delight ... or might have been the feral wail of a little boy being locked in a closet. Such things have been known to happen.

Her face was again cherubic as she came to the door.

"Oh that? That was just a little fun. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all."

Next it was their turn to venture forth.

A few would snake between the throngs of party guests, gathering up provisions and ferrying the loot to their party upstairs. I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of it; they resembled overburdened drones hauling mother lodes of baked goods and juice boxes to their queen.

"What are they doing up there?" asked one mom, who thought it might be time for an intervention.

"I don't really know. I've seen six clothing changes for each girl, and there seems to be dress-up clothes all over the bathroom."

The mom smiled a knowing smile. "Project Runway. My kid LOVES that show." There was no need to be concerned.

The idea that the sign — which was probably written well before the party and forgotten was meant for people who'd either reached the age of maturity or were allowed to play with matches — hadn't occurred to me until that moment.

For all the kvetching I do about NOT being able to have an adult conversation, you'd think I'd be a little more ready for the closing of doors. I'd always just been there, hanging out with the kids, sitting under tables taking pictures.

I had an idea and knocked on the door.

"You know, Fashion Runway has cameras ... I could ..."

But they were onto me.

"No pictures," said one girl with the smile of play but the stance of steadfast.

"That's my mom. Always with the camera," said Ittybit, feeling the need no doubt to smooth over my transgression.

"Oh, don't listen to them," said the motherly hostess. "I bet if you just sit with them for a while they'll forget you're even there."

I knew she was probably right, but it wouldn't be the same.

This is the beginning of their secret life. The one that doesn't always include me. That can't include me. The life that either sorts itself out or that travels down the stairs in an avalanche of jumbled words that need to be smoothed.

It was time to let them have their party. To put away my camera and let the moment go undocumented. And that's what I did.

I suppose I knew all along the sign on the door was for me.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Christmas all wrapped up in lights

It felt like I should have a major award. Or something.

We'd selected the tree, rigged it up in the stand and dragged out the ornaments, just as we have every year at around this time since I don't know when.

It's all so rote at this point but having decorating done and over with seemed like something to celebrate; Lights. Camera. Christmas.

Yet this time, as I plugged in the extension end of the three-strand band of lights, which had been carefully connected and wrapped around the tree, there was nothing.

I tried the nearest light switch. Maybe it had closed off the juice to the outlet.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up-down-up-down and one more time, up, just in case. Nothing.

Well, almost nothing. As I jostled the branches of the tree, the strand of lights saddled around the middle blinked on with a moment's hesitation. It was as if the midsection had burst out from having too much Thanksgiving dinner while the other lights couldn't wake up from their tryptophan comas.

What twinkling there was seemed more fire-hazard-y than jolly.

So out we went to the hardware store to buy a new set of lights.

I'm ashamed to admit, it was kind of exciting.

I couldn't remember when we’d bought the last set. It's not something that tends to burn itself into memory, like where I was when I learned of Sept. 11 or what was playing on the radio when we found out we were having a girl.

I'm sure, way back then lights were lights. You had your "Tasteful and Unobtrusive Holiday White" bulbs, and then you had the "Holy Holiday Batman, Who Robbed the Crayon Factory and Added a Disco Strobe Color" bulbs.

These days you have the choice of regular lights (which are impossible to find, and just pretend I hadn't mentioned them) and the energy-saving LED lights in bright white, warm white, red, green, blue, gold, pink, orange and purple, also multicolored. They come shaped as strawberries, raspberries, snowflakes, stars and teddy bears. They come in cords and nets and icicle dangles. You can get trunk lights, twinkle lights, and battery operated candle lights.

Staring at the shelves reaching to the ceiling, piled higher than I could reach with a ladder, I just wanted to turn around and go home. The 'No End' to the possibilities could very well have been literal.

I don't want to care about Christmas lights.

"Just pick something already and get it over with" came the demand from by overtired brain, which at that moment wanted nothing more than to just settle down for a long winter's nap.

And so I let the kids decide.

Who does this? Just moments earlier Ittybit and The Champ had been occupied with trying to get out of their coats without unzipping them, all the while trying to out stare each other. So it really was without a hint of parental scrutiny that one 100-count strawberry strand in traditional warm white, one strand of bright white snowflake minis and one strand of multi-colored snowflake minis went unceremoniously into the cart, through the check out and into the car.

Still, I was feeling pretty good as we drove up to the house; the tree was up, the shopping was done all that was left was the decorating. Sitting around drinking cocoa in our holiday-illuminated house would be the reward.

As we unwound the coiled wires and got ready to drape them around the tree, I became entangled at each turn in the little plastic nubbins that jutted out from the snowflake lights. They attached to each other, and then to my sweater and then on each other again. They snagged on everything excepting the tree.

I swore under my breath, calling them every name in the book. I lost patience and reason. Every move felt as if I were being strangled by twinkle lights.

When I was finally free of the lights — having removed them from the tree and restrung them twice — I plugged them in and held my breath.

They lit up. ...

Like a striped shirt of clashing colors.

Before I had time to process the sight, I had a flash of understanding. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thought:

Up until that very moment I had identified with all the long-suffering mother of A Christmas Story. I was the mother whose kids hadn't eaten voluntarily since they were born ... or who hadn't had a hot meal for herself in 15 years.

But in the glare of the mix and match lit tree I knew I was more like the father; swearing under my breath on the one hand and clinging to my "special award" with the other. We were both beaming in gaudiness from front window ... for everyone to see.