Ho Ho Ho!

In one of the quirks that is our blended family, we have two sons with the same first name, “Michael.” Both boys go by the same nickname “Mikey.” We have tried over the years – without success – to assign a different nickname to one of the Mikeys, or to apply Michael to one and Mikey to the other, but they’re both Michael when they’re in trouble. Mikey 1 and Mikey 2 didn’t fly. Neither did Big Mikey and Little Mikey, which is probably just as well since now the “little” one is taller than the “big” one, and Little Big Mikey and Big Little Mikey is no help whatsoever. “His” and “hers” have become “ours,” and both boys remain resolutely Mikey.

After five years, the Michaels don’t even explain this oddity when introducing themselves: “Hello, I’m Mikey, and this is my brother Mikey.” In fact, they seem to delight in the confused looks that ensue.

Team Michael has discovered that there are certain advantages to this arrangement as well. When I call “Hey Mikey, could you please take out the trash?” they both ignore me. “Who me? I thought you meant my brother.”

You’d think a woman with four sons would never have to take out the garbage again, but you’d be wrong.

This morning, Mikey has an appointment with the optometrist, and I know it’s Mikey because when the assistant called to verify his appointment, she said it was for the younger one. I have barely enough time to get him to the doctor after my sacred Tuesday yoga class, provided that he is ready, so I wake him up before I leave. Twice, actually.

Predictably, he is sound asleep when I walk back in the door, yoga mat still tucked under my arm. Twenty minutes later, however, he is showered, dressed and hungry, but standing politely in the optometrist’s office, disheveled hair and glasses slightly askew. The receptionist looks bewildered.

It was bound to happen someday. I had brought the wrong Mikey to the doctor.

I look up at my son, and he looks at me. I smile, “You’re not Mikey!” and we burst into laughter. Sometimes life is just laugh-out-loud-ridiculous funny. Then I call Mikey to let him know that he is five minutes late to his optometrist appointment, and Mikey and I go to the grocery store for a few last minute Christmas items. Which, believe me, at this time of year is significantly less funny than the doctor’s office. And which is why I’m actually grateful for the morning’s Mikey mishap. It gives me something to chuckle about as we navigate the scene.

Life is too short not to laugh at my own silliness. If that’s the biggest mistake I make today, then I’m in good shape.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a reason to laugh out loud.

A Holiday Gift

I just need ten minutes of quiet. No voicemails or voices in my head. No ringing or pinging. No to-do lists, address lists, grocery lists or Christmas shopping lists. No kitchen appliances whooshing, humming or spinning. No screen of any kind. No teenage ‘tude. No color-coded calendar. No dog crawling into my lap, no cat sitting on my keyboard glaring at me reproachfully. No bills, emails or correspondence insisting on a response. No mother guilt weighing on my heart for all the things I haven’t done. Not even the Country Christmas internet radio soundtrack in the background. Just a few minutes of none of it.

The dryer stops, and the ensuing silence which often signals me to rouse and repeat the cycle, instead invites me to sit still.

It might be now. The kids are at school taking exams, the dog has been walked, one college boy is home but off to meet a friend for lunch. This moment might not arrive again today. Or this week. But it is here right now.

Just for 10 minutes, I promise. I set my meditation pillow outside on the porch in a patch of sunshine, away from all the noise-makers and hungry deadlines. I wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes. There is a gentle breeze, and I realize I’m holding my breath. Exhale. I sit and listen, and settle. I catch my breath again and listen to my heart. Just sit. I push the words and lists away. I pull my eyelids back down and my shoulders away from my ears. Inhale. Grounded, supported, secure. I sway slightly to my heart’s beat. I notice the sound of freeway traffic and let them go. Right now, in this moment, my list contains only one item. Be still. Inhale, exhale. No words, no lists, no thoughts. Just this moment. Warm, steady, calm. Yes, like this.

And there in the stillness, I find her. Bubbling up in the silence. Unburdened, laughing, twirling in her favorite dress. Simply because she can. Because that’s pretty much who she is. Joy.

Exactly what I needed.

I have a cherished photo of my family, taken when I was about two almost three. My parents are holding my baby sister between them, beaming proudly at their little daughter, my mother’s hair a classic 1960’s flip, and my father sporting a moustache. I am equally delighted, perched securely on my father’s shoulders, smiling at the peeled orange in my hand. My sister and I still giggle about the fact that I was more entranced by the piece of fruit than by the baby. I suspect that California naval was offered as incentive to keep me still enough to snap the picture. Up on my father’s shoulders I am captive long enough to capture the moment on film. There are other photos from that day, and I am running and twirling in many of them, my shoes a blur of movement. Happy feet. Joy.

And now, my feet are beginning to tingle with numbness. I might have been sitting for a few more than 10 minutes. I inhale, smile and open my eyes. I want to hold on to this sense of joy in the midst of the Christmas chaos, even though I know I will likely lose it. I trust that I will find her again.

I return to the lists, demands and laundry, dryer humming with jeans and t-shirts, a rhythmic tap of the zippers sliding across the drum. Next, the coffee pot, gurgling and hissing, because those 57 unread emails are not going to answer themselves. I set a snowman mug and a Christmas spice cookie on a red, green and gold plaid cocktail napkin, and roll up my sleeves. I swing my inner little girl up to my shoulders and feel her presence, solid but not heavy, wiggling her happy feet, sticky orange juice fingers tugging playfully at my hair, and the two of us get to work.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And 10 minutes to yourself.

December Warning

I am relatively unprepared for the holiday frenzy, but keeping my calendar on November (my favorite month) is not stalling the hands of time. Reluctantly, I turn my calendar to December and discover that I had written this note to myself: “WARNING: December will be harder than it looks!” Beneath that I had listed, “birthday, deathaversary and diagnosis day.” Maybe I should have stayed on the Thanksgiving date. Or turned straight to January 1st.

I will explain. My husband Tim and I were both widowed in 2007. His first wife (Debbie) died from cancer; my first husband (Sam) committed suicide. Tim and I were married in 2010, and together we have four sons.

I’m not sure whether that makes my life sounds simple and tidy, or complicated and messy. In truth, it is all of the above.

Tim and I have found love, we delight in building our life together, we share our faith and an appreciation for gallows humor and pinot noir. The walls, mantel and piano hold family pictures of all of us from over the years — two families of four, two families of three, one family of six — because our history brought us to this place, and we are grateful.

Sometimes, however, that history elicits peculiar conversations. One of the boys once said he felt like he had four parents: Tim and me, plus Sam plus Debbie. Is that too bizarre to say out loud? Of course, I reminded him that the great thing about the dead parents is that they can always see what he’s doing. Kind of like Santa Claus. She knows if you are sleeping; she knows if you’re awake. She knows if you’ve been bad or good, so do your homework for Christ’s sake!

I’m afraid Tim and I may be passing our dark sense of humor along to our kids.

Debbie’s birthday was in December, and apparently she celebrated her birthday all month long. She absolutely loved Christmas, and she boasted a large and festive collection of decorations, ornaments and china, which we continue to display. Every year it looks she detonated a Christmas bomb in our house, an explosion of red, green and gold, with all kinds of Santas, snowmen and a couple of misfits covering every surface and shelf. Shortly before Christmas 2006, just two weeks after she turned 40, Debbie was diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer. She died a year later, also in December, a week after her 41st birthday. December is an emotional roller coaster around here. It’s all Debbie all the time. Hence the warning.

More than once I have felt the urge to put on Christmas music (which I adore, but strictly after Thanksgiving and before New Year’s Day), plant the earbuds firmly in my ears and run until New Year’s. The downside to this approach, unfortunately, is that I risk missing out on the Christmas magic.

On December 13, 2007, just a few weeks after Sam’s death, our doorbell rang in the early evening. We frequently had unexpected visitors those days, sometimes bearing dinner, more often than not with tears brimming over. Mostly, our friends and family wanted to see us with their own eyes and hold us in their arms. My boys were little, 6 and 8. The nights were dark and very long. Our world had been shattered, and we were slowly finding the pieces and putting them back together. But when we opened the door, nobody was there. Sitting on the doormat was a triangular box, a Trader Joe’s kit to make a gingerbread house, trimmed simply with a wide silver ribbon and a note that said “On the First Day of Christmas…”

A mystery.

The next night, the doorbell rang again. Also after sunset. Another package on the front porch. Two snowman mugs, a packet for hot chocolate tucked inside each one, tied with the same silver ribbon and the same simple white square of paper, “On the Second Day of Christmas…”

The third night, we were ready. We turned on the porch light and turned off the living room lights, so we would be able to spy our secret Santa. We sat together on the sofa and waited. It grew darker. We were bored. The boys got hungry, and we went to the kitchen to put dinner together. When the doorbell rang, the boys ran to the front of the house. But all they found when they flung the door open were three large candy canes. Same silver ribbon. Same notepaper. Same message, “On the Third Day of Christmas…”

The industrious elf delivered the fourth day’s offering while we were out, probably at therapy. We arrived home to find four little tree ornaments, bundled in the silver ribbon. Same square of notepaper. Different color sharpie pen. Was the handwriting different? It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be in a child’s hand.

Intriguing.

I casually mentioned the secret Santa to my friend Susan one day, because I was certain that she was the mastermind behind it. But she seemed genuinely surprised. To this day, she insists that she hadn’t orchestrated this particular Christmas effort but wishes she had.

Then who?

The boys and I started to look forward to our mysterious deliverer. The boys tried harder to catch the bearer of gifts, but I found I liked not knowing. Sometimes, I would corral the boys into the kitchen at the back of the house, so that the elf would have time to escape their notice. Somebody was creating a little light in our darkness. A little hope. With a simple and powerful message: “Somebody cares. You are not alone.” Over the course of the next week, we received nightly offerings. Always simple — apples, clementines, packets of gum — each time adorned with the signature silver ribbon, the white square note and the childlike handwriting.

But still. Christmas was coming. And I wasn’t looking forward to it.

My family traditionally celebrates on Christmas Eve, but we could not face that first one after Sam’s death with our same rituals. The gaping hole his death left in our hearts was too raw and too painful. We instead spent the evening with one of my girlfriends and her family, including her parents and my parents. I remember experiencing light and laughter, along with the numbness. I’m sure dinner was lovely, but I can’t remember eating. I didn’t have much of an appetite in those first few months, not even for my favorite comfort foods. As the evening drew to a close, and with some trepidation, we headed back home.

It is a strange feeling, to be wrenched so hard by grief and darkness on the one hand and drawn so firmly toward light and hope on the other. To feel bereft and abandoned and at the same time held, grounded and supported. Tis the season, I guess. We need the light and hope and the infant in a manger precisely because the darkness is overwhelming and terrifying and completely unfair. We need to know that the hope is on its way, even if in infancy, and that —with both tenderness and strength — we can nurture that baby hope into something powerful, wonderful and tangible. I do, anyway.

After eleven days of Christmas offerings, we weren’t sure quite what to expect when we approached home on that twelfth night, but we were expecting something. We were hoping, yes, even trusting again that there would be light. The boys wondered aloud what might await us at home — chocolates? a dozen cookies?

When we pulled into the driveway, it looked like Santa himself had delivered the contents of his sleigh to our front porch. I could practically hear Rudolph’s footsteps on the roof. There were twelve beautifully wrapped packages, four gifts for each of the boys and four for me. All different kinds of paper, every possible color of ribbon. Toys, games, goodies and a Bruin baseball cap in my favorite shade of blue. One message: Merry Christmas!

I believe in Christmas magic. Seven years later, I still don’t know who gifted us with those 12 days of hope in the darkness. I don’t want to know. The not-knowing has become my favorite part of the magic. I do hope those Christmas Elves of 2007 know that I am grateful, and that their light blesses us still.

One of Debbie’s very favorite Christmas decorations is a Lladro nativity collection, which occupies an entire shelf. In fact, the porcelain figurines are affixed to the shelf permanently, so Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, hang out in our living room all year round, along with a few wise men and a couple barn animals. Debbie loved December and Christmas, with all its ensuing festivities, but she also appreciated that the true meaning of Christmas — the spirit of hope and faith and light — is not limited to a few weeks of the year. She is missed, and we feel this loss keenly during December, but the evidence of her faith is very much present.

So yes, December will be harder than it looks. But there will also be light. And warmth. And magic. And Christmas cookies.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And extra cookies for Santa.

Kitchen Woes & Wonders

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As a mother to sons, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Fortunately, I enjoy cooking, and often turn to baking for comfort and relaxation, or open up a cookbook to inspire creativity. Feeding kids and watching them grow is one of my life’s greatest gifts, and I am right in the middle of it these days. All four boys have healthy appetites, and over the last 5 years, at any given time, at least one of them has been in that stage where I feel like I can watch him growing in front of my eyes. I swear he is taller when he stands up after dinner than he was when he sat down. And it only takes him 7 minutes to eat.

Their table manners, however, are a different story. I know they are capable of nice manners, as long as they have a suitable incentive, which apparently I’m not. We use what we call the “hot chick test” to determine appropriate standards relating to personal hygiene and table manners. For instance, “hot chicks” like it when you shower and wash your hair, and “hot chicks” like it when you eat with a fork and wipe your mouth on a napkin. Which predictably begs the question, “Hey Mom, hahahah… how would you know what hot chicks like?”

As a former hot chick, I’m just saying… Slurping is not sexy.

A few years ago one of our sons had a darling girlfriend, and all of us were smitten with her. Whenever she came over to the house, all four boys would brush their teeth, chew with their mouths closed and say “Please” and “Thank you.” I really miss that girl.

One of the challenges Tim and I faced in blending our families was deciding where to live — his house, her house or a different house altogether? This issue was fraught with emotion. Not one of us wanted to move. The little boys had never lived in any other home. The big boys had, but they were too young to remember. Ultimately, we decided that the “little” boys and I would move into Tim and the “big” boys’ house.

Etiquette in general was a prominent source of family tension when Tim and I first got married. After three years of living like bachelors, the young men were reluctant to compromise their freedom by, for example, wearing pants while playing on the xBox, resulting in the lament, “She’s ruining everything!” Apparently, belching and scratching while half-naked is the preferred mode of existence for single men worldwide, or at least this is the fantasy that impressionable young men develop based on television sit-coms. Personally, I don’t understand the appeal of the fraternity house mentality, using sleeves and pant legs to wipe noses and hands. But then again, I’m the She ruining everything.

Also a subject creating considerable anxiety was the matter of the actual dining room table. Tim had a beautiful, antique table, about two feet wide and six feet long. The “anorexic table” would have been more fitting as a side table to display family photographs. As a dining room table, however, it barely accommodates a family of four. For a family of six, it is simply untenable. The first major change I made (other than, you know, moving in with two kids) was to replace it with a round table. This maneuver also fell squarely into the category of “She’s Ruining Everything!”

And yet, the She had made sacrifices of her own. “But,” several of my friends asked, “What about your kitchen?”

I had spent eight years planning and saving for the kitchen remodel in my first home, and when it was finally completed, Ina Garten could have filmed her Barefoot Contessa show in my new kitchen. We had two ovens (one gas, one electric), top of the line appliances, ample cabinets and an island that was so large we called it the “continent.” The kitchen I cook in now has beautiful light and is well-suited to setting out the catering. It is not, however, ideal for cooking for a family of six; it has exactly four square feet of quality working counter space and no pantry.

Giving up my dream kitchen is a testament to how much I love my husband. It wasn’t an easy transition, but now when I am missing my former kitchen and feeling sorry for myself, I look out the window and order takeout. And you know what? It’s not that bad. We have added a make-shift pantry in the garage, and it is good enough.

With both college boys home over the holiday weekend, I’ve been working overtime in my relatively small but beautifully-lit kitchen. I suffer a short-lived pang of pantry envy, but even so manage to turn out a fair quantity of comfort food in the course of two days: the obligatory batch of welcome home chocolate chip cookies, meatloaf with rosemary roasted potatoes, pulled pork sandwiches, lentil soup, and scrambled eggs with everything. Thank goodness Grandma did the lion’s share of the cooking for the actual Thanksgiving dinner. I was charged simply with bringing my puppy pack of boys, along with a couple apple pies, which I make from scratch, including the crust. After a morning of football at the park, the boys showered and napped, while I baked. I left the hot apple pies on a cooling rack and went to get dressed for dinner at Grandma’s. Within ten minutes, my defective hunting dog had wrestled one of those pies off the counter.

Stupid dog. I can only hope he burnt his tongue.

And stupid me. I had forgotten that the scoundrel had done the same exact thing last year. He seems to have a weakness for cinnamon. In my defense, this is only his second Thanksgiving. As I think about it, the homemade option might be overrated. Note to self: Next year, take a nap after the family football game, and tell everybody the dog ate the apple pies.

The Friday evening after Thanksgiving, I didn’t cook at all. Instead, we feasted almost entirely on leftovers, courtesy of Grandma. If I’m not careful, I might get used to not cooking. I did whip up some sautéed spinach, because I can’t help myself from inflicting my vegetable idiosyncrasy on the family. But just as I have relaxed about certain matters of etiquette, the young men likewise seem to tolerate me (and greens) with a bit more patience. Any time I can coax all six of us around our dining room table, I mentally congratulate myself. Even if their elbows are resting on the table, or they are feeding their carrots to the dog. After dinner, a couple of us linger at the table to play a few rounds of Bananagrams. These are exactly the moments and memories I had hoped to create, as I draw the kids to the kitchen, sautéing onions or measuring out flour and sugar, adding a teaspoon of cinnamon and a dash of faith.

Earlier that afternoon I had subjected my lively brood to the annual family photo shoot, and this is the first year that not a single one of them complained. (With the exception of my husband.) Over the course of the last five years, we have accumulated more than a few beautiful photos of our blended family, which we now keep along one wall in the dining room. The anorexic table, in fact, provides the perfect place to display our family pictures.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And family time in the kitchen.