The End of Another Year

It’s the last day of 2013.

I haven’t chronicled much of my life in this space this year.  Having started this blog nearly four years ago with the purpose of telling my life story, bit by bit, in short remembered pieces gave it a purpose that at one point kept me blogging one post a day for months at a time.

It took me nearly two years to do it, to write down the memories that shaped who I am.  It was a crazy thing to do, and once it was over, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I wrote about births, deaths, illnesses, boyfriends, lovers, marriage, abuse, rape, adultery.  I wrote about my hopes and dreams, my crushes and my losses.  When I look back and read some of those posts now, it’s like revisiting that time in my life, like visiting an old friend, or an old wound.

I’m glad I did it.  I’m glad I took that journey.  Some day I’ll admit to those I know and love that I have done this, and share it.  Some day.

This year was a big and small year.  A year of big events and small steps.

In January we were still reeling from the shootings at Sandy Hook here.  When I think of that month, it still seemed so dark and raw.  The kids from Sandy Hook came to school in our town; the media were everywhere.  So was kindness and love.  A highlight was that I ran a 10K in Central Park, spending time with my husband’s cousins from Spain.

In February I quietly “celebrated” the twenty years it has been since I lost my mother.  I still am shocked that it has been so long.  Most of my friends still have their mothers, even now, twenty years later, although some friends are starting to go through that loss of losing parents now that we’re older.  I miss her still but somehow this year managed to realize I look back more with love and longing than sadness and loss.

In March my daughter took center stage.  She celebrated her 13th birthday and performed in our local school’s production of Little Women.

In April my son was married.  It was a hugely emotional event, with family and friends from near and far in attendance.  He married a woman who is as deeply religious and traditional as he is.  I wonder sometimes if his tendency towards that conservative family model is because, while he was raised most of his life in a two parent household, he knows and can never forget that he has never met his biological father.  It still is a raw wound of sadness in the back of both of our minds, but his wedding was beautiful and perfect in every way.

In May we were busy with my preparations for the race I was putting together and the kids’ school.

In June my 5K happened, the culmination of 6 months of work.  It went off without a hitch and it raised $11,000 for local charities.  It also marked the beginning of my partnership with one of the Sandy Hook family foundations.  My kids also closed out another school year and we entered into summer mode.

In July my daughter attended theater camp, winning the role of Young Fiona in a local theater company’s production of Shrek. My young son and I did summer school work at home and visited the town pool while she went to her camp.  My husband continued to travel for work.

In August my daughter had her big performance.  The day she was done our entire family joined my husband’s parents and sister for a family trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  It was a hot week at the beach there, and his Spanish speaking family loved it.  I felt a little lost frankly, but consoled myself with the sun and the sand.  After we returned, we visited my son and his wife in the DC area, having a nice time learning more about her family.

In September I ran in Central Park again, meeting up with my father for the weekend in the city.  The next weekend I went to visit my 90+ year old grandparents in Delaware.  My son and his wife came too and shared the news that they were expecting my first grandchild.

In October my husband traveled a great deal, being gone nearly every week.  I campaigned for a spot on our local board of education by eschewing signs and using social media only.

In November I won the BOE seat.  My daughter performed in another school drama production, “Usher”.  I continued my freelance website work that I have done all year in fits and starts.

In December we returned to Florida for our annual trip at Christmas.  We have gone in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2003, 2005-2013.  That’s pretty much our tradition now.  My son and his pretty pregnant wife also were there, as were my husband’s parents.  It was a lovely time of relaxing, reflecting and looking forward to what’s ahead.  My husband worked less than he ever has on the trip, which was a lovely surprise.  We all talked about next year there being a baby with us.  We counted our blessings and enjoyed each other’s company.

2014 will be another year of sameness coupled with some big events.  My day to day world will feel the same but much will change.  Each year I get a little more able to really appreciate all that I have and be content rather than worry about what others have that I don’t.  I’m not there yet, but I have made a lot of progress towards it.

I hope that everyone out there has something to celebrate tonight, and something to look forward to next year.  Happy New Year!

Gratitude

The day before Thanksgiving.  Today is the day before Thanksgiving.

I was going to type in a longish, ranty post about my brother again.  For those keeping score, my brother ended up not cancelling his trip to FL this Christmas, so we will in fact all be together.  He sent me a note asking what my children, my husband and myself would like for gifts.  I think the note was as close as I’ll get to an apology.  But by then I had already moved on from my anger to acceptance.  This is who he is.  Whatever.  I told him to not bother with gifts for us, gave him inexpensive ideas for my kids, and told him what options I was choosing off of his kid’s list.  He responded that they were thinking of getting a laptop for his kid for Christmas, so those would be perfect options.   My sister went ballistic again, but I’d already moved on.  My brother is who he is.  He won’t change.  I’m done trying to hope for it to happen.  It won’t.  Life goes on.

Instead, I am mulling over Thanksgiving.  We are staying at home again this year and I am pushing myself hard to not allow it to be as unsatisfying as it was last year.  Last year, R and I fought silly battles with no big meal or task to distract us from sweating the small stuff.  This year, we won’t even have my eldest home to behave a little better for.  Z is staying in DC this year, spending this Thanksgiving with his fiancee, since they plan on spending Christmas with us down in FL.  I think this marks the first time I’ll have spent this day without him.  Which makes me sad, in a way, but mostly grateful that he is doing so well and happy on his path.

Which is how I am resolving to feel about myself and our Thanksgiving together this year as well.  We are doing well financially this year; my husband’s job continues to be incredibly busy and therefore (we hope) secure.  I am getting enough website work to keep me feeling productive and justify me spending my time this way.  The two younger kids are both doing well in school.  My daughter seems to have mended fences with several of the kids who were causing her trouble at school, and did amazingly well in her role in the school play a few weeks ago.  We are planning our annual trip to Florida for Christmas, which is always a wonderful week of warmth, family and sun (hopefully).   R has worked hard in the last six months to address the needs that I laid out to him in our devastating fight last May.  It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but I think we have both done a pretty good job at trying hard to appreciate each other and not sweat the small stuff.  We’re talking more, doing more together, and not getting upset with each other when life gets in the way as much.  It’s a nice feeling.

So this Thanksgiving?  I won’t spend it thinking of years past, wondering if I’d chosen this path or that path would my life be better.  This is the path I chose, the present I have, and I am grateful for it.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.

Dysfunctional Thanksgiving

It’s the day after Thanksigiving and I feel decidedly….ungrateful.

And for the life of me, I’m trying to get myself back to that place of gratitude, to look around me at my blessings and my gifts, of all the rambling statuses on Facebook that people posted yesterday about life and love and happiness….but I’m just not there.

This year, for the first time in I’m not exactly sure how long (at least six years, I went back through Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving in my head after I went to bed at 8:15pm), it was just the five of us for the holiday.  And I know I should be grateful just for that, because there was a distinct possibility that my eldest might not have made it back home this year.  He is now a real adult, fully employed and living in the DC area.  Luckily too, he has some friends from high school who also have settled in that area (what are the odds, right, this tiny little rural town northeast of NYC, with only a few hundred kids graduating each year, that he would have friends who are also in DC), so he had people to carpool home with Tuesday night.

And too, we started off the day right, with a trip to church, where my daughter was an altar server for the Thanksgiving service.  It brought to mind everything I love about living in this small town; the way one of my best girlfriends sat down in the pew beside me; the way the priest uses my name at Holy Communion because everyone knows everyone at our smallish church; the coffee and doughnuts afterward.   Our priest, a clearly flawed human who shares his struggles with us through his homilies, warned us about all of our travels we would be embarking on yesterday…both physical and emotional. Especially the emotional.   I’ll never again think priests don’t understand real people’s problems after listening to this guy.  I left church with a sense of peace and purpose, clicking off the menu items still to be taken care of, thinking ahead to a lovely afternoon of cooking and catching up with Z and drinking and eating.

But that illusion fell apart immediately when my husband made the turn into the grocery store on the way home from church.  I asked, incredulously (and probably not terribly politely), “What on Earth could we use at the store?  I’ve been shopping for three days?”  From the backseat my daughter and youngest son also expressed their disbelief.  “Hash browns,” my husband growled, the one household staple I keep forgetting at the store (probably because I’m not eating them since I’m trying to lose weight).  Crystallized in his two words were anger, frustration, and bitterness.

“Fine, well I’ll just run in and get them so we can be quick,” I said, noting the nearly empty parking lot; it wasn’t crowded, so it wouldn’t take long.  Then I could get back home and start cooking, including the surprise cherry pie I’d had to add to the menu because of the wrinkled face my husband had made when I mentioned the dessert I’d planned was Pumpkin Cheesecake.

All of a sudden I felt the car swerve and R made a big circle to leave the parking lot.  “Fine.  Forget it.  No one else wants them.  We’ll just go home, and no one gets hash browns tomorrow morning for breakfast.”  His jaw was set tight, his grip so firm on the steering wheel that I could see the whites of his knuckles.

I raised my voice, telling him he was ridiculous, to turn around, but no matter.  When R makes up his mind, that’s it.  He was done.  And he remained done, all day long.

He was silent when I informed him that the whole incident was for naught, because when I returned to the grocery later on, I discovered it closed.  We wouldn’t have been able to get the has browns anyway.  No matter.

He was silent when I asked him to check on the cherry pie I’d made expressly for him as it baked.  He was on his way to the bathroom from the sofa where he’d planted himself since the moment he’d arrived home from church, and wasn’t terribly interested.

He was silent as I bustled in the kitchen, battling with my mother’s cranberry sherbet (I won, but it was a long fought battle), sauteeing the onions and celery for my mother’s stuffing, creating the pesto out of herbs and carefully sliding it between the skin and the fat breast of turkey R brought home from the butcher, as I peeled and mashed the potatoes, as I slid into the oven the broccoli casserole from my great aunt’s recipe.

And because he was silent, so were the kids.  My daughter played on the computer in one room; my younger son watched TV in another.  My eldest shuttled between my husband in the front room and periodically checking on my progress in the kitchen, trying to break the tension by asking me about the thin citrus slices I used with the bird and asking R about the dismal performance of the Detroit Lions on the television.

It didn’t work that well.

And so, after every dish was washed (my grandmother’s china), after every leftover was put in a plastic tub and into the fridge, after the kids parked themselves on the sofa to watch this year’s playing of “Elf” on the big screen, I quietly wandered upstairs to bed.  It was 8:15.  I tried to remind myself to be grateful.  I tried to look around my bedroom filled with lovely furniture, my warm house, my full belly, my family downstairs enjoying the movie.  But it didn’t help.  Then I went back through the last few Thanksgivings in my head, trying to realize why they did not leave me with this same feeling of emptiness.  Last year, in Pittsburgh with my father.  Two years prior, here with R’s parents and sister.  Three years ago, again in Pittsburgh.  Four years ago, we were at his cousin’s.

This was the first year in a long time when it was just us.  Without other family members to change our family dynamic, we fell into our same patterns and arguments, fights and foibles.  It made what was supposed to be a special day just like every other day.  No amount of special food could save us from ourselves, the lack of appreciation and respect for the basics of who we are to each other.  It made me sad, empty and certainly unable to see all of the many other blessings around me.

Life could be worse, I know.  But I often wonder, is that the motto I really want to live by?

Slipping Through Our Fingers

We were sitting around the kitchen table in our rented condo with R’s parents and my father.  The wine was flowing, and the kids had already scattered from the table, enjoying the 72 degree breezes coming in from our open doorwall.  It was the first day of our annual sojurn to Florida for Christmas.  R worked late and like a dog all year long so we could make the hike down to Florida for a week of warmth and fun with his parents and my father at the holidays.

We’d driven again this year, but planned it that way, driving my new SUV that we’d purchased with this in mind last spring.  I could hardly believe that we were able to afford such a nice car, with leather seats and navigation and satellite radio and a DVD player for the kids.  But we could, and we did.

“So you’re not moving to Michigan after all?” R’s mother asked sadly, taking another bite of the key lime pie my father had brought up to share on our first night.

I was a little sad about it too, actually.  I was tired of the angry, bitter politics of my little New England town.  I felt bruised and battered and unwanted.  And though I loved my girlfriends, the beauty of our small town and the proximity to New York, I’d been looking forward to a fresh start.  A big house with a pool and no little woodpecker holes.  A sewer system that allowed a garbage disposal (we had septic in our little town). A town that was a bit more anonymous and less political.  Getting to choose a school system that wouldn’t wrangle over money every year.  And of course there was the draw of being near both R’s family and my brother and sister; family holidays that didn’t require more than an hour or so in the car. Plus, the idea of moving back home felt good to me.  When I’d traveled back home for my high school reunion the previous year, there was much that was changed, much that I missed.

“No, we’re not,” R responded, taking a sip of wine.  “They wanted to fill the position locally, so they brought in a guy from the outside, a guy who used to work for GM.  I guess it was cheaper than relocating me.  They really are trying to keep the whole facility locally employed, so even though I was a good fit for it because I am from the area, at the end of the day I still have to be moved there and that isn’t cheap.”

I sighed, took a sip of wine, and willed myself to think of the here and now, and how lucky I was to be here.  A warm December night, the sound of the Gulf of Mexico outside, three kids all healthy and doing well, my close family all gathered together.  We wouldn’t have to pick up and start all over, at least not now.  That was a good thing, I told myself.

A good thing.

Worth the Trip

Everything was packed.  I piled the last of the suitcases into the dining room so they’d be ready for R to load into the car.

It was a cold Saturday afternoon in late December.  We were preparing to fly to Florida for the Christmas holiday.  We had started the tradition long ago, the year R and I were married.  My father living in Florida, coupled with my great aunt and R’s grandmother, made it a nice time.  We had finally gotten it down to a science; we always stayed in the same condo hotel, right on the beach.  R’s parents joined us now, every year.  Sometimes his sister and her husband came, sometimes my sister and her husband came.  One time my brother came with his son.  We didn’t vacation much in the summer, but we had only missed one Christmas in Florida since Michael’s birth.

R and I had our usual pretrip fight, which consisted of him complaining about how much I was packing, and me complaining that he was not doing enough to help get everyone ready.  I slammed a few doors and tossed shirts and shoes back in the closet before storming downstairs to avoid him until we got in the car.

We were going to spend the night in Newark, NJ and then fly out on the first flight of the morning.  We’d done this the previous year, in an uncomfortably small room with two double beds, three adults and two small children.  I spent most of the evening between the two younger ones, trying to first coax them to sleep and then later avoiding their middle of the night kicks and slaps.  R had spent most of the evening on his laptop checking work emails, which gave the room an eerie glow that kept everyone from sleeping.  Zach complained that he should have flown directly from Pittsburgh to Florida and avoided the whole scene.  The fun had culminated the following morning when R had pushed another family out of the way to make sure we all got on the first shuttle to the airport.  I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of the scene.

“Are we going to be leaving soon?”  Z looked anxiously at the dimming light in the sky.  He was right; we were supposed to have left by two thirty to make sure we got down there in plenty of time and could have a restful evening; Newark was nearly two hours away with the slippery roads.  Why hadn’t I heard R shut down the computer and bring down the last of his gear from upstairs?

“I’ll go see what’s going on up there,” I said, heading for the stairs.

I reached the room in time to see R’s face grow animated.  “Wait, when did you say you could get us out?”

I looked at the computer screen in front of him.  Two words stood out, plain as day:  “FLIGHT CANCELLED.”

I’d been watching the weather nervously for days.  I knew there was a storm predicted for tonight; that was part of why we’d wanted to get down to Newark early.  But it should be clear by the morning and we should have been fine; why were they cancelling the flight now?

“Preemptive move to keep planes where they need to be tomorrow.  Everything for tonight and through noon tomorrow is cancelled,” R told me when he hung up the phone.

“And when can they get us out?” I asked, chewing the last of my fingernails.

“Wednesday,” he said tightly.

Wednesday!  Our trip was booked from Sunday to Sunday.  If we waited until Wednesday, we’d miss half of it.

“What about a train?” I asked.

“I looked it up when I was on hold,” he answered, shaking his head.  “It would cost three thousand dollars for five tickets.”

“Rent a car?” I suggested.

“Same.  Ridiculously expensive for a one way rental.”

I stood there in the gathering gloom of our bedroom; outside the sun was setting and below us I could hear the children growing restless, wondering what was going on.  I knew bad weather was coming; there was only one thing to do.

“If we leave right now, we could be there by this time tomorrow.  That’s only a few hours after when we should have been.  But we’d have to leave now to get below the freeze line; otherwise we’ll be stuck in a snowstorm.”

R looked at me.  “You really want to do that?”

“If I’m faced with twenty four hours of driving or missing our trip?  Hell, yeah, I really want to do that.  If we’re gonna do it, we have to do it now or we’ll miss our chance.”

Twenty four hours later, sitting on our verandah looking out at the peace of the Gulf of Mexico, feeling the sun on my face, I knew it was worth the trip.

Just Another Night, That’s All It Is

“Now who are these people again?”  R adjusted his collar and gave his reflection one last glance in the mirror.

It was New Year’s Eve, 2006, and we had been invited to my girlfriend Sue’s house for a party.  I hesitated to accept the invitation.  First of all, it was a “kids included” party, and I wasn’t sure how Michael would fare.  It was of course very generous for her to invite us, because she knew what a handful having Michael at her home could be; we’d visited her pool several times last summer.  Secondly, I had never been much of a New Year’s party person.  My entire idea of a New Year’s Eve bash was built upon movies like When Harry Met Sally, where fancy people dressed up in fancy clothes and pretended like life was wonderful and the new year was full of hope and promise. I was always more along the lines of that Barry Manilow song about New Year’s Eve:  “it’s just another night, that’s all it is.”

The honest truth is that I was nervous.  While I had met a few friends at the kids’ schools, I hadn’t really seen them much outside of the teachers’ workroom or the playground.  This would be a grown up event, where adults engaged in conversation about things other than the children; my insecurity made me waver and feel worried about what I could possibly say to strangers.  What did I do for a living?  Well, the few hours a week I was working at the childrens’ art studio didn’t really qualify as a career.  The unpaid website work I’d spent the last seven years doing for first Rick Springfield and now Kyle Vincent gave me a lot of skills but not any sort of a real job; I could say I did freelance work, I supposed.  The best answer, the one that left the fewest amount of awkward silences or strange explanations was that I was simply “at home with my children”.

I hated that it was the truth.  I couldn’t believe how I’d ended up here, in Connecticut, with me playing Suzy Homemaker and making sure the meals were cooked, the dog was walked and the children were ferried to their after school activities.  I used to wonder what those women were like that volunteered at the school every week; didn’t they have anything better to do than cut out laminated hearts during the day?  I remembered when I would have to take time off during the school year, wandering around in the daylight as if I were playing hooky or engaging in some sort of delicious deviousness to not be at work during the day.  And now, here I was, totally dependent on my husband for our livelihood and crowing about the hundred bucks a week I’d started bringing home from the art studio.

I had been valedictorian of my high school class, and here I was, doing things that anyone with a pulse could be doing.  I knew it was a luxury to be home with my kids, I knew we were lucky that I had the ability to be available at any time for Michael when he melted down at school or forgot his books or lunch.  R had a good job and seemed to be doing well at it, but somehow I didn’t feel like part of that equation at all; I felt like I was plodding through my days trying to figure out where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing. My insecurity felt like a fog that I couldn’t see through or find my way out of.

“The host is my friend Sue; her daughter was in Melinda’s kindergarten class last year.  She’s the one that was nice enough to let us come to their pool over the summer, remember?”

“Not really,” R answered truthfully.  Of course he didn’t remember.  He’d been at work.

“You’ll like them,” I answered.  “Her husband sounds a lot like you.  Big job, travels a lot.  She’s at home with the kids, like me.”

And in that minute, I realized why I’d gravitated towards this woman.  She and her husband were just like R and I, except for one huge difference.  They both seemed secure and satisfied in the arrangement.  Subconsciously, I was sure, I was trying to find my own path and peace in my new life by examining hers.  If she was content with her life, which was so similar to my own, then I should be able to be as well.

“Well let’s get going,” R answered.  “I hope you’re right.”

I hoped so, too.

Family Thanksgiving

“I’m trying to remember the last time we would have done this,” I said, standing at my kitchen counter, my sister at my side.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 2003.  I had invited my side of the family to all convene on our place in Ohio for the weekend.  It was a risky proposition:  my sister and my brother didn’t always get along, and of course there was always the constant oneupsmanship we all engaged in to some extent whenever my father was present.

Since I’d moved away from Michigan, my father’s visits had become a strange thing.  It was almost as if my siblings kept score on how many times he came to my place versus their own.  When my daughter was born, up flew my father to Oklahoma.  When my brother’s baby boy was born nine months afterwards, there he went to Michigan.  When I moved to Ohio it became even worse, because to visit one sibling or another, the other was only a four hour drive away.   He visited me when I first moved there, then my brother when he bought a condo.  It started to get dicey when my older son flew down to Florida last summer to see my father; no such reciprocal visit was offered to my sister’s kids.  I decided to cut all of the competition off at the pass by offering a visit to everyone; all they had to do was show up.  I’d clean the house, cook the meal.

“Well, we all had Thanksgiving at my house once after Mom died,” my sister offered as I chopped the celery that was going into the stuffing our mother had taught us both to make.  We paused there, looked at each other sympathetically before she continued.  “But Dad wasn’t there.”

“We had Thanksgiving out East after he moved away once,” I offered.  “But was our brother there?”

“I honestly can’t remember,” my sister answered, opening up the bag of bread crumbs.  “Wait, no, he couldn’t have been.  We all stayed with Dad in Baltimore and there wouldn’t have been any room for him in that tiny townhouse.”

“Right.”  I answered, racking my brain as I added the chopped celery to the pan of onions on the stove.  I looked at them and dropped another square of butter on top; it sizzled as it met the metal of the pan.  “Certainly we haven’t had a big holiday together since I moved from Michigan, not with Dad anyway.  So that means…wow…no clue the last time all three of us would have shared Thanksgiving with Dad. It might have honestly been 1976.”

1976 was the year before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  A small silence ensued as my sister and I both mulled over the past twenty plus years in our collective heads; I knew we were both thinking that we’d never spent Thanksgiving with my father.  He would share Christmas with us, but Mom always had us for Thanksgiving.  There was one awful Thanksgiving in my memory banks when my mother had called my father, begging for him to take my brother off of her hands; but he’d been sick with pneumonia and bed ridden.  I could see the same look on my sister’s face as I knew what must be on mine:  awful, terrible memories coming unbidden, one after the other, of horrible holidays and harsh words.

“What’s going on in here?” my father asked, coming into the kitchen to offer help, as he’d done every few hours since he’d made us a big, family breakfast.  I could see his studying our faces for clues as to what was so serious.

“Just getting the stuffing together,” I said lightly, giving my sister the cue that we didn’t need to be mucking up the sweet family scene with sour thoughts from the past.  I saw my father peer into the pan and nod approval.  It wasn’t lost on me that the last time we likely had all been together to eat stuffing on Thanksgiving would have been at a table where my mother sat as well, a table where she would have made this exact same stuffing.   I couldn’t tell if he was comparing my efforts to my mother’s or not; I certainly was.    I breathed deeply in and out a few times, trying not to think of my sadness when suddenly, my brother appeared in the kitchen, looking panicked.

“What’s wrong?” my father said, a deadpan statement he’d probably said to my brother at least a thousand times before.

“Do you have any towels?  We have um…a little situation in the upstairs bathroom.”

My sister and I looked at each other and groaned.  My dad started swearing under his breath.  I called for R and a plunger before my groan turned to laughter.  “I wonder if that happened the last time we were all together for Thanksgiving?”

The mood lightened and my shoulders relaxed.  Crazy though we may be, it was kind of amazing that we were all here, together, considering everything that had gone on in our collective pasts.  I vowed to enjoy my family holiday and not stress.  We were all here, together; it was all that mattered.

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