Me vs. the Tree

“It is a truth universally acknowledged..

…that there is no such thing as a sexy flannel nightgown.”

A sudden burst of luck and generosity hit me yesterday, when out of the blue I got a call offering me a fresh cut Christmas tree, delivered to my door.

“Are you looking for a Christmas tree?”

“Umm…wha….well, not yet, but, sure, why not?”

Turns out I could help out by taking the topped-off top of a large tree a member of my congregation just felled, as my Tree for this year.

It only took me 5 tries to get it up, centered and reasonably stable.

Which reminded me of the annual Battle of the Tree.

We’d trek out to get one, usually the second week of December, which Mike always insisted on – he never wanted a tree earlier than that: wouldn’t allow it. Meaning there was no point in arguing about it as that would mean no peace in this house until the subject was dropped.

So the second week of December we’d trek out, buy a tree at Home Depot and stuff in into the Honda, its trunk through the little trap door in the back seat that opened into the trunk, and it’s tip poking between the front seats, our child submerged under pine boughs in the back seat. Why didn’t we ever figure out how to bungee it to the top of the car?

The car would smell of pine needles for weeks after, and regardless of how many vacuumings I attempted, stray needles would still show up in there until the following year when we’d repeat the entire exercise and re-needle the whole interior.

Tree hauled inside, and that’s when the “fun” would begin.

“Wait, wait hon, let me put something down to protect the floor.”

I’d do that while he’d go fetch the tree stand from its perch on a not-easily-accessible shelf in the garage.

This tree stand is supposed to make it easy to get the tree  up and straight, and then sort of lock it in place. You screw on a smaller base to the trunk, and then put the whole thing into the larger part of the base, waggle it around until all agreed it was straight, and lock it in.

It has a foot pedal sort of thing on it, which you extend and then step on to enable the waggling-around, and then when it is determined the tree is straight, you push the pedal back in and voila! Locked and ready for lights.

Seems easy, right?

Well, the first issue was remembering to pull the foot pedal out in the first place. For reasons unknown, we simply could not remember that from one year to the next, even though the foot pedal says, “extend fully.” So that was a good thirty minute fight and several failed straightening attempts before we remembered that. Then we’d argue about whether it was supposed to be “extended fully” before you put the tree in or after. And trying to figure out whether the red ring thingee around the small base part is supposed to be in the “open” or “closed” position, when it didn’t seem to open or close anything.

Plus deciding how many, if any, of the bottom branches to trim off, so the sharp little beaks on the levers that were supposed to screw into the tree to secure it inside the smaller part of the base, could bite in deep enough to hold the tree.

But the biggest issue was trying to reach parity, compromise, or, in a very good year, actual agreement, about whether the tree was straight.

We’d trade off doing the waggling around, the stepping back to check verticality, adjusting, swearing, starting over, trying again.

“It looks fine to me!”

“No, further to the left!”

“Just hold it still, dammit!”

Etc. You get the idea.

Last year, the first year without Mike, our adult child didn’t want to go, so I went by myself to choose the tree and stuff it into my Subaru, since I sold the Honda. I don’t need two cars.

Went through all of the above steps and got the thing up, leaning back a little, but stable.

This year I thought I was thoroughly prepared. I remembered to pull the handle thingee out, but got stymied by the “open” or “close” ring thingee and the narrow trunk of this tree-made-out-of-the-top-of-a-bigger-tree (which is really pretty, and nicely shaped, and the right kind of tree for me, a short-needled balsam, I think, with great branches for lights and ornaments.) Tried it open first, and I thought I got the little beak thingees biting into the tree enough, but when I put it up, it waggled and leaned and tilted and tipped.

Try again.

Pulled the base off, closed the ring thingee. Now the beak thingees wouldn’t go into the trunk of the tree far enough at all. Way too loose.

Try again.

Open the thingee.

Position the levers with the beaks around the trunk of the tree in slightly different places. Beak thingees tighten up nicely, take a good bite. The little base is secure now.

Pick it up and put it in the big base, and proceed to waggle until I think it sits down in there the way it should. There’s a sort of click. That must mean something, right?

It seems like it is staying up on its own. Step back, looks reasonably vertical.

But I forgot to check which side of the tree I’d want facing forward.

Undo, redo, two or three more times.

When I finally decided it was good enough, I pushed the foot pedal thingee back into the base, and it seems to have worked. The tree is standing, awaiting lights and decoration.

Mike always did the lights, because he could reach the top of the tree, and I’d follow him around and around, reeling them out as he placed them on the branches and getting kind of dizzy. Step back, check, adjust.

After lights and garlands, ornaments. We have ornaments that mean things to me – I’d pick up a new one on any vacation, as a memento, so we have several from Maine, one from Disneyworld and one from Arizona. Each year I also tried to pick one that seemed to represent that year most memorably of all.

My favorite is the little snowman with a shovel, from the year 2001, I think. Mike was absolutely fanatical about shoveling. He’d set his alarm every two hours during a blizzard, and go out and shovel the driveway, just to prevent the snow from accumulating so much that it would turn to ice before he could shovel again. He even did this during a real snurricane, a snowmageddedon that carried 60 mile an hour winds that ripped part of the roof off.  What was the point, I tried to plead with him, when the wind would just blow it all back in a minute or two?

But in his mind it seems the measure of a man was his ability to contend with a snow covered driveway.

He appropriated my little black russian-looking hat for this task. I wear that hat everywhere now when I go outside, if I feel the slightest chill.

But that year, 2001 I think, was exceptional in its demand for shoveling. It seemed he spent the whole winter out there. So that year’s ornament was a no brainer.

Once the tree is all decorated, we had a tradition of “tree regarding.”

We’d turn on Christmas music and turn off all the lights except the outdoor decorations and the tree, and just sit back and look at it. It really is magical, and soothing.

Which brings me back around to the flannel nightgown.

I love the warmth and comfort and coziness of an oversized flannel nightie in the winter, and my Mom used to buy me a new one each Christmas. She thought it was excessive. It offended her native New England frugality, as she knew they’d last much longer than a year, but she did it anyway because she knew it made me happy.

I’m down to one flannel nightie now, and no one to get me a new one this year.

I can handle that, but the thing that made me sad, after I won this year’s solo battle of the tree, was when I stepped into the downstairs powder room, which has two big oval mirrors over two pretty porcelain sinks with gold trim and a floral pattern (why didn’t we go down to one when we had that room done? We didn’t need two sinks in there, ever) and saw my reflection in one of those mirrors.

“I look cute,” I thought, in my Santa’s helper hat (only Santa wear’s the REAL Santa hat), and my bulky red cardigan thrown over my last remaining Lanz flannel nightie.

“You look cute, Mom,” Mike would have said. Because I’m pretty sure he actually thought I did look cute, and he knew it made me happy that he’d say so. And cute is really the absolute best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

But he isn’t here anymore to tell me that. And I know it is vain and childish and kind of selfish to need someone here to tell me I look cute in my hat and my sweater and my nightie, but I do. And I could sure use a hug and a loving pat on the backside, too.

I try not to give in to loneliness or sadness too often anymore. But when we got the tree up yesterday, still undecorated, and had our “candle time,” when we listen to music, turn all the lights off and enjoy candlelight (votives, lanterns and a few tapers in the antique brass candlesticks that belonged to my grandmother- well away from the tree, don’t worry), after a nice long quiet time, our child sighed and said, “I miss Dad,” I lost it.

“I miss him too, sweetheart. S-s-s-s-o much. And I kn-n-n-now this house feels incomplete without him and I know I can’t be him for you, but he told you, remember? He told you to remember that Dad’s love never ends, and he wants you to try to be happy and have a happy life.”

“Don’t cry, Mom.”

After our child retired to bed, I returned to soft Christmas music, and to feeling incomplete, because Mike’s not here to say, “You look cute, Mom,” to me in my flannel nightie.

That “You look cute, Mom,” was forged, earned, built, over years of marriage and togetherness, through good times and bad, from the deep appreciation and long-glowing embers of a love that has endured decades of Battles of the Tree, and it isn’t something that comes easily. I’m not sure I have enough time left in this life to find another relationship that could generate the depths that produced that “You look cute, Mom.”

The holidays are hard. I’ll pick my chin up again, I know. But I can’t promise I won’t cry when I hang that little snowman on the tree. Even if  I go ahead and buy myself, by myself,  a new flannel nightie this year.

Just One More Day…

I said I’d be back here the day after Thanksgiving, with lists of acceptable Christmas music, and a sort of “OK, start your holiday engines” vibe. I’m late, because  I needed just one more day to enjoy the russets and golds of autumn – the corn stalks, the pumpkins, the gourds. The day after Thanksgiving was beautiful and warm, and I took a long nature walk with our child along paths and preserves we had enjoyed together with Mike, and that the two of them had enjoyed with each other.

As I put away the deep autumn burgundy tablecloth, the russet and yellow and orange napkins and the good china, as I rolled the table back to its usual spot, I noticed the gourds and the flowers of yellow and orange, and I just couldn’t switch to Santa Claus red and Christmas tree green, not yet.

I have been driving around for a month now with Mike’s good L.L.Bean field coat, the one made of heavy tan construction-worker-in-the-winter fabric, with the thick plaid flannel lining and the corduroy cuffs and collar, and good L.L.Bean snow-sneaker hiking boots, trying to decide where to donate them, and coming up with an excuse every time I think of somewhere. The coat drive for the nearby impoverished school district? No, whichever high school kid got the coat or boots, there would be never-ending teasing, maybe even danger, I reason, for looking so, well, so L.L.Bean.

Goodwill, Salvation? No, Mike wouldn’t want someone to have to buy his used stuff – he would have just found the right guy and given the coat off his back and the shoes off his feet. Homeless vets, maybe?

Mike wore the coat and the boots as he became weaker and more weary, stoically driving himself to his infusions, until the driving became too exhausting and the doctor switched to something he only had to have every three weeks or so, not every week.

He wore them when he suddenly decided to go to Home Depot in the midst of the insane remodeling job I decided to go ahead and do (long story, book, working on it) in some crazy desperate attempt to get him the kitchen he deserved to cook in and the new deck he deserved to relax on and the basement he could cool off in, before he died; a distraction, a goal, something to take our minds away from the inevitable.

The last time I remember seeing Mike wearing the coat and boots was when he decided to pile all his chess books, a substantial library cataloguing historic games and tournaments, strategies, openings and “novelty” moves discovered over time, into the car and drive them deep into the South Side, to give away to a young man who was trying to start some kind of chess coaching business or charity. It absolutely exhausted him, that trip, especially since the young man he delivered the books to, a young man who knew Mike had cancer,  didn’t help him unload or carry them at all. Perhaps it would have been risky, I don’t know, to be seen helping a guy wearing that coat, those boots. Mike came home dispirited, and didn’t really go out again, except to his infusion appointments.

And now 15 months after Mike left this world, the coat and the boots are back in the front hall closet. I just can’t give them away when I still see them filled up with him.

I kept only one of his chess sets – the one he won as an elementary school student, with the pieces kept in a nice wooden box with an engraved plate, “Irving School 1975 First Place” and the accompanying board.

I kept his glasses, and his hats, the ones he wore when the last round of chemo made his hair fall out, before he chose hospice and it grew back, in a perfect, silver-grey feathered cut. How’d he do that?

The hats still smell like him. I take them out of the drawer and bury my face in them from time to time, and I think I’ll keep doing that for as long as they still smell like him.

Some days the cat sleeps on his bed, on the heavy plaid wool blanket (yes, L.L.Bean again – I’m not getting paid for this, honestly) I got him one Christmas, before we knew he was sick. I agonized over the color – should I get the mostly blue one? Or the blue-green-camel-russet one? I opted for the latter, and to my great surprise and relief, he loved it.

But every morning before she decides to jump up on that blanket on that bed, or up on whichever other piece of furniture she will appropriate today, Sophie the cat walks over to the Afghan war rug that my parents brought back from one of their port-of-call side trips on one of their cruises, the one that was under the hospital bed Mike died in. If you look closely you can see the woven images of rifles and helicopters in that rug. The cat plops down on one corner of that rug, and cries, with a loud MYOW, MYOW?  Mike and Sophie, the two most territorial beings in the house, had a love-hate relationship. But clearly she misses him too, and finds something of him still hovering above that rug.

I kept his wallet, the tooled leather one I gave him that was like the ones my Dad could always find for my brothers, with his final driver’s license and his sad-faced college ID, the photo for which was taken on a frigid day when he was wandering around UIC, freezing in an absurdly thin windbreaker, pining for some long-ago unrequited love.

There’s a difference between stuff that is just stuff, and stuff that is suffused with memory – things that are semi-sacred. I cleaned out almost all of the just stuff in the two weeks after he died. I donated clothes and books, mostly poetry, keeping only the ones we enjoyed together, the ones with the poems we read at our wedding and the poems we read when we buried his ashes, or the rare chapbooks he said might be worth something, and I gave away all his other chess boards. (For most of our life in this house, every available surface had a chess board on it, with an open chess book next to it, with pieces poised in the middle of a game that was being studied or an opening that was being relearned.)

Right after Mike died, I was overcome with a weird belated nesting impulse. In addition to giving away stuff, I repainted bookcases and wished he could have seen them, they looked so much better. I had the floors done, and sat sobbing among a clutter of furniture in the kitchen alcove, watching the Cubs win the World Series on my phone because the floors weren’t ready for me to reconnect the TV. I had a bluestone patio installed just outside the kitchen door, which makes a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee on a summer morning, and planted shrubs that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies as a sort of memory garden for Mike. I hoped he could see it and enjoy it from the other side. I think he did, or can – I’ve had visits from hummingbirds, monarchs and even dragonflies, all of which Mike remarked on before he died, and these creatures hovered unnaturally close to me, as if to say hello.

But I haven’t been able to give away the huge tandem bike he rode our child to school on for years, even though it is way too big for me to try.

Or the watch my father gave him, at least twenty years ago, that still beeps at 6:37 a.m. each morning.

Each day I think to myself I need just another day with these things. I’m not ready.

The unseasonably warm weather made the day-after-Thanksgiving annual tree-lighting better than bearable, pleasant, even, and our child and I sang carols heartily along with the high school choir, and once those lights went on, at that point, I felt ready to roll over into Christmastime. So the next day I dutifully put up the lights and the garlands and the wreaths, while our child took on the Christmas knick-knacks, tree- and angel-shaped candles and other thingamabobs inside the house, arranging them on the mantle and bookshelves and tables and we rolled on from the season of russet and orange to the season of red and green. And we got out the Christmas CDs.

We did a pretty good job of being thankful, this second time around without him.

But although I was able to set the table with just two places, I couldn’t do it with just two chairs. The third chair was there, and he was there in my mind’s eye, enjoying the candles and the good china and the Beaujolais Nouveau.

And so far we’re doing a pretty good job of seasonal good cheer, this second time around without Mike. We talked about it and decided we would not hang his stocking this year. Just ours and the cat’s.

But I’m keeping that stocking.

And though the tandem may go someday, I’m keeping the chess board, the hats, the glasses, the wallet and the watch. Just one more day. And then another and another and just one more…

Snark Tank

“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothing’s at all.”

-Thumper

Did you catch the double negative, there?

Thumper, go over there and sit on Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s needlepoint pillow (“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come sit next to me.”)

Nice is nice.

But nice ain’t funny. Not usually, anyway.

If you’ve been a trouper and you’ve read this blog from the bottom up, first to latest, you’ll see that I’m a widow, and I’m trying to live the lessons I learned from loss, primarily that love is what matters, and a little laughter, too, and every person has their stuff, and anyone you run into or sit next to on the bus could be in the midst of their own tragedy, and everyone deserves respect and compassion.

And that behaving that way all the time is exhausting and really difficult for me (see, “The Briefcase Maneuver“).  I have confessed to being someone too full of judgment, impatience and an ugly sense of superiority (see, “And What Do We Learn from This?)

But sometimes I just can’t help myself, especially if something strikes me as stupid.

And nothing is more irritating than avoidable stupidity. And it is often funny, too.

And in such situations, I tend to lead with my big mouth, not my big heart.

I’ll say something that makes people laugh.

And then I’ll go home and feel really bad about it.

I own a T-shirt that says, “I’ll try to be nicer if you’ll try to be smarter.” Snark. Which was basically my theory of management for a long time. Yeah, so, that didn’t work out so well.

I have another T-shirt that says, “Pretending I’m a pleasant person all day is exhausting.”

I will reveal both of these during my talk on “Confessions of a Toxic Boss,” if I ever get that one written.

Not nice. But honest.  Nice is not often funny,  but honesty often is, which is why improvisers are taught to go for the emotional truth on stage, because most of the time, nothing is funnier than the truth.

So far, I’ve written honestly about loss and grief and a little about some coping strategies (Middle Aged Woman Rules).  But when do we get to the funny part?

Well, I have a plan. When I feel the snark surfacing, and I can’t resist the temptation to think or even say something that is kind of mean but also kind of funny, I’m going to dump it right over there in the Snark Tank.

Yes, I’m going to make a whole separate page on this blog where I can dump all my little pet peeves, my moments of self-righteous superiority, my little rants, and just get them out of my system so I can get back to the love part.

No politics, though – we all get plenty of that on Facebook or Twitter.

And as the parent of a developmentally different young adult, I’m definitely not a fan of making fun of others just for being who they are (although my love of accents has gotten me in trouble that way – I hear an accent and impulsively imitate it, often right in front of the person with the accent. Oh, nice. I’ve embarrassed my family and literally made children cry, when all I thought I was doing was joining the fun and expressing delight in the music of a different way of speaking. Oddly enough, the people whose accents I “joined in on” didn’t find it amusing.)

But people who have all their intellectual faculties and physical abilities, neurotypical and physically able people, who are ungifted with and unchallenged by differently wired brains or physically different bodies, often do or say stupid or funny or illogical things, and they misuse words a lot, which either drives me nuts or makes me laugh hysterically, so I may take the opportunity to point a few of those things out. And if it happens in the middle of a blog post about something entirely different, well, I’ll just link over to the Snark Tank and dump it in there.

My additions to the Snark Tank will likely be short and unrelated to each other, unless I really get on a roll and unleash. And I’ll just keep on editing that page by adding new stuff on top.

And if you are so moved, you can jump right in through the comments, and we’ll all just get it out of our systems, and the world will be a better place, because we will have done a service in pointing out errors and inanities that are avoidable, preventable and therefore needn’t be repeated. Won’t everyone be so grateful! So let’s dive in!