Good China or, the Thanksgiving Rules

We brought it out at Thanksgiving and created a resplendent table with it, and the silver, and the stemware. Once a year.

Although I am a child at Christmas, full of anticipation and wonder and the magic of the tree lights sparkling in the dark, Thanksgiving is really my favorite holiday.

All I have to do is cook, drink, eat. Not necessarily in that order.

At the end of the meal, after the coffee and pie, and the signature mashed potatoes that only Mike could make, we shared a marathon session of dish washing, by hand (in the dishwasherless days before the remodel) and then the plates would go back into the round, plastic, zippered bags with the quilted floral pattern, separated by those little foam circles that were supposed to keep the plates from chipping.

And the stemware went back in its box, each glass with its own little cardboard compartment, stowed carefully on the shelves in the cubbyhole at the top of the basement stairs.

But when Mike got sick, and we knew that each upcoming Big Holiday would likely be his last, we decided, fuck it, let’s use the good stuff now.  Any time we want.

And we wondered, why did we keep it all packed away all year anyway?

The whole idea of bridal “china patterns” now seems sort of quaint, or twee, or adorable in that way that brides are allowed to be adorably annoying, observing the rituals that really belong in the nineteenth century and before.

We have ten place settings. Ten. And we never had more than four family members over for dinner, and that, very rarely (long story, book, I’m working on it).

But really, who uses ten formal place settings anymore, in their home? Most homes now without formal dining rooms? (although I hear they started making a comeback with builders and their clients a few years ago. Sounds good to me. Invite me as a companion for your extra man – I’m a lively conversationalist and I never miss a chance to overdress!)

But now our child and I continue to use that fancy china regularly, two place settings at a time.

And I try to use the Good China as a reminder to be thankful, not once a year, but daily.

Another widow has “gratitude Fridays” so I’m going to try “thankful Thursdays” – and one of the exercises I want to commit to observing is writing a thank-you note a week to someone. Just to express gratitude in a concrete way, and maybe to share those here.

Recipients of thank-you notes I’ve written tell me I’m pretty good at it. I’ve even thought of turning that into a side business – to help those hapless, adorable brides who’ve gotten themselves in too deep and can’t come up with a single original thing to say to the gifter of the tenth full place setting. I can help her with that.

(I’ve also written a few thank-you notes that I never sent, on the order of, “Dear Mrs. Moneybags: How gracious of you to respond to my phone call with a letter, informing me that the organization I had hoped you’d support deserved its demise for its silly habit of asking poor families to pay only what they could, and instructing me that such foolishness should be abandoned posthaste, and good riddance to those poor folks. Right here in our town! The nerve!” Or something like that.)

But since we have The Big Holiday in the area of thankfulness coming up, I think I’ll save the weekly notes for after the holidays, when people aren’t expecting them.

In the meantime though, there are some Thanksgiving rules, which, unlike the practice of using the Good China only once a year, cannot be abandoned.  To wit:

  1. No Christmas stuff, especially NO CHRISTMAS MUSIC, until the day after Thanksgiving. We will not bury Thanksgiving in tinsel, or wreaths or red bows, or early-bird Black Friday deals, nor will we deafen ourselves to it by subjecting ourselves to Mariah Carey screeching, “All I want for Christmas is You” or Michael Buble crooning, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Puh-leeeze.  (We will address the subject of acceptable and unacceptable Christmas music on THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING. Which will not be spent standing in line outside a WalMart fighting over who gets the biggest big screen TV).
  2. Cranberry sauce must be homemade, from whole berries. No can-shaped gelatinous blobs on a plate, for God’s sake. Have some RESPECT, dammit. It’s EASY. Seriously, just read the package instructions on your Ocean Spray. Water, sugar, boil, berries, pop, pop, pop, chill. Done, yummy.
  3. Although I do not require anyone else at my table to perform this allegedly death-defying feat, I will make and consume stuffing that is ACTUALLY COOKED INSIDE THE TURKEY. Pepperidge Farm is the only acceptable stuffing mix. Non-negotiable.
  4. NO TURDUCKENS. See, “Have some respect,” in number 2, above. This goes triple for deep frying on the deck outside. Are you out of your mind? Haven’t you seen the Allstate ad about how many people burned their houses down committing this gastronomic atrocity?
  5. Mimosas. Mimosas are required. See “cook, drink, eat, not necessarily in that order” above. Rockettes, lip-synching broadway stars, marching bands and giant balloons are actually fun when viewed through the gentle mist of a Mimosa. Just don’t say the other Thanksgiving “M” word (the one that comes before “Thanksgiving Day Parade”) when channel surfing over to the the Chicago parade, because that big store they march past will ever and always be Field’s. Dammit.

I better start making a grocery list and polishing the silver, for our second round of Big Holiday with just the two of us, our child and me.

I’ll continue using the Good China every day, as a sign of gratitude for our memories of Mike, and faith that more Good stuff is coming, for just the two of us, our child and me.

The Presence of Absence – or, Bookends of BoDeans

UPDATE

Well, it turns out there will probably never, ever be any reunion of Sam Llanas with the BoDeans, and it appears there’s a real good reason on top of the ones originally given – how sad – and how creepy, since this band once recorded a song with the lyric, “sweet little Mary was just 13, walking down the street she’d make a good man mean…”

Eeeeeewwww. I debated taking this post down when I heard about this, but the post reflects my experience before I heard of these accusations. Yet I didn’t think it would be right to leave this post as it is without acknowledging that I now know these accusations have been made. I wish I could unknow about them, but I can’t.

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Even if you knew it was coming, the death of a spouse or other family member creates an absence that feels physical; that heavy blank space over there is where he is not.

And it feels like that absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks in chairs where he should be sitting, over there on the rug where his hospital bed used to be, by the stove in the kitchen where he should be cooking.

I spent the last fourteen months managing that thing, first raging at it, crying and sobbing and panicked by it, hating it, feeling attacked by it, as if it would erase me or reduce me to a shadowy thing myself, some kind of half-being, ghosting around aimlessly. “I’m just a ghost in this house.”

Then I decided to engage it. I started talking to it, taking it out places with me. I created a sort of “memory tour,” attending concerts and events Mike would have enjoyed, trying and many times succeeding in feeling him with me in the car, in the box at the opera or the too-expensive seats at the hockey game.

And I went to see the BoDeans.

Years into our marriage, Mike and I discovered, in casual conversation, that before we met, we had been at the same BoDeans concert at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. I was there alone, he with whoever his then current girlfriend had been.

And Sam was there.

If you haven’t heard this band, go back in time to their earliest albums – Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams, Outside Looking In, Black and White, Home.

But you really should listen to their live compilation album, Joe Dirt Car.  The BoDeans are a kick-ass live band and put on a great live show.

And the lead vocal you hear on almost every song is Sammy – Sam Llanas.

I remember that show at the Riv as just that –  kick-ass rock’n’roll fun – singalongs, clapping, stomping, great time.

That was a long time ago – 1989.

I had put the albums (yes, vinyl) and CDs away years ago, and hadn’t thought about them until last year when I saw a poster around town announcing a BoDeans show – they were playing at a benefit at a community center very close by, and I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a chance to hear them again, and to take Mike’s “present absence” with me, and remember with the memory of Mike what fun it was, to dance and stomp and sing along with this band.

And I went and they put on a full-blown, burn-the-house-down rock-n-roll show with lights and fog and great sound at this recently rehabbed little theater that started life as an elementary school auditorium.

I had a great time there by myself with the crowd, as I had done so many years before.

But Sam wasn’t there.

Because something happened, years before, as often does in marriages, and in bands that have been together for a long time – Disagreement? Jealousy? Misunderstanding? Resentment? Exhaustion? Who knows.

But Sammy wasn’t there – Sam’s voice wasn’t there.

It didn’t really register with me too much last year at that event – the band seemed to stay away from the songs that really had to have Sam’s voice to make them what they were. Or maybe it was the crowd – a liquored-up, wealthy, charity-event attending crowd that knew how to party and was on their feet, dancing and singing along the whole show (so this is how rich people party? Oh, OK. Pretty cool. And for a good cause.)

And then this year, by accident again, I found that the BoDeans were playing within reasonable driving distance, almost exactly a year (less one day) from that show I went to in memory of Mike.

So I went, and this time I knew that Sam wouldn’t be there.

And his absence was very present for me this time.

Maybe it was the geriatric nature of the crowd – they just wouldn’t get up and dance, even with the bar open, until after the break, when several women of a certain age, dressed as if in memory of their younger years, got up to shake and bounce what they had, groupie-dancing down by the stage.

And I was shakin’ it in the aisle, dressed in my own recently-achieved too-tight jeans and shirt, trying to remember the fun, but hearing that live album, Joe Dirt Car, in my head, and missing Mike, and missing Sam.

There were some fun moments – a Tom Petty tribute inserted in the middle of the show, some amusing musical quotes of other artists, and the sing-along songs that depended more on the crowd than on Sammy’s voice. And although geriatric, the crowd at least managed some singing along.

And then the band did a song called “Naked.”

I can think of a lot of BoDeans songs, “Black, White and Blood Red” or “Going Home,” or “Far, Far Away from My Heart” or “Misery” that require Sammy’s voice, but none more than “Naked.”

It’s about sharing your secrets, committing to not holding back in a relationship – at least that’s what I hear in it – “I’ll stand naked with you, you’ll stand naked with me too.”

And when Sammy sang it, there was a raw, raspy desperation in the sound, like he really was tearing himself open.

You just can’t sing it without that – without Sam.

So you have a choice – don’t sing it.

Or forgive, forget and ask Sammy to come back.

Because he can. He’s right there in Wisconsin. It would have been a few hours drive, no more.

Mike can’t come back.  He can’t come with me to a BoDeans concert, ever. In fact, after our child was born, we never went to a rock show together. He’d go to shows he wanted to go to, and I’d go to mine, and whoever wasn’t going was staying home with our child because we didn’t use sitters, not with our special needs child – our beautiful, vulnerable amazing child.

So we switched off, took turns – called it a “shift change,” when I got home from work, and he, exhausted from a day of cooking, cleaning, playing, shopping and chauffeuring, retreated upstairs to read and relax.

No shift changes for me anymore. Adult child is far less vulnerable now, and I’m doing the best I can at my job of enabling greater independence, but each day there’s still, “A day without Dad. You ok Mom? You’re here in this world, the first world, with me? Right? You’re not going, you’re here. You’re good.”

Yes, my lovies, for as long as I possibly can be. I’m here right now, for you.

But Mike can’t be here for me, or for our child, anymore.

Life is short. Forgiveness is worth it.

I have to wait until the end of my life for a reunion, but you guys don’t.

And I find now that the presence of Sam’s absence in that band means I just can’t see them again. And listening to Joe Dirt Car just makes me sad now, thinking about the permanent presence of absence.

Because Mike’s not here for me, and he can’t be, and he can’t be here for our adult child either, and the best I can say is “remember what Dad told you? Dad’s love never ends.”

And it doesn’t, but it is so hard even for a neurotypical person to understand that, and to feel the abstraction of love from the next world.  How can I help an autistic person understand that?

My year of dating Mike’s shadow, his present absence, is over, and I’ll have to find something new, a new band to follow or maybe a new person to love, to be a presence for the two of us, now.

But I’ve been honest with our child – we’re never going to stop missing Mike, or stop feeling incomplete, without him. That is a present absence we will just have to absorb, and carry, within and around us, every day. We can’t add anything or anyone that will take that absence away. We can only try to love what we carry – memory and hope and whispers of love in songs we hear in this world as Mike’s messages from the next.

Middle-aged Woman Rules

There is nothing like widowhood to make you feel your age.

But I am determined to “defy it,” as that make-up ad with Melanie Griffith from a few decades ago – “don’t lie about your age, DEFY IT!”

I noticed that ad a few DECADES ago. So much for lying about my age!

But the “defying” thing suddenly became important to me when Mike got sick.

I wanted him to see me at my best, or at least the best I could be, before he went. So I started the “defying” thing. And it amused him, and we laughed about it before he died, and I like to think that he did see in me again the younger woman he had pursued years before, when all he had to do was hug me and I would glow – “I’m all shiny!” I would say – and though he didn’t have the strength to hug me anymore, I wanted him to see he could still make me shine.

After he died, after all the widow duties were done, after the stone was finally laid and the cold empty absence of him became so present all the time, I panicked, and then I got mad, and then I got determined.

I don’t have very many good woman years left, I thought, and dammit I refuse to believe that they are all already gone. Mike wouldn’t want me to mope around alone, I’m sure. (Although when one of the last two of our wedding-present stemware broke, flew out of the cupboard as if someone had grabbed it and flung it down, he did observe, “that means there’s only one left now,” as if he thought that was right – there will be only you to use those glasses now. But I still don’t think he’d want me to be alone. He fell in love with me, he said, partly because he could see how badly I needed to be loved, and how easily my heart could sing, or cry.)

So I am going to make the most what I have left. Life is short. Love matters.

And so does lipstick.

Allow me to explain.

The Middle Aged Woman Rules began before Mike died, but intensified after. I took a good look in the mirror, began the heavy use of skin products, and established these Rules, which are as follows, in reverse order of importance (and I reserve the right to add to this list, ad infinitum if necessary!:

  • dress like you are expecting someone and waft perfume lightly
  • manage hair wherever it occurs
  • floss
  • smile, and
  • NEVER BE SEEN WITHOUT LIPSTICK

Because the first thing I noticed when I looked in that mirror was how washed out and ghastly I look without lipstick.

So I wear lipstick even when the only person who is going to see me is me. (See, “dress like you’re expecting someone, etc., above.)

Now, on the “dress like you’re expecting someone” rule?

Did I buy nice middle-aged lady clothes, with high shawl collars to cover my neck? And below-the-knee middle-aged librarian looking wool skirts?

Um, no.

The first thing I did (ridiculous woman, remember?) was buy a black peignoir set. Yep, sexy nightie. As if I was expecting someone. Ha!

Then I bought tight jeans, v-neck t-shirts and sweaters and five or six really cute 1950’s style dresses with tight bodices and flared skirts that you wear a crinoline under.

And related infrastructure of naughty underwear.

And I started going out, on a sort of “memory tour” of things Mike and I would have done together if he was still here.

And the first time I wore one of those crinoline dresses out? Several burly, very short-haired women remarked on how attractive it was, that I wore it well.

Oh well. Sorry, ladies, I play for the other team, but I appreciate the compliment, I really do!

And when I took adult child downtown for our annual holiday excursion, I didn’t notice until I headed to the ladies’ that the lipstick I required myself to wear had formed two little “Chuckie” lines (you know, Chuckie? That creepy horror movie doll?) on either side of my mouth, probably as a result of residue on a glass from a too-hasty pre-game snootful of something because I had splurged on a limo and wouldn’t be driving. Uncharacteristically I didn’t check my look in the car, so I was “Chuckie” all the way to the table in the restaurant.

But the kicker was when I went out to an event, smiling!! really trying to smile! and noticed a very tall, nice looking man staring at me, near the bar. I mean staring.

So I’m thinking, this pencil skirt and silk blouse are really working for me! OK!

And he kept staring so I just said, hello, I’m Anne. And he told me his name but I forgot. If adult child was with me I would never forget names, or birthdays, for that matter.

So I went and sat next to someone I knew and tall guy comes and sits on the other side of the someone I knew, and I hear him saying to his wife, “Doesn’t she remind you of Jill?”

And I’m curious so I say, “is Jill a good thing to be reminded of?”

And he turns to me and says, “Oh, yes! Jill was…Jill was brilliant! She was my best friend from high school’s mother! She passed away….”

So after all the skin products, hair management and the accurate application of lipstick, I end up being compared to a middle-aged man’s best friend’s dead mother.

So much for defying my age.

But I still do not intend to act it. My age, I mean. Not until I have squeezed everything out of what’s left of this life that I can and have done my best to put as much love as I can back into it.

Ha! Just call me Mame. Or Vera Simpson.

Or defiantly ridiculous woman.