The Attitude of Gratitude – Thankful Thursday 1

The chair wasn’t empty after all – it was imprinted with the form and memory of Mom, Grandma and still more Grandmothers before…

It’s the chair my Mother sat in every day, watching television, when she could still make it from the bedroom out to the family room to sit, on the days when she could just tolerate the frustration of the walker and the tether of the oxygen line.

It has been in my house since Mom died, nearly four years ago. For three years it sat in our little “library” room (a room probably more appropriately called a “den”) and I never sat in it.

Predictably, that cat commandeered it, claiming it as yet another spot she owned in this small house.

It still had the blue seat cushion that Mom used, and I could see her there, scowling, angry, frustrated, fed up, tired, defiant.IMG_20180103_220530955.jpg

On the day I was ready to finally get rid of Mike’s chair, the beat-up glider he had used in that den, I noticed that the cat’s occupancy of Mom’s chair had destroyed that blue seat cushion. It was past salvaging. So after I dragged Mike’s old brown glider, the one that managed to absorb crumbs and dust on its rails in a way that made it impossible to clean and thus also unsalvageable, out to the street as our one allowed “bulk item” for our weekly trash pick-up, I took the blue seat cushion off Mom’s chair, and threw it in the trash as well.

I moved the chair from one corner of the room to another, in a position across from my Dad’s chair (that’s for another post, another day) and slightly more toward the window.

And I sat down in it, for the first time in more than thirty years.

Immediately I noticed how well the chair fit me, as if it were molded for me, or on me. The meat of my palms at the base of my thumbs was cupped exactly by the rounded ends of the chairs’ arms.

The chair hit me in just the right place in my back. My feet rested perfectly on the floor, with my knees at a comfortable right angle, instead of dangling as they usually do from most all the other chairs in the world that seem to be made from some universal measure for people six inches taller than I.

The seat accommodated my, let’s say, “ample” behind like it had been waiting just for me.

I suddenly felt gently immersed in a kinship with generations of women in my family who had used that chair before me – not just Mom, but Grammie, and Grammie’s Mom, and her mother before her, if I remember the history of the object correctly.

That chair has a sort of genetic memory, and sitting in it gave me a moment of that memory.

These were tough, no-nonsense, New England women. Mom, a nurse. Grammie, a schoolteacher who like me, was widowed early. Grammie’s Mom, both a farm wife and shopkeeper’s wife, in early twentieth century Maine.

My relationships with Mom and Grammie couldn’t really be described as “warm.” Loving, yes. But filled with the kind of petty struggles that seem never-ending between Mothers and daughters, generation to generation. Stand up straight, comb your hair, set the table, hem that skirt, sew on the button, shuck the corn, can’t you do something about that hair! Call the men to dinner, dry the dishes, get your nose out of that book and go outside!

But when I sat down in that chair, I felt a depth of kinship, a physical kinship, with these women that was never so apparent to me before.

We were the same physical size. We walked through the world with nearly identical hands. Their hips were broad, like mine, and they liked to sit up straight, as I learned to do after all those little struggles.

I am grateful for that. The chair brought me close to those ancestresses in a different and deeper way than I had felt or considered before; as a teenager I had simply taken it for granted that my Grandmother’s dresses fit me and I never really thought about what that meant until I sat in my grandmothers’ (plural, at least three generations of them) chair.

Here is some deep connection, I thought. Their hands rested here, just as mine do, on short armrests of just the right length for them, and now, for me. The back of this chair supported their lower backs after long, long days of housekeeping, farming, nursing, just as it supports mine now.

The top of the back of the chair, covered in the picture with the cashmere blanket Dad gave Mom when she was expecting my oldest brother, her first child, is quite ornate. It is not comfortable for resting your head on – HA! No matter how exhausted these women were, they still sat up straight, heads high.

And now that my hands are starting to resemble my Mother’s hands, with hints of the same kind of arthritis, and my joints creak a little more, the way hers did, I feel a deeper kinship with these women, and I sense a message from them – they didn’t expect me to understand this while they were living, but they left a message, in that chair, for me, for after they were gone.

You are not so different from us. You have us within you. You’ll be ok. You can make it, no matter what life throws at you. Rest and rock a bit, but keep your head up.

I hope that means I have at least some of their toughness, their strength and grit, their endurance, their resilience, their clarity and longevity, their practical, no nonsense get-on-with-it-ness that got them past 85, to 89, to 90.

We weren’t demonstrative enough with each other – not enough hugs or endearments. But they did everything they could to transmit practical wisdom to me. 

Mom whispered when she sewed, drawing me in as she showed me the careful stitches to shorten the hems of every new skirt or dress, stitches that would be necessary for every new garment before “free alterations” or the new era of “petite” sizes. 

And I am grateful for that. And for the chair that reminds me of that.

Grammie was fierce with the rolling pin, brisk with the homemade doughnut dough (which she got up at 5 am to make for us on our summer visits to Maine), and I remembered that when rolling out the cookie dough this holiday season, using Mom’s wooden rolling pin, which she wielded with similar ferocity against any pie crust that dared defy her.

And I’m grateful I got to watch and learn from them, skills that seem old fashioned and forgotten, but that give me some small pride and pleasure still.  I’m grateful for the sense of shock I felt when an acquaintance casually confessed that she was walking on the cuffs if her trousers because she did not know how to shorten them.

Well, as a descendent of those hardy New England women, I’m grateful that I know how to thread a needle, measure and shorten a hem, sew on a button, roll out a pie crust or follow the rules of ICE (ice, compression, elevation) after a sprain. There is so much more they knew that I didn’t pay enough attention to – but I’m grateful for that chair that reminds me of those strong women who came before me, small as me in stature but richer by far in practical skill. Somehow when I sit there, in that chair that fits me perfectly, I feel a bit of their wisdom and experience coming through – remember – remember what we could do. What you still can do, if you put your mind to it.

So on this first post for my “thankful Thursdays,” I’m sticking to the basics like that chair.

I’m grateful too for the den in this little house where that chair resides, in the spot where Mike’s glider used to be, where memories of evenings listening to music with him remain vivid.

And for the little house itself, in these frigid January days, that has light and heat  and food and blankets within it. And pipes that haven’t frozen through years of winter as harsh as this.

I’m grateful that so far, the chickens have survived the subzero cold, while ceasing to lay eggs, as expected.

I’m grateful that the car starts, that the plumber came on Christmas Eve (time and a half, but hey, he came) and that I found the right part for the dishwasher, even though I’ll have to pay to have it installed.

I’m grateful to live in a place that values open, natural spaces, or as natural as they can be remade to be, to walk and breathe in, and to see the late afternoon winter sun paint the grasses and the ponds a glowing rose-gold while hawks soar and circle above.

I’m grateful and humbled to be the mother of the most amazing human being I’ve ever met, whose kindness, compassion, and cheerful perseverance in the face of a loud and confusing world is an example I continually hope someday to match.

I’m grateful for that silly cat, who gets nose to nose with me each morning, insisting I get up, get going, hop to it, rise and shine, there’s work to do here, feed me first of course and then you can deal with child and chickens. 

And I’m grateful for two more nights with the loveliest, freshest (and cheapest – free! delivered!) Christmas tree we’ve ever had in this house, which has shed not a needle since I won this year’s Battle of the Tree, and glows there in this den, giving me a little more time to be grateful for the peace and hope of this season and an excuse to linger and rock a bit longer, gently, in my Mothers chair.

Some Assembly Required

Whether it is new furniture or a whole new life, there’s some assembly required….

This year, I left the assembly until Christmas Day.

After decades of staying up almost all night on Christmas Eve, to stage the best possible surprise, I decided this year was the year we’d do it the adult way – open the package, see what it is, and put it together later. It gave the same delight, perhaps more, because it prolonged the wait to make use of the new art desk.

There was the usual trial and error (oops, bolts are supposed to go on the inside, take the screws out, go the other way, tighten) and the usual cursing and screaming when the bolts wouldn’t tighten enough, or parts were discovered cracked or broken, but in the end I got it put together with a few hours to spare to set up the appetizers for my brother and sister-in-law’s visit Christmas Day.  And my handy brother got the untightenable bolts to tighten as they should and I got a beautiful adult-coloring-book page of blue butterflies out of it from my young adult, happily coloring at the new art desk.

And when the day was over and our little two-person Christmas feast cleaned up (last year, our first without Mike, I burned the cranberry sauce for the first time in my life – this year my culinary transgression was less severe, but just as disappointing – I made the gravy too thick, and gravy is usually my specialty.  But I aced the mashed potatoes, so there’s that, anyway), I sat “regarding the tree,” after our nightly “candle time” of quiet contemplation and it occurred to me that a new year is coming, and it is time for me not just to figure out what my life is going to be like from now on, but to do something about it.

Each day for the past several weeks, our child has been sighing and saying, “a day without Dad.” And I’ve had to confirm again and again that yes, every day for the rest of our lives in this world will be a day without Dad, but not without his love, because like he said before he died, “Dad’s love never ends.”

Although his love is with us, he is not – not here, physically, to talk to, to joke with, to enjoy music together – and although I do still talk to him all the time (hey, talking to yourself or to your dearly departed is HEALTHY as far as I’m concerned – I may be ridiculous, but I’m not crazy), but I am speaking to a spirit, a memory, a hope that he can hear me on the other side. He’s not here, can’t be here, but I still am. Here. In this world.

So I’m determined not to spend the rest of my life stuck in the absence of his. He wouldn’t want me to. In fact when I do talk to him (HEALTHY, remember, a HEALTHY way to grieve and cope), I ask him to involve himself in helping me move on.

So in 2018, we’re going to put together a new life, a life that will be fully lived, for me and for our child.

Because if I’m trying to learn from loss to live with love and laughter, I probably should find someone to love and laugh with.

Some assembly required. A lot, actually, because I’m not sure where to begin this project of putting together a new life. I know what I want – a meaningful life, fully lived, which means involving myself with other people more, not just sitting at home, or even going out, just to be missing Mike.

That means getting busy doing things I love – singing, improvising, cooking, gardening – and trying new things –  yoga class perhaps, maybe one of those wine education seminars at the big beverage depot. That’s the traditional way of meeting someone compatible – do things you enjoy to meet people who enjoy doing the same things you do.

While the traditional way may still have merit, I know the world has moved on from that hit- or- miss approach.

Now, there’s an app for that. Apps, plural. And some fancy algorithms running behind them, mixing and sorting and making a match, finding a find, catching a catch, so to speak.

So yes, yikes – online dating.

OK there I said it. I’m going to try it. I’m afraid to, and I’m going to do it anyway.

I think I’ve got a good few woman years left in me and I’d like to make the most of them.

This holiday season I’ve been humming to myself, “Santa Baby, put a new man under the tree, for me…one who’ll treat me respectfully…”

We will observe certain rules (this rule thing, it’s getting to be a pattern with me, no? (See “Middle Aged Woman Rules” and “Thanksgiving Rules”). As with the others, I reserve the option to add, alter or abandon these rules. I have rules regarding political views, but I promised no politics in this place – so I’ll keep those to myself. I think my other rules will pretty well take care of them anyway. So here goes (advice on this from those with experience, good or ill, welcome):

  1. Straight male. No confusion there. OK, that’s a start.
  2. No smokers. Non-negotiable.
  3. No married men. Ditto.
  4. No motorcycles. Double ditto.
  5. I will try not to make instant decisions based solely on physical appearance – swiping right – or is it left? – I’m trying to be a better human, one who shows kindness to others, and I’d like to find someone with the same aspiration – there are a few exceptions  (no tattoos, no weird piercings,  no man-buns or ponytails, no ungroomed facial hair – hey, wait a sec, since when am I so special, and so young, that man-buns, ink, pony tails and shaggy beards would be a problem? get a grip, ms. ridiculous!)
  6. All meetings, if any, will occur on neutral turf in public places until further notice.
  7. No man-splaining. Ejector seat on that one.
  8. Must be able to recognize Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart and the original BoDeans on first try. OK, maybe the second try.
  9. Likes the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Cubs.  But see rule # 7 above.
  10. Bonus points: likes, or will at least tolerate, attending the opera and musical theater. And super-spectacular bonus points: has read all of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series, more than once.
  11. Thinks I’m funny, charming, attractive and smart, and likes the roundness of me, and won’t shush me when I sing. Likes my singing.

Like Mike did. Mike liked my roundness. My round head, round face, round bottom. And he took delight in my singing, my ability to vocally mimic the piccolo trumpet descending line in the Hallelujah chorus (BAH! Bah ba ba ba baaaaah!) and my ability to burst out in Puccini along with WFMT when it came on.

I’m sensing the need for a twelfth rule –

12. No trying to recreate or recapture what I had with Mike.

That’s gone. There will never be another Mike and I have to try hard not to impose expectations of a past life on a new man, but instead carry that past life with me, forward into a new future.

Starting from scratch. Starting over, starting again, carrying on, moving forward. Perhaps the best person for me will be someone who has been through a loss like I have, and is trying to carry that loss forward into a new and different life.

Someone who “gets it” about being a parent to a young adult with differences, who understands that this nest isn’t empty and isn’t likely to be for many years to come, long past when others are visiting grandchildren and going on cruises. And who is ok with that.

Good luck with that. I’ll have to try to write an honest profile of myself, the ridiculous woman, that won’t send a nice man running for the exits.

That’s going to require some major assembly – and a lot of hope and confidence. Widow goes a-wooing – in which a ridiculous woman attempts to find new love via mechanical matchmakers.

I’ll let you know how it goes – I’m sure there’ll be some cursing and crying along the way – poorly written or misunderstood instructions, or none, bolts and washers misplaced, the assembled result not quite level, but sturdy and beautiful just the same.

I hope.

Memories in Minutiae – and in Music

…when all six cans had been used…I found myself automatically pulling out a pair of scissors to cut the plastic rings apart….

Stuff I haven’t thought about in years comes back to me suddenly, triggered by the most ordinary things – things like a six-pack plastic ring thingee. I haven’t seen one of those for quite a while, because, due to its ability to blow me up into a gigantic beach-ball shaped human, I gave up beer several years ago. I used to buy it exclusively in bottles, anyway. Don’t really ever buy soda or much of anything else in six-packs of cans, held together by those plastic rings and I haven’t, for years.

But there is a type of diet mixer that I discovered recently that I can only get in those held-together-with-plastic-rings six packs.

And when all six cans had been used up, I found myself automatically pulling out a pair of scissors to cut the plastic rings apart.

I froze in the middle of this action, remembering why I was doing it and where I first heard of doing it, cutting those plastic rings open.

I was doing that to protect sea life, particularly dolphins, who I was told had been found starved to death, their noses (beaks? mouths? snouts?) stuck inside those plastic rings.

I was told this on our honeymoon, when Mike and I swam with dolphins. The guide-trainer guy said that these plastic rings find their way into the ocean, having been washed into rivers or just dumped overboard by some careless boater, and dolphins get their noses stuck in them, and he asked us to always cut them open.

So I have been cutting those rings open ever since.

Our honeymoon was a little over 25 years ago, and swimming with dolphins, even as an educational exercise, is now considered inappropriate.  Some argue it is even cruel to these amazing beasts. I’m grateful I got to have a close-up experience with these creatures, and I got to discover how soft their skin feels to the touch, but even then I could have done without the obligatory flipper-flapping and jumping through hoops.

I hadn’t thought about our honeymoon in ages (maybe because there was a video of our dolphin experience that our child watched incessantly for probably more than a year running, so I’d had enough of remembering that) but then zap all of a sudden, there it was, front and center, because of something as ordinary as the six-pack plastic ring thingee.

A few days ago, I went alone to the bookstore to do something Mike and I had done annually at Christmastime – to try to find a hidden gem or two in the bargain bin of CD’s in the music section.

And what I found was a drastically reduced bargain bin, and a supply of CD’s that had largely been supplanted by – vinyl records. Which the hipster Millenial generation has recently re-embraced, playing them on weird vertical turntables, and insisting that the sound is better than on CD’s.

And these vinyl records were priced at TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS!

Oh, bless you, hipsters, bless you, Millenials – because of your newfound enthusiasm for vinyl, the price of the (still drastically reduced supply) of CD’s in the bargain bin seems to have gone down a bit. And you have inspired me to ‘more appropriately price’ my old vinyl records at my next garage sale – authentic, original 1970’s relics! Rare gems! Get ’em while they’re hot! A bargain at $15 bucks per LP! (up from fifty cents! Ha!)

But my trip to the bookstore took on a mood of melancholy when I saw how slim the pickings were in that CD bargain bin – many that we already own, some that I just will never be able to bring myself to buy (Mariah Carey Christmas, just sayin’) and others that didn’t seem quite worth the risk. Nevertheless, I persisted.

I found one of the Boston Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler conducting.. Fiedler was the conductor of that orchestra when I was a child, and a favorite in our house.  I found another of the same orchestra when John Williams was the conductor.Each less than ten bucks. Score!

I found the soundtrack to The Polar Express  really fun and well produced, also less than ten bucks. Bingo.

One pricier new one by Sara McLachlanfor my young adult, which was surprisingly OK, especially when Emmylou Harris’ voice showed up unexpectedly.  Ring the bell.

And one from The Piano Guys who have been all over the internet, and oddly, for a group called “the Piano Guys” seem to feature a lot of cello. But cello is my favorite instrument (OK, now I’ll have to write a post about my never-ending search for the perfect recording of the Bach cello concertos) so that one was fine, too.

But there were no really weird or funny ones, the kind that you think, oh man, it may turn out to be awful but for $4.99 I just have to hear this! A few old Frank Sinatras (already have them) and a Rosemary Clooney (maybe next year, if there are any CDs next year) and, inevitably, Elvis.

Streaming may take over entirely when the hipster fad for vinyl fades. And then I guess I’ll listen to new Christmas music projected from my phone to the bluetooth speaker that came as a freebie with the last new phone I bought for Mike – I’ll put it next to the picture of him on the little side table by my Dad’s chair, where I sit deep in the night, “regarding the tree,” with only the outside lights and the tree lights lit, just as Mike and I used to do together at Christmastime.

They say (and I saw, with my Dad’s decline) that memories of music last the longest. When Dad could no longer speak, he could still sing and recognize songs and music. And whatever the medium, CD, vinyl or stream, the memory of Mike lives with me in the music he liked; at this time of year, the music he chose from the much better selection in the much bigger bargain bins of the past. Mike’s choices invariably turned out better than mine.

A week or two ago, as I was “wondering as I wandered” out under the crisp black winter sky, “where are you out there, loves? Hanging around with Orion?” –  just as I thought that, and turned to go back in the house, I saw a meteor: a shooting star that blazed, then faded.

As Mike did. As will we all, eventually.

Our aduilt child has been anxious lately – checking in, “you’re good Mom, right? You’re here in this world, with me? Dad’s in the next world. A day without Dad. But you’re good, right?”

Yes, lamb. I’m good, as long as I can listen and sing, and hear the sound of your Dad’s voice singing along to Vince Gill’s recording of Breath Of Heaven (Mary’s Song) or Pavarotti’s O Holy Night in my memory. I listen deep in the night, while regarding the tree, to the music he chose for us for Christmas.

Getting a Handle on Handel

I would never find the perfect recording… two favorite recordings … come closest to what my ears need Messiah to be..

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There’s no escaping it this time of year (even though it was probably written for Easter), but why would you want to? From do-it-yourself to professional performances, Messiah is pretty much required Christmas music and hearing it, even for the umpteenth time, can still be a delightful or even profoundly spiritual experience.

But what about listening at home? A few years ago I decided I would finally make a definitive selection  of which recording I would own, to enjoy at home, and sing along to (at the top of my lungs, yes, because it’s my house and I can, so there!)

It was kind of an overwhelming assignment – how to choose? There are hundreds of recordings of this masterwork.

Most of them seem to fall into one of two camps: the big, loud, huge nineteenth century versions, with large orchestras and choruses, and often, to my dismay, draggy tempos, or the nimble, smaller, lighter, often original-instrument ensembles, with quicker tempos and a less ponderous, more joyful or mysterious, feel to them.

The three features of any recording that were most important to me in choosing the one I’d listen to most often were tempos, the quality of the singers and the size and nature of the orchestra.

Which ran me straight into the mix-n-match problem.

What if there were stupendous soloists, singers I’d always want to hear, coupled with a conductor whose tempos I didn’t like or an orchestra that sounded too big? Or what if the chorus was spectacular but the soloists unknown or over-the-hill?

I quickly learned that I would never find the perfect recording  – I’d be wailing along with one of them and then all of a sudden the tempo would go south, or the soloist would run off the rails. So compromise was inevitable, and I ended up choosing two favorite recordings that come closest to what my ears need Messiah to be, and here they are:

This falls into the Big Singers and modern orchestra category, but the tempos are great and Sam Ramey – well, he’s Sam Ramey.  When he sings “I will shake…” he’ll have you trembling in your boots. Kathleen Battle is her usual crystal-toned self, nimble and birdlike and often a little too flashy, but that just gives you something to strive for in the sing-along department. Plenty of  “hey let’s see of they can do that one in one breath” moments, and usually they do. I only have this one as a digital recording so I don’t have what used to be called “liner notes,” that now usually come as booklets with the CD, but listening to this one is kind of self-explanatory. It’s just plain great.

Here’s my other favorite:

This falls into the nimble, original instruments category with a wonderful lightness, or solemnity and mystery, where appropriate. I do have this as a CD and the accompanying booklet is terrific – a very enjoyable and unpretentious music history lesson in a jewel case. The best thing about this recording to me is the wonderful surprise of hearing the “Rejoice” done in a dancy 12/8 version.

I’ve listened to a lot of other recordings and performances of Messiah, and I have a few rules:

  1. No “highlights” or “greatest hits.” Handel nearly killed himself in a frenzy of composition writing the entire thing in about three weeks, and although he changed it and reworked it a lot for different solo voices and different performances, I think it was always intended to be heard as a whole. So yes, I am requiring you to listen to the whole thing. You won’t regret it.
  2. If  you are attending a live performance, yes, you have to stand up during “Hallelujah.” I stand up at home anyway, howling along with it, often messing up my part in a fit of overconfidence – “I’ve sung this thing so many times, I know it backwards and forw…oops, missed that run there…better get out the score…where’s that score?…”
  3. Take the “one breath” challenge during “Thus Sayeth the Lord” and “Rejoice” – yes, I’m a soprano but I sing along with the other parts, including the bass, because it’s my house and I can, so there.

Messiah is the kickoff of the holiday music season for me, and once I’ve had a few good sing-throughs, I move on to the carols and the CDs that Mike and I picked up on a lark each year from the bargain bin. We listened to a lot of drek, but also discovered several unexpected gems which I’ll share in my next post and over on my Books and Music page.

Me vs. the Tree

…cute is…the best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

“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…

There’s a difference between stuff that’s just stuff and stuff that is suffused with memory..

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 Nuveau.

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

Nice is nice. But Nice ain’t funny.

“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!