Holidays are Joyful?

I made a choice this year: I will not be making a big Thanksgiving meal. The goal of my decision was to avoid spending the entire day in the kitchen. Yes, I love cooking, and I’m good at it. Yes, I love my family, and I enjoy feeding them. Yes, all of that.

But we have a small apartment that can’t accommodate a big celebration: One small table and three chairs total. Our “couch” is a two-seater futon, and we have no additional comfy seating. We only have two of our kids in the same time zone. We have a small fridge and smaller freezer, so after-dinner storage is an issue.

And we don’t even have a TV. What will everyone do while I’m cooking?

I’d rather have everyone over for board games and snack food, which is what we gorge on all day anyway. I’ll put out some bowls, the kids will bring what they like, and we’ll sit on the floor and laugh ourselves silly.

And no one has to get up and down tending to food in the kitchen all day.

And yet I have these pangs of sadness, entering Thanksgiving week, that are borne surely of glossed-over holiday memories, fuzzy in their lack of detail. Or maybe it’s the image of what the holiday is supposed to be, with the table groaning with food and a family sitting around it that actually likes each other.

Parts of my family like each other, and I *really* like parts of my family, but taken as a whole, my extended family should just not be in the same room.

I had hopes that my husband’s family would provide some kind of pleasant holiday experiences, but that didn’t work out the way I planned. I didn’t fit in, and in my troublesome presence, I brought my husband outside the relative comfort of his family. So now, we’re both ‘men’ without a country.

And I know lots of people just brush that aside and hang out with family anyway, because that’s what you do, or that’s what THEY do. It’s what I used to do too. I don’t have that option anymore, now that I’ve moved across the mountains and two time zones away from the family epicenter. So on Thursday, I can’t even pretend, like much of the country does, to tolerate the people I’m related to by blood or marriage. I could make the gorgeous feast my children love; turkey and my grandfather’s sausage/sage stuffing, sweet potato casserole,  Pinot Noir cranberry sauce, Tom Colicchio’s turkey gravy (seriously, it’s so good you could have it by itself and be in heaven), and the green bean casserole I made from scratch especially for my youngest, using my garden beans, an improvised mushroom sauce and homemade fried onions on the top. Despite being overstuffed, we’d find room for the pumpkin cheesecake and pecan pie with fresh whipped cream.

Doesn’t it all sound delicious? Describing food is my version of Instagram.

But I can’t bring myself to do it. All that food just for us. Maybe it’s enough to evoke my children’s memories of our own happy times. Maybe I should just cook it all so I have my own delicious meal to enjoy for the next four days.

But I can’t. The smells of those dishes alone threaten to disturb the truce I’ve made with my past. It’s easier to move into my own future without a thought of the ties I’ve cut from painful relationships, and this holiday, all of these holidays, really, have the potential to recapture me and lose me in sadness over what I’ve lost. Yes, I have cast off some of it intentionally, the family members who shot snide comments across the kitchen, the ones who refused to hide their disdain for me and shared it with my children, the ones who made insanely racist comments in front of my bi-racial children, the ones who targeted my husband with their criticism in their jovial salesman voice, telling him what a failure he is while offering him a beer.

And other things. Yes, there are other things.

Yes, I know I’m well shot of them, the ones who began my children’s education about suffering through holidays because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

But I still harbor the reflexive hope for family and love and good cheer around the holidays. When my kids lived at home, we achieved that bubble of gluttonous enjoyment suggested so lovingly by Norman Rockwell. Now that it’s just Tim and me, with the occasional (still much loved and welcome) young adult, the holes in our space yawn at me on holidays, a vortex of shame and envy.

Come Thursday, we’ll be elbow-deep in hummus, artichoke dip, carrot sticks and Cards Against Humanity. This might be a new Thanksgiving tradition, or it might be just a space holder moving me a little distance further away from the painful family past.

I will be donating a portion of the food budget I would have spent on that glorious but unnecessary feast to people who really need it. Hell, standing out on a street corner handing out care packages is a huge step up from crying at 9 a.m. over the smell of celery and onions sauteing in butter. My grandmother said the best way to stop feeling sorry for yourself is to help someone else. So that’s what I’ll do.

You won’t see pictures of my food online this week. With any luck, a bunch of us will drive out to the coast to enjoy some non-traditional sea lion watching.

I love my children. I love my husband. I love where I am in my life. I am happier now than I have ever been as an adult. During this week of reminders of what family is “supposed” to be, I will lie low, ducking the triggers that fly like throwing stars.

Grandma

This grandma looks a lot like my mother, in later years. Someday, maybe I’ll look like that. But my grandkids probably won’t be blond.

At this point, I’m just waiting for grandchildren, so Tim and I can start establishing a different epicenter of family. We’re not in any hurry, of course, since our kids have lives to explore before starting the baby parade. I know the only way to counteract the negative family history is to build a positive family history, and I look forward to doing that as our kids establish themselves in their lives.

So for now, I suppose, I’m taking a holiday from this holiday.

Six Degrees

I had a dream last night about an old friend of mine, Krista. I was helping her with a move, stationed at the new house to help unpack while others went to bring another load from the old place. While I was wandering among the boxes stacked in the garage, a family of about 10 wandered into the stacks, picking up items and asking how much they cost. They thought it was a yard sale. As I was trying to keep them from walking off with Krista’s family heirlooms, Krista appeared, and in her typical fashion, welcomed the family as if they were old friends. She was open to their suggestions of purchasing some of her things, even showing them hidden items they might like. Then she started playing the violin for them. Or viola, I guess, since that’s what she used to play.

I watched her being her kind, generous self with these complete strangers and marveled at how the Dream Krista was exactly like the Real Krista.

I’ve known Krista since I was in junior high, when she was Krista Norris. She was, by her own account, initially friendly to me because I was new to the school, having moved over from the Catholic school to start seventh grade. Krista knew and was known by everyone, but not in a “Queen Bee” way, just in her own way of being kind to people. Everyone knew and loved Krista. So she saw this shy kid feeling out of place and befriended me, and her friendship allowed me to ease into life in public school. We remained friends through high school, where I was often simply known as Krista’s nameless best friend; as a really shy person, that was okay with me.

In junior-high ritualistic fashion, I attended many sleepovers at her house, and she at mine occasionally. Her house was my preference, though, with her parents as welcoming and kind as she was. Mrs. Norris, a true southern belle, gave me the only nickname that has ever stuck (Megery), and listened with an attentive and non-judgmental ear. Mr. Norris had a warmth and humor that set in my head the way I wanted dads to be. I’m sure there were things about their family I didn’t know, as there are with every family, but in my childhood memory, the Norrises were my model.

I can hear Krista’s voice now, warning me not to put people on a pedestal. I know, I know…

What Krista’s family showed me was a different way for families to be. My family, vexed as it was by mental illness and isolation, often functioned poorly, badly regulated emotions swinging us from drama to drama. My brothers were often physically violent with each other, sometimes with me and my sister, and I crept into my shell of books and music and nature. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but life in my house wasn’t peaceful or loving. Certainly not supportive. In Krista’s family, I had the chance of feeling like I was part of a healthy group of people who loved each other.

Being at Krista’s house on the weekend meant witnessing the constant flow of people visiting the house. The family ran a funeral home right in the heart of town, and while that’s not the kind of business that encourages repeat customers, this family seemed to know everyone in town–but not in the snooty “WE know EVERYONE, darling” way. They knew people who had lived in the homeless shelter two doors down, and those who had complex medical issues, and mentally challenged people, and yes, some people in local politics, but that was never how they knew them. They were involved in church and volunteer work, and if a call came in that someone needed help, they jumped into action, connecting people in need with people who could help. Devout Christians, they lived what Christianity preaches: kindness, service, acceptance, love.

Krista was my first non-Catholic friend, and I was so sad that she was going to go to hell for being a Methodist. But it was in getting to know her family better that I started realizing that non-Catholics weren’t doomed, that people of other faiths could be good, and that the whole basis for my religious teaching (Catholic=GOOD&Heaven Bound, all others=EVIL) was flawed.

As an adult, I now realize how lucky I was to have had contact with Krista’s family. They showed me what it means to be loving, open, to share what you have even if it isn’t a lot, to accept people for who they are and not because they match your lifestyle or way of thinking. They weren’t afraid to talk about different philosophies, to argue religion, but stood their ground firmly, as people rooted in their faith tend to do.

I didn’t end up being the same kind of people Krista’s family was. I hewed to the Christian path for many years, but my life took me and my beliefs in another direction. But I tried like hell to do what Krista’s mom did for me: be kind, loving, open, and accepting for my kids and their friends, no matter who they were. I’ve tried to be just as charitable and giving as I saw them being, and to step into service when I have had the chance.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the effect Krista’s family had on me, and on the adult I have become. I am so grateful to have been allowed to get to know them, these truly good people, and to learn from them how to be an adult and how to be a parent. My children were lucky too, in that they got to know the Norrises in their childhoods, and knew these kind people as de facto grandparents. There is so much love that stems from Mr. and Mrs. Norris, and they shared it with my children. And I am so grateful.

Krista has created a life that looks similar to her parents. Her husband and she are constantly surrounded by their kids and their kids’ friends, and are involved in the community in a small business right in the center of their town. They are purveyors of coffee, kind of the opposite of funeral homes, but they serve with such love and commitment that they touch everyone around with the same kind of light and joy.

We joke that the world is connected not through six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but six degrees of Mrs. Norris, which can also be applied to Krista (Norris) Andersen. Everyone seems to know them, and everyone who knows them loves them. And with good reason. They willingly share their love with the world.

I don’t know why that dream happened to me last night, but I am so glad to be reminded of this family that touched me in ways they probably don’t even know. And I’m glad that now I have the chance to tell them. Thank you, Norris family, for showing me how to live a life of love.

A rose for Mrs. Norris

A rose for Mrs. Norris

There She Goes

The Pile

For several weeks now, we’ve been building this pile. These boxes are filled with the things Sophia will need in her new apartment. Not including the black table on which the boxes are stacked and the now-defunct TV on the right, this is her new life.

Tim expects me to be emotional when we drop her off. He may be right. But for now, my only emotion is excitement. She’s going back to her independence, back to a life she builds herself, back to the process of opening up the world and seeing what it holds for her.

We’ve been working for a couple of weeks on cooking tips, and she’s got some meals ready to prepare. She’s registered for classes and has made arrangements for transportation to campus. She’s as ready as she’ll ever be. I prepared a box of pantry items for her, something I never got to do for my sons (who are, I am certain, eating Kraft Dinner with ketchup for every meal *shudder*), and have helped her think through kitchen accessibility tools.

Will I freak out later? Maybe. Most of my Sophia-related freakouts have to do with her wheelchair tipping over on a curb, not household-related things. She’s been preparing food for herself in some capacity for a long time, and I’m certain she’ll do fine.

My overwhelming feeling for her is pride. This girl is *fearless*, and that serves her well in this world of overwhelming obstacles. That strong-willed girl I raised has turned into a fierce advocate for herself and others. She’s a battler, a champion for doing and saying the right thing. Yes, she likes to have fun (just like my mother, the party girl), but when it comes time to work, she puts her head down and accomplishes the task. Like all of us, she’s got things to figure out, levels to reach on her own best practices, and thousands of miles of unexplored roads of her own personality. She’s nowhere near finished developing into the person she’ll become.

But for this step, for the moment when she steps up to the task of taking care of herself day to day so she won’t die from cold and hunger, she’s got this. Watch her go.

Leveling Up

Now that Sophia is headed back to school, our preparations are in full swing for her next level of adulthood: living on her own in an apartment.

When she lived in the dorms, she managed her world nicely. Except for the rib fracture she sustained in the spring necessitating my assistance, she handled all disability and non-disability related issues without help. Class, studying, getting meals, doing laundry and socializing were all easy. And that’s anyone really has to deal with when you live in the dorm. She was pretty much like everyone else.

But living in an apartment, she will have to start cooking for herself. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

We’re pretty much finished acquiring the items she will need for the apartment. She’ll be rooming with three other students, and they’ve divided up everything they’ll need to buy and each person is responsible for a chunk of it, so she’s not bringing pots and pans, but she is bringing the toaster. My mom brain goes into hyperdrive considering all the different issues that might crop up. What if the pans the roommate brings are too heavy for her to use? What if the handles aren’t easy for her to grip?  I see pans at the store that would work perfectly for her, but pans aren’t our deal, so I don’t get pans. But I fret.

What we have done, however, is purchase her assigned items with her specific needs in mind. I mean, every parent does that, but when a person has OI, the needs are different. Reach can be limited, as can strength. Because she’s so short, her face is at risk for being burned whenever she goes near a pot on the stove.

Oy vey, the palpitations.

She won’t be cooking bacon on the stove anyway. I taught her to bake it in the oven.

To limit her risk, we found some excellent choices. She will have a small crock pot to use for some meals I am freezing for her to take with her so her first couple of weeks will be a little easier. No splash-face-cooking for a little while, anyway. And Tim found her a toaster oven instead of a toaster, since the front-access will be so much easier and safer for her than a top-access appliance. We found both of these new in the box on Craigslist for a fraction of what they cost new.

She’s taking along a couple of sets of small tongs as well, which she homed in on as a great accessibility tool. She’ll just leave them in places that she can’t typically reach. As long as they don’t drop down behind something (like utensils like to do), that will work great. She’s got detergent pods for doing laundry, a wonderful tool that worked really well for her when she lived in the dorms. Is it the best laundry soap out there? No. Does it use more chemicals than I would like my daughter to be exposed to? Yes. I’d prefer everyone in our family use homemade laundry soap. But is it the tool that will give her the most independence? Absolutely. And that’s where I draw my line.

We haven’t yet gone as far as getting her an electric jar opener, though I am thinking about it. Her hands are smallish, but she has gained a lot of strength in the last few years. She probably doesn’t need it.

She’s got a (really cute!) little chef’s knife and a small serrated knife for bread and tomatoes. She’ll have those flexible cutting boards. She probably won’t ever cut onions, because there’s no way to make the onion far enough from her face to keep her from being blinded by tears. I’m still figuring out the oven mitts situation, because typical ones are so huge they will dangerously interfere with her ability to grip anything.

I never worried about the boys’ first apartment setups on this level. Matt was a nerd about kitchen stuff, so he took care of it on his own. Thomas’ food choices have always been what we call “food based on a dare”, so my expectations for kitchen equipment don’t align with his needs anyway. But Sophia is really interested in cooking for herself, and making the dishes she grew up with, so I’m trying to get her set up to cook my food in her adapted world. The basic stuff, anyway. No need to jump into Meg’s Wonderful World of Baked Goods in the first go.

She’s going back to school. She’s moving into the nuts and bolts of adulthood, the “how do I take care of myself on a day-to-day basis?” stuff that can be so overwhelming when you first start out. It’s exciting, to be sure. I remember being so stoked to finally get to choose my own cereal. It’s still one of my top three favorite things about adulthood, even though I don’t eat cereal much anymore.

But the idea of deciding for yourself what you want your world to look like, to taste and smell like, that’s a powerful moment in life. And she’s starting into that realm. She’s leveling up into advanced young-adulthood, into her last burst of her educational career, into the time when she defines the direction of her adulthood.

Right now, all those thoughts about her future have been combined, organized into categories, packed into small boxes. Hell, we even had to think through the kind of boxes she could use, and how much could be packed into each box according to how much weight she can handle on her own. We labeled and cataloged the boxes so she won’t have to pull down every single one to find that one thing she was looking for. If she had to do that, she’d never find her way out of the sea of belongings. I am hopeful she’ll be able to manage the unpacking process all on her own. That’s how I’ve designed it, anyway.Life in boxes

And that’s pretty much the last of my involvement in her next step. After this, after we install her in the apartment with her roommates, she’s on her own. She has to figure out how to take it from there. We gave her the tools, now it’s on her. Just like it is on each of us when we move out on our own. I won’t ever be very far away, just a phone call and a two hour drive, and I will, of course, be there when she needs me. But she’s not the kid who will be calling for my help, which is why I’m pushing the plan-ahead factor so hard right now. She’s too independent to call for her Mama unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I’m trying to make it so it’s never absolutely necessary.

In a week, we fly to Chicago for a wedding. The weekend after that, she goes back to school. She’s pretty excited. I think I am too.

For my Children

Hey kids.

Dad’s sleeping. He needs the rest, and he’s not feeling good. So if you’re going to call him, do it tonight, okay?

While he’s sleeping, let me tell you some things about him you probably don’t know. Or maybe you do, I don’t know. But today’s definitely the day for it.

A long time ago, when you kids were very young, he made a decision. A conscious choice. It started when Thomas was born, and expanded when Matt and Sophia came into his life. His choice was to be as involved as possible in day-to-day, hands-on parenting. He wanted his kids to *know* him, and he wanted to know his kids, and not just be a figure who sailed in and out of their lives between business trips. His dad, like mine, traveled for work, and while he loves his dad, he was aware of his father’s absence, and he didn’t want to miss his kids growing up.

So even before we were married, he came over to my place after work and had family dinner with us. Sometimes he cooked, but more often (because we like food), I cooked while he helped with homework or read books or played games with the kids. He spent one night a week visiting Thomas, because he pushed hard in court for as much time as he could get.

I know you all know how hard he fought for custody. It was a major part of our lives for so long, I can’t imagine that fact slipped past you. Three years of battling in court for custody, and then revisiting the issue later when Thomas’ world became a hellscape. Those were hard years for your dad, when he was fighting as hard as he could but couldn’t convince the court that Thomas’ life was turning to shit. He didn’t sleep much.

Thomas wasn’t the only one he fought for. While the battles were different, he showed up for every single one of Matt and Sophia’s tilts as well. Every surgery, every Cub Scout and Boy Scout event, every teacher conference, every IEP. He showed up unless I asked him not to, which was rare. Single moms are treated very differently from moms who show up with a dad. I still did the talking, but he backed me up.

Do you remember those months when he was your primary caregiver so I could work? We’d exhausted every possible childcare option, a limited list when you have a child with a disability, and I was going to have to quit my job. He made arrangements to work from home so he could pick you up every day. I think Sophia was in half-day kindergarten at the time. He was on duty at my place pretty much all day. Sometimes, he even had dinner ready.

But most of the time, not, because we like food.

Every weekend, when Thomas was only with us for two days, we had family time. Not the “Dad’s got to make up for this divorce by showering the kid with expensive outings” kind of weekend, but the “hey, let’s go do something cool together and make memories!” weekend. Sure, we had our share of Navy Pier trips, but we also went to nature centers and local bike races and kids’ science centers and concerts. We really liked to do big Sunday dinners, but that became complicated with the time we had to return Thomas to his mom’s house, so we started going Sunday big breakfasts; feasts of his favorite foods, including biscuits and gravy, homemade Cinnabon rolls, omlettes, fruit salads, the works. And we’d sit around and talk and laugh and pig out.

He was not perfect. He still isn’t. I hate whitewashed reminiscence, where the ugly stuff disappears because you just want to bask in happy memories. There was ugly stuff, to be sure. We were a blended family dealing with two divorces, one unpleasant custody battle, nine surgeries, meddling in-laws, financial troubles, and (truly, the least of our problems) raising kids. There was a lot of stress, and neither of us handled it perfectly. And both of us carried a whole lotta baggage from our own histories into this little family unit, so we made some big mistakes. Not going to air that dirty laundry here, but…it’s important to admit that this was not all family bliss.

But damn, he tried. He worked his ass off to be there. For all his flaws (we’ll talk about mine later), he never stopped putting in the effort. He still does. He is not the person who just walks away when things get difficult or complicated. That’s when he digs his claws in and hangs on like his life — or yours — depends on it. Yes, his tenacity is one of his flaws; but it’s also one of his great gifts. He sets his eyes on a goal or a task or an ideal and he just will not quit.

Did you know he turned down several lucrative job offers because he refused to travel for work? He could have made a buttload of money, but he would not sacrifice the time with his kids to do it. This was not a popular choice with his family, but it aligned with his principles. This is what family means to him: time, experiences, interaction.

We both decided early on that it was important to give all of you — but especially Sophia — opportunities for experiences you might not get in the natural course of your life. That’s why the crazy stuff we did was so wide-ranging, and it’s why we hardly ever said “no” when an opportunity arose. Matt’s opportunities came largely through Scout events, which we encouraged enthusiastically. But because Soap wouldn’t have the chance to explore independently until she was older, we pushed the envelope purposely every way we could. There would be no lounging at home because it was difficult to do something with the wheelchair: we did it. Sometimes Tim had to bite down hard to keep his objections in check, but he realized the risk of her missing out was greater than the risk of injury. By and large, she came through unscathed. I don’t remember a fracture happening while we were on an adventure. Maybe I blocked it.

Dad made a choice to have a life *with* you kids. Not just to be the person who funded the adventures, but to be on the adventures with you. Not just hearing about your day from my dutiful reporting as he ate leftovers in the recliner, but to hear about it from you, to learn what was important to you, to understand your voice and your viewpoint and watch you learn. He did it all, kids. All of it. And I am really glad you got to have him as your dad. He’s pretty special not just because of his inherent skills and personality, but because of the choices he’s made.

He made almost every one of those choices for you.

So. In the inimitable words of Mike Meyers, give your father a kiss or I’ll kick your teeth in.