Holidays With

Since at least 1973, there’s a place in town that has been serving two grilled doughnuts with a scoop of ice cream called a Grills With. I have a love/hate relationship with insider language like this. The dish itself sounds amazing – I have not had it – but it implies so much. What is grilled? What comes with? Can you order it without? Then is it just called a Grills? But it’s historical, you say, and of course the menu tells you! And there are other hidden features like bacon! And chocolate sauce if only you ask! You clearly do not experience restaurant ordering anxiety but I don’t hold it against you.

The winter holidays are the Grills With of my life and maybe yours, too. There’s the basic units, in our case, me, my wife, and RR and the holiday events themselves which evolve and change over time but which have been core ingredients. They are loaded with insider knowledge, for instance, there’s no way for you to know that my family always had tamales on the Eves, on New Year’s Eve we ate pizza rolls and watched 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, cinnamon rolls dethroned overnight french toast on Christmas morning in 1986, and 11pm church services were non-negotiable for everyone. There’s also no way to know that Debra and I ban family and friends prior to 10am on Christmas morning (if not longer), that I get to hang the six tiny glass ornaments, and that we do all of our shopping for each other on Christmas Eve.

That’s the Grills With for us. Then there’s all the other things you can have with it, family, new traditions, travel, weather, etc. For the last several years, my family has been adding random ingredients into our recipe. Barring the Christmas my parents lived with us, we managed to keep Christmas morning to ourselves. But, they brought with them a load of other add-ons, some of which were their Grills With, no doubt. It made for a complicated set of holidays trimmed with anxiety over unspoken requirements and unknowable “givens”. This year, my dad is gone, my mom has moved away, my sisters aren’t traveling, many of our friends are out of town, and it looks like we will be back to basics again.

Perhaps my Grills With analogy is hard to follow, but it sticks in my head as the thing that is so simple but so complicated to actually have, much like the holidays. There are many assumptions and a coded language. There’s anxiety but also enjoyment if you can just manage it. And so, happiest of holidays to you. Enjoys your own Grills With and don’t try to explain it, just dig in and savor it. I will be.

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Wait Stop

Lately, I’m spending a lot of time reminding myself to remember this moment. I’m taking mental photographs of everything and searing the remaining babyisms in my brain (the latest, and newest, clubhammer: the ending of the movie that leaves you wondering what will happen in the next movie. See: Mama, I can tell we’re going to get a clubhammer in this movie. What will Spiderman do next?! Also, if you haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse, it was great). If I get the chance to cuddle, I’m cuddling. And even though last week’s solo bedtimes were hard, I reminded myself overandoverandover that this prolonged reading/rocking/holding time was nearly past.

This is the time of year where one of the biggest growing up milestones happens. Santa. We’ve established here (and can you BELIEVE the oldest post is from 2009? You guys, we’ve been together nearly 10 years. I love you, too.) that Santa is alive and well and, no, I’m not willing to entertain your “beliefs” about the matter. After ten years, it’s like you don’t even know me. And we are not going to couples counseling. To the point, we’re fully committed to Santa. We read the books (this one, in particular, is wonderful), we make the calls and get the videos, and we discuss the vagaries of chimney negotiation and “helpers.”

I imagine this will be the last year she visits and sits next to him. Some of her friends are already too grown-up for this activity and I imagine she’ll be one of the older ones visiting him this weekend. I don’t have any particular attachment to that moment because it’s not a part of my own childhood. Santa, my father explained, is far too busy to sit around listening to kids make their case right before Christmas. No, those are just guys in suits doing good deeds. So we’re done with “lap sitting” (there are not actual laps involved, thank goodness) and I’m probably not going to tear up. Probably.

Once she says she doesn’t believe anymore we’ll have a choice. Do we go the route my family took or do we go the popular route: Yes darling, you’re right, but now you get to be the Santa Claus for other people. I mean, I’m obviously buying the Santa gifts here. It will break my heart to say it. It looks like I won’t have to make the choice this year (we’re already picking the kind of cookies to leave out) and thank goodness for that. I’m still grieving my dad, I’m not ready to lose Santa.

And Now Thanksgiving

Grief kicks everyone’s ass, right? Oh the holidays are the worst, they say. That first anniversary…the favorite moments…birthdays… Fuck them. Also, why do they have to be right?

I got through Halloween, his favorite holiday. I am hoping that’s the worst of it. It’s not though, is it? It’s equally as bad as the rest. Take Thanksgiving, for example. I don’t have many dad-specific memories locked up in this one. Sure, I can see him carving the turkey (Badly. He insisted on carving the breast in long slices rather than crosswise) but I can also see my grandfather (also badly) and my wife (beautifully). I can see him raking leaves but also insisting on inefficiently blowing them into the wind. I can see him kicking back in an arm chair with a martini, football on, and a fire blazing while we wiped away sweat, splattered gravy, and otherwise created a Thanksgiving Masterpiece while making it look easy. I can imagine what RR would say when he started puffing his pipe. She would be HORRIFIED.

But here I am anyway. I can’t decide how many to invite or even what to cook. And I’d argue that deciding what to cook on Thanksgiving is pretty much the easiest thing you can actually do. I love having huge Thanksgiving parties. Last year we numbered 23 and 2 turkeys. I remember gazing down the long table (yes, one long table for the grown-ups) and thinking, “A few more could fit, couldn’t they? And wouldn’t that be fun?” I do most of the cooking and I love that, too. I love hearing my friends and family laugh as they get to see new people and meet up with old friends that were new just the year before. I love getting out the punch bowl and filling it with homemade eggnog that is, let’s be honest, mostly cream and alcohol. I love putting our 1950s house to the hospitality test and finding that it’s down for a good time, every. single. time.

I’ve been agonizing over a guest list. Do we invite everyone? I cry. Do we keep it family (chosen) only? I cry. You, know, that’s still a party of 13. I cry. Should my mom come? We cry. Should she go to my sisters? I cry. How many pounds of potatoes for an unknown party of people? I cry. Should we cancel the whole thing? I cry. Do we go on vacation? I cry. My wife is probably crying in frustration, even though she politely does it out of sight.

Someone decided we would stay home and invite our chosen family. My mom has gone to my sisters. She asked me if I’ve ironed the tablecloth (that is so long it’s meant for a table of 16). I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we might be eating from paper plates standing in the kitchen. I didn’t tell it because that was ripping a small part of me into pieces. I like these traditions. Not everyone gets that. I like having to hand wash the china and silver. I like wondering if that gravy stain will ever come out of the linens. I like saving our money so we can afford to entertain everyone.

I’m going to cry. Hell, I’m crying right now just thinking about it and I’m sitting in a coffee shop. This is only a tiny bit better than last week when I cried in my office, got my sandwich wet, and had to go to a meeting with no mascara and a red nose.

Fuck this. And, Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Post -Dad Halloween

I wrote this last week. Today is Halloween and it isn’t easier or better, though I hoped it would be. We have done some decorating and RR is getting to trick or treat (to her delight). All day I’ve felt prickling under my skin, like I just. cant. But I can. And I will. And there isn’t much more to say about that.

Today I saw an older man flanked by two woman moving ever so slowly down the street. One must have been his daughter – it was in the nose and the hands – and his wife, possibly, probably, judging by her own weary walk. They were holding his hands, holding him up, and I saw my dad’s late cancer gait and balance. I’m seeing my dad everywhere these days.

I’m trying not to be too critical of my grief. I vacillate between a neutral sad but not too sad and being overwhelmed by tears. I catch myself judging my own degrees of grieving, comparing it to my sisters’ (why are they still so deadlocked in sobbing) and my mother’s (if only she had just recognized the inevitable sooner) and sometimes I feel a bit proud of having kept a practical, realistic mindset throughout the last two years. And then, especially when I start crying and can’t stop (in the car, while loading the washer, walking the dogs, taking a shower), I’m frustrated for not being kinder to my family and for being prideful to begin with.

It has been worse this month. Much worse in the last week. I’m nearly crying most of the time and it just takes a tiny thing to tip me one way or the other. There’s a lot of beauty and good in my life and so, most of the time, I get pulled back in the nick of time and saved from the embarrassment and indulgence in tears for a person gone six months ago. Other times, I take the chance to break and find it’s for the memories more than anything else. Happy tears for having had those moments, but leaving me with a red nose and bloodshot eyes nevertheless.

My therapist once told me I was a pretty cryer at least. I choose to believe it, especially the times when I know it isn’t true.

Halloween was one of his favorite holidays and fall his favorite time of year. He delighted in decorating the house with tombstones and cobwebs, displayed evermore sophisticated fake limbs and rats and spiders, and ran surround sound speakers to our front walk which he could use to personally spook trick or treaters. He was kind to the little ones and devoted himself to getting at least one good jump out of the older kids. When he moved here he handed out candy while we took RR around the neighborhood. He never once had anything but compliments for my own displays which, while in the same vein as his, never have reached the heights he regularly achieved. Even last year, when he was at the end of his ability to walk at all and certainly couldn’t climb the stairs, he sat outside the house with a gruesome looking mummy bandage on his arm and a plastic, wiggling hand in the candy bowl, distributing treats and greeting the children.

My mom can’t drive in the dark. We’ll be on our own for Halloween this year. I just want to close the door, turn off the lights, and fast forward to November. We don’t have pumpkins or a halloween costume for RR (it’s coming, I’m not that terrible). My sister isn’t bringing her kids. There are no spiderwebs or tombstones. I can’t see my way through setting them up without sobbing. And that makes me cry more.

By Tomorrow

Find a place to see Christmas lights, my mom says. You know the kind where the shops are decorated and the trees are strung with white lights, she says. It shouldn’t be loud, my dad says. Or crowded, or cold, and it needs to be wheelchair accessible, says my mom. Maybe the downtown walking mall, she says.

I agree that yes there is a tree, but I’m not sure about other decorations. Not the stores. And it’s all outside, I mention, and there will be a lot of people.

No, she says, the street is lined with those trees that are lit up with the teeny white lights.

You are thinking of another place, I say. I don’t know if I can find a place that meets all of these things, I say.

Well, think harder, she says. We want to go tomorrow.

Emergency Turkey

I have a lot of rage about my mother. And my father’s latest downslide. And our recent trip to North Carolina where my wife changed her shirt for fear of being outed as gay. I have a lot of anxiety about all those things, in addition to anxiety about The State of the World and how every one of my friends reacts to it. I have anxiety about going to work. About holding my wife’s hand. About, frankly, everything. It’s a terrible mess.

Things that aren’t a mess (yet) or are a delightful mess to be in include…

that Tuesday where your Thanksgiving guest list jumps from 17 to 21.
and subsequently you are beyond grateful that the new Wegmans is offering turkeys for a song.
and you realize you actually have a table cloth long enough for a table of 17 as well as enough plates and silverware.
and you are relieved that the Foreign Service taught you one thing, which was how to have a large dinner without panicking.
and to have enough plates.
but also that your wife is an event planner, who has been around the catering block, and who also makes spreadsheets.
so you can cheat off the one from last year when you though a mere 16 was a feat.
but that, for some reason, you didn’t take Tuesday off even though you took Monday and Wednesday.
and that you scheduled meetings all day until 5.
but then you canceled them.
all of them.
and came home to thaw the emergency turkey instead.

Easter Traditions?

Tl;dr: how do you blend family traditions successfully?

The fairy tales don’t cover the very important fact that when you marry (or in any other way connect deeply) another person, you are also marrying their traditions, their families, and their memories. Cinderella and friends make it seem as though two independent individuals can get together, form a unit, and then begin their lives from some sort of rarefied blank slate. I assume. Fairy tales never actually get into the nitty-gritty of the ever after.

While I don’t strive to live up to a fairy tale, I grew up with the trappings of what my mother and sister like to call a White Picket Fence family or a Little Golden Book Family. I think that’s ridiculous not only because it’s impossible, two-dimensional, and unattainable but because those books didn’t prominently feature mental illness and its consequences. But, on a very surface level, I have a fair amount of Norman Rockwell story-lines in my past.

Now and then, Debra relays some piece of family history or experience for which I don’t have context. Even without fully understanding, it helps me form an evolving picture of her family life which in turn supports our ability to blend traditions and create a reasonable reality for RR. But I often forget at the outset of each new beginning that my own experiences aren’t the same for us both and are not the correct route in any way.

Enter Easter. This is our 5th with RR and probably the first that she’s really remembered what happened last year and generated some expectations. It’s also the first year that she’s understood candy as a thing that has value.

My childhood Easter basket? A handful of jelly beans scattered into some grass in a basket, a chocolate bunny, and (in the early days) a small stuffed toy. When I got older we also got a couple of Cadbury eggs. There was an egg hunt for my two sisters and I after church, still clad in matching Easter dresses, usually consisting of two dozen hard boiled and dyed eggs and another dozen plastic eggs with jelly beans inside. Munching of jellybeans before breakfast was not happening. And, if I recall, those baskets disappeared the next day, candy along with them. Debra’s childhood basket looked nothing like this. As I understand it, there was a candy extravaganza and a few toys. I’ll bet she got to eat as many jellybeans as she wanted.

RR’s basket conundrum. I did not get the right kind of jellybeans (my family: strict adherence to large, traditional beans. Debra’s family: small beans, tropical beans.) I wanted to strip out the packaging (my family: preserve the Easter Bunny mystery. Debra’s family: who cares about the boxes?) My number of jellybeans did not align with my wife’s. My idea of how many toys should be in my child’s life did not align with my wife’s. My idea of how much candy one child should get to eat did not align with my wife’s. How did we not discover this in the previous 4 years?

And so, RR ate a lot of candy before breakfast and added another stuffed bunny to her collection. She had a wonderful time hunting stuffed plastic eggs. She and my wife spent almost an hour playing with a bubble wand. And, I shiver to admit it, went to brush her teeth for bed having just knocked back another handful of beans. It was a perfectly fine Easter, basket-wise.

That said, how do I keep from being a candy and toy scrooge? We’re probably safe until Halloween but I still have to negotiate a basket’s worth of sweet goodness. There’s a tradition at stake here for someone and, while I’m willing to let go, I can’t seem to like letting go. Suggestions?