The Holiday Sneak

Christmas is a sneaky holiday. It had to be said. It’s one of those holidays where, even though you know it’s coming … Even though  you’ve known this for an entire, freaking YEAR … Even though you’ve been hearing about it for months on the radio and news and advertisements … It still manages to land in your lap before you realize what’s happening. It still manages to make you scramble and rush around to try and get things ready in time for “the big day”. It’s one of those holidays for which one can never quite feel prepared or truly ready, and so we end up just tossing out our best effort and going with what we have at the moment Christmas happens. Well, I guess most of us do that. Okay … so I do that. Every darn year. Maybe I’m the only one. I hope I’m not the only one but … yeah. I might be. My Domestic Goddess abilities are definitely lacking, both in terms of skill and level of enthusiasm.

I think part of it is that Christmas comes with so many unreasonable expectations. It’s a time of year that is fraught with emotion and longing. We have to keep moving forward in life. Always forward. We have to keep living every day and remembering how every day is precious and a beautiful gift. Except for Christmas. On that day, it’s hard to continue moving forward. We look backward, toward memories of our youth, and think about the things we have lost along the way over the course of a year. Or five. Or ten. Or twenty.


Again, maybe this isn’t something everyone does. Maybe it’s just me. But I find myself approaching each Christmas with a bittersweet longing in my heart. The older I get, the more I think back to the Christmasses of my youth, when my whole family would gather together, and we would all be loud: eating and loving each other and playing rowdy games of dominoes and telling funny stories and laughing. Things felt perfect back then. Of course, they weren’t. Nothing is ever perfect in our lives. This is part of being human. But, I remember how full my heart felt back then. I remember the feeling of love and security that came from having my whole family around me. I remember what it felt like to belong. And I do remember thinking, somewhere deep within my little child-sized heart, how things couldn’t quite be more perfect or more glorious. Even then, as a child, there was a part of me that knew it couldn’t stay this way. Things change. We have to grow up. People leave us, even if we don’t want them to go.

For many years, I have gone to extreme lengths to recreate those childhood memories for myself each year. I’m not sure why. I guess part of it was that I wanted to recapture that warm feeling of completeness and safety. And, perhaps, part of it was that these were the things I knew. These were the things you “did” at Christmas, so it didn’t occur to me to do anything different. Each year, I would exhaust myself trying to get everything “just right”. And, of course, I would always fall short. Memories are sweet and beautiful. You can’t recreate them, not really. You can come close, but something will always be missing. Memories live in our hearts. They can’t come out to live in the real world.

This year, Christmas snuck up on me even more than usual. I love Christmas. I love the holiday spirit and the decorations and the carols and the special movies and the excitement and anticipation. I even love the mad rush to get everything done: tree, cards, decorations, baking, gifts.


Not this year. This year, I couldn’t get past the fact that our family will be celebrating Christmas for the first time without two of our most beloved members. There is nothing like having to unwillingly say good-bye to make you realize nothing can ever, ever be the same. No matter how sweet and perfect your memories might be, they are just that: memories. They will never be real again. Living so far away from the rest of my family, I hardly ever got to see my aunts. I hadn’t been able to see my eldest aunt for at least a couple of years, because she was very ill and frail. I was lucky enough to see my other aunt, very briefly, last summer, during my annual trip home. It’s silly to miss someone you never saw any more. And yet, I do miss them. So much. Just knowing they were out there in the world somehow made my life better and complete. I can’t explain it well, but I feel set adrift by their deaths.

And so, I couldn’t muster any Christmas enthusiasm this year. I was literally at the last minute getting out my cards and my gifts that had to be mailed. I think my husband mailed them on the very last day possible for delivery before Christmas. I didn’t care about our tree. Or any of the decorations. I filled my daughter’s Advent calendar two weeks after December started. I did manage to sit down and paint it. This was my “big” decorating project for this year, and my daughter loves the results. So I suppose that’s something. I waited until the day my parents were to arrive to do any house cleaning, so that I ended up having to do the mad rush around to get the guest room cleared out and ready for them. I was wrapping gifts right up until the night before Christmas Eve. I only baked one pie. It really has been the year of the Grinch in my Christmas heart.


But you know what this year has taught me? Christmas is going to happen, whether I choose to participate or not. Things still got done, even if they didn’t happen when I thought they should. The tree is beautiful. The decorations are up and festive. There were presents. There was a Christmas Day “feast”, cooked by my mom and me. We had a lazy, quiet day at home for Christmas: church on Christmas Eve, sleeping in a bit the next morning, presents gathered around the tree, and then my mom and I laughing and talking all afternoon as we cooked together in my kitchen. And my heart was full.

Maybe the memories of my childhood can only live in my heart. Maybe things feel bittersweet and hard sometimes because we have to keep on living, even if we don’t want to do so. Maybe things won’t ever be quite the same as they used to be. But that’s okay. It’s not what I would have chosen, but it’s beautiful in its own way. We will make new memories. We will laugh and love and make new traditions. And those will live in our hearts, too.


The Day Before

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Today was one of those days that feels like it is full of festive promise and excitement. School let out early. We are all looking forward to a nice, long, four-day weekend. My husband and I spent most of the morning running last-minute errands, which should have been annoying but wasn’t. We laughed together and enjoyed the time we had. My daughter’s evening activities were cancelled. She and I took advantage of the early school release time to eat lunch together and catch a movie. This was my little surprise to her; I purchased the tickets earlier today while we were out running the rest of our errands. I think it was a nice surprise, and it was a lovely way to spend a casual, easy afternoon.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about my childhood today. I don’t feel like I usually wax nostalgic about holidays. But there have been a lot of changes in my family this year. Perhaps that’s why I feel a bit more sentimental than I have in years past. I have been remembering the feeling of freedom that came with knowing there was time off from school. And there was always giddy excitement over waiting for our family gathering. My family was big on gathering for all of the holidays. Our get-togethers were full of funny stories and loud laughter, wild domino matches, and an endless array of mouth-watering desserts.


I grew up in a teeny-tiny house. We lived out in the country, and our house had four room. Not four bedrooms — four rooms, total, including the single bathroom. It was a cozy way to grow up; to this day, I prefer small spaces and tiny houses. My husband doesn’t share this preference, so I’ve had to get used to the feeling of a larger space around me. But that warm coziness stays with me, planted firmly in my childhood memories.

My favorite part of a holiday was going to bed the night before, full of the anticipation of what was to come, and then waking up the next morning. There would be a few moments, just after waking, when the world still felt fuzzy and new and my brain struggled to wake up and figure out just what was different about this day. I would lie in my bed and listen to the sounds of the house around me. I would hear my mom in the kitchen, the squeak of the floor marking her passage as she moved from sink to stove to table and back again. Sometimes, I would hear her talking with my dad. I would feel the mumble of their voices wash over me, the words indistinct, but the sound of it giving me a warm feeling deep in my heart. Sometimes, I would hear my mother singing as she cooked. Usually hymns. She only sings if she thinks no one can hear her, and the sound of her voice, perfectly imperfect, was beautiful to my ears. The memory of it is still sweet. As I came more awake, I would become more aware of the smells. My mom is the most amazing cook. She would be making a feast in our little kitchen: turkey, stuffing, cranberry, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, buttermilk pie, pumpkin icebox pie, chocolate pie … and, I’m sure, several things I don’t remember at the moment. And the smells of those things cooking was like magic. It’s what love smells like: the scent and feeling of all the love my mother put into every moment of every dish. There is no better way to wake up than hearing your mama moving around in the kitchen and smelling the deliciousness of the meal that would come later in the day.


In those moments, cuddled under my blankets against the chill in the house, listening to my mama work her magic in the kitchen, I felt happy. And safe. I knew who I was, and I knew, without a doubt, that I belonged somewhere. I BELONGED somewhere. As a kid,  you don’t realize what an amazing and wonderful thing this is: to know who you are and where you belong. This is the memory that stays with me the strongest. It is the memory that has come to me, again and again, today as I ran errands and sat down to figure out what I was going to take to our gathering tomorrow.

Tomorrow, my daughter will wake up in the morning. She will be huddled under her blankets. And she will hear me moving around in our kitchen, just down the stairs from her room. She will hear me walking the floor from stove to sink to table and back again. She will hear me talking to her father or to the dogs, because the dogs are always quick to help with kitchen tasks. Sometimes, I wish I was still a child. I wish that I could go back to those days when I was so sure of everything in my life, and when I felt safe, secure, and like I belonged somewhere. But I’m not a child. I’m the mama now. And tomorrow, I hope my own child hears the familiar sounds of home and holiday around her, and I hope they make her feel warm and safe. I hope she will know, in those moments, how very loved she is. I hope she will know that she belongs somewhere.

The Day After

I wanted to blog about September 11. And yet, I also didn’t want to blog about September 11. It is, of course, a very important and sad day in the United States. Everyone I know blogged or vlogged or FaceBooked about it. And, as always, it’s a day that brings up a lot of feelings and confused emotions for me. It was a day of great contradictions, where the best and the most heroic and most amazing moments of humanity existed right next to the most horrible and unthinkable ones. As always, I couldn’t manage to gather my thoughts enough to talk about all of this in a timely manner. And besides, there were a lot of other people out there doing a much better job of commemorating the day than I ever could. All these years later, I’m still not sure I have adequately parsed through my own feelings.

Most people I know remember everything about that day. They remember what they were wearing, down to the most minute detail. They remember exactly what they were doing at the moment they found out about the planes hitting the towers. Perhaps there is something wrong with me or with the way my brain processes information and memories or something, but I don’t really remember these things. I remember I was at work, but not exactly what I was doing. I don’t remember what I was wearing, either, although I’m sure it was something black. I wore a lot of black when I was working. I remember little things. Like how amazingly gorgeous that day was. It was one of those days when I felt good about life, like anything was possible. The sky was so blue. The sun was warm. The leaves had just barely started to turn. I remember standing in the break area closest to my office and watching news coverage of the first plane and thinking that it had to be an accident. Everyone thought it was a horrible accident.  Nothing else seemed possible. But then, the second plane hit. If I close my eyes right now, I can picture that second plane hitting the second tower. And I remember feeling cold all the way through. I still wanted it to be an accident, but how could it be? And then more information started coming across the television. I don’t remember much about the rest of the day.

I went home. I walked my dog. I cleaned the cat box. I fed the critters. I called my parents. I called my husband, who lived in a city hundreds of miles away. I ate dinner. I watched anime that night because I couldn’t take the nonstop news coverage. Maybe I wanted to hide away from the truth or something, but hearing other people say they had no idea what was happening didn’t feel particularly comforting to me. That night, I crawled into bed, snuggled up next to my dog and my cat, and, after quite a lot of tossing and turning, I fell asleep. Even now, as I think about it years later, it all felt so NORMAL. Isn’t that strange? With what felt like the whole world going crazy and falling apart, my little corner of life felt normal. I did all my usual things. It was almost like I could convince myself that none of it had happened. That, maybe, I had imagined or dreamed it.


Even more than that actual day, I remember the day after. Because I went to sleep in one world and woke up in another. My whole life, I felt “safe”. I guess it’s a privilege to be able to grow up feeling that way. At the time, I was naive and didn’t know this. I didn’t think about this. That feeling of safety and security was all that I had ever known. Of course, “safety” is an illusion. It always was an illusion. And, like all good illusions, it hurts when it’s suddenly ripped away. Facing reality is hard and painful. In that moment, I knew nothing would ever be the same. I knew it in a way that felt ominous and painful and just much, much too real.

At the time, my husband and I were trying to have a child — something that was an ongoing struggle for us because of fertility issues compounded by the fact that we had to live apart due to our work. It hit me, painfully hard, that my child — if I was ever blessed with a child — would grow up in a completely different world than I did. My child would never know the feeling of thinking the world is a “safe” place. My child would never know a world where people couldn’t fathom the kind of hatred that causes someone to fly a plane into a tall building. My child would grow up in a world where terrorists and hatred and cruelty are all too real. I know, really, we all grow up in that type of world. The world is cruel. It always has been. But I think the difference is that I realized I would never be able to shelter my child from those things. My innocence was gone, but, somehow, the innocence of my future child was gone, too. Gone, even before he or she could experience it.

On the day after, I woke up in my own bed in a weird, different, and unfamiliar world. I was wearing a University of Texas t-shirt and gray sweatpants. I hugged my dog to me and cried for hours.