My dad died. And I’m still waiting to cry for real.

I didn’t cry very much at the funeral.

I didn’t cry very much in the days before, either, but that was due to busyness. There were plans to make, flowers to choose, a Mass to plan, a scurry to find an organist to replace the one the church has a contract with but I haven’t ever been able to stand. There was shopping for dresses for myself and my daughters, a new pair of khakis for my son. Details. It was all very busy. There was also the small matter of writing something, since I’d agreed to speak at the funeral. I might claim to be a writer but I am not a public speaker. I have been known to weep while giving poetry awards to middle school students.

Any tears I had inside me must be cemented away, if I was going to get through. Any leaking, the dam would explode.

 

M&D 50th invite

On May 25th, we had a big party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Steve and his wife Trish arranged everything at their club in Riverside, Connecticut. It was an achingly perfect near-summer day, weatherwise. It was an achingly perfect near-family celebration, too — my cousin Maria and her family from Massachusetts had a conflict, as did my cousins Marcello and John, but nearly everyone else came, including Dad’s brother from Florida, Uncle Jack, who had been struggling with some health issues so the mere fact of his flight was more than remarkable, plus his daughter, my cousin Sue, and her husband, also from Florida, with their adorable daughters whom some of us had never me yet. Aunts, uncles, cousins, generations laughing together, a big blue sky atop a crystal water, all to celebrate my parents’ love story.

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It was kind of idyllic, the oceanfront scenery and the kids frolicking and the grownups talking and everyone laughing and the picture-perfect day that lasted well into the evening. I could almost forget how, despite remembering every tiny detail for my little family’s outing, from bathing suits to changes of clothes and shoes and extra diabetes supplies, I actually forgot the insulin. So Ray had to do a 30-minute-each-way back to my brother’s house after Mitzi announced her pump was empty. Except for that, the day was nearly perfect, full of hugs and laughter and speeches and being-togetherness.
Mom and Dad glowed.

Dad’s cough didn’t seem to trouble him very much that day. IMG_4991

The cough started a few months before, I think. Doctors treated everything from allergies to acid reflux. Often keeping Dad from sleeping, my sister, who had been living with my parents in the past few months, confided that it sounded tubercular, half-joking. I know the cough was exhausting, even preventing him from traveling a few hours north to us in Massachusetts, for my Joanna’s first communion in mid-May. But by the anniversary party, he seemed okay. A rumble here, a rustle there. It didn’t stop him from standing up during the meal and, for the first time in my entire life, overcoming his introversion to talk about his love for my mother, the love they shared, the journey they travelled together.

No, the cough didn’t seem to be a problem whatsoever that day. May 25.

After that weekend, I settled back into the end-of-the-school-year routine at home. Tests, projects, field trips, six sports spread among the four kids. Schedules. A week after we got home, on June 9, Mom called to say Dad was in the hospital with extreme stomach pain. After four days of tests, heart issues, more tests, a couple of biopsies, Dad was released with a diagnosis. Liver cancer. On Monday, June 16th, a meeting with doctors resulted a treatment plan. The news was grim, but we are La Famiglia, and we all rolled up our sleeves. Life had never been easy for Dad or Mom or their road together, and they never did anything but work hard and believe in each other — and the rest of us, well, we were going to give some ass-kicking wherever required on our loved ones’ behalf. Liver cancer was no exception.

During that week, Dad was exhausted, in-and-out-of-awake, sleeping mostly in his office armchair. He had perked up on Father’s Day when some of the local grandchildren came by with cards and hugs, but was too exhausted to talk when we called from Massachusetts. Rest was what he needed, for sure. Phone calls could wait. Father’s Day was just another day, and another day was coming. We believed that.

A PET scan was given on Thursday, June 19, my kids’ last day of school. It was a struggle for Dad to get to the car, let alone into the machine, but surely it was the various medications interacting in bizarre ways. Of course. It couldn’t be more than that. A call was in place to the doctor. Obviously, an adjustment in meds was required, so we wanted to get on that right away.

All along, I talked with Mom every day, as much as I could. She was honest, ever faithful, and always stoic. Always the next step. Always the fight. Never the fear. Always the positive, the what’s next, the pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-get-it-done. Ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Always.

Almost always. I knew things might be serious one day that week when she almost cried. She almost said words of despair. Almost said words that were fatal but she knew if she said them she’d never get to take them back. Almost words. That’s when I started to get scared.

The kids had their last day of school on June 19. On June 20, the phone rang at 7 a.m. Now, in the school year, the phone ringing at 7 a.m. is commonplace. But that day? That day we had no school and the phone rang and the monotone phone voice said “call from CONNECTICUT” and Ray leapt out of bed before I had time to find my glasses on the nightstand and I knew some kind of shit had hit some kind of fan because no one ever calls at 7 a.m. on a non-school day. Ever.

It was my sister. Dad was back in the hospital via ambulance. Unresponsive. No word about anything. No, you don’t need to come yet. I told Ray to get in the shower to go to work. I smoked a cigarette. I made Ray his breakfast and lunch and had some coffee.

Forty-five minutes later, the phone rang again. My sister again. She spoke a bunch of words that made no sense to me, words like system fail. No recovery. Come now. I wasn’t sure if it was her tears that muddled the meaning of her words, or my own mind. I made her put Mom on the phone. Mom didn’t cry or falter. The words were the same as my sister’s had been, but Mom’s words were clear, bold-printed.

Come now. But don’t drive yourself. I don’t want to worry.

Two hours later I was on a train. Three hours after that, I stood in the ICU at the hospital, staring. Dad was hooked up to 19 different tubes. I knew he would be; my brother Harry had told me what was going on when he picked me up at the train. But hearing and seeing were different things. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say or do. Then Mom leaned over and kissed Dad and said, “Honey, Jennifer is here, and look at all her curly hair, and do you know she came down all the way from Massachusetts just now just to see you” and Dad rolled his eyes in my direction and sort of sat up and maybe he saw me so I kissed his forehead and I said, “Hi Daddy. It’s okay. It’s. Okay. I’m here, it’s Jenny and it’s okay.”

Ray drove down that night with the kids. In the meantime, Mom, my three siblings and I had met with doctors and with the hospice team. Dad’s liver was so far gone and his other organs were slowly shutting down that there was nothing left to do but keep him comfortable until the end. Later that evening he was moved to hospice. Until the end.

IMG_7741Less than three weeks earlier we’d been toasting 50 years of marriage. Less than three weeks since we’d spoke and loved and hugged and been alive together.

The next day, my mom’s sister and brother-in-law came down from Massachusetts. Mom’s little brother came up from New Jersey. My kids came to the hospital too. By then, Dad was comfortable, tubeless. He looked like he was sleeping, even snoring hugely from time to time, which made my kids laugh. They murmured to their Pop in varying awkward kid ways, first unsure what to do, then seeing it was okay to give him a kiss and laugh and tell him a story or two. There were muffins. The kids were okay — hugging and touching and awkwardly stroking Dad’s arm — even if the adults were less so. The nurses said Dad wouldn’t last the weekend. But they were wrong.

He was waiting, it was clear, but what for? My oldest nephew, Dad’s oldest grandchild, aged 15, with whom there was a tremendous bond, finally visited, after an understandable internal struggle. My mom’s littlest sister, who was only 12 when Dad and Mom married, and who barely remembered a life without Dad, was able to talk to Dad on the phone. So did Dad’s brother in Florida. Finally, my niece went to the hospital. The same age as my Mitzi, my niece and Dad had more than a tremendous bond, and I know she also struggled with going or not. How to see him last. How to remember him. My heart broke for her.

M&D175And yet Dad waited. There were a couple of times in the next day that he stirred and I smoothed his forehead and he opened one eye and seemed to see me. “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.” And then he’d settle back into a silent sleep, until the next time he stirred and someone else — Mom, Michelle, Harry, Steve — would comfort him once more. Sleep was easy with morphine and Adavan. Michelle and I played the Eagles on our phones propped on his pillow, and the five of us laughed and told stories to Dad (with Dad?) for hours. It was the longest period of time the six of us had been alone together since the summer days of New Hampshire.

On June 24, we half-heartedly wished my brother Steve a happy birthday. I meant to get him a Hostess cupcake from the convenience store on the way to the hospital that morning, but got distracted. By then, the days were weirdly the same, at least for me. The kids and I were staying with my brother Harry and his wife, Michele, since Ray had returned north for work that couldn’t be put off. Harry, Michele, and I would wake up, get the seven kids ready for the day, and take care of morning business. By noon, Michele would take the kids to the pool and Harry and I’d go to the hospital. Around 7, I’d return to give her a break. Harry would usually stay for a bit longer.

On June 24th, Steve’s birthday, Dad had developed a rattle in his throat, due to the failing of his swallowing reflex. I thought he looked uncomfortable; the nurses acknowledged my concern, though all agreed that the brow furrow was a natural wrinkle in his forehead, nothing new, but if it continued and I was still concerned, they’d give more Adavan. I didn’t argue. Usually, Mom and my sister left around 6 p.m., as they’d been there since around 8 a.m. That night, on June 24th, no one seemed eager to go. Finally Mom and Michelle left, Mom remarking that maybe she’d come back with Michelle that night. (Michelle had taken to returning around 9 p.m. Sometimes Steve was there and Harry. Or Michele. The hospice floor had no visiting hours — you could come and go 24/7, because the death watch had no time frame and even the security guards knew it).

 

I left around 7, knowing Michele needed a break from parenting my kids. She brought my brother dinner and some ice cream. They sat with Dad and talked softly with him for awhile. When the nurses came to adjust Dad’s body position, Harry and Michele left to give the nurses space. They probably hung out near the elevators, away from the patient rooms, softly chatting about everything and nothing. A few minutes later, an orderly ran up to them. Come. Now. So they did.

And Dad drew his last breath.

My sister Michelle was on her way to the hospital when Harry called with the news a few minutes later. So Michelle turned around on the highway, to go home to get Mom, who only ever wanted during all of this to be with Dad at the very end.

And Harry called me, too, as I was wrangling a houseful of kids to their beds. When my sister-in-law came home I went to the hospital. Mom and Michelle were already there. I held Dad’s hand until the warmth faded and his skin was cold and still I could not let it go, kissing his forearm repeatedly, like I do sometimes with my children when they let me. And then a few minutes more than that. I finally suggested Mom wanted privacy with Dad. So we all left.

I have no idea what a person says to someone who has been the bulk of her world since age 15 or so. Is there any way to say goodbye to half of yourself?

It was June 24. Less than a month since celebrating 50 years of marriage, plus a few years of love before that. Dad was only 71 years old.M&D200

The next day I told my kids.

Then there was a lot of busy, including the pressure of writing and speaking. As usual, I wrote until the last minute.

I had yet to really cry. Even at the wake, when I watched the grandchildren finally take my advice of writing notes to their Pop — thankfully, Mitzi knows I always keep a notebook in my oversized purse — one by one tucking them into the pocket of his suit coat. At the wake, where so many people came to share their love and shock, some from so very far away it was almost ridiculous and yet so very touching I couldn’t catch my breath.

I had yet to cry.

Even at the funeral. Watching my husband and cousins and friends carry Dad’s coffin to a hearse. Spreading a cloth on the coffin. Listening to the prayers and songs I’d helped to choose, all expressed with supreme love and compassion by people who actually cared about Dad and me and my sister and brothers and mostly my mom. I had yet to cry, even when I had Ellie on my right, silently bawling, and Joanna on my left with her own quiet nonstop tears and next to her was Cooper and then Mitzi and how could my arms ever be that long and strong to comfort them? So I stretched and they cried, and I curled around their tears so tightly that I couldn’t shed my own.

My brothers spoke, at the end of the service, and oh my gosh, so eloquent and they too cried without shame but continued their words even through their tears and those words leveled me. And they broke my heart, with their words and their tears and their nakedness.

I still didn’t cry.

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I’m supposed to be a writer. Not a speaker. My dad wasn’t much of a speaker, but he was overflowing with emotions and words that begged to come out. The only time I heard him talk in front of a crowd was the month before, on May 25th, to honor and express love for my mother.

My dad died on June 24th.

I had to speak. I had to be as brave as he had always been.

So this is what I said. I wrote these words and I stood up and read them out loud and I did not cry.

 

 

I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say today, and some wise writer friends, who have come to know Dad a little bit through Facebook and my own stories, suggested that I just write him a letter.

So I did.

Daddy, 

As I write this, I am sitting on Harry’s deck just after I woke up. It’s the sort of early morning you’d really enjoy. The landscape is glistening with last night’s rain, and the air has a chill that belies the predicted awful humidity. The sun is starting to peek over the tall trees Harry keeps threatening to cut down, and there’s a faraway sound of a neighbor doing yard work. It’s the sort of morning where you’d be up early, as usual, and if you had no appointments or clients, you too would be outside, blowing the mess off your deck, or maybe just sitting, as I am, watching the sun climb in the sky, thanking God for another day to enjoy and for all the people we’re lucky to love.

I was trying to think of my earliest memory of you, but very old memories are my brothers’ area. Sometimes I think I write in order to find my memories, every word scribbled in hopes of unlocking moments in time from long ago when I was very young. It’s often hard to separate true memories from family legend — all the stories told so many times that they have a life of their own, or from the hundreds of familiar photographs in albums or in slides that are burned in my mind 

I guess it doesn’t matter how the memories were created, just that they exist.

I seem to have more of a sense-memory, feelings, recollections of touch and sound. For instance, I remember you hardly ever got to sleep late, but when you did, there was nothing better than to crawl into bed with you, to be silent and close against your still form. Even in those quiet moments, I knew you would always protect me. 

As a child, I took you for granted, as children do. As an adult, I can look back and truly appreciate all the amazing sacrifices you made, your uncomplaining energy and commitment to whatever you were doing. I took for granted that you left the house every day by 6 a.m. to go to work, and didn’t get home again until around 8 p.m. The five-hour-each-way trips you made to New Hampshire every weekend in the summer, just to be with us. I know that you weren’t always able to be there for every performance or field day or tennis game or band competition, but I never resented that, because I knew that you’d be there in a heartbeat if you could, and you were with me in spirit. Because there were so many times you were there for real. The New Hampshire moments, the times at Indian Lake where you pushed me back and forth in that red plastic boat, the time that you and Uncle Jack built the deck and we had lobsters in the wading pool, weekends of raking leaves when we “helped” and you didn’t care that we made a bigger mess for you to clean up, the way you brought me things like Swarovski crystal figurines whenever you took a faraway trip. 

You were also there for the middle and high school years, when drama overflowed in my world. You didn’t always understand what was going on, but you always gave me a hug and assured me that, whatever it was, it was going to be okay. Especially if I went in another room and talked with Mom. Despite the drama, I think it always made you happy to have so many of our friends in and out of the door – especially if it meant that you could advise them on their future, or tease them mercilessly – especially to tease them.

What a teaser you always have been! That sense of humor! It’s hard to picture you without a smile on your face. From corny jokes, to quoting goofy movies with us ad nauseum – there was always a laugh to be had with you. And you took it as well as you gave it, whether it was when we were little and discovered that it REALLY bugged you to have your socks pushed down, so we sat on the floor in front of you and pushed them down. You pulled them up. We pushed them down. This could go on for hours, it seemed. And you never complained! At least to our faces. Or when we were older, and we would brush out teeth in any other room but the bathroom, because it drove you absolutely bananas – it was especially effective if you had your back to us so we could gesture at each other while you pretended not to notice.

No joke ever got too old with us.

And so it went, through my college years (yes, I know, who can keep track of my colleges, ha ha ha) and through first jobs and various moves (let’s not ever speak of Miami), until I wound up in Boston and started a new chapter. For every step you were there, not judging, offering advice when asked (and sometimes when not). You never forgot to remember – every time the mailman brought a white envelope with your caps-only handwriting, I couldn’t wait to see what article you’d clipped from the New York Times just for me. There would also be a short note of love and a sage bit of wisdom – plus a $20 bill, because you not only believed in supporting my spirit, you also believed in supporting my “miscellaneous fund” account.

By the way, I don’t think that any of what I just said is proof that I am your favorite. I know that, like all parents, you never actually had a favorite – you were most happy with whoever was bugging you less at the moment. So, I won’t even mention the idea that you had a favorite, because I know you have always loved us all equally. There are no favorites. [points to self] 

So, okay, I really did enjoy the occasional $20 bill, but especially over the last fifteen years, I mostly enjoyed your words of inspiration. It’s kind of funny how your journey of recovery almost exactly aligns with my journey as a parent and as a serious writer. No one has been a bigger cheerleader for me – not only for my writing, but more for “me.” You learned some tough lessons about taking care of yourself, and you always shared them – you were the first to tell me to leave the dishes or laundry, and go for a walk. Forget the vacuum – work on my books. You always knew I’d be responsible, but you never wanted me to forget myself in the process. You became a person who tried to live entirely in the moment, and how I loved that about you! Especially when it meant a daily Buddha quote in the family email. (Though I really loved it when you started sharing bad jokes, especially the lawyer ones, but don’t tell Ray that.) 

I hope that right now you are enjoying an endless Christmas Eve dinner with all the grandparents, and the Christmas Day dinner too, with Mom’s cioppino and manicotti and bracciole, with Grandpa’s unlimited spoonfuls of pasta, and walnut-stuffed figs and filled cookies and a little anisette in your coffee, and there is card-playing and tons of laughter — and if possible, that this all happens on a forever lake where the sun shimmers off the water and the breeze tickles your face and the air is soft all around you. And even though we never won a single Christmas game as partners all those years, if they have those too where you are, I hope you continue our tradition of always being one of the pair with the best sense of humor. Also that pugnacious thing for which Uncle Frank always threw an award our way. Wise-cracking and never-giving-up, that is us. I couldn’t have asked for a better kindred games spirit. 

Oh, Daddy, how lucky I was to win you and Mommy in the cosmic parent lottery! How lucky my kids are to have you as their Muggy and Pop – and not just for the goodbye Oreos or for the unlimited computer time or the nonstop pool time or Chinese food for twenty. I know you didn’t always think the sun rose and set on the 10 of them, at least not every day, but danged if you and Mom didn’t always made each kid believe it was so.

There is so much to say, Daddy, a million moments to remember…but I think you already know. I think you always did.

And you know what? It turns out, I remember them too.

Every one.

Huh. Imagine that. I remember.

Daddy, I love you.

Take it easy.

 

My dad died on June 24, 2014. He was 71 years old.

The tears have come a bit, here and there. But I’m afraid to let them flow, unchecked. Because if they come, I don’t think they’ll ever stop.

Maybe I just miss him too much to cry.

Or maybe right now, tears are not enough. Not nearly enough.

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An October anniversary in mid-July

For reasons beyond me, Mitzi, upon waking this morning, chose to not to watch her usual shows (Trading Spaces: Boys Vs. Girls or Avatar), but instead put in mine and Ray’s wedding video.

The thing about our video is that it’s long and unedited.  We decided not to hire “wedding videographers” and instead hired a couple of my brother’s cinematography colleagues.  We wanted two cameras shooting everything, to be edited later into a cool streamlined narrative of the day, hopefully by my brother who is immensely skilled at that sort of thing (it being part of his job, and all).  Ten years later we still have only the raw footage (though to be fair to big brother, he has yet to edit his own wedding video from 1997).  So, there’s not one, but two tapes, each over four hours long.

And the first tape rolled all morning.  The kids watched all of it, to varying degrees of interest.  So did I, because watching one’s wedding video is something one usually only does once a year, on the Anniversary, when reliving the Big Day is something one is more likely to think about.

It was bittersweet.  Ten years has brought an awful lot of changes to our lives, mostly for the better, but there is a tinge of sadness as well, seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those no longer with us.  I smiled and let tears fall when it came time for me to dance with Grandpa, while watching an animated conversation with Grandma as she offered me the wisdom of her lifetime marriage, while seeing Uncle Nick dance with my cousins and laugh with Uncle Frank.  There were the faces of couples broken by divorce.  Faces of friends who have drifted away.

But the sweet — oh, the sweet was delicious.  The readings by my aunts at mass; the beauty of my bridesmaids, heart-close all of them.  The song my cousins Checka and Maria sang, accompanied so beautifully by Maria’s husband John on his guitar. Ray’s teary face throughout the ceremony (which I assume was from joy, rather than horror at marrying me).  The speech by Mark, Ray’s best friend, who is the reason we found each other.  Ray serenading me at the reception.  Dancing with my father.  Laughing with friends.  The October beauty of the day, leaves glowing in splendid fall hues in the sparkling sunshine, and, later the cloudless night glittering with stars as our guests danced and ate and drank and spilled onto the porch to soak up the weather and revel in the glory of the happiness Ray and I had found.  It was even sweet to remember the way that, despite my admonitions (“I don’t care if it is the World Series!”), Ray’s cousin smuggled in a wireless TV so everyone could watch Ray’s beloved Yankees win.

Remember feeling more beautiful and perfect and right in a way I’d never felt before.

The kids were curious, exclaiming when they recognized family members, asking about people they didn’t know.  Strangely, they didn’t recognize their dad.  He wore his hair different then and I guess today it’s a little more gray and he looks ten years older.  Or at least, that was my theory until I said, “Well, how come you know who I am?” and without a beat, Cooper said, “‘Cause you’re the one in the white dress!”  (I guess even they noticed my hair is two shades darker, my body 30 pounds heavier.)

Watching the video, remembering that perfect October day ten years ago. was a fun respite from the oppressive July heat.  It makes me wonder why we don’t watch that tape more often.

A wedding is just a ceremony — albeit a profound one — but it’s one day, a party, a joyous occasion.  A marriage is harder, filled with not only potholes and tragedy and struggle but also with boundless joy and infinite moments of simplicity and desire and hope.   It’s often too easy to forget where you came from, you and that guy holding your hand on the shabby couch, easier to be smothered by the bad stuff that every life has, no matter who you are.

The wedding video.  Put it at the top of your queue, instead of the latest Netflix release.  Remember why you started this journey in the first place.

No matter what day the calendar says, any day can be your anniversary.

Drowning in stuff — how to let it go?

I will admit it.  I’m somewhat of a pack rat.  It’s not that I save any old thing, just things that are meaningful to me.  And for the past 8 years that includes kid stuff.  For them, I save almost everything.

When it was just one or two kids, it was harmless enough.  I’d save stuff like a bib my aunt embroidered for Mitzi, Cooper’s first soft baseball, baptism gifts, mementos from birthday parties.  And I even got a lot of it into scrapbooks.

But then life kicked in, and brought two more kids, and suddenly I was inundated with more stuff than I thought possible.  I’ve gathered items for Ellie and Joanna’s someday-scrapbooks (yeah, who has time for that?!), put aside drawings and crafts and schoolwork and special tokens from beloved relatives.

And with bigger kids comes more schoolwork.  I can’t bear to throw any of it away.  As it comes in, I pile it into my “to-be-filed” section of my office, which is actually a floor space between a wicker trunk and bookshelf.  Today, that pile towers over 2 feet.  I definitely need a secretary.

But I remember how fun it was to look back through my own stuff that my mom saved — it still is, frankly, even seeing those report cards that always glared a C in handwriting.  And I know that it makes Ray a little sad that he has virtually nothing from his own youth.

So I save it all for the kids.  Someday it will collect dust in their own attics.

I know I have to pick and choose — I’m running out of space and we’re just getting started!  But how?  How do parents out there choose what, if anything, to save?  How many crayon drawings by your 3 year old (and we know how many reams a preschooler can color in one rainy afternoon)?  How many spelling tests?  How many shakily-written stories with stick figure illustrations?

I need help!  If my sister were nearby she’d come over and give me some tough love about decluttering.   My mom, having spent many days cleaning out her own parents’ attic, would probably join in.

Sentimentality is wonderful, helping us to remember the past and those with whom we’ve shared it.  But when is it too much?

Please, give me advice!

Getting Ready for Christmas

It comes without ribbons!  It came without tags!

It came without packages, boxes or bags!

So it was for Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, and so it is for us all.

I am so not ready for Christmas.  As usual.

img_11031On the other hand, what does “being ready” mean?   Having no funds, I had little shopping.  I decorated as much as I could, to be festive.  Exterior lights were hung, as was fresh garland and wreaths.  My kids are too young to have expectations.  Everything is fabulous to them.  Which is part of why I adore them all so much.

We hosted a party this weekend for our neighbors, which was not only a success but had the added benefit of making me finish things on time.

I don’t know.  I remember my mom being better at this stuff, more on top of it.  I haven’t finished our Christmas cards yet, which will be New Year’s cards for some of you out there.

Did I lose a weekend somehow?

We are going to Mom’s tomorrow after dinner for the holiday; what is not done by lunch tomorrow will not get done.  I just hope I remember to put everything into bags.

But I’ve tried to embrace the holiday spirit.  I love it.  I really do.  I want to have more fun with it, less of the stress of the to-do.   I ache with the memories of my own growing-up, with La Famiglia holidays that included Santa’s workshops, Andy Williams, and manicotti preparation.  I saw none of the stress or effort my Mom put into the tasks that yielded such memorable results.  Today I want to be with my family with little or no hassle, and am saddened by the reality that my wish is foolish.   These holidays — Christmas, for my family — have become a hassle.   Now that I’m in charge I realize the stress that my magical childhood white-washed.   I worry about what to cook, what to buy; the party I’m hosting, the party I’m missing (ouch, my dear cousin’s annual caroling extravaganza with my amazing auntie at the keyboard); the packing, the planning.   I pinch myself and wonder, when did this become MY job?  When did I become the grownup?

Today, with the kids, I let it all go.  My sisters-in-law and I agreed that this year, instead of a cousin gift exchange, we’d do a cookie swap, in which each child make some cookies to be given to each of his or her ten cousins.  Each kid bakes cookies; each kid gets a cookie from each of his or her cousins.  We all want to foster the “giving not getting” tone of what we believe Christmas ought to be.

So today was baking day.  I decided that rather than making 4 different recipes, each of my children would get a cookie cutter and make a pattern of sugar cookies.  We had gingerbread men, stars, trees and bells.  But by mid-afternoon, when baking had finished and decorating was to begin, it was a free-for-all.   I made four or five bowls of colored royal icing.  All four kids slathered it on to whatever cookie was close by, their own shape or not.  In the background I spun such nostalgic CDs as Nat King Cole and Tony Mottola.

The funny thing was, I was tired, but not stressed.  Even though I had just this morning paid to have the house cleaned, the sight of neon blue icing stuck to my kitchen walls didn’t upset me.   The fact that Cooper’s bells soon ended up more of a dirt brown than any festive color didn’t bother me.  The kids had a great time.  Cooper poured confectioner’s sugar, mixed water and added drops of food dye with the intensity and precision of an MIT professor.  Mitzi waxed poetic about “abstract” Christmas trees.  Ellie and Joanna could barely smile for the stiffness of icing on their cheeks from repeatedly licking the bowls.  I literally hit clean up.  The results…palatable?  Who knows.img_1109

But the process….about as close to the Christmas spirit as a Mom could hope.  It was great fun, for all of us.  Almost what I remember of my own Christmases.  Not without conflict or stress or a much-needed cocktail for the grownup in charge, but imbued with a heart-wrenching sense that this is the stuff our lives are made of.  This is life, messy or not.

Now, if only I can get that florescent green icing off of my ceiling before 2009.

Summer Nights

Once upon a time, my favorite thing about summer was not the day spent at the beach or pool, lifeguarding, getting a killer tan, hanging out with my friends, flirting with the boys.  Nope.  Those things were pretty good, I’ll admit, but my favorite part of a summer day was later.

Oh, I loved cleaning up after a day in the sun.  A cool shower, lots of soap, all the while thinking about the night to come.  A new tan revealed, new clothes donned, new hairstyle perfected.  Few things were better than getting ready for going out with my friends, preparing for the adventures still unwritten, the time when everything was new and still to come.

It’s not much different now, here on vacation.  Sure, the nights are less hedonistic and the clothes not quite as cool, but the feeling is the same.  The expectation of a beginning.  Turning the page to chapter two of the day — Night Falls.  We get home from a day at the beach, shuffle the four kids into two different bathrooms for cleanup.  They settle down with Cyberchase and goldfish crackers while the grownups take their turns in the shower.  Washing my hair, the feeling is still the same as it was at age twenty-two — peace and hope, possiblity and abandon.

After we have gotten into our comfy clothes (ah, the sad by-product of a near-decade of marriage, comfy clothes versus hot fashion), Ray and I gather the kids on the back porch, in that perfect fading afternoon summer sunlight.  We are too tired to do much else than officiate their games, but they are blessed with boundless energy.  They set up bocce games in the soft grass, arguing shrilly about whose turn it is to throw the pallini, dictate convoluted new rules so all four can have an equal chance at scoring.  Two turns into the match, it’s over.  Tree climbing takes center stage, followed by rope jumping.  Meanwhile, Ray has brought us cheese and crackers, a couple of beers, and we settle into deck chairs to watch our brood explore.  Inevitably they notice we have food and they descend on us, devouring our small cache as neatly and easily as an army of ants on a sandwich crust.

Neither of us want to get up to prepare dinner, though it is late and we are risking meltdowns from at least the two littlest.  The Cape wind rustles the trees around us, carrying with it the faint scent of the beach a quarter-mile away (or is it the towels I laid to dry over the deck railings?).  Hydrangea and geraniums catch the last sun rays in their soft petals.   We decide to grill chicken and steam local corn, call the children over to shuck the cobs.   They chase Ray over to the grill where dinner sizzles, and circle him and the driveway on their scooters, while above us the sky turns the color of a new bruise.  A summer night has arrived, cool and crisp, arriving easily, not unexpected and not unwelcome, much as an old friend does on his way through to somewhere not far from here.

I remember the nights of my youth, decadent, free, full of possiblity and beauty.  These summer nights are not so different, but more.  So much more.

On Another Note

While I’m drafting a post, I’m also cooking some of my mother’s Christmas manicotti and her holiday meat gravy. If you have never eaten this, you are missing out on something otherworldly. The manicotti, light, perfection; the meat gravy, bursting with sausage, pepperoni, spare ribs, plain meat (whatever that is), sublime. I think if I can learn to make this (after years of assisting, you’d think I could by now), my family would be complete.