Monday, December 8, 2014

Perfectly imperfect Christmas

My Christmas tree is up and it is perfectly imperfect. Despite being straight in its stand the tree leans back and to the left with a gaping bare spot in the front like a smile missing a front tooth. The tree is covered with homemade ornaments and those dating back to 1974 when my mother first started giving me ornaments. There is the always special purple velvet myrrh container and the disco ball of 1977. Ahh the seventies.

What’s missing from the tree are all of my perfect items, my Belleek and Waterford. The tree is so jammed packed with handmade treasures and memories there is no room for the perfect collectibles. In the past we would have two trees: a family room tree with these real life ornaments and the living room tree with perfection: breakable imported collectibles.

I've thought a lot about my past perfect Christmases this year and shared the stories with my girls. They find the stories hysterical. I hope that I won’t be visited by a ghost of Christmas past and have to relive those Christmases.

When I was first married I was very much into perfection. Perhaps it was because Martha Stewart’s magazine and books were taking off. I had a system for putting the dishes away then. The cups had to go in a certain order as did the glasses. One row up, one row down. They had to line up just so. I guess I was waiting for a surprise Martha Stewart inspection that never came.

My girls laughed when they heard I used to make dinners like Coq au vin, which took two days to prepare. These days I’m lucky if I remember to take something out of the freezer in the morning.
At Christmas I made my own wrapping paper. I also made my own paper gift tags. As in I started with pulp and water, strained it, and put the mixture in molds squeezing out the water. It was a tedious process. Once the gift tags were dry and ready to come out of the mold I would then paint them.

My friends and I would gather and make fresh evergreen centerpieces, wreaths and kissing balls. I’d make a centerpiece for myself, my mother, my grandmother, and my mother-in-law.
All of my Christmas shopping was done before Thanksgiving. When I think back on that time I wish I could shake my younger self. I was annoying.

Once I get passed the annoying I remember the other things behind my crafting and perfection. Like most newly married people our first year of marriage money was tight so I made Christmas presents. I remember cross stitching and stuffing Christmas ornaments and then wrapping them in the homemade wrapping paper. Making the wrapping paper made the gift seem special, I thought.

The next four years were filled with the heartache of infertility. I think perfection in the Christmas season was my way of dealing with the losses we were facing. The evergreen centerpieces were therapeutic. We had a bunch of trees in a friend’s backyard and as we needed greenery I could go out with a saw and take my frustrations out on a tree instead of the world.

I wish I could say my perfection ended when I had my first child. Unfortunately it continued. I wanted Kate to have the best Christmas ever. She was only three-months-old for her first Christmas but I spent a day making caramel from scratch! And I made cinnamon rolls and more kinds of cookies than I can count. She had no teeth what did she care? Again, there was no surprise Martha Stewart inspection. There were no gold stars given out for “Best Baked Good on Christmas Morning.”

The perfection madness began to subside after having my second and last child MM. Hers was a crash delivery with both of our lives at risk. Shortly after I had a stroke.  For a long while after that we used paper plates to eat dinner. I even…GASP… served Stouffers lasagna. The world kept right on spinning.

MM’s first Christmas Eve was spent in a hospital emergency room. The poor little thing dehydrated and suffering from bronchitis, her tiny arm taken over by an IV. After that Christmas I learned the beauty of already made cookie dough for cutout cookies and I topped them off with something that would have been a cardinal sin in my previous life: store bought frosting. The point of the cutout cookies was my girls rolling out the dough and having fun, not perfection.

My perfectly imperfect tree was created by my daughter who was able to shake the perfection out of me. Her presence in this world taught me that frozen food and paper plates are okay and Christmas trees that are as crooked as a Jack-O-Lantern’s smile beat any tree you can find in a magazine.




Saturday, November 15, 2014

Love on Ordinary Days
 
When I was twenty I visited my grandmother on my own. My grandmother was widowed twice. The first time she was 29 and had three children under the age of 6. The next time she was 46 and had a 9-year-old at home. During my special visit with her we went shopping. As we walked into the department store she said to me, “today would have been my wedding anniversary.”

I didn’t know what to say. I said I was sorry.

We were going to the store so she could get me a watch. A watch is the gift that her second husband Don, my father’s beloved stepfather thought every girl should have for their high school graduation. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I had graduated. Had she still been married to my grandfather, we would not be buying a watch. Neither of my aunts would have special watches, nor my sister or cousin. More importantly my Aunt Annie wouldn’t exist.

Still I silently prayed to ease my grandmother’s grief and prayed that I would never experience what she did. How sad it was to be walking into the May Company Department Store in the Parmatown Mall in Ohio and realize that it would have been your forty-eighth anniversary, I thought. How could what was once an extraordinary day now be plain and regular?

Now my wedding anniversary is around the corner. For reasons quite different than my grandmother’s it is a plain and regular day. I made a lifetime commitment on that day 19 years ago. My former spouse did not.

It is so strange to go to work and act as if everything is ordinary, but it isn’t for me. I made a vow that day that I meant. But on the anniversary of that day there are no cards, flowers, dinners, or memories shared. It’s a regular day for me just like it was for Grandma.

However, her husband died, he didn’t choose to leave her. Mine is alive and married to someone else. My wedding anniversary comes around to remind me of mistakes. If I had done this instead of that perhaps things would be different.

While I was married in the Church I don’t think my marriage was an outward sign of God’s grace and love. I longed for that, but you can’t just make that happen. It takes two people inviting God into their marriage.

I will mark my anniversary this year wearing the watch purchased for me by my grandmother on her wedding anniversary. It was something my step grandfather wanted all of the girls in his family to have. His desire for us to have that gift lived on after he died, as did the stories of his kindness and devotion. Although the marriage vows say “Until death do us part” I believe Grandma and Don’s love lasted beyond that. I will let the love from their sacrament buoy me on what is now an ordinary day.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The dating game



All of these men are probably perfectly lovely. I just don’t know how I got matched with them.

Upon the urging of friends I signed up for a computer dating service. I went with one that had a long process as the quick easy one was plastered with mug shots and was like inviting every creep from a bar into your house via your computer.
It took me two evenings to take the psychological test and upload my information. My post says I am a manager of a not for profit, who likes to cook, garden, bicycle, kayak and hike. You are required to list the books you have read. I listed Anne Tyler, Maeve Binchy, Joyce Carol Oats. You have to say how important your faith is to you. For me it’s a deal breaker.
I uploaded pictures of myself looking nice. Pictures of me at events where my hair is done and my clothes are nice. I share this information so that you understand that those men who see my profile know that I am clean. From the pictures you can almost smell the toothpaste I had just used to brush my teeth.
I have been matched with men who posted pictures of themselves with giant sunglasses on, and sweat pouring down their faces. No they aren’t exercising pictures, they’re just sweating pictures.
I have been matched with three different men connected to wood. The first was looking for a woman who could carry a load of firewood in. At least he puts it out there that he’s looking for a laborer. The second was a “whole tree chipper.” I’m not sure what he does if he comes upon a half a tree or a big branch. Will he not chip those? The third is a tree surgeon. So one kills trees and the other one nurses them back to health.
What about my profile indicates that I’m interested in these foresters? Is it because I like to hike and one sees trees on a hike? I have plenty of friends who hike, male and female, and none of them have a particular affinity for trees. I like to think I’m in that category.
I was matched with a dump truck driver who put as far as books, “The last book I read would have been in high school and I wouldn’t have liked it.” How did I get matched with him?
I was matched with another nonreader who stated “I don’t read.” He is a sewage treatment plant operator. Back in college I was assigned by the editor of the school paper to cover the sewage treatment plant facility open house. They served chocolate donuts and apple cider. I will never get the sights and smells of that day out of my mind, so I don’t think I can date him.
There are two matches that I don’t know how I got. You have to say what your religious affiliation is and how important it is to you. I have the settings set on high, my faith is very important to me. Imagine my surprise when I was matched with a warlock, and then a crystal healer!!! Something must be wrong with the program.
Other favorite matches: the widowed grandfather (I’m looking in a certain age group. He wasn’t in it.); the man passionate about crossword puzzles; and a man who lives for ice fishing.
I am sure out there is some man who can’t believe he’s been matched with me: a not for profit manager who likes to cook. Surely that is repulsive or at least funny to some.
What I’ve learned from this is that I like to laugh and I’m given opportunities to laugh daily. I have wonderful friends who have supported me through many things. This is so much more than many people have.
I’m learning to plan my weekends better. When I know I won’t have the girls home I’ve gotten good at asking friends to do things with me. As hard as it is for me to ask for help, my wonderful friends have responded nicely.
I hope all of those woodsmen find what they are looking for. I know it’s not me. I can honestly say I am perfectly okay being on my own.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The glamorous life of a single mom



I recently found out that a friend’s husband is concerned about her spending time with me. He is afraid I am going to try and convert her to the glamorous lifestyle of a divorced single mother. I’m trying to laugh about it.
I never wanted to be divorced. Despite the challenges my marriage faced (there were many and they weren’t typical) I held on to the belief that someday we would get through it all, look back and say “Look what we did.” I assumed that our children’s graduations would be days filled with pride and emotion for us as a couple. I thought someday we would celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.
It’s not important to know why my marriage ended, but I suppose it is important to know that this wasn’t my choice and not the path I chose.
The pain of divorce isn’t as raw as it was during those first few months, but even though over two years have gone by it’s still there. It gets worse at unexpected times. I feel a stab of pain at the elementary school’s family dance when it’s just me and my girls. They have no daddy to dance with. I can’t hear Proverbs 31, the reading about a good wife, without dissolving in tears. And if there is an anniversary dance at a wedding reception, forget it. I’ll be in the bathroom before Kenny Rogers finishes the first line of the song “Through the Years.”
I would not wish this pain on anyone.
My day begins at 6 as I get up and do what all mothers do: get dressed, make breakfast, get the kids ready for school, ferry children to lessons and appointments. Then I work a full day, pick up the kids from afterschool care, make dinner, supervise homework, run one to dance and then pick up again. I serve the dinner, clean up, review homework, get ready for the next day, squeeze in some chores, and then get everyone settled in bed. Once they are asleep I try and work on my volunteer assignments for the girls’ schools. Then I go to sleep to get ready to start it all over again. I do it without help, without anyone asking how my day is, without another adult to provide moral support. If there is a snow storm I’ve got to get the driveway done. If the lawn needs to be mowed it’s my responsibility. All of the things normally shared between a couple are my responsibility to do.
It is sad.
Friends have encouraged me to date. I would go out, but meeting someone at my age isn’t easy. I tried a dating website. I’ve been matched with a self-described pagan warlock; a man looking for a woman who can carry in a load of firewood; a man who is passionate about ice fishing; a man who makes wood chips for a living; and another man who thought it important to post on his profile that he keeps his house set at 62 degrees.
No one would want this life and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. A widow said to me “My husband didn’t choose to leave me and would still be with me if he could. Your husband chose to leave you and you still have to interact with him. That’s tough.”
As hard as it is to believe I even was at Mass one weekend where the priest spoke about divorced people as sinners. I am not perfect, and it’s my understanding that all humans sin. Why did my children and I have to hear that I am sinful because I am divorced?
While I wouldn’t choose this path it’s the one that has been given. I have been the recipient of many prayers and kindnesses since my husband left. I have learned to do things that I never would have done before. I even took apart my dishwasher once, found the problem and fixed it! I’ve also gained an appreciation for others who are different from the norm.
I have an even deeper appreciation for marriage. I know that marriage can be challenging and life is filled with ups and downs. How amazing is it that couples stay together, like my grandparents for 65 years? Being married is a challenging and awesome way of life. I do whatever I can to support my friends and family who are married. Being divorced has only served to reinforce my belief in the sacrament of marriage.
I would not ever encourage anyone to get a divorce… even with the allure of single woodsman out there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Popular


Popular


When I was in sixth grade I had a crisis. I was awkward, shy, skinny, and pasty white. Kids would say I looked like a Q-Tip with arms. I was attending my fourth school in six years.
While I had done well making friends at all of my other schools, I was struggling at this point. When I arrived at this school two years before I was not only the “new girl” but I was also the “public school girl.” The nun who taught my class that year did not let me or my classmates forget that I was less of a person because my prior education came at the tax payers’ expense.  Her dubbing me “public school girl” was the equivalent of announcing to the world I had leprosy. I was an outcast.
By sixth grade I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down one Sunday morning as our family prepared breakfast after Mass. The thought of going to school the next day was just too much. When I started to cry my father pulled me aside and took me into his study. He shut the door and we talked.
This was a miracle for many reasons. The first being he doesn’t like tears they make him very uncomfortable;  he’s not usually his best until after he eats; and our house was usually chaotic with little time for private father daughter talks.
I confessed to my father that I wanted to be popular. What I meant by popular was that I wanted to have friends and have people like me. He listened to me.  He explained the key to making friends was to really listen to people. He also told me he’d find some way to help me.
His help arrived in the mail. He wrote away to Ann Landers and her organization sent me a booklet on how to be popular. Her definition of popular was similar to mine at the time: have friends and be liked by others.
So since I was 12 my biggest wish in life was to have friends. I didn’t want a lot but I wanted true friends.
Perhaps it was luck. Perhaps it was the booklet. Perhaps it was the influence of my father. Most likely it was divine intervention as my life has been filled with tremendous friends!
I remember meeting my friend Shelley our freshman year of high school while we had to do the President’s Council on Physical Fitness tests. She held my ankles while I did sit-ups and I did the same. There was no way we could have known then that our friendship would span a lifetime and include college, weddings, children, a divorce, death, and a fire.
There is Christine who was that one true friend that every girl wishes for. She was the one who I stayed up late in the night making plans and solving the world’s problems with. And even though she is now on the other side of the country, she just happens to know when I’m in a dressing room looking for the perfect outfit to wear for a TV interview. Her buoyant texts reminded me that I would do fine no matter what I had on.
I have one friend that I don’t ever see but we text. In the corner of the world I live in I am the only divorced person. This friend is on the receiving end of many rants that I text about the challenges of parenting after divorce, the frustrations, and has been ready to get me out of some awkward dating situations.
I’ve collected new friends on the way. It’s an interesting cornucopia of people; Different age groups, backgrounds, religious, professions but all amazing people.
I remember when my first daughter was born. I held her in the rocking chair that first night and I made wishes for her. I wished that her life would be filled with a few true friends.
This year my daughter was in sixth grade. Unlike her mother her proportions are normal and she does not look like a Q-Tip. Her skin dotted with freckles would never be called pasty. She is the typical sixth grade girl caught between childhood and adolescence.
She has an amazing group of friends. The school principal told me that this group of girls was the nicest he’s worked with in his career. That’s quite a compliment I think.
My daughter has no desire to be “popular.” The word has changed since I was in sixth grade. The kids who are “popular” are mean and bullies. She seems to know who she is and what she values, and I am grateful for this.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

It's a wonderful life

This week I lived one of the single mother nightmares. I went to the grocery store and my debit card was declined in front of my kids.
The clerk looked at me and said, “Give me another card.”
 I don’t have another card.
 One of the lovely parts of my divorce was bankruptcy: one of my middle class nightmares. In fact this year I lived out just about all of my nightmares. Over the course of one week, the week between Christmas and New Year I learned my marriage was over, my husband had a secret life, he racked up thousands of dollars in debt, and he was in love with an avatar he met on an adult internet site.
I kicked myself for not following my widowed grandmother’s advice: stay on top of your finances, don’t let your husband run them. Over the course of 15 years and two children it was easy to just let him pay the bills. After all I was cooking, cleaning, working, and raising two kids and a dog. He could take out the garbage and pay the bills.
So there I was standing in the grocery store in my bucolic town with my children looking at me wondering what I was going to do.
I had some cash. Not enough to buy the food, but I could probably buy milk, eggs and bread. If I went home and scraped up the change that accumulates in different rooms of the house I might be able to get some form of meat.
I calmly said to the checkout woman, “I have to go to the ATM to get some cash.”  She wasn’t pleased. The young man bagging the groceries was kind. “I can put these in the fridge for you. We can keep them until 7.”
It was 6 p.m. I had one hour to get the cash.
We went out to the car and I told my kids they needed to be quiet while I made a plan. A simple request. It must have been opposite day because they picked that moment to start fighting with each other. So there I was driving through affluent subdivisions with two children screaming at the top of their lungs; tears of humiliation pouring down my cheeks; and my mind wondering “how did I get here?”
Despite their fighting, I left the girls home so I could run down to the ATM. I put the fear of God in the girls about the fighting. I got to the ATM and learned that my child support check had a hold on it. The money was there in theory. My paycheck was hours away from being deposited. In theory I had money. In reality I was broke.
I went home with swollen tear stained eyes and Psalm 22 in my head, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
I pulled into the driveway and my kids were joyous. “Mom, someone left a present in the mailbox,” the youngest said.  My oldest presented me with a book tied up in orange ribbon.
First I opened the “Thinking of You card.” Out spilled coupons for the expensive milk my children drink because of the lactose intolerance they inherited from their Dad. The card had kind words and sentiments from my dear friend Anne.
The book was entitled, “God Never Blinks.” It was written by Regina Brett, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the newspaper I often imagined myself as a columnist for as I am a native of Cleveland.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. As I was lamenting being abandoned by God and all things good, God, through Anne, reminded me that I was not alone and I was loved.
Soon another messenger from heaven arrived, my sister with cash for my groceries.
The next night my coworkers were over and I shared with them the events of the day before. The book had sat unopened as I had been too emotional to read it.
My one coworker has pointed out that I expect fairness too much. His theory is that if I let go of the manmade concept of fairness I would be disappointed less. He picked up the book and looked at the table of contents. The first chapter, “Life isn’t fair but life is good.”
“You need to read this,” he said.
God got me again: the right message with the right messenger.
This has been a horrible year, but a year filled with blessings. I met wonderful people at my new job. A job that has nothing to do with any of my interests and uses little of my talents, that screams it’s the wrong job for me. But for this year, it was the right job.
There were two wonderful ladies who shared their strong faith, made me laugh, found little things to celebrate, and helped me with my kids. There was the coworker who challenged my beliefs on fairness and regularly gave me pep talks.
This year was filled with moments when my mother gave me all of the love I ever wanted, but always thought I wasn’t getting.
My siblings and their spouses showered my children with affection and attention.
My friends brought casseroles, and gift cards to get me through those first few months of shock.
My amazing neighbor walks his lawn mower down every ten days and mows my yard.
I will never forget that evening of my card being declined as it will serve to remind me how overflowing my life is in blessings.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mother Ocean


I recently had the opportunity to watch on the shore as my two daughters played in the Ocean.  
It was a remarkable to me for many reasons.
First, I have a lifelong fear of water. I remember being six going down the slide into a cousin’s pool and going under water. The time it took to hit the bottom and reach the surface was an eternity. I coughed and choked on the chlorinated water. The sound of the water rushing past my ears was a sound I will never forget. I was sure at that moment I was dying. Perhaps it’s the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious that caused me to think I was dying. Or perhaps, if there are past lives, I drowned in one of them.
My childhood and teens are filled with memories of me avoiding the water at all costs, much to my father’s chagrin. My father grew up on the shores of Lake Erie and loves everything about the water; swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing. I do not share his joy.
That I had reached the point in parenting that I could watch my children enjoy the ocean while I sat on the shore was a miracle in itself. Somehow I managed not to pass on my fear of water to them. Last summer my youngest decided to try out for the town swim team. She brought home a slew of blue ribbons. This summer her older sister joined her on the team. So far she’s taken second place in each meet she’s competed in. If they could they would spend the summer in the water.
This was the first summer I was confident in their aquatic skills and their ability to judge what was safe to do and what was unsafe. During past vacations their father or I would take turns playing with them in the waves. Of course they always had more fun with their dad as he would go out further than I.
This year, it was all different. Their father ended our 15 year marriage the day after Christmas. This year I was vacationing with my girls solo. We were at my sister’s condo on the Jersey Shore not our time share in Myrtle Beach.
This year I was also forbidden to go in the water as I was recovering from major surgery. The steri-strips were still firmly adhered to my abdomen. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go in the ocean.
So I sat on the shore and watched my girls’ body surf, jump, splash, and laugh in the ocean. I couldn’t hear a word they said. I could see them laugh and beam at one another. I could see them reach out for the other’s hand; I could see each of them help the other get up after they were knocked down.
Watching them knocked down by the waves and help each other up gave me confidence about their future. I wasn’t with them in the ocean, but they were fine. Someday they wouldn’t live in my house, but they would be fine. One day I will leave this world, and they will be okay because they have each other.
Life will hit them with waves just as it had hit me and my siblings. This year I was hit with a tidal wave when my marriage ended. But there was my sister picking me up. She took a day off from work to take me in for surgery; waited for the surgeon to come out and give a prognosis; helped me get settled in my room; made sure I had pain meds.
My brother was there too as was his wonderful wife. (Sister-in-law does not adequately describe what she means to me.) She was there daily with food, magazines, and inspiration. My younger sister assisted after the tidal wave by providing financial planning advice and by lending the girls and I her vacation home.
I’d like to think I helped my older sister with her own tsunami the year before when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. I did my best to listen, coordinate food and other assistance. I’m not sure though, if anyone can really help someone through something as awful as what she and her husband went through.
Sitting in the warm July sun with my feet firmly planted in the sand I felt part of some great motherhood continuum.  My mother was just a phone call away, but I felt as if she were sitting a few feet behind me on the beach, and her mother behind her, and so on. We do our best to raise decent, resilient people. We know that they will be knocked down by waves and we know we won’t always be there to pick them up.
My parents gave me a gift in my siblings. They are my lifejackets buoying me as I navigate the challenging Atlantic.
I have made many mistakes as a parent, but as I watched the July sun dot my girls with freckles I knew I had done something right. They know that they are a team; a package deal; a duo; a family. They will take care of each other through high tide and low and I will forever watch them with wonder from the shore.