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.