Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy Holidays!

Yes, yes, I know, no "holidays" with the "happy." Well, to me it is "Happy Holidays" because Christmas in my life has always been, and is now, a conglomeration of celebrations. My mother's birthday was on the 24th, M's birthday is on the 28th, Hannukah this year begins the 25th, Christmas of course is on the same day. Then there is the idea of these weeks being a secular celebration of life, light, consumerism (Yay Target and Wal-Mart, oh lovely Nordstrom's!).

This past week has been a busy one, having attended no less than three (3!) Christmas programs at each of the schools of the children. M's was the most chaotic by far, being at the pre-school where the students start at age 2. The result wasn't so much a group of angelic children on stage singing Christmas carols, but rather an explosion of running and crying children in pajamas racing to their moms and dads in the audience. Only the most mature kids (M being one of them) managed the long walk from the entrance to the stage. There was also the delightful moment where little Johnny was throwing the hay out of Baby Jesus's crib all over the set. No one interrupted him. Perhaps it was because he looked so, so very happy.

A's program was a mass of singing as well, with a performance or two on the recorder. Imagine the sound of thirty-five third-graders puffing away on their black and white plastic recorders...such harmony, such sweetness!

J's program was the pinnacle of performances in which he played the bass drum for a few songs and the snare for several others, the show a total of 35 songs by a minimum of 350 children occupying the chorus and the grand band. What a night! Junior high in its true nature. The many, many girls in the chorus looked so caught between worlds, not children, not grown, a strange set in short skirts and overly-done make-up during one string of songs, followed by a shift to pajamas, jogging arm-in-arm and throwing candy to the audience. At intermission, the girls giggled in the front of the gym in frighteningly intimidating cliques. The boys on the other hand gathered behind the gym, putting each other into trash cans and rolling the cans down the grassy hill, their wildness equally as intimidating. How amazing that they all returned at the right time to finish the program.

Busy, busy, busy! In between the programs, we attended Marie's funeral, battled awful head colds, entertained out-of-state company, attended a family reunion, and shopped and wrapped.

Today, I wrangled my kids for a photo for cards that I'll pass out at the upcoming parties. I suggested we take a walk down to the creek for a natural backdrop. That was when all hell broke loose. M wouldn't change out of her shorts and tank top. J fought like a bulldog to keep his blue gym shorts on, A was at his wit's end because M was copying him and wouldn't stop fighting for Sassy's leash. Sassy (because she is SO much a part of our family) was literally out of her mind with excitement at the prospect of a walk in the woods. Then there was D and I, griping at the children, getting a little loud, threatening spankings and groundings and a gift-less Christmas or a party-less birthday.

And it was so that we made our way across the street and down the very thick brush into the woods, noisy, crabby, with me carrying a tripod and camera, D with Sassy pulling him, the kids still fighting, refusing to cooperate. When we hit the bottom of the hill and I set the tripod down and tried...oh I take that first shot, I started to laugh at how we all must have looked. At just how noisy our walk was through the peaceful woods. Once I started to laugh, the kids caught on to the silliness and laughed too...oh yeah, it's Christmas at last!

Merry Christmas, my dear friends, and Happy, oh-so-happy Holidays from the entire Blissful Family of the Suburbs!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Passing

We had a loss this past week - D's mother, Marie, died in her sleep following a stroke. She was 95 years old, and had lived a sweet, modest life, originating from Nebraska. She was deeply and innocently religious. The only book she read as a rule was the Bible. Her favorite verse was John 3:16, for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

D is more than okay with her peaceful death, having been ready for this moment for a long time. Marie lived in a nursing home, lived mainly for sleeping and eating, and sometimes didn't recognize those around her. But she seemed to always know her boys, D and his brother, along with their older sister, MW. Whenever any of them came through the doors of the home, her face would light up with the most obvious joy.

For someone so inherently sweet, she had a few surprising instances of crabbiness that I keep with me, which always make me laugh for their sheer oppositeness of who she was. First were those times in public places when she'd say in a very loud voice (thanks to her being unable to hear very well), "My, she's fat!" or "She better lose some weight or who knows what will happen!" Then there was the day I was visiting her after the death of D's father, Bill. They'd been married many years but were not very close once they moved to the nursing home. I'd been feeling sad about Bill's death and I asked Marie if she missed him. Without missing a beat, she said in a calm voice, "No, he really was an old grouch." In the same vein, D's brother WS told us of what she said when he told her of Bill's death. Instead of crying or acting distressed, she smiled, put her hands together, and said, "Now the money's all mine!"

Marie wasn't educated, having ended school in her eighth grade year to work at her father's farm in Hastings, Nebraska. It was there that she met Bill, D's father. The two married and drove out to California to make a home. Bill made his living in the cattle business, having a side business as a butcher...but not the kind of butcher that works in a shop. He was a slaughter-man, the one who walked onto properties, shot the cow and cut it up into the requisite sides of beef. The man was strong to say the least. D remembers him as serious, brooding, and short-tempered. So his mother made up for it while Bill traveled.

Every week, despite Bill's warning not to spend money, Marie took her children to the Baptist prayer meetings at their church, followed up by dinner at a local diner, Betsy Ross. D remembers those dinners lovingly, because that was how she stood up to her husband, that was what she did to counter his rougher ways.

Monday, we'll have the funeral. It will be modest like she was, a graveside service, flowers, where she'll be laid to rest next to she wanted, like he wanted.

Off you go, Marie, onto your next journey. May it be filled with the light you imagined.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Blissful Christmas Season

Final exams are here now - too late for some to ever catch up with the demanding assignment roster. A student who hadn't been in class for weeks showed up for the exam two hours after the official start time of 7:30 a.m. What could I say when her list of work done was so woefully skimpy?

"It's probably not worth bothering with the exam - you don't have the points to pass, even assuming you ace the exam."

She sighed and sorta smiled, agreeing, turned on her heels and left.

It's a drag to not show up for your own life.

The past week has been hectic as usual, my little angelic M being anything but angelic (as a side note, she's taken to wanting to be called, "My little Angel" by the family and I suspect she's basing this newfound saintliness on a song they sing at the Christian pre-school she attends). M seems to be on a rampage, short-tempered, poking the dog to get her attention, screaming at everyone.

I think what she's suffering from is: Pre-Christmas Jitters. The school is preparing for a Christmas program, the boys keep talking about Christmas presents, we keep threatening the lack of Santa's visit if they all keep misbehaving, the commercials are Christmas-heavy, the house is decorated, the tree is laden with God, Christmas is coming!

Yes, I'm saying it, my minimalist Jewish upbringing sets far behind our mostly-secular celebration of Christmas. But...I rather love it this way. How wonderful to sit in the darkened den, the lights on the tree coloring the room with color, the scent of the tree, the coziness which eases the children into sleep. I look forward to the dinners and the gifts, the winter which will come, too.

For this, I'm more than happy to show up.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Slides on a White Sheet

Saw a great movie this evening - "Walk the Line" - really good, I was moved by the love, the journey, the pursuit of an artistic dream, the wish for safe simplicity.

Where have I been this week?

Thanksgiving was relaxed - two dinners on two days - sisters-in-law each doing the turkey, letting me do fun stuff like deadly-sugared yams and alcohol-drenched stuffing. Oh and the pumpkin pie from Marie Callendar's with luscious whipped cream. On Saturday, the day of the second dinner, my brother dragged out old slides, from when we were children, and we watched our own young faces in photos taken by my father...watched my parents' 30-something faces flash by, clicking by with no music, without the benefit of a sexy computer program to entertain us by crumpling pictures or pixelizing them as the show moved from slide to slide.

My dad loved photography and he took wonderful pictures that absolutely captured the era, their beauty, our sweetness. How well those pictures covered up the pain, the drama of their real lives, of what came later when their marriage finally blew up, emotional shrapnel whipping through all of us. B, my brother, and A, we all laughed and approved and mocked and sighed as we sat in the darkened living room, watching the shots against a wrinkled white sheet hanging along a set of drapes. The light of the projector and the sounds of the slides dropping into the lit pocket of the machine drifted throughout the room, like something ethereal, like the memories of the pictures themselves.

I left the dinner missing my father above all - missing his humor, missing the mystery of him. Among the pictures were images of a friend of theirs, JB. I recall him vividly. He lived next door to us - I remember him one time vigorously brushing his teeth, in his bathroom in his small cottage, five-year-old me watching him and asking him questions. I remember him riding a bike. He had reddish, curly hair, he spoke Spanish, and he was kind to us. I believe he loved my mother. I believe she was not averse to him either. But I don't really know the details...I wonder if it's true. What else did he see in my mother, other than the obvious? What did he think of my father? What does he remember...tell me anything, everything.

I searched for him on the internet, a quirk I have in that I know his real name. I'm tempted to write him, to ask him, "Do you remember us, do you remember them then?" I did locate him, where he works now (a professor of course at a technical university). I almost felt as if I was looking for my if I'd actually found him. I was reminded of a fantasy that haunted me for the longest time after his death - the one where he never died, but had simply left, run away to start a new life. Time and time again I'd "see" him passing me by on the road in his favorite sports car, I'd swear he'd be at street corners or in the mall. I remember a time staring at the hands of a client because the hands looked so much like my father's I could barely hear the needs of the client. A trust, I think, a trust for the client and his wife. Look how he puts his hands together, look how he plays with the watch band...the hair on his arms...the cuffs folded over...

I was in a weird place on Sunday - not depressed, not sad, not peaceful, no, I was filled with a kind of anxiety that had no outlet. Something simmered within, making me impatient.

I know I'll never contact that man because to do so might destroy the fantasy that Papa is working, working well and successfully, accomplishing his dreams.

But I have to ask - why do I continue to grieve these parents of mine? Why do they lurk constantly in everything I do...I don't know.


Wednesday afternoon, A lost his temper, ending up in a bit of a breakdown at the prospect of homework. Took him an entire hour to gain some self-control and calmness and once he did, it was as if nothing had happened. Earlier, his teacher just shook her head at my query as to how he was doing, "It's so hard to get him to write anything or do any math."

"Can you e-mail me...I feel like you're not keeping in good contact--"

"We have a parent-teacher conference, next week."

"Oh right...okay, we'll talk then."

Useless, helpless me.

That same afternoon, M clung to me when I tried to leave for class near six. J fussed and argued against our efforts to get him to study for a quiz. By the time I arrived at school, I felt drained, empty of anything to offer my students. Listlessly after an uninspired, thankfully-short lecture, I handed out an in-class assignment and walked the room, helping where I could. The students raised their hands for help and I went to them, answering their questions, correcting their work to better prepare them for next week's final exam. One woman called me over and kept writing as she asked me a question. An older student of Hispanic descent, she wore largish, stylish frames, and with soft hands, wrote in a halting and unsure style(how familiar those hands looked to me!). Then I noticed the skin beneath her eyes was moist, as if her eyes had watered with the hard work. I realized quickly, no, she's crying.

I put my hand on her shoulder and leaned down a tad so I could better see her face. The tears began to really flow then.

"Oh dear," I said, "You're really having a hard time, aren't you? Oh no..." I sat down immediately and went over each question with her. I'd wanted to go home but there was no way - we stayed later, late, after everyone left, and another student and I looked at a take-home assignment with her, going over everything, assuring her that she was on the right track. I helped where I could...told her she just needed more experience and that she'd get it in time.

"I can't seem to get past this point..." And the tears bubbled over once more. I felt so sorry for her - I knew that hurt - that feeling that everyone else seems to "get it". Useless, helpless me. For some reason...she reminded me of my mother. Only a few times did my mother's real-life tears move me...and this lady's tears...well, they moved me.

Back to the parents again.

The tearful student left near 10:15 p.m., still sniffling as she headed down the walkway to her car. The assisting student then asked to perform a poem for her speech class, "A power poem for a woman who works, who loves, who lives," in practice. I smiled and listened and offered praise for her hard work, for a very challenging project.

Home at 10:50 p.m. The house is quiet. The rooms are darkened with sleep. Sassy is wagging her tail at me, having met me at the door.

Sometimes, I find myself disappearing into my parent's old drama and I'm small and helpless again, waiting for them to remember me.


When I was a child, my world revolved around the drama of my parents. As an adult, my world revolves around the drama of my children. All of them seem louder than me, more demanding than me. I'm sandwiched between layers of seeming, suffocating chaos. How strange that is.


Christmas is coming and D put lights up on the house. We'll have a Christmas tree, we'll spend a little more money, money we don't have. Sometimes D infuriates me - little things, annoying things. I hate that we're so disparate in our artistic likes - in turn, he doesn't read what I write, other than the occasional once-over and his response is always lukewarm.

But I didn't marry him for our artistic "symbiosis." I married him because together we'd create a home with a proverbial picket fence, a colorful Christmas tree in the window, and a dog barking in the backyard. I married him because together we'd not be dramatic. And so it is relievingly mundane that in the evening we sit, legs and feet intertwined on the couch, watching a television show, or lie in bed, reading our books, or sit in a booth in a suburban restaurant, eating a steak and veggies dinner and talking about our funny they are, how smart they are, how aggravating they are...did you see M with her hair in a bow and those mismatched clothes?! How much is the bill? Is this a let's use the credit card...I want dessert though. Let's be adventurous and order a Tiramisu! USC is playing UCLA this weekend...we going to Auntie's? Is that the bill? How much is it?

How funny it is we created drama out of our desperate need for simplicity, a generation beneath us.