Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

dandelion 2

 

 

 

 

 

Mom of a Different Time

On a Sunday in early May, what I thought was an early birthday brunch ended up being the day I found out I am to be a grandmother.

This is not a title that sits comfortably on me. In fact, I have been dreading it for years, relieved that my older two kids planned to have kids much later if at all, and assuming the youngest would at least wait until she was married and settled.

The Universe has a sense of humor, though. What I have been planning is five years of travel and adventure and completely obligation-free Saturdays, weekends for sleeping in and drinking mimosas. Maybe with my daughter.

Now I am looking at a complete shift in identity. I am now “Grandma.” I utterly and unequivocally refuse that title. Perhaps I will be “Nonny” or “Lolly” or some such thing. But not “Grandma.” I couldn’t bear it.

I have several friends who are already grandmothers. They post sweet photos of squishy little faces, all cuddled up in Grandma’s arms. They have, you know, shirts that say grandma stuff. They swear it’s awesome. The best thing ever. Pure Magic. Which, of course, what I try to live, a purely magical life.

I had grandmothers. I had two completely beautiful grandmothers. You know what they were, though? Old. They were old. To a little girl, they looked ancient. I don’t want to be seen as ancient.

When my daughter and her beloved left our house that spring day, I told my husband as he held me, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” His reply? “Are you ready to help your daughter be a good mother, though?” Yes. Yes, I am.

And so, after a few days of mulling, I got excited, really excited about the sweet little peanut who will come into our lives soon. I am in love with this baby. I talk to my daughter’s tummy; I stare longingly at other infants, so anxious to hold this one am I; I window shop in baby departments, and I have a countdown to due date app loaded on my iPhone. I felt her flutter, and that was an enchanted moment like nothing I’d ever felt.

Grandmother…and yet, still mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

Motherhood of young adults who are in their twenties is a whole different level of parenting. Skinned knees give way to broken hearts. Allowance shortfalls are now being unable to quite make rent. Not getting along with an algebra teacher has morphed into coaching an adult child how to deal with an abusive work relationship. Romances have moved beyond the land of “check yes or no if you like me” into the complex realm of co-dependence and infidelity.

Of course, the first step of this change is the college experience. With each child, I worried when we dropped them off at their dorm rooms. With the eldest, our consternation was much about her roommate, a reclusive and unfriendly gamer chick who stayed up late into the night, keeping Hilary awake and groggy. We worried whether she was making friends (she was), partying too much (she wasn’t), and studying enough (she most definitely was). I fretted about bugs in her dorm room and the quality of the food offered on her meal plan. I worried whether she would have the stamina to sustain her choice of major as she worked her way through the grueling audition process that is collegiate theatre. Eventually, she bought a car, changed boyfriends, and started being cast in phenomenal roles that challenged her as both artist and woman.

And yet…she fell deeply in love with a young man who played her romantic love in a play, and we watched as fantasy became reality. Red flags were showing everywhere, and her father saw them almost immediately. It took me a bit longer, though. Our daughter was in love with a drug addict. As a parent, you’re almost helpless. I would say it just  feels like you’re helpless, but it’s actually true. You’re helpless. We pointed out the dangers: disappearing money, stolen debit cards and checks, evictions and creditors, a totaled car, even jail time for theft. Our daughter was so convinced her love would be enough to conquer all. Until the day it wasn’t, and reality hit her like a tsunami.

All you can do, then, is to hold your daughter close when she needs to cry, give her space for quiet when she needs to think, and the sure knowledge that her family is standing by to help her put herself back together.

Christmas 1995

The next child falls into a depressed isolation in his dingy dorm room at the east Texas college that no one told you was in financial crisis and would soon be shuttered, and you begin to question where you went wrong as a parent. You’re sure that your childhood role models of family perfection, Greg and Marcia Brady, never struggled like this at college, that they made it to every class with their shiny hair intact and their books perfectly organized. He’s just far enough away that you can’t get to him easily, and when he comes home, he’s hurt and angry, feeling abandoned, when what you were really trying to do, as a parent, was show him your faith in his independence and courage.

That one also dives deep into a couple of troubled relationships, also sure that his love would be enough to conquer all. Again, Tsunami.

Texas 2

And there’s the baby, who, by luck of the draw, ends up in upper classman apartments instead of a freshman dorm, has a near brush with dorm room forced sex, is panicked by the pressure to choose a major, and so flees to Australia to be an au pair in what turns out to be a house run by an unkind mother who refuses to provide her nourishing food, all the while eating her own Hello Fresh food service meals. If you thought your son was too far to reach, your daughter is even farther. She falls in love with a 38 year old man and stays Down Under for two years, then comes home heartsick, a bit bruised in spirit by what turned out to be a pretty controlling bloke.

Then, thank all the heavens and gods and goddesses, she returns to school and meets a good young man, falls in love, gets pregnant, and makes you a Lolly.

It is so, so hard to bite my tongue when I see my young adult children making decisions that might come back to bite them: car purchases, job changes, lovers, debt…

When my kids were little, my husband and I managed their income, their spending, their friendships, their schooling, their hobbies. I don’t mean we dictated, but we drew boundaries: only two after school activities (to prevent exhaustion), sleepovers only where we knew the parents (to prevent abuse), supervised spending (to stave off wastefulness). We worked to lay a foundation of love and confidence.

Now we watch as they test that foundation. They crack it, but it seems to hold. They move forward, sometimes with grace and sometimes with grief, but always forward. Their love is more precious to me now because it’s been tried and tested in the fires of anger and forgiveness, tug and release, and lessons learned. Not just their lessons, but mine, too.

I have learned to have faith in my children.

Now, I too move forward. Can’t wait to meet my sweet granddaughter, Hazel Elizabeth.

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