All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

The Great Unmasking

We joke, or we try to joke, that if it weren’t for our doctor appointments, we would have nosocial life at all.  That, and babysitting.  The pandemic descended just about the time my friends were deciding about Medicare coverage, and the lunches were long and boring. I was spared the angst because the institution I worked for offered an excellent supplemental plan so I sat and picked at my salad, rolled my eyes a lot and sighed heavily. 

No one noticed, or else I was ignored, but I had no idea how important all that medical support was going to be to me, and in the very near future. Because I had to get out of the house.

Covid brought with it a slew of grand-babies, new nieces and nephews, and that was the other thing we talked about.  A lot. Once I, too, had some new little ones to coo over and brag about I was happy.  But frustrated, too, because I couldn’t get my hands on them, either through distance or cautious new mothers. 

Could we dare to hope now we are back to normal?  Could we dare to hope that spring going into summer going into fall will bring vacations and air travel without masks, and festivals on steamy humid days, all barbecue and funnel cakes and people galore? 
I think, maybe. 

The sign for me was spending the weekend with friends out of town.  A normal weekend out of town.  With lunch out, dinner out, shopping in a quaint but crowded antique emporium, a late evening performance with the large crowd growing more cozy as the night wore on, and I was up for all of it. 

Of course I was.  I am compliant but I am not always a true adopter. But the friends I was with are believers of the first order.  Hand washing, isolating, mask and double-mask wearers, vaxxed and vaxxed and vaxxed some more.  Friends who made big plans for things important to them, only to cancel them when numbers were high. Friends who did everything right. 

Friends who were now on a crowded dance floor at one in the morning, dancing with strangers, not a mask in sight.  

And it was a beautiful thing. 

It was Friday afternoon when the school bell rings, the last day of class, the first bike ride in spring, the unexpected snow day.  

Freedom, pure and simple. 

And freedom feels good. 

And there is plenty to go around.  I have friends who were dismissive of the mask thing, although they, too, complied, but not without some angst of their own. They didn’t agonize about the value of wearing the mask as much as they struggled with their feelings around being told what to do, being subtly or not so subtly shamed, the aggravation of friendships, relationships reshaped by a thin piece of cloth about the nose and mouth. So, no more of that.

Back to normal now.  Or almost. 

For years I have disgorged from aircraft into airports teeming with people in masks and I have never understood it.  The spectacle of it. Now, I get it and I am even relieved because airports scare me.  I am no germaphobe but my imagination runs wild in international airports when I think of the crush of humanity who pass through, exposing me to who knows what, and I go a little nuts with it.  

Now, like  a good neighbor, I can wear a mask when I want, lull myself into thinking I am protecting myself, reassuring the international traveling public I am protecting them from me. And I can do it with no self-consciousness at all. Once on the plane I can eat my peanuts in peace, fall asleep maskless with my mouth open and dream the dreams of the innocent. Or wear a mask the whole flight.

Free, then, to do it my way. 

Like the way I dance, at one in the morning.

Look, don’t look, who cares, I’m having fun. My mood lifting as my mask does. And each day a little more freedom, something I have missed. 

Spring and a Prayer

This time last year I had herbs in the ground, Gerber daisies riding shotgun along the edge of my porch, geraniums in gigantic and hopeful pots siting by the door, promising to be gigantic themselves. Spring arrived sometime in early March and that was fine with me. 

I gave up on one more snow storm and gave over to garden catalogs, plastic pots of English thyme and I dug in the dirt to my heart’s content. I circled tools and garden clogs in catalogs, drove out in the countryside for bags of my favorite potting soil. 

This year I watch the Weather Channel and wonder when I can plant the delicate herbs and poppies I purchased just before Easter. They are still on the porch and they complain like a toddler whose shoes are too tight.  Their roots are binding a little more each day and they droop and pout.  

The geraniums are still in the nursery, nestled with their siblings.  The season is so wonky they hadn’t made an appearance when I visited the weekend before Easter. I will go get them today if it warms up and I venture out. 

It is an odd spring, weather-wise, world-wise.  The time of all hope and promise, whether looking at the Christian calendar or the greening of the fields, yet a sadness creeps just at the edges, an unease, and I find myself blinking in the light on some days, wishing, in an ashamed way, for a little more rain, more clouds, so I can stay inside and crawl under a blanket, watch mindless TV, or do nothing at all.  

It isn’t like me, really. 

I spent the week before Easter cleaning and cooking and bringing up serving pieces from the basement.  I watched the news hardly at all.  My tribe ascended, lovely and loud, with babies crawling around, and I spun like a dervish between kitchen and dining room, replenishing plates and glasses all Easter Day long.  

I didn’t have a single cogent conversation with anyone, but I heard the sisters-in-law remarking how difficult it is to be happy or joyful this Easter with Ukraine…

The speaker trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.  How to see the images, how to think about the invasion and have adequate words. 

There are none. 

As a child who spent her bedtimes waiting for the Russians to come snatch her from her bed,  who hid under a desk with her tiny classmates, whose father worked on digging a bomb shelter after dinner each night, I can’t seem to grasp now the threat that Putin might use nuclear weapons.  

The immediate concern is Ukraine of course, and maybe Central Europe.  My friends in the Czech Republic are certainly on edge. But here? I can’t think so, but then, there is an unreality to what is going on over there, even as we see with our own eyes, even as dots are connected for us by retired generals, diplomats, experts. 

I am in incessant prayer, although I am not certain it is prayer, because prayer has always felt like this wispy and vague endeavor, lacking a firm beginning with a rush to the amen. Now, I have dispensed with even the amen, adding three dots of my own…which I mean to be a stand in for “more to follow.”
This circular prayer suits me these days as I watch the news and even for the poppies still on my porch, as they grow more pale and wan each day.

I dig in the dirt and plant my basil, because the earth is there to receive and the basil of full of potential, desirous of only a soft place to land.  The sun in this part of my yard obliges, every day, all day.  

I fear I sound morose or depressed, and I am not.  But I am more sober and thoughtful, I will give you that.  I wear the uncertainty of things a little differently now, a coat I feel the weight of, but not so buttoned up I cannot breathe. I stand with the world that suffers great pain. In my own small way I bear witness.  I tend the little piece of ground I’ve been given, and I am grateful for it. 

And the sun and the rain, the just and unjust, lessons I try to understand.  The childhood civil defense drills and sunflowers waiting to grow in a torn land beyond our reach, but familiar now, nonetheless.

Easter Then, Easter Now

It could be fall if I go only by that which I can hear.  The rain outside, nothing dramatic or torrential, but steady, comforting in its way, as the evening grows darker. The house feels humid, though, not on the verge of cold, as it does in autumn, but still on some dark mornings I wake and I am not quite sure what season it is, especially when it rains. 

The birds give it away on those mornings I wake early. I find them irksome in principle because they hinder my falling back to sleep.  It simply  isn’t done to admit this about the early spring birds, so I ask you keep my confidence on this. 

Last week some of us woke to hail, then it cleared into a bright sunny day, only to cloud up and hail some more, or was it sleet, or was it ice, in the afternoon.  My sister and I had a bit of  a tiff over it as we stood in in her kitchen and watched her puppies run around in it, oblivious to whatever it was. 

I would say we are having a bad spring, but of course, we are not. No tornado warnings to speak of, warm nights followed by cool days followed by freeze warnings followed by cold days followed by sunshine and balmy breezes.  

A typical spring, then.  

In recent years we have been bestowed with springs that seem to begin in February and last until the first of July.  Last year I bought herbs, geraniums, and Shasta daisies in mid-March and didn’t need to drape them with tea towels once during the long, long spring. 

Even though Easter is late this year, we still aren’t sure what to expect, weather-wise.  While we have two little ones in attendance at the family gathering, they are still too young to gather eggs, and we will be happy to avoid that all together.  When I was little it seemed to rain or snow on Easter.  The Easter Bunny hid eggs in the house on those early mornings, and we were fishing dyed eggs out of the couch for weeks.  

I reckon my parents were happy to hide the eggs indoors, but it was just a let-down, you know?  The house still dark from the early hour and the rain, eggs visible from the landing, and no real challenge to any of it.  Easter basket grass is lovely and fairy-like when backlit by an early Easter sun.  It is just kind of messy and matted sitting in a leaning basket on the hearth. 

Easter Sunday was church, and new shoes and something frilly which, in the early 60s meant scratchy and uncomfortable.  There were new gloves, white and cotton or sometimes crocheted.  A dime for the plate inside the glove, worrying my palm with its cool metal antics, moving and sliding as I moved and slung my arm.

Maybe we all came to Sunday school clutching our Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, or maybe we brought it the Sunday before.  In the Southern Baptist church where I grew up, women couldn’t participate much, except in the most womanly and motherly roles.  But the only historical figures of the church every child could name were these:  Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon. 

For some Easter is their favorite holiday. It is certainly the most high holiday of the Christian calendar. I liked the Easter hymns, although they made me shiver a little.  They were joyous and dark all at the same time, and the Easter stories were dramatic and upsetting, and sometimes we had preachers who went too far, pounding for effect on the pulpit as they acted out the nailing to the cross. The stories of all night vigils, betrayal, beatings, and the very word Golgotha terrified me.  That Easter weekend often ended with a TV airing of the “Wizard of Oz” just topped it off. 

But this Sunday we will gather from our various Easter services, watch the boys roll around on the floor, someone will almost step on them, someone else with drop cake on their heads, there will be ham and deviled eggs and mercifully no Easter grass.  

I will fall asleep remembering my Bible lessons, and flying monkeys, and the feel of white cotton gloves, as spotless as they will ever be. 

The Boys of Ukraine

I was traveling with my friend and colleague, Kveta, heading to an orphanage for boys somewhere in western Ukraine.  We traveled over pock-marked roads, sometimes driving on the right side, sometimes the left, dodging the largest potholes with varying success. 

This part of Ukraine is beautiful but remote, everything in sight churned up and lumpen from the thawing winter:  the fields, the forest floor, and especially the roads. 

Kveta and her school, Caritas College of Social Work, have deep roots in Ukraine, sending students to complete internships, students like Marketa, who travels with us.  We arrive in mid-afternoon, with Roystia, our driver and guide.  He is a priest and a great friend to the orphanage and the boys. 

We round a corner carrying our bags and a dozen or more boys hang out the upstairs windows, shouting down to Roystia. 

“Where will the girls stay?”

“Will they stay in our rooms with us?”

We are the girls, of course, old enough to be their mothers, grandmothers, maybe, and Marketa the beautiful and mysterious older cousin.

Roystia laughs and translates for us. 

“No, they have their own room, and you must leave them alone,” he shouts back, but already they boys are clattering down the wide stone steps and they clang out the door to get a better look. 

It is a place bereft of women, of motherly tenderness and care.  There is a cranky cook and a kind housekeeper, but she is busy and overworked, and the boys rarely see her as she swirls between her tasks. The headmaster, too, is kind, and the teachers.  They admit it is a problem for the boys, but can only shrug and look off in the middle distance.  There is no solution to this delimma.

The boys kick soccer balls and grab whatever is at hand to hold above their heads and wave at us, vying for attention and appreciation. One boy brings me an American football, surprised I know how to throw it, but good-natured and laughing when he throws it much farther.  

One boy, maybe twelve,  runs into a small out building and stands just outside the doorway with a chainsaw as big as he is.  It is running and he revs it, or I think he does, until he is satified we have all seen him.

Alexei, the youngest child here, is only five, too young to be here, but his older brother is here and looks out for him. Alexei is everywhere, follows us like our shadow, weaseling his way between us and the the railings of the winding staircase, managing to sneak into our room unseen as soon as we unlook the door.  He rummages then, looking in drawers, bouncing on each of our beds, saying something in Ukrainian I don’t understand. 

The older boys know his tricks, and come to remove him, embarrassed and apologizing in English.  Alexei will knock on our door at 5:00 a.m.each morning. Any time we head to the large room we share, there he is, tiny and fast, grinning and bouncing and repeating the same phrase, again and again.

On our last day I learn what he has said all week.  

“You will take me with you.  You will take me with you.”

Demetri wants us to stay.  He has made a space for our shoes in the hall closet where thirty sets of shoes sit, waiting for their owners to go outside.  He comes to get us, points to the place for our shoes, holds out the soft slippers for us, the ones the Ukrainians wear indoors.  You see? He seems to say.  We will make room for all of you.  Stay.

The little boys pose with their buddies for photos, seem to have endless energy for it. The older boys, the adolescents, watch in an amused way, always on the edges, not as frisky as the smaller boys, but not far away from us, either.  

They agree to a photo finally, when no one is looking. They go shy and awkward, these handsome boys, perhaps a little embarrassed that they want their picture taken as much as the younger ones do. 

I think of these sweet boys, the ones who spoke English like little scholars.  The one who had a way with the chainsaw, and the graceful athlete in the broken-down shoes, his arm instinctively finding the arc of a thrown football.

Demetri holding out slippers.

Alexei, and how he broke my heart, in the same moment we broke his.

How even he is fighting age now.

Where are they, the boys, as bombs fall on Ukraine?  And the boys who came after them, and how many more boys made orphans, this very night, by sheer evil.  And what are we to do?

WHAT DO I WANT NOW?

The question put to Marty Byrde by the drug lord was simple and direct.  

What do you want?  

Marty, under some duress, being held in a stone cell with blaring music and bright lights, was hard put to come up with something.  So back he goes to his dungeon accommodations to ponder on it some more. 

Halfway through the third season of “Ozark” the kidnapped Marty is given an opportunity for clarity and focus, although we can all agree the wages of his particular sins will be death if he doesn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

  I am re-watching the series in preparation for the fourth and final season, and because of the language and violence and unsavory characters—most all of them—I can’t recommend it.  It is a “buyer beware” kind of situation, not unlike “Breaking Bad,” another train wreck of a story line that was just like a train wreck to watch.  Upsetting, loud with lots of screeching, explosions and double-crosses,  and yet, we can’t look away. 

The line was delivered as I sat high over the Gulf of Mexico, the door to the balcony slightly cracked against a bright day with cool winds.  Not quite south enough to offer a feel of the tropics in February, but still, the sun was warm and palm trees swayed, and it is enough to give a hint of spring, and that was just fine for now.  And yet, beautiful though it was out the sliding glass doors, it wasn’t enough.  Not exactly. 

It is very nice.  I am surrounded by friends. A change of scene is always good, especially in winter.  There is lots of love here, and laughter. 

But it isn’t all I want. 

And I feel full of hubris and a bit embarrassed to even be having this conversation. Do we, any of us, get what we want?  Can we engineer it, craft it from pieces of pine and wood  glue, set it in a corner or on display, this thing that is our heart’s desire? Is it even a worthy use of our time, such contemplation? 

Well, yes and no. 

We can plan and wish and worry and wool our lives away.  I do this with notebooks, calendars, planners, notes on scraps of paper, written in the dark of a movie theatre, in bed, as ideas come to me.  That I never return to them later in the cold light of day doesn’t seem to faze me. Somehow, writing it down makes it so, a hold over from childhood when my dreams were bigger than the fat pencil I used to record them. Grand, but really, beside the point.

Beside the point because a child has so little agency, has so little means to make dreams come true.  Maybe that is why they are so big, those dreams.  The elephant rides across the Alps, the Olympic gold medals for ski jump, traveling to Mars, saving the world with a towel pinned to a pajama top, tight fists jutting out, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. 

I rode a slew of horses when I was a child, saved many, many lives. That’s me, right there, riding along side Penny and her uncle, Sky King.  Dale Evans and Roy Rogers relied on me, too.  And Cheyenne, although ours was a complicated relationship.  I had a crush on him, you see, or what passed as a crush for an eight year old. 

Perhaps I was so busy doing heroic things because so much of the time I was just plain scared.  There is much to spook a child, and I had my share. The dark.  Creaky old floorboards in creaky old houses, the bully who chased and sometimes caught me coming home from school. Losing sight of my mother in a crowded store, the mysterious things children see but don’t understand. 

By now, I have a handle on most things, can outrun a bully because I drive a car, am comforted by the sounds of an old house settling, as I sit and settle, too. I have agency in spades.  But time?  It no longer creeps up on me, it races by as swift and violent as a purse snatcher.  

The beach is nice, but, for me, it is a kind of staging area, not a final destination. It is so much nicer than Marty Byrde’s dungeon cell.  But deciding what I want seems as critical and time-sensitive as Marty figuring out what he wants. But we will both feel better, I think,  once we strike on the true, and have heart enough to utter it aloud.

The Way of Wintering

It will be some weeks until my birthday, my dead of winter birthday, but I think about it differently than I used to. I never liked my February birthday, but something a friend said this time last year intrigued me and I have been mulling it over since.  

She, too, has a winter birthday, and she also hated it as a kid.  I thought my February celebration in Kentucky was drab and cold and overcast.  She grew up in a northern clime so she has me beat, with snow and ice and slush, and bare branches against the sky.   No cookouts for her, either, or swim parties or park picnics.  

Perhaps my siblings didn’t have swim parties, either, what with their summer birthdays, but there were cookouts, there were picnics. I know because I ate the hotdogs.  I licked the salt from my fingers before and after scrounging around in a big bag of Lay’s.  And I never forgot, and nursed the resentment, that in seven months we will gather inside and after dark on a cold day for my birthday and presents, but it will be over in a twinkling because tomorrow is  a school day. 

My friend likes her winter birthday now, likes the dormant world, the cold, the early nightfall that wraps around her, creating the space for contemplation, quiet, and simple pleasures:  warmth on a frigid night, good bread, a book, rest.

Well, put like that, I began to see the merits.  It changed my whole attitude. I use the weeks after the holidays to do things there is never time for in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  I go to bed early, not to sleep, necessarily, but to read and dream, and check my phone for pictures of the new babies in the family. 

At first I thought I would celebrate Old Christmas, Epiphany, as a way to keep the Christmas spirit going, but let’s face it.  Except for a few pockets of people holding on to the old ways, and except for the Anglicans among us, there isn’t much to recommend it.  Now, the Tudors knew how to throw a twelve-day party, but even they were exhausted at the end of it and their neighbors didn’t see them again until the streams ran high.

I think my friend was talking about the idea of wintering. It should occur after the New Year and last until just before the birds begin to wake us up.  Here in the Ohio River Valley, that should be sometime in mid-March.  Wintering should include sleep, quality sleep with a favorite blankie, something I have only just discovered.  It may take some doing to find your perfect wrap, but it is important, and I don’t recommend you rush it.  Wintering requires soups, and something in the oven, and coffee brewed in fancy ways.  A French press, perhaps, or a Chemex, an item so beautiful it is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.  

The Chemex coffee pot—can we call it a pot?—was designed in 1941 by chemist and inventor, Peter Schlumbohm, and it is part Bauhaus chic, part chemistry lab gear, and the coffee it renders is as clean and glorious as its design. 

Like the French press, it takes some time to get your brew, and on a gray winter morning it is reassuring, the tiny tinkerings that engage us, the waiting.  It cracks the world, just a little bit, takes us to that soft place in the middle distance where we float for a while as we wait, never reeling too far out, but far enough to slow our breathing.  Such resting and waking, the symmetry of that. 

My time is my own now, and I have the luxury of letting a day take me where it will. This isn’t the way for everyone.  Or myself, for a long long time.  Then I was always thinking months ahead, begrudging the boredom of the cold, the damp, the snow that came or didn’t come, messing with every plan I had made.  I spent chunks of my year in suspended animation, waiting for the clearing of the weather, the clearing of my calendar, for the arrival of spring and birds, the pale greening that signaled the true new year. 

Now I think of late winter, of January, February, as the quiet quickening of all newness. The gray a blanket to crawl under and keep warm until I can warm myself. The snow, the rain and a roof, an invitation to sit still and wonder. And to rest.

The Word

Writers love words.  Of course we do.  Love to think about them, look them up, say them over and over until they begin to sound like nonsense syllables.  We delight in stringing them together, moving them around, sometimes for hours at a time.  We have been known to weep over our words when we manage to sort them into a sequence so beautiful it is as if all the sun in all the world has broken through to shine only on that paragraph, that sentence. 

We weep again, when we realize, some time later, the beautiful words no longer work.  Then we gently lay them to rest, heartsick they won’t see the light of day.   We might keep them in a special notebook, handwritten and tucked up with tissue, as we bend over them promising to return, to use them again, in some other, finer piece. We whisper to them, telling of the day they might soar with their brothers into the world to inspire and move all those readers as they have moved us. 

We almost never keep this promise, of course, but it eases our hearts, somehow, this ritual of saving something we have created, something beautiful, but in the end, useless. 

When a new year blossoms we are tempted, sometimes shamed, into making resolutions, those great resolves for improvement, discipline, life-altering changes that often run counter to the true essence of our natures.  A nine-year old child who doesn’t like to run is unlikely to grow into a fifty-year old who decides to take up jogging.  It happens, of course, but I’ve seen them out there pounding the asphalt, their faces in grimaces worthy of Goya.
A friend is shifting around for her word, just one, to serve as her touchstone for the year.  She writes with a group which does this, find the one word to guide and inspire them, something pithy and meaningful.  A word easily transferred to a post-it note for the bathroom mirror, a word folded away with the ones and fives in a wallet, something to scribble in the margins when meetings run long. 

A different friend gave me my word for this year.  We were chatting and she said she experienced me in a certain way.  She meant it as a compliment, and I took it that way, but I also thought, it isn’t very accurate.  I might aspire to the word, might walk around in it on those days when I’m feeling imaginative and hopeful, but there is much in my life that runs counter to it.  

Things that get in my way, keep me from my better self, things I do, out out habit or inattention, that hinder me in a thousand little ways.  Like the principle of compound interest, little things add up, slowly at first, and then at a rapid rate.  I find myself overwhelmed and set adrift, with no paddle or wind. Nothing changes.  The shore always too far to reach.  

Ah, but the word.  If I practiced it, just a little, what difference it could make. 

I am not going to share my word just yet. I know myself well.  To toss it out there now is to all but toss it away.  Sometimes just saying a thing makes it so, or it feels that way, and I am on to the next shiny thing, with nary a look back.  I will share it eventually, but not quite yet.

Perhaps there is a word rolling around for you to embrace, to ponder and apply in your life, for snags big and small.  Looking through a single lens helps us focus.  Helps me focus.  My breathing slows.  Like tumblers in a lock, my next course of action falls into place and opens before me. 

May you find your word. May you let it guide you, challenge you. It is you  and it is yours, this word.  May it delight you with the glow of a thousand suns.

Perfect and Not Perfect — When Not Perfect’s Better

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favorite of the year.  Before the plague descended, it was the only time I enjoyed the luxury of not knowing the day of the week, the exact time of day, and sometimes, my own name.  

My days are filled binging movies, naps that overtake me, awaking in the dark at 5:00 o’clock, with that panic that starts in the solar plexus, is it morning or night?  The little stashes of Christmas goodies delivered by friends and tucked away from prying eyes, so I might have them all to myself, without sharing, which feels mean and wonderful.  

By mid-week I may stop lighting the tree, more from sloth more than ennui.  I will spend five minutes thinking of warm and sunny shores, palm trees, humidity.  But then, toting my trash to the curb, extra bags with boxes and crumpled wrapping, I will experience humidity, balmy breezes, and curse whatever powers that conspire to rob me of a white Christmas. 

My lovely, lovely notebooks and planners sit stacked and enticing on the edge of my coffee table.  I won’t touch them until my new pens arrive.  I won’t touch them even then, because I want them to stay perfect, pristine, the embodiment of promise — for organization, purpose, discipline.  

One of my writing friends is terrified by the blank page.  He writes whole chapters in his head, outlines plot and scene and fleshes out his characters before ever sitting down to the computer.  I love nothing better than a blank page, a clean slate.  It is a mirror, I think, of perfection.  But of course, once even the shadow of your face come into view, it becomes this other, imperfect thing, all illusion shattered. 

Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it is a necessary thing, intended to save us from ourselves and the construct that is perfection.   That mirror wants to be our friend, showing us ourselves clearly, practically willing us to accept what we see, all of it, as we do with the lovable imperfections of others.

Like a good antique, our image in the mirror or on the blank page is the evidence of use, and wear, and on occasion trauma—the dark place a candle burned too low, the butterfly block that holds it together, fixed up, still standing.  

My friend, Sally, tells me not to be concerned about imperfections when it comes to antiques.   Sometimes we are willing to pay a lot of money for those cracks. Some say the crack tells the better story.

While it is still early in the week, while I still know the day and time, I think I’ll  take a gander in the mirror that is the blank page of the New Year.  I will try to look past the unreasonable weather, the rain which should be snow, will put away the Christmas tins, brush the crumbs off my front, sit up straight on couch. Open a notebook.

Concentrate not on perfection but  on all the lovely cracks. 

A Sibling Christmas

By the week before Christmas, my siblings and I would finally be out of school and sick with anticipation.  This manifested itself in several ways.  Conspiratorial whisperings late at night as to how to catch Santa Claus.  Manic running through the house, so furious the glass ornaments on the tree tinkled and clinked together, the old wooden floors groaning under our pounding feet.  Arguments over nothing ensued, some playful slur or accidental elbow thrown, ending, as all such romps ended, in a fist fight. 

Not a true fist fight, of course.  We were careful not to hit faces or torsos where all the best organs lived, but there was some slugging and rolling around involved. My mother, bent over the jam cake batter, hollered that way she had in the moments just before she snapped, and we retreated to our rooms, relieved to flop on our beds and save ourselves from ourselves.  We tossed insults at each other across the hall but really, our hearts weren’t in it.

Evenings and we lay under the tree, fanned out like spokes in a wheel, the room dark but for the tree lights, as we discussed with great solemnity, the existence of you-know-who.  My brother, Billy, and I were old enough to have seen price tags left of toys the year before:  W.T. Grant, Kuester’s, Sears & Roebuck.  This required an elaborate series of events to explain, ones involving managers late on Christmas Eve letting Santa in the backdoor.  We accepted  the logic that he couldn’t carry all the toys for the world at once, while still accepting the fact  that Santa delivered toys by sleigh.

The little kids joined us under the tree, all sweet-smelling in their flannel pajamas, and we were as happy as we ever were, lulled by the dark and colorful lights, all our energy spent for one day, and filled with generosity and goodwill as we anticipated the generosity and goodwill soon to be coming to us. 

That’s the thing, isn’t it, how easy to be generous when we have enough.  How kind we are when we anticipate kindness from others.  How calm our hearts after a good scolding when we know we deserved it and to see, when the dust settles, that whatever it was that got us in trouble isn’t even forgiven, but completely forgotten. 

We have new babies in the family this year.  Four of them.  They are far-flung and we have yet to have them all in the same room together.  Right now they are new and fresh and still a wonderment to their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  Their job is to be gazed upon and adored, to reach for us so we will pick them up, to squirm and fuss until we find just the spot where they fold into us and find our fit. 

The fit that will be different with each child. 

And we will study them like lab experiments, working like the teacher’s pet to understand every nuance of their movements, their burbles and grunts, until we believe we are the best in the class, unlocking their codes. We will study them for the rest of our lives.  We all want straight A’s in the knowing of these children. 

I find myself looking to my young niece, who is the true expert on her infant son, and take instruction as if I’ve paid her for tutoring.  I all but take notes.  I don’t get much of the new mothering these days: sleep sacks, tummy time, back sleeping.  But I get that, for all the baby’s squishy rolls of fat, there is something delicate about new life, like those old German Christmas ornaments, big and brilliant and shiny, and fragile as egg shells. 

There will soon be siblings for these babies to love and fight with, new babies for us to learn head to toe.

I have my own version of time under the Christmas tree now.  It involves visits with friends, long chats on the phone with pals I might not see for months and months.  Christmas music going, sometimes the old holiday classics, sometimes Trans-Siberian Orchestra, sometimes medieval chants, sometimes sweet nuns singing to me in Latin. 

No longer waiting for Santa Claus and bribing him with cookies and milk, I will toss seeds and nuts out my backdoor on Christmas morning for the birds and squirrels still inhabiting my yard.  I’ll make my mother’s jam cake.  I’ll wear flannel pajamas to bed, although I am warm natured. I won’t miss slugging somebody, but I’ll think on the that particular form of sibling love that says, I may hit you but I won’t hurt you.  You can trust me.  And you do.

Fires, Family and Furious Shopping

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend passed just as I had hoped, with food, family, fun, and ferocious on-line shopping.  And fire.  Don’t forget the fire.  

My mother and grandmother passed down the story of the twenty pound turkey that caught the oven on fire.  It was spoken of in reverent tones, tinged a little with fear, the perfect kind of cautionary tale.  The bird was simply too big.  The grease was simply too copious.  The oven too hot.  

Fire. 

The story never progressed beyond this, just somber and knowing looks all around. 

Did you buy a turkey this year?  Couldn’t find a small one, could you?  Me, either. 

So, an hour into roasting, and the house filling with smoke, I decided to have a look, and in so doing, adding the third element of combustion, oxygen. Up came the flames, and after a couple of boxes of baking soda, most of them were out.  But maybe not all.  911 and I discussed this, even as I heard the sirens on their way from the No. 4 fire station.

By the time the two policemen, the ladder truck, the pumper truck, and the ambulance arrived, everything was out.  Fire terrifies me, thank you “Wizard of Oz,” so I always err on the side of caution.  And such a nice bunch of young men.  Reassuring, helpful, opening windows and bringing in that nice powerful fan to remove the smoke. 

It scared my neighbors, but brought offers of another oven, offers of help and plates of food.  My sister always makes a turkey, too, so she saved the day and has called often to remind me of it.

We had a baby to pass around this year, but mostly I got to rock him to sleep and then hold him for the duration of his nap.  When anyone tried to relieve me of him, I jiggled his leg to make his startle, then told the interloper we best not disturb him.  He and I stayed like that until it was time to go home.  I looked all apologetic at his light sleeping habits, but I wasn’t sorry,, not at all.

My nephews were home with their dogs, who just love me.  I am not much of a pet person, so this guarantees no matter where I go, dogs lick my hands and jump up on me, cats rub around my ankles and silently hop onto the furniture when I’m not looking, the better to peer deep into my eyes. The toddlers I really want to play with?  I am dead to them.

Reading’s dog, Kobe, will stay with his grandparents for the week.  He pulled one of his master’s sweatshirts out of his bag, and flopped down on it.  I am told he will pine for Reading until he returns, moving from the sweatshirt to the front door and back again.  It’s sweet, and pitiful, and I don’t know what all. 

Friday I spent over an hour attempting to buy a 2022 planner on a Taiwanese website.  I am fussy about planners and am convinced the right one will change my life in all the good ways.  I will be taller, thinner, smarter, more accomplished.  This one has Tomoe River paper, of which I am quite fond.  Vertical weeks, month at a glance pages in a handsome grid pattern. 

A pal of mine likes calendars, too, whispering like it might be a great shame she gets new calendars all year long when the old ones get messy.  Oh, I get it. 

Somewhere in this calendar buying, she also posted on Facebook a photo of a new notebook she bought, something to give her that last little push to finish the semester and the year with success.  So, I had to check those out, too.  

They are Decomposition notebooks, made completely with recycled materials, which I often eschew because I don’t like the paper.  But these are great.  The size and shape of traditional composition books, they have wonderful covers and inside illustrations, and I bought several, to end my year right and organize me, too.

When they arrived I felt like John Boy on Christmas Eve with his stack of Big Chief tablets.  This friend of mine is cool, but she is starting to cost me money.  I admit I am “other directed,” a fancy term for being a follower, all shallow and insecure.   But right this minute, I am organized and creative, and too cool to hang around here much longer. And tall, don’t forget tall.