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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

I was about twelve when I learned to torture myself late on Christmas evening. I was always bummed to see the holiday season come to an end. At some point late on Christmas Day my father would say, “It’s all over but the shouting!” I despised that saying because I hated the thought of Christmas being over, especially since the “shouting” part had no basis in reality (unless my parents got into a fight, which just made my mood worse).

To pour vinegar into the cut, I started a ritual of staring out the window as midnight approached, gazing at all the outdoor lights I could take in from the given window. Usually it was one of our living room windows, from which I could look up Maple Drive in Oakley to see our neighbors’ decorations. I could see houses on a hilltop street across the valley of Marburg Avenue as well. In fact, sometimes I could even spot the illuminated plastic candles hung on the light poles of the Hyde Park Plaza parking lot if I peered carefully through the trees at exactly the right spot.

I had a notion that the lights had a special shimmer, a magic that vanished at midnight on Christmas Day. I stayed awake so I could witness this extinguishing, and pay tribute to it in a morbid way. It made me ache to do it, but once having established this ritual, it became a new, excruciating tradition that went on for decades.

In my twenties, I added another dimension: I’d have the radio on, tuned to a station that had been playing non-stop Christmas music for the past 24 hours, so I could hear and feel the seering loss when the holiday tunes evaporated into the ethers at midnight and the playlist returned to normal vapidity.

Yes, I do think a part of me appreciates pain and believes it adds depth to an experience. I became a lifelong artist in the practice of saying farewell to things, and really feeling sorrow, even mourning, whether it was the circus leaving town, a return from a wonderful vacation trip, the closing of the county fair, or the end of summer. Therefore, even though I was blessed not to lose anyone extremely close to me for the first 20+ years of my life, I lived in a constant funereal state of mind.

My “goodbye to Christmas” depression became almost debilitating by my 30s. By then I’d realized that I wasn’t mourning just the end of THAT Christmas, but of the entire preceding autumn going back to the beginning of October (my favorite time of year). And all the Christmas Pasts became entwined in Christmas Present, so I was waving goodbye to all of them at once, and everyone and everything associated with them. It was hell and not really a good way to live.

I don’t know if I’d have broken out of that well of season-ending despair without being diagnosed with severe clinical depression and being prescribed  Zoloft almost 15 years ago.  It’s not that I don’t still get sad on Christmas night; the difference is I’m able to let it go.

But I’m still enough of an emotional masochist that I have to look at the lights one last time while it’s still “Christmas.” Never mind that in many countries and cultures, the Christmas season continues on through January 6, or the actual celebration is on that date. I’ve scolded myself about that for years, but it’s never helped. Once I tried that trick of waiting until midnight while watching Christmas videos on VH1, but I was taken aback when the holiday-spirited videos continued – after all, it was still Christmas to the west of Ohio. That realization helped some, but finally not enough.

I thought I might feel even worse this year because of our troubled season, but I don’t. Yes, I’m sad that Christmas is over. I’ll continue to be sad right on into January, heart sinking as the light displays disappear one after another at the darkest time of the calendar. I do love New Year’s Eve, though, and I get a slight respite from the misery around December 28 as party fever builds again in anticipation.

My mother said something encouraging, though. Usually she’s ready to move on from Christmas once December 25 is wound up. This year, however, she says she doesn’t feel as “sick” of it all as she does most years, due to not getting to enjoy much of it (or, for that matter, wear herself out with it). She says she’s not ready to start hauling down the decorations, which she managed to put up just days before the kidney stone affliction. She’s going to let herself enjoy them more in the coming week, in addition to other things of a Christmas nature. That helps. Things don’t feel quite as final as we approach midnight this Christmas as they usually do.

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We should have known a year like this would bring us a Christmas season as difficult as this one was.

Overnight December 2-3, my mother became sick with what we thought might be food poisoning or a bug. She seemed to be doing better, so I was stunned when I called her that Friday (the 4th) to say I’d be coming early for the weekend, and she told me she’d been so bad that day that my sister took her to the doctor. The prognosis: maybe diverticulitis, maybe a kidney stone.

Mom did okay that evening. We watched TV, including the Monk finale, and had a pleasant time. Within less than 30 minutes of her going to bed, though, she was up and pacing with terrible pain. It was so severe I became frightened. Mom, not a person who complains a lot or becomes overly dramatic, was shaking severely and pleading, “PLEASE, please, please.” I called Diamondqueen and asked her to come help me decide whether to phone for an ambulance.

The ambulance, with Mom and me aboard, arrived at the ER around 11:30 p.m. Diamondqueen, who had followed in her van, joined us once Mom’s initial exam was over. One of the longest nights of my entire life began, as we waited for painkillers, for exams, for the drink Mom had to consume for the CAT scan, for an hour to pass after Mom drank the stuff, and on and on. They finally confirmed that Mom did have a kidney stone, but it was only about 2-3mm, too small to remove surgically. The ER sent us home with prescriptions for painkillers and antibiotics. We made it to bed around 7 a.m.

It would have been disappointing enough, since Mom wasn’t well enough to celebrate St. Nick that Sunday. We did exchange our gifts to each other, but gifts to and from the Hooligans were postponed and there was no get-together.  However, the stone wasn’t passing. Mom kept the pain at bay with regular ibuprofen until the second week, when she started becoming more miserable. When she had her appointment with the urologist, it turned out her stone was MUCH larger than we’d been told. They got her scheduled for the stone removal procedure, miraculously, before her doctor left for the holidays. She came out of it very well, and we even watched some holiday shows that Friday evening.

We thought it would soon all be over, since she’d be able to remove the stent herself on Monday. However, she went into spasms (which apparently are common), so that meant more pain and more painkillers. The urologist’s office confirmed that the discomfort could go on for weeks.

I guess we’re all spoiled and I have nothing to complain about in being able to even say this: But this was the first Christmas season ever where Mom wasn’t able to do a single thing with me and the Hooligans. I watched in disbelief as days, then weeks passed, and one outing after another passed by.

Mom assured me (and still assures me) that she doesn’t feel cheated – that in feeling so bad, she wouldn’t have wanted to do anything anyhow. I know there are plenty of women at 77 who would have had interrupted Christmas seasons before this. Again, I guess we’re all spoiled.

It was hard, though. And to see my mother suffering as she did on top of watching my father die last summer was just a little too much. And I don’t like one second, let alone a whole holiday season, being wasted at this point in my mother’s life. But, as she pointed out to me last night, she believes she still has some good Christmas seasons ahead of her.

And it hasn’t been all bad news. I had some very nice times with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans throughout December, especially a unique overnight at Great Wolf Lodge (a separate story entirely). Best of all, Mom says she woke up this morning thinking, “It’s Christmas Eve! My favorite day of the year!” And she says she really did enjoy the day. She worked up the energy this afternoon to bake the Christmas cookies she’s mixed up yesterdays, which left me with only small tasks, like finishing the few gifts that still needed to be wrapped, running to the grocery for store-bought treats to replace the savories Mom usually makes, and sweeping up a little.

And the evening party of snacks and gifts with the Hooligans and their parents was delightful. Everyone was in a good mood, even the store-bought dips and bread tasted good, no one fought, everyone seemed pleased with their gifts. We waved goodbye to the Hooligan van around 9:45 this evening with a feeling of real satisfaction with the day. In fact, Mom even said as we were tidying up that she felt better then than she had on many Christmas Eves because she wasn’t nearly as tired as when she was knocking herself out with the food and preparations, especially going back to the days when she was employed full time.

Being able to make  the best of any situation is a gift we should solicit from the Great Giver (however we view him) every Christmas. It’s not an easy gift to use, and some of us are better at enjoying that gift than others. This year, I’ve struggled as that gift got a workout. My brother-in-law had his heart valve surgery the week following his wife’s, Diamondqueen’s, birthday. My father had his stroke four days before my birthday, and he was in declining condition over his birthday and Father’s Day. We buried him two days before S.Hooligan’s birthday. How we managed to pull out all of the autumn holidays without tragedy,  I don’t know. If Mom had had her kidney stone a week earlier, Thanksgiving would have been destroyed (something she was pointing out, with relief, from the start of her ordeal).

I guess the second part of that gift of making the most is being able to look back and concentrate on what’s good instead of what went wrong. Yes, I would have liked things to be different this season. But Mom still enjoyed her favorite day and we were able to pull off a fine Christmas Eve. That’s what I’m concentrating on, and being grateful for, as the quiet night gives way to Christmas morning.

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Tonight I helped put up a Christmas tree for the second time this week. This one was Mom’s tree, with the Hooligans “assisting” in their way. For some reason I find tree-trimming very tiring; doing it twice in a short period of time pushes me to the saturation point.

I think I’m going to wait until next weekend to put up my own tree, although I usually regret waiting when Christmas rushes up and I feel I haven’t enjoyed my tree nearly enough. However, I’m still doing some straightening around the apartment, which I’d like to get finished up before holiday trimming. Also I usually store my regular knickknacks and collections in the cartons from which I’ve taken the Christmas things, and I think I’d rather get the shelf decorations put up and the regular decor pieces put away before I get into the tree.

I suspected I wouldn’t get as much cleaning and organizing done as I’d imagined this past week, but I did pretty well. Latest treasure recovered: my digital thermometer, which I found along the baseboard by the vanity (where the donations for Goodwill had been languishing for months).

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I’ve grown to love the day after Thanksgiving almost as much as Thanksgiving itself – and NOT because of “Black Friday.” I hate the whole Black Friday mindset and stay away from the malls and big box stores until the mania simmers down.

On this Friday what I enjoy is a good Christmas walk. Today Mom, the Hooligans, and I went over to the nearby town of Milford, Ohio, for their celebration. We wound in and out of gift and antique shops, J.Hooligan sampled free cookies and candy everywhere we went, and we took a chilly horse-drawn tram ride around a couple blocks of the town.

About 20 years ago, within a range of three or four years either way, I often did house sitting over the Thanksgiving holidays, which was fun. On the day after Thanksgiving, my habit was to indulge in a huge meal of leftovers that Mom had sent home with me, then set out for the Milford Christmas walk. There were more little antique sh0ps then, I think, and I almost always found a trinket or two to put back as a Christmas or St. Nick gift.

At some point we added the Miamitown Christmas walk to our Thanksgiving holiday plans. Miamitown was close to where Mom, my stepdad, and Diamondqueen lived (in a community called Blue Jay, about halfway between Harrison and Miamitown). The Christmas walk ran from Friday evening through daytime and evening Saturday, but we tried to go either Friday or Saturday when it was dark and the streets were lit with milk jug luminaria.

I reveled in it. It was crowded and spirited. You had to fight your way through the various shops – sometimes it was better to do “serious” shopping another time – but there was lots to see, and people were in a holiday mood. There were free fire engine rides, carriage rides, an arts and craft show, a live nativity at one of the churches, and entertainment at various spots up and down the main street.

When Mom and my stepfather moved from the Miamitown area to Loveland in 2001,  it became a lot harder to attend the Miamitown Christmas walk. Mom and I did make the 45-minute drive a couple of times this decade, but it didn’t feel the same. Part of it was simply not being “of” the community any more, but the town was changing as well as shops had begun to disappear.

About a month ago, Mom and I drove through Miamitown on our way to an antique mall in a nearby community. It was sad to see how few of the old shops were still open, favorite haunts we visited often throughout the year ten to twenty years ago. We wondered what the Christmas walk was like now, with fewer businesses to visit, and whether the event still has its old hubbub and good nature.

I hope so. But there was no question of trying to visit this year to see for ourselves. It would have been too sad and empty-feeling compared to the old years, what with all the “for rent” signs in front of empty storefronts, or buildings now housing other kinds of businesses rather than antiques and gifts, and my stepdad long dead, not to mention his friend and neighbor at the old house, who sold some of his handmade wood figures and ornaments at a bazaar in the basement of the little brick church by the cemetery.

Often it’s better to enjoy memories of what was and not pursue the past in the present. My memories of the Miamitown, Ohio, Christmas walk are vivid and treasured. I’d just as soon keep them that way.

 

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Today we all went over to Tri-County Mall to pick up the Hooligans’ Christmas portraits at Sears. We’ve done this in the past the day before Thanksgiving, and on those occasions we added a visit to the mall Santa, since the mall is relatively empty midday.

Last year J.Hooligan bowed out of the Santa visit. He decided he was too old, which was true in a way at nine years old. So S.Hooligan went alone, told Santa what she wanted, and got her photo taken.

This year neither child wanted to see Santa. With S., I’m a little suspicious that she’s afraid that Santa will confront her about her abysmal behavior. Or it’s part of this phase she’s going through where she sticks to her mother’s side like a bur to a wool sock. She wavered between yes and no for a bit, but ultimately chose not to tell Santa her wishes.

I also suspect that J. wishes he still wants to see Santa. J. suffered the classic disillusionment this year when his mother let it slip that Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real. The resentment rises to the surface every so often; several times already this fall J. has lamented for the “good old days” when he thought Santa was real.

I never let the magic of the season hang on my belief in Santa. I don’t remember any disillusionment, and I can’t recall if it’s because I didn’t believe deep down in him anyway, or if it was because I exercised a willing suspension of disbelief – a form of faith, really. I remember prodding my mother about all those department store Santas, and I willingly accepted her theory that those were all official “helpers” that looked just like the real one. Then again, maybe the notion that none of us ever sees the real Santa anyhow kind of tempered my belief. After all, they were just reasonable facsimiles, not the real thing.

As I’ve gotten older and more jaded, I’ve found that I actually believe in everything, from leprechauns to ghosts to saints who bring us gifts in December. Why the heck not? I’ve been bitterly disillusioned by believing in flesh-and-blood people who definitely exist; it was their moral compass or their dedication or their dependability that were imaginary. If real people turn out not to be real, then I should be able to belief in imaginary characters who, it may turn out, are not at all imaginary.

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I can’t remember when it became a tradition for the Hooligan family to put up their Christmas tree the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. Maybe we started when J.Hooligan was a baby and we were eager to get into the spirit.

One of those tree-trimming Tuesdays I remember especially was the year Diamondqueen was pregnant with S.Hooligan (2002). Diamondqueen had been very ill with morning sickness as well as anxiety about the little peanut she was carrying. Since J.’s birth, she’d lost one baby very early in her pregnancy, and paranoia had taken over. She was wild with worry and worn down with the strain of being so bad off physically.

If I’m remembering correctly, that Tuesday before Thanksgiving she had an ultrasound that proved the baby was alive and well, developing as she should. (I don’t think we knew yet it was a “she,” but at that point, Diamondqueen just wanted a healthy infant, regardless of the sex.) If the test wasn’t that day, then Diamondqueen got some kind of good medical news, because her mood was completely different that evening. She felt up to putting up the tree; J., who was only three years old, was an enthusiastic participant and surprisingly helpful.

We’d had a light snow that day, unusual for November in Southwestern Ohio. After the tree was trimmed, Diamondqueen, That Poor Man, J.Hooligan, and I ran outside to see what it looked like. This morphed into an out-and-out snowball fight. It was fun, of course, but more than that, it was a relief to see Diamondqueen happier than she’d been in weeks.

Tonight that baby that everyone worried about was right there in the middle of everything, a long and lean six-year-old stage managing the entire proceeding. She said she was putting the “magic” on the tree by tossing on threads of silver tinsel she’d salvaged from the carpet. At one point she made J.Hooligan and me hold hands with her and rock back and forth singing along with Yoko Ono on “And So This Is Christmas.” For awhile she tried to crawl under the tree and curl up there like the cat, but her father dragged her out and gave her a swat in the britches.

When the tree stood there at last in its completed, shining glory, S. wanted us to all stand hand-in-hand around it and sing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” J. wouldn’t cooperate and Diamondqueen drifted away after a verse or two. I didn’t pay any attention to what S. was doing until she’d arranged three of her stuffed animals under the tree, sat down next to them, and insisted I join her. This made a much fuller choir in number if not in voices. She lost me when she laid all the animals flat and joined them with her head under the tree. I’m a pretty good sport about such activities, but this seemed to be taking things a little too far. Besides, I didn’t want That Poor Man dragging me out and swatting my butt.

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I don’t know why certain days become etched in memory, days with nothing really spectacular or eventful about them. I’ve always thought fondly of a Saturday before Thanksgiving in the early 60s. I don’t know where my father was – maybe that’s why we had fun that day. Mom needed some Gurley figurine candles for Christmas gifts she was making that year, so we drove up to the old Kenwood Plaza to a dime store there, a rare outing. I don’t know what made that dime store more special than the Woolworth’s down at Hyde Park Plaza, but it was a trip Mom seemed intent on making.

There was no I71 in those days, so we had to take back roads from Oakley to Kenwood, back roads that were wooded and made me hum “Over the River and Through the Woods” to myself. I think there might have even been snow flurries that day.

At the Kenwood dime store Mom bought her Santa and angel candles, and maybe some boy and girl pilgrim ones as well. When we returned home, Mom put our Perry Como Christmas album on the stereo. This was before radio stations played Christmas music before Thanksgiving. In fact, it was impossible to hear Christmas music before  late in December, so it was a special treat to have Mr. Como singing “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” that cozy Saturday. I think Mom started working on her Christmas projects as soon as we got home, so there was a delicious atmosphere of preparation. I don’t remember doing anything myself, but the mood and warmth of that day are still with me all these years later.

That was all – a simple shopping trip, a classic November day, and Perry Como. And my mother, and our home, and no conflict, just rich contentment. Every year I must listen to Como’s “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” before Thanksgiving and relive how wonderful that day felt.

 

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