The Year Without a Christmas Tree

timthumbLast weekend I drove through my small town, past the festive lot next to the firehouse filled with rows of Christmas trees for sale and families wandering through, circling this one or that in search of just the right one. I stopped at our fancy local market to pick up the week’s supply of turkey and ham – and of course, the fresh mozzarella, because isn’t that what all the 13yos require on their school lunches? – and watched as a line of giant SUVs drove past with their trees bound and gagged and strapped to the top.

And as I drove home with my bag of cold cuts and very expensive cheese thought, “Those poor suckers.”

Then my daughter and I went down to the basement and opened some big boxes and dragged a bunch of branches up the stairs and in about 30 minutes had three Christmas trees up and lit in various rooms throughout the house.

“Man, that was easy,” I said to my daughter, who just kind of stared back at me.

At 5 feet 9 inches, she’s not that much shorter than my former husband and now finds herself handling many of the same tasks that her father used to perform when he lived here. She can reach things off high shelves and open pickle jars and when we assembled our fake Christmas trees she did a lot of the heavy lifting, unfortunately while wearing a t-shirt and running shorts. As such, her limbs were kind of covered in nicks and scrapes from lugging big sections of tree limbs around the house.

“I’m glad this was so easy for you,” she answered, examining her thigh, and I got the feeling she was a little annoyed with me and my alleged obliviousness to her suffering.

I, on the other hand, was thrilled with our faux tree setup.


 

Historically, the hunting and the buying and the lighting and the decorating and the watering and the vacuuming up of the needles of Christmas trees of long ago has been one giant pain in the neck. In theory, it is a lovely tradition that brings a family closer together, creating lasting memories to warm us in our old age. The reality of the Christmas tree, at least in my experience, has been something different altogether.

When I was married I found going to the lot to buy the tree incredibly stressful. Invariably, we would wait until the last minute to procure our tree and by then, all of you bastards had already scooped up all the good ones. What remained standing sadly in the lot would have that Charlie Brown-like quality, with giant bald spots where branches should have been or needles that would quickly fall to the floor like a too-long cigarette ash whenever you walked too near.

But the biggest issue was the price. Whatever it was, it was way too much, according to my husband and caused him undue aggravation. And of course, me being me, I wanted the bigger one or what I perceived to be the nicer one and he’d relent but then slip into an icy mood. We’d drive home in silence and he’d drag the prize in after sawing off probably one or two too many branches from the bottom. He’d shove it in a stand and curse when it listed to the side and I’d bite my tongue as the results of all that aggressive sawing became clear from the divot that appeared on one side, much like a child who’d taken a scissor to her own bangs.

And then there were the tree lights. Has there ever been one person in the history of the world who really enjoys stringing lights on a Christmas tree?  No one in their right mind could actually enjoy pulling the lights out from their box in the attic and untangling each strand to discover only half the bulbs would light. Who likes playing Christmas light detective and having to pull out each bulb in the strand and replacing with a working bulb to see if it was the bugger causing all the issues? Probably in my, like, over 20 years dealing with Christmas lights maybe five times did I find the culprit.

So if my then husband wasn’t pissed enough about the price of the tree, the broken lights would push him over the edge and the decorating of the tree would be a tense affair. I wanted things to look just-so and he just wanted to get the job done and I don’t really remember it being the Hallmark moment I so wanted it to be. We were way more invested in standing our ground rather than making concessions for the good of the team.

Eventually, I started edging him out of the more stressful jobs surrounding the Christmas tree. I started going to the fancy market in town right after Thanksgiving with my $10 off coupon to pick the tree out myself and had one of the nice workers strap it to the top of my car for the two-minute drive home. I also invested in an amazing tree stand. And finally, because I had very definite ideas about how Christmas tree lights should look on a tree – not merely wrapped around the ends of the branches but up and down each limb so it required many strands and patience and sometimes, electrical skills — I started doing that all myself. But it always pleased me afterwards to come down the stairs each morning and turn on the tree’s lights. I’d stand in the darkened family room and see the colorful bulbs shining deep under all the shiny ornaments and popsicle stick keepsakes the kids had hung from the tree.

So when my ex husband moved out right before Christmas that one, terrible year, I already had a pretty good handle on the tree situation. All I really had to figure out was how to get the tree off the top of the car and into a bucket of water in my garage. And eventually, I’d have a kid or two help me haul it into the house and hoist it up and into the stand. We actually got quite good at it.


 

But this year I said good-bye to all that. I decided I no longer wanted to be a slave to some $100 dead tree. Dragging it. Lighting it. Watering it. Cleaning up after it.

At the end of last year I bought a pre-lit tree off Overstock.com that had been already vetted by my youngest sister who is like a walking Consumer Reports. She bought it and liked it and thought it was a good price so I did the same.

And then I was at Costco a few weeks ago and another faux tree caught my eye and after quick texting with my sister – who gave it the thumbs up after quickly Googling it to discover it was cheaper than the Home Depot version and came with more lights – bought that one for another room in the house. I mean, it has a remote control people and the lights switch from white to colored (the other tree does the same and even blinks if that’s your thing).

My sister and mom have been hot for fake trees for a couple of years but it took me a while to relent. Honestly, I’m wired to like a lot of the same things they do but sometimes my mother’s enthusiasm – nay, pushiness – about certain things make me want to run in the other direction.

But, just like the time she suggested I pack a raincoat to go camping with the Girl Scouts but I knew better and spent the weekend wet and miserable, my mother happened to be right about the trees. Phony is better.

Our final fake tree is a skinny number I bought a couple of years ago from Balsam Hill that’s perfect in a corner of my kitchen. It smells kinda weird but I don’t have to sit too close to it when I eat so it still works and brings that Christmas sparkle into the room where I probably spend the most time.

None of the trees are decorated yet but I love seeing the lights glowing through the window when I pull into the driveway. And I still like to turn all the trees’ lights on while my coffee is brewing in the morning. It makes everything seem a little more magical and I like to think that my children have grown up feeling the same.


 

My favorite Christmas tree was the one my new husband and I bought the day after we got home from our honeymoon. We were married 10 days before Christmas in 1990 and my bridesmaids wore green velvet dresses and while we were honeymooning in the Caribbean we drank sweet pina coladas and listened to a man on the steel drums play “Frosty the Snowman.” We returned home tanned and young and happy to our second-floor walkup in Hoboken on the 23rd and went out in search of a tree the next day.

There weren’t many trees left by Christmas Eve, but it didn’t matter. I even want to say they were half price, even better. We dragged it down the sidewalk home and up the two flights of stairs and shoved the fat thing through the door and screwed it into the metal stand. Somewhere we’d acquired a strand or two of lights and a package of pre-made red felt bows that I attached to the ends of some branches. Underneath we spread all our gifts, trinkets we’d brought home from our trip, wrapped in shiny green and red wrapping paper.

That night I made my new husband our first meal together as a married couple and tried to replicate a butternut squash soup we’d had on our honeymoon. But I must not have cooked the squash enough and then tried to pulverize it in our new blender and watched the cubes swirl round and round. Eventually I tried to push the squash down into the moving blades with a wooden spoon but only succeeded in adding wooden splinters from the spoon to the soup.

We sat in our darkened dining room and tried to eat the soup but eventually laughed and gave up and tried feeding it to the dog instead. But even that crazy mutt was smart enough to pass on the dish.

But even though it wasn’t perfect, the tree or the meal, I was happy. All I wanted was to be married to my husband and that was enough. It was better than perfect.

So that’s why I’m all about fake trees. They are not perfect but I have decided perfect is way overrated. They are, instead, enough.

Here’s a roundup of fake trees if, like me, you’re over watering and needles and ready to go faux.

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On Knowing When to Say When

tree lighting

Knowing when it’s time to move on doesn’t come as easily to some people as it does to others.

I spent most of Sunday packing up my house in preparation for my move about a half-mile away some time next month. Gone now are the hundreds of books that lined the shelves in my den along with my china and crystal and impressive collection of wooden cats. Now that den is lined with a few dozen cardboard boxes, most with the word FRAGILE scrawled urgently across their tops.

As darkness crept in and stole the late afternoon sun and the box I labeled “Weird Stuff I Like” had been taped and stacked (see: wooden cats), I decided a glass of wine would be in order. It would pair nicely, I thought, with the book I’d started reading the day before. I wanted to savor my last moments of solitude for the week before my sons returned from their dad’s.

I quickly threw on a coat and headed into town to grab a bottle of red to enjoy while reading in front of a fire. As I drove down a side street towards the center of town, I noticed a number of cars parked along the side of the road and a line of traffic waiting to get through the light up ahead. It was weird, all those cars, for any day of the week in our little town, much less a late Sunday afternoon. As I moved closer to the intersection I realized what the problem was and that I was about to drive right into the center of our town’s annual tree lighting.

Shit.

About 10 different thoughts raced through my mind, not the least of which was, “Do you really need a glass of wine right now?” That was quickly followed by, “Duh.” And finally, as I thought about that small-town tradition my children have been a part of for about 15 years into which I was about to collide, I thought, “Oh.”

If my calculations were accurate, it was the first time in all those years that not one of my four children would be singing holiday tunes with the school chorus at the lighting. I had made note of the date in my calendar at the start of the school year and when I reminded my seventh grader the day before about the lighting, he reminded me I had let him quit chorus in September. Oh, right. I had begrudgingly acquiesced after he promised to continue playing in the band. At this stage of my parenting game I know you really need to pick your battles and band won.

So while I was busy kneeling on an old sisal rug wrapping weird wooden cats in newspaper, Santa –as is his wont — roared into town on the back of a fire truck without us.

And it was kind of sad.

I think about – and heck, write about – that kind of stuff a lot lately. How much things are changing around here with children leaving for college and graduating from college, not to mention middle schoolers up and quitting their school choruses and abruptly ending long-standing traditions.

For years at least one of my kids was in either the elementary or middle school chorus, which performs a selection of holiday tunes at the town’s annual tree lighting early each December. They stand on risers in front of our borough hall before a throng of parents holding iPhones high over their heads to record the performance for posterity (a decade earlier, camcorders captured the moment and probably a decade before that everybody just listened to the kids sing).

There were songs celebrating Kwanzaa and the Festival of Lights (always the liveliest in my opinion) and, of course, some standards to sing along with as well. Sometimes the kids performed moves in unison – a snapping of fingers or maybe a fist shake to some “hohohos” – and a few times jingle bells made an appearance for good measure. When the singing was over the mayor would light the big evergreen nearby, Santa would arrive on a firetruck accompanied by every emergency vehicle in town replete with blaring sirens and flashing lights, and then everyone retreated inside borough hall for some cocoa and a visit with Santa.

It was certainly never perfect. Up until recently the town’s sound system was pretty terrible. Unless you were a few feet away from the performers, you couldn’t tell the difference between a “Jingle Bells” or a “Jingle Bell Rock.” Mostly, the parents in back would start to talk and drown out the singing. Then there was the year the tree didn’t light. Or more precisely, it failed to perform at the count of three. But the delay did create some tension and we were all delighted when the colored lights burst to life some 30 seconds later.

When my oldest three were young I’d put them in cute outfits and fix their hair before bundling them up in matching jackets and hats. We even had a furry red Santa cap the kids took turns wearing. I could never get my fourth child excited about wearing that Santa hat and last year he wore a sweatshirt instead of his nice NorthFace jacket and it wasn’t because it was a balmy evening. I was just thankful he didn’t wear shorts.

On the one hand, it was nice to have a stretch of time to make a dent on the packing up of our home, as it seems I am the only one involved in that process. I listened to music while slowly boxing up 13 years of my life and was secretly happy I didn’t have to drop everything to stand on the grass and make small talk and watch the back of some kid sitting on her dad’s shoulders for a half an hour.

But as I stood at the counter of the liquor store, which sits directly across the street from where the ceremony is held, and watched the families begin to disperse, I felt a pang of sadness. Parents and kids walked down the sidewalks in town towards their cars or made their way home on foot under the now-dark sky and I wished I were out there moving among them. I wished I was walking home with my own children and not standing alone in a liquor store listening to the guys who work there laugh about how fast the fire engine raced through town to get Santa to the ceremony on time.

I smiled at some families that I passed on my way back to my car and realized I did not recognize anyone leaving the tree lighting. There was a time I knew pretty much all the kids in town. I knew who their parents and siblings were and where they lived. But they’ve all moved on, it seemed, and a whole new crop of young families have rolled in to take their place.

And my own children, instead of standing on risers singing about how it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, were ensconced on couches watching football or hundreds of miles away at school. They had the nerve to grow up and move on as well.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing for me. It’s something I need to manage a little better, this knowing when to say when. Instead of letting it trip me up and feel sad that certain chapters in my life have come to an end, I need to be grateful that they happened and – as a bonus—are now even sweeter in the hazy way we edit our memories. Even though it was a pain in the ass getting the kids bundled up and out the door on a Sunday afternoon to the lighting each year and that they were all terrified of Santa and often cried when he arrived, I’ve imbued the annual event with some magical holiday glow.

It’s not a terrible way to go through life.

I went home and opened the bottle of wine and turned the knob on the gas fireplace (something I’ll truly miss when we leave) and watched the flames jump to life. I got cozy on my favorite leather chair in that den, surrounded by stacks of boxes and packing equipment, took a sip of wine, opened my book and moved on.

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Post-Thanksgiving Thanks

Both of my daughters told me at different times last night, after the Thanksgiving remains had been boxed and bagged on shelves in the frig and every spoon and pot lid had been washed and left to dry, that it had been a better day than they had expected.

“Why was that?” I asked.

“Because you were much calmer than you usually are when we have people over,” said one girl.

“You didn’t act like a freak,” observed the other.

And it’s totally true.

I’d offered to host Thanksgiving for my family this year, willingly and despite the fact that I’m preparing to move in the next month and that I just had the good fortune to return from a trip to Disney World with my 12yo son a few days before. So, I knew what I was getting into and the challenge going into it was how was I going to keep it all in perspective?

Historically, this is how I acted before any event I hosted:

When I was still married, I’d make my husband crazy as I tried to channel Martha Stewart in the linoleum-lined kitchen of our first house, barking orders at him while I baked and broiled and slathered things in tapenades and aioli and actively ignored the needs of any infants or toddlers living under our roof.

Things didn’t really improve after I got divorced as I just transferred all that pre-party rage onto my children. Somehow, at the end of the night after all the guests had gone home, no one ever concurred with my assessment that all the crazy had been worth it. It seemed anyone who’d lived through my entertaining mania would much rather have been locked in solitary confinement or water boarded than forced to withstand my verbal flagellations.

But I am tired of trying to pretend to be perfect and apparently, after reading all the reactions to that zany video I posted on Facebook, I haven’t been the only one trying to make people think that we don’t sit on our sofas or sleep in our beds or generally live in our house. So many women saw themselves in that crazy Gayle character as she raced around her house with a vacuum barking that she wanted to have the place “looking like Disney on Ice in one minute.” We saw how ridiculous we were.

I mean, it was just my family coming to dinner; my mom, a few siblings and their families. Did I really need to impress them with elaborate desserts and centerpieces? Did I really care about finding the perfect sweet potato recipe that would complete their meal?

In the end, I let go of everything. Instead of making every last dish on the table, I delegated much of the cooking. I set the kids’ table up in the den that is now lined with moving boxes filled with the books that used to line the shelves. I ignored the fairly large dust bunny that remained behind the powder room door even after my oldest son vacuumed the entire first floor. And when, just as my brother was preparing to carve the turkey, I discovered I’d forgotten to take the stuffing out of the frig to heat for dinner, I simply threw into the microwave to heat and broiled in the oven to crisp up the top. It wasn’t perfect but it got the job done. Oh, and we didn’t even have sweet potatoes on the menu this year.

As many of you who stop by here know, I super-love the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. I can’t get enough of her thoughts and voice. And I’m reminded this post-Thanksgiving morning of her pronouncement that “done is better than good.” Sometimes we get so snagged by trying to be perfect that we’re prevented from doing anything at all. Or, I’d like to add, we focus on stuffing and dust bunnies and not the stuff that really matters.

Repeat after me.

Repeat after me.

 

Instead, yesterday I enjoyed sneaking my two nieces some shiny chocolate coins I’d set out in my fanciest china bowls on the kids’ table for them to nibble before dinner. I watched as my four children took turns holding their two-month old cousin and then marveled as my oldest son cradled the baby in his arms and cooed and made faces that brought a big, dimple-cheeked smile to the baby’s face. And when the meal was over and I could not shovel one more forkful of mashed potatoes into my face, I sat and enjoyed chatting with my family instead of jumping up and clearing the dishes from the table.

And when two of my siblings, whose appetites I’d taken into consideration when I ordered my giant bird, failed to show up for the meal without a call or a text, I let that go, too. In the end, I’m sorry they missed such a nice afternoon surrounded by our family.

I asked my friend Dan – you know, that Girl-Whisperer guy – what his favorite part of Thanksgiving was as we worked out the other day and instead of the turkey or a certain pie, he told me he was looking forward to the prayer before the meal he would serve at his house. He’s been through a lot this year, like radiation and chemo and kind of dying, and said he had a lot to be thankful for and was going to write something to share before the meal with his family. He wanted them to know how much they meant to him.

I thought about that prayer a lot, too, while getting ready to host my own Thanksgiving feast. I thought about how lucky I was to have all that I do, like my family and my health and the means to afford a heritage turkey that had been hand-fed golden corn kernels and some gourmet gravy to go along with him.

Now I only hope I bring the same zen approach to my upcoming move because the pile of boxes in my garage make my heart race a little bit every time I walk past them to get to my car. I’ll just need to get that done, too.

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Amy’s Week in Review: Dec. 16-23 (YIKES!)

522591_379600385471432_307731171_nHere is the secret to staying calm around Christmas: plan a cocktail party five days before and invite 75 of your nearest and dearest. By the time it’s over — provided you have not had a heart attack at the prospect of all of those people standing in your usually messy kitchen — everything else will seem like a piece of cake.

So even though, as of this writing Sunday morning, I still have numerous gifts to wrap, eight dozen cookies to bake (that is literally the truth) and still no gift for a very important person on my list, I’m feeling pretty freaking calm.

Naturally, I’m concerned.

But I am trying to apply the same philosophy to Christmas that I used for Friday night’s party — courtesy of Jennifer the Therapist who throws so many valuable nuggets my way that I figure I might as well apply some of them since I am paying for them anyway — that things just don’t have to be perfect.

And that’s pretty new concept for me because in my previous life as a wife, I needed everything to look just so. And on the outside, it was all shiny and perfect.

But the inside, not so good.

So on Friday, as I stood amidst all the people who have lifted me up over the last five years, I didn’t focus on the coating of dust on the lights in my kitchen or the way one of the kids arranged crackers all crazy on a tray. I opened wine bottles, poured drinks, passed crab cakes and smiled a lot at seeing all of the people I really like standing in my kitchen at the same time.

In a few days, I’m hoping to apply the same strategy. On Christmas, some gifts will be hits while others will fall flat. Inevitably, one of the kids will feel shortchanged. But that’s okay, because I’ll know that I did the best that I could and that, really, it’s just one day.

And there’s always next year.

Take a break from your wrapping, baking and online shopping and check out some of the stuff I was thinking about last week when I wasn’t making lists or sitting in holiday traffic:

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1454767_10151775256011868_1775585094_n 100 Down: Celebrating a Year of Blogging

For many years while my children were going through our local elementary school, the highlight of the long winter months would be the celebration of the 100th day of school.

To commemorate that special day, inevitably the kids would need to bring in 100 of an item to be counted or added or divided or something math-related. Over time, I got pretty good at hot gluing things like pennies and buttons onto old baseball caps or poster board without burning my fingers or dripping globs of the sticky stuff onto the kitchen table. (READ MORE … )

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photo(84)Twas 6 Days Before Christmas: An Ode to Stress

Twas six days before Christmas and all through my house,

I’ve got so much shit to do I almost wished I had a spouse.

The stockings are stuffed in my mudroom without care

In hopes that come Christmas Eve they get pulled out of there. (READ MORE … )

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A handy way to keep up with me and all my worrying is by signing up to get new posts emailed straight to your inbox. You don’t even have to find me through Facebook. Legit.

Just fill your email address in the “Subscribe to blog via email” box, which is to the right of this post if you’re on your laptop or if you scroll way to the bottom if you’re reading this on your phone. Just keep scrolling, it’s there. Fill in your email address and then go to your inbox where an email will be waiting that you need to open to confirm your subscription.

 

 

Twas 6 Days Before Christmas: An Ode to Stress

photo(84)Twas six days before Christmas and all through my house,

I’ve got so much shit to do I almost wished I had a spouse.

The stockings are stuffed in my mudroom without care

In hopes that come Christmas Eve they get pulled out of there.

The children will be sleeping until noon in their beds

While visions of PS4, iPhones and spring break trips dance in their heads.

 And Mama in her scrunchie, with piles of lists on her lap,

Is hiding in bed, sipping a nightcap.

And so, my friends, that’s all the cleverness I can muster because I’ve got to get to the outlets, yo, for some last-minute gifts. And the grocery store. The liquor store. The post office. Dry cleaner.

Oh, and work. I’ve got that job.

Any attempt to blog this week has been sidelined by the Internet, ironically. I’ll quickly pop over to Firefox to, in theory, check my emails and all of a sudden I’m ordering something on Amazon and admiring folks Christmas trees and cats on Facebook.

But whilst trolling Facebook, I did come across the following ad from Apple and, as the mother of a reformed teen age boy who has been known to have his nose in his smartphone, it just resonated with me.

It’s not easy being a teenager, or the mom of a teenager, and I think we probably have no idea what those darling creatures are thinking most of the time. And while none of my kids have ever produced such a clever and moving video, they have endured many a family gathering over the years and sometimes even smiled.

Get out your tissues and some wrapping paper while you’re at it so at least you’re doing something about getting ready for next week while surfing the web.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImlmVqH_5HM

 

 

 

Amy’s Week in Review: Dec. 9-15

IMG_0087

Last year’s finished product. Tasteful, jewel-toned lights included.

Does anyone hate Christmas tree lights as much as I hate Christmas tree lights?

They are the bane of my existence. Even when I was married, they were my problem but more because I had a lot of opinions about  them than anything else. I don’t know why I have to be so bossy about things.

They are torturous to get on – wrapping them up and down branches and around and around the tree – and highly unpredictable. You never know when half a strand will just poop out the next day.

I made the sad discovery yesterday, after of hours of driving around and loading up at big box stores for gifts and groceries before a snowstorm hit, that the six strands waiting to be strung on the tree that afternoon had decided they weren’t up to the task this year. I even went down the line of unlit bulbs on one strand trying to replace each bulb with a working bulb to see if that would improve the situation.

Zip.

I got into my car during the height of Saturday’s snowstorm and drove north along the main highway around here in search of replacement lights.

However, I am particular. It can’t be any old type of lights. They need to be colored lights for my tree. That is my tradition.

And it can’t be these gross new LED lights with super-bright colors like purple. I can’t have purple on my tree.

My old, trusty lights I used for years were jewel-toned and had a globe-shaped bulb. They were really just lovely, glowing their tasteful reds and greens on my tree.

So I drove about 20 minutes north to a Kmart that said it had the type I wanted in stock but when I got there, there was like, a sad box of colored icicle lights left of the shelf.

And that was it.

“Oh, the website is usually a day or two behind what we have in stock,” said the very nice stockboy whom I barked at when I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

It’s the Internet, for fuck’s sake. Get it together, Kmart.

I found the same solitary box of random lights on the shelves of the nearby Lowes and Target and when I wondered aloud if someone was eating goddamn Christmas tree lights or something, one women in a similar dilemma next to me said, “A lot of people around here lost all their stuff during the hurricane.”

Curses to you, Sandy.

So, it’s 7:30 a.m. and I’m preparing to head south this time in search of lights.

And I’m not as picky as I was a little more than 12 hours ago. Now LCD lights of any sort are starting to look pretty good.

While I’m out foraging for decorations, here are a couple of tidbits I was also mulling over last week.

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 702599_10151283017657173_124342937_nWhy My Son Says, ‘Everything is Ruined’

The Elf didn’t start out as a thorn in my side.

At first, he actually helped keep my then-preschooler – and the youngest of my four children – in line.

If my son put up a fuss about going to bed at the appointed hour or carried on in Target about not getting a toy he totally wanted (“PLLLLLLLEASE, MOM.”), I’d have to pull the old Elf card out of my back pocket.

“I’d hate for Alex the Elf to have to tell Santa about this,” I’d say with a smile, looking at him lying on the floor of the toy aisle, and then usually, the tantrum would cease as quickly as it began. (READ MORE … )

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IMG_3462One Mom Tries to Make Sense of Guns After Newtown Shooting

I have always enjoyed group activities with large groups of women.

Over the years, I’ve learned to knit, trained for triathlons, talked about a lot of books and drank plenty of wine in the company of women.

And while I’m more than comfortable going cross country skiing or traveling to a desert spa with a group of girls, I was surprised to find myself early one Saturday morning last month at a gun range with eight other women. (READ MORE … )

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And finally, I know you’re all racking your brains, trying to come up with the perfect gift for me. Let me help you out.

The greatest thing you could give me is the gift of sharing my blog posts on Facebook with all of your friends. I’d like to become the Clairol Herbal Essence of bloggers, so if you could tell two friends about a post you like, and maybe they end up telling two friends, we can get the whole “and so on” thing going.

Plus, it’s free and doesn’t need to be wrapped, which is almost like a gift right back to you.

 

Why My Son Says, ‘Everything is Ruined’

702599_10151283017657173_124342937_nThe Elf didn’t start out as a thorn in my side.

At first, he actually helped keep my then-preschooler – and the youngest of my four children – in line.

If my son put up a fuss about going to bed at the appointed hour or carried on in Target about not getting a toy he totally wanted (“PLLLLLLLEASE, MOM.”), I’d have to pull the old Elf card out of my back pocket.

“I’d hate for Alex the Elf to have to tell Santa about this,” I’d say with a smile, looking at him lying on the floor of the toy aisle, and then usually, the tantrum would cease as quickly as it began.

Problem solved.

I am well past negotiating with children. Just do what I say, please. And don’t make me count to 3 (don’t ask but for some reason, when I start counting, my kids start listening).

I liked that I could bring Alex the Elf in as the bad cop around here when we had a situation.  Life is so much better when you don’t always have to be the heavy.

Don’t want to eat your vegetables? I’m really sorry to hear that, but I think the Elf hiding over there on top of the kitchen light is going to have to report that infraction.

Trying to pull one over on your mom by just wetting  your hair a bit in the sink instead of taking a shower with actual soap and shampoo? Dude, I know, cleanliness can be so annoying and eats into valuable YouTube time. But Santa only brings presents to clean little boys and Alex is sitting in the pantry, keeping track.

But as the years passed, the onus of keeping up the charade of the Elf became like a part-time job for someone who has a hard enough time remembering when it’s time to start cooking dinner or move the laundry along.

I am easily distracted and have terrible short-term memory skills.

By last year, my son would come bounding out of bed during the month of December and immediately start rooting around the house, looking for the Elf. More likely than not, the dude was still in the same spot it had been in the day before. Eventually, my 15-year-old had to intervene and started hiding the Elf each night after her little brother went to bed.

She got kind of into it, as many people seem to do and document with some regularity on Facebook. Alex the Elf would be perched atop the cow milk pitcher in our cabinet surrounded by stacks of plates and bowls or sitting on top of our oven hood.

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Apparently, Alex sometimes needed some disciplining of his own, as evidenced by this scene:

702445_10151301542047173_610540196_nAnd then came the inevitable: one day this summer my son opened a drawer of the pine hutch that sits in our family room, a piece of furniture generally of no interest to someone his age. The bottom holds all my china, silver and serving platters we pull out for Thanksgiving. The drawers are filled with placemats and assorted candlesticks. None of these are of interest to a 10-year-old boy.

But for some reason, he pulled a drawer open one day in June and found, to his dismay, the folded up body of Alex within.

“I knew it!” my son shouted, glaring at me with contempt.

As if I had come up with the evil Elf charade and wasn’t just a cog in an elaborate wheel of make-believe.

Truth be told, Alex was still hanging around the house Christmas morning last year and I grabbed him and stuffed him in the drawer before my little guy noticed the Elf was still in New Jersey and not back home in the North Pole chilling until his return to our house the following December.

I asked my son recently why he was so upset by the discovery of Alex in the drawer.

“It just ruined everything,” he told me.

“Did you want to believe?” I asked him gently, seeing his eyes fill with tears.

“I really did,” he said. “But now all I can do is pretend.

“It’s the best I can do, Mom,” he added.

Welcome to the club.

 

 

 

 

Amy’s Week in Review: Dec. 2-8

1The holidays are off and running around here.

Last week, I was able to cross a bunch of big holiday to-do items off my list, like ordering Christmas cards, figuring out what I was going to bake for the annual cookie exchange (chocolate pretzel cookies) and spending so much money on Cyber Monday that Wells Fargo’s fraud division shut down my VISA card until they could confirm it was me making all those purchases and not some half-drunk identity thief in Caracas.

But now that the kids go to their dad’s more regularly every-other-weekend, it kind of puts a pause on the holiday spirit. It’s just no fun decorating the house or doing any other Christmas-y activity without them around to complain about it.

Instead, I spent most of Saturday organizing the crawl space in our basement that was a hodgepodge of Rubbermaid containers and black garbage bags full of all the Christmas paraphenalia I’ve collected over the last 20-odd years. Usually, there’s some order to all the luggage, ski helmets and old sports gear that the holiday stuff shares the cramped space with, but after my older children so kindly disassembled and stashed our holiday decorations last year (unprompted!), the storage area was a little haphazard, to say the least.

Beggars can’t be choosers. I’d rather deal with a disorganized crawl space than taking down the Christmas tree any day of the week.

I hauled out the giant boxes filled with Pottery Barn mercury glass trees, the red velvet skirt that goes under our tree each year and the banners my oldest child made in nursery school some 15 years ago that used his tiny hand print to make angels and reindeer and  reminds me of Christmases long ago.

All the boxes and bags are now lined up at the bottom of the basement stairs, waiting for next weekend when the kids will be home and we can stuff all the holiday joy and kvetching into one weekend.

After all the physical labor, I went and got a sparkly manicure and pedicure and all was right with the world.

If you’ve already ordered your cards and trimmed your tree and lit all of the bushes in front of your house and are looking for something to do this Sunday, perhaps you’d like to spend some time catching up on what I haven’t been doing. You’ll feel good about yourself.

Swear.

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timthumbLet the Holidays Begin! Sigh.

Over the course of this past weekend, I had to yell at not one but two of my neighbors – both grown men – for causing me undue stress and anxiety.

There they were, with the Thanksgiving dinner a not-so-distant-memory, wrapping lights around anything not moving in front of their houses. There were wreaths and swags and twinkling shrubbery while over at my ranch there’s just a lone pumpkin leftover from Halloween sitting on the front step.

Fuck. (READ MORE … )

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IMG_0047Holiday Cards 101: How to Market Your Family

It started the day after Thanksgiving this year, the annual marketing campaign going on in homes across the country that gives new meaning to the term Black Friday.

Inside my mailbox on that day, along with 20 pounds of Pottery Barn catalogs and Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, sat the first holiday card of the season.

Ho ho ho. (READ MORE … )

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DSC02004Offensive Driving

You’d think I’d be used to it by now.

You’d think that my arms wouldn’t fly up to shield my head reflexively as we hurtled past parked cars or stop signs, preparing for imminent impact.

By now you’d think that I’d gotten used to how angry they become when I shout things from the passenger seat like, “Move away from the curb!” or “Slow down for the turn ahead!”

It hurts their feelings. (READ MORE … )

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And finally, I know you’re all racking your brains, trying to come up with the perfect gift for me. Let me help you out.

The greatest thing you could give me is the gift of sharing my blog posts on Facebook with all of your friends. I’d like to become the Clairol Herbal Essence of bloggers, so if you could tell two friends about a post you like, and maybe they end up telling two friends, we can get the whole “and so on” thing going.

Plus, it’s free and doesn’t need to be wrapped, which is almost like a gift right back to you.

 

Let the Holidays Begin! Sigh.

IMG_3537Over the course of this past weekend, I had to yell at not one but two of my neighbors – both grown men – for causing me undue stress and anxiety.

There they were, with the Thanksgiving dinner a not-so-distant-memory, wrapping lights around anything not moving in front of their houses. There were wreaths and swags and twinkling shrubbery while over at my ranch there’s just a lone pumpkin leftover from Halloween sitting on the front step.

Fuck.

By the time I saw a third male neighbor busily stringing lights on a garland above his garage doors, I didn’t even have the fight left to say anything. I just stood on my lawn and watched. I was outnumbered, it seemed, by holiday cheer.

Of course, as the kids and I pulled out of the driveway late yesterday afternoon and they saw how festive the neighbors’ houses were looking — the lights twinkling in the dusky twilight — they lamented that we had, as usual, nothing.

Now, I could blame it on the fact that we don’t have an official man-of-the-house living here who, though some quirk of genetic coding, would feel compelled to wrap strands of lights around things. It’s like setting fires and shooting stuff for the Y-chromosone.

But in reality, when we did have a guy here who liked to decorate the outside of the house, I really tried to kibosh most of his ideas.

I like things plain and simple. I don’t do icicles, colored lights or haphazard tree lighting. If you are going to light a tree, don’t just wrap two strands around a trunk and half a limb and think it looks good. It doesn’t. I want Disney-style lighting, covering every last branch and twig, and because that’s just too much — I mean, really, who has time for that? — I opt for nothing.

But nowadays, you can’t just hang a wreath and call it a day. There needs to be some lighting element involved, which is challenging when you do not have an electrical source in the front of your house or the inclination to light stuff up.

But it’s important to the kids, like our yearly Christmas card and the candle we buy that makes the inside of our house smell warm and piney. They want some razzle dazzle to come home to and my lone electric candle-in-every-window routine is just not jazzy enough for them.

So today, thanks to the magic of Cyber Monday and LED technology, I ordered a battery-operated pre-lit wreath, which will join my battery-operated strand of lights I bought last year that I will wrap around a garland and drape over the front door. Add the candles in the windows, and it will be downright festive around here.

I have a plan, ladies and gentlemen.

It will not be Rockefeller Center, but it will be something.

And the pumpkin, I can assure you, will be nowhere in sight.

Traditions: Old and New

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The Devil wears Hanna Andersson. And Barney is just a gift. Circa 1994.

I was agitated earlier this week when I got a text from my ex-husband announcing it was his year to spend Thanksgiving with our four children.

I had already committed to hosting the holiday at my house for my side of the family and was looking forward to the planning and execution of the dinner alongside my girls. We’ve had fun over the years peeling potatoes and baking turkey cakes side by side in our kitchen. I love how well we work together, how one of the girls slices the apples while another prepares the filling and then I sprinkle the sugary crumble on top.

It’s the ultimate team-building exercise.

But one of the things about divorce is that you wind up with a script of how things should go down henceforth. Somewhere in a drawer in my room there is a document that details who gets the kids when, in alternating odd and even years.

But in the five years since we’ve been apart, I haven’t really had to consult our divorce agreement for holiday issues. Things always just seem to work out around Easter and we pretty much stick to the Christmas script we always followed.

And Thanksgiving hadn’t been controversial because he’s been spending it with his girlfriend’s family. But apparently he wants to loop the kids into that this year.

At first I thought, “Well that sucks. Why would the kids want to go there?”

But after a couple of things that happened this week, I’ve decided it’s not really a big deal. It’s just one day. One meal.

I went to join my knitting group for a spell on Wednesday — and I use the term “knitting” very loosely because while we used to actually work with yarn and needles, now we mostly just really like each other and show up sans equipment to catch up over coffee for an hour or so.

We got to talking about Thanksgiving plans, as women of a certain age invariably do. Who’s hosting, who’s coming. How many.

My one friend, who’s about 10 or so years ahead of me in the mom game, announced that she and her husband were going to travel to Boston to spend the holiday with their son and his wife.

This is not the first time in recent years that they have traveled to spend a holiday with one of their three children. Last year they drove to the Hudson River Valley to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant where one of their sons works and this Christmas, they’re heading to Vermont with another son.

But it’s not what she expected, she said, all those years ago when the kids were small and they would gather with extended family in their home. It was their tradition.

“I always thought it would be that way,” she said to us gathered around the kitchen table littered with coffee cups and cell phones.

“But then, once you spend a holiday without all of your kids, you realize that you can get through it,” she said. “That it’s not the worst thing.”

And that really stuck with me.

When you get divorced, of course one of the things you focus on is the possibility that at some point, you might be spending a holiday without your children. You freak that all those traditions you carefully cultivated over the years won’t continue.

And sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not.

I’ve spent a few Easters without the kids and that was rough. I flew to California to spend the holiday with one sister and her family and remember just how sad I was to be without the kids that day. How sad it was to not be stuffing millions of jellybeans and pieces of chocolate into plastic eggs or finding the perfect hiding spot for a basket.

But the kids were off on some beach vacation with their dad and how could I begrudge them that? There should be some upside to having divorced parents and if that’s a trip to the Bahamas, so be it.

Yesterday was the first Halloween in my like 18-or-so years of trick-or-treating with kids that I didn’t have to actually hit the pavement. I was prepared to follow my 10 year old down the darkened streets of our little town while he and his posse ran from house to house filling their pillowcases with treats. But it never happened.

He had hooked up with kids in another neighborhood and by the time I got over there, the dads had been dispatched to oversee the kids while the moms were busy inside a nearby house setting out the fancy pigs in a blanket and Capri Sun pouches to distract the kids from candy upon their return.

I stood around the kitchen and drank a spicy blood orange margarita and chatted with the other moms until the kids started to trickle back in. They compared hauls and then ran around outside, playing manhunt in the soft October night air.

I finally pried my son away from the fun, gathering his yellow nylon costume off the pile of other discarded superhero suits on the floor, and on the drive home, he told me, “That was the best Halloween ever.”

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Twin princesses wearing sensible turtlenecks.

And I thought of all the Halloweens of years past, holding little hands walking up to neighbors’ doors and encouraging my little Buzz or Woody to say “Trick or treat” and thank you upon receipt of said treat. Of being part of the stroller brigade later, when the older kids could zip independently from door to door while we moms waited in the darkness by the curb with the younger siblings in tow.

And later still, when everyone wanted to walk around with their own set of friends, I’d be off in a million different directions, trying to keep tabs on who was with whom and where.

It’s evolving, this parenting thing. One minute you’re shouting at your little Tinkerbell to keep up with the group of trick or treaters and not run in the street and the next, she’s getting on a train to the city to see the Halloween parade and eat Indian food.

And whether you get to that point slowly over time or a divorce or other catastrophic life event helps accelerate the process, at some point, we all get there.

Traditions are broken or need to be changed. But that’s just how it goes.

I think the key is flexibility, and remembering what’s important. What really counts.

Because while those big holidays are great and go down in the photo albums and memory books for the ages, it’s the slow slog over all the days and weeks and years that really matters. Being there for the kids on a Tuesday afternoon in September when one is feeling the pain of a failed romance or a Friday morning in December when another thinks she can’t go on one more day.

That’s the tradition I hope I’ve created for my children that neither divorce nor growing older will ever break.