December 31, 2006

Quiet endings

One of my friends has recently separated from her husband and plans to get a divorce sometime in 2007. She's had a difficult year. So she decided to spend the last day of the year doing something healthy: she called up her friends and invited us all over for lunch.

We met at her house around noon, some of us bring platters of fruit or dessert. We gathered in her kitchen to eat lentil soup and vegetarian chili. We talked about the holidays, about extended families, about partners and kids and work, about all kinds of stuff. As more people arrived, the room grew quieter, as women paired off for intimate conversations.

After the busyness of the holidays, the gathering gave me space for thinking, for reflection. It's nice to be surrounded by people who know you well, who are aware of all your faults and obsessions, and who like you anyhow. At the end of the afternoon, I hugged my friends goodbye and drove home to take a nap before spending the evening with my husband, my kids, and my extras.

December 30, 2006

One of us

We've known him for ten years now, more than half his life, and he's so much part of our family that he is even on the extended family email list. Late last night, we gathered in front of the fire to hold a candle ceremony for FirstExtra, who turned nineteen years old yesterday.

As the beeswax candle went around the circle, each person told a story about FirstExtra, and then we all kept jumping in with other remembrances. Like most of Boy in Black's friends, FirstExtra is funny and smart. At least one person in the family declared him "the funniest person I've ever met."

First Extra and Boy in Black met in elementary school, but then his parents sent him to the Catholic junior high, while Boy in Black went to the big public school. Even though they haven't been in the same school in seven years, they've stayed close friends. He's here every weekend. He's been with us for many of the major events over the last years. He helped us move into this house: he was here the day I came running down the stairs and broke my leg, and he was part of the gang of children who took care of me while I was bedridden with a long leg cast for four weeks.

During fifth and sixth grade, FirstExtra used to come to our house every day after school. He and Boy in Black would sit right down on the living room floor to do their homework, but then within minutes, he would be on his feet, entertaining me with imitations of Sister Mary Old School. Once he was old enough for instant messenger, he became famous for his highly entertaining away messages. The first time I ever used instant messenger, I sent messages to FirstExtra and tried to make him guess who I was. I kept giving him hints, by saying things like, "I like the shamrocks you have on the front windows of your house," but these helpful hints just made him think I was some kind of creepy stalker. "Did you know that my mother was looking over my shoulder that night?" he said, "She was just one step away from putting me into some kind of Witness Protection program."

We all reminisced about the time we brought FirstExtra and FilmGuy with us on a camping trip to the mountains. With eight of us crammed into the car, we had no room to bring much bedding, but we figured on a hot August weekend, we could make do with very little. We were wrong. Temperatures plunged that night, and we had about three blankets for the eight of us huddled on the floor of the tent.

All of us remember the time that Boy in Black and FirstExtra were hitting golf balls in the backyard, and FirstExtra hit a ball right through the sliding glass door. We'll be still talking about that someday when we have the candle ceremony for his fortieth birthday. That, and the time he got food poisoning the night before we all went to a concert together and spent the concert vomiting in a hotel room. Of course, we cannot forget perhaps the most exciting thing First Extra is known for: he took not one, but two girls to his senior prom. No, he's not a player, but a nice guy who was helping out a friend who broke up with her boyfriend just before the prom.

In the dim light, the kids all joked and teased as they talked about First Extra; teenage boys are not much for sappy statements or big hugs. But I think Boy in Black and First Extra are both fully aware of the kind of rare friendship they have. As First Extra's grandfather said to me once, "These two will be in each other's weddings, they will be godfathers for each other's kids – they are friends for life. Anyone can see that."

December 29, 2006

Auld lang syne

When my husband and I were first married, we often spent time with another couple our age, Brown Eyes and Bowling Guy. My husband had gone to elementary school with Bowling Guy, and then they had met again at college. Brown Eyes and I liked each other right away, and the four of us became friends. We'd spend time together almost every Friday night, going to the movies or out for pizza or to the bowling alley. Bowling Guy would tease me for "over-analyzing" movies, and I would mock the action films that he always wanted to see. Brown Eyes would joke about the fact that my husband and I had nothing in common, always taking opposite sides of any friendly argument.

That was more than twenty years ago. Then they had a baby. We had one the next year. They bought a house. We bought a house. Soon they had four kids, and so did we. Life got busy. Brown Eyes went back to school, as did my husband. Her mother had breast cancer, survived the cancer, and moved in with them. My father-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a year later. Our kids got older. Bowling Guy battled cancer, with surgery, chemotherapy, and then an experimental treatment. He survived. My husband was diagnosed with melanoma, which is the type of skin cancer that can mestastisize. He had surgery and survived. By then we had teenagers.

We've stayed in touch over the years, seeing each other when we've had time. When the kids were little, sometimes we'd go camping together. We've eaten at each other's houses and gone on picnics together. Brown Eyes and I used to get together once a week when the children were small, inviting other friends with their kids, and calling it a playgroup. We've talked on the telephone, venting about family members or talking about parenting issues. We've seen each other over the years, but always with the eight children in tow.

And now suddenly, our kids are grown up. Our youngest is twelve; theirs is fourteen. The oldest kid in each family is an adult, their son out of school and working, our daughter leaving in a couple weeks for a semester in London.

Last night, we went out to eat and to the movies, just the four of us. At dinner, we caught up with the latest family news, compared notes about jobs, kids, and the need for reading glasses. As we walked into the movie theater, Brown Eyes said to me, "When was the last time the four of us went out together without the kids?" We figured it out quickly – it had been 22 years.

The movie we chose was a sequel (apparently one of many sequels) to a movie we'd all seen in 1976. Apparently, it's not just us getting old; Macho Actor Guy had aged as well. As we left the movie, Brown Eyes and I analyzed the plot, and Bowling Guy told us to stop overthinking the movie. As we walked outside and stood in the dark parking lot, all talking at once, I had this sudden feeling that we'd gone back in time. Or perhaps, more accurately, we'd fastforwarded suddenly, past all the years of parenting, to a new stage in our lives.

December 27, 2006


winter in the woods

After three days of eating and talking, hanging out with my kids by the fire, watching old episodes of Scrubs on a laptop computer while snuggling in bed under a down quilt with my husband, taking afternoon naps, and other forms of decadent behavior, it was time today to pull on my boots and take a hike in my own woods. It's been unseasonably warm, so I was splashing through puddles, although a dusting of snow on the bare branches and hemlocks made the scene look like winter. I could feel my sluggish body beginning to wake up as I breathed in the moist air, stomped through dark pools, and caught snowflakes with my eyelashes and hair.

December 26, 2006

That time they cloned my father

When my kids are home, my house is filled with music. Always, someone is playing the piano, or strumming a guitar, or practicing the drums. On weekends, when extra kids come over, the living room is so filled with amps and guitars and coiled black cords that you can hardly walk through the room. I love the music and energy of a jam session, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I am home by myself during the day, I am usually ready for some silence.

Over the last few weeks, though, when I've had some peaceful moments to myself, I've been listening to a CD that my father made and presented to everyone in the family at Thanksgiving. He recorded 16 holiday songs, Christmas songs so familiar to me from my childhood that I know all the words.

While I've been cleaning or cooking or sitting by the fire, I've been listening to the music that I grew up with, songs that remind me of helping my mother make Christmas cookies or playing Scrabble at the kitchen table with my grandmother or standing backstage at elementary school plays. One song reminds me of the time we decided to paint a holiday scene on the picture window in the living room.

One of the unique things about the CD is that, thanks to modern technology, you can hear my father playing ... with my father. Who is that on the clarinet? My Dad. Who is that on the tenor sax? My Dad. Who is that playing the keyboard? My Dad. Who is the vocalist? My Dad.

When you live with musicians, you learn to recognize their individual styles. I can almost always tell, for instance, which of my four kids is playing the piano, even if I am not in the room when I am listening. So there is something funny about putting in a CD, listening to a group of musicians, and then recognizing that every one of them is my father.

December 25, 2006

Holiday clothes

One thing With-a-Why wanted for Christmas was a Futurama t-shirt. He and his brothers have watched all 72 episodes of Futurama. They quote the show all the time, laughing and high-fiving each other when they do so, and talk about how excited they are that the show is coming back in 2008. Some of you remember that With-a-Why dressed as Bender for Halloween one year.

It's hard to find t-shirts for a show that has been off the air for three years, so my Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter bought iron-on letters and made her brothers shirts. Here are my boys dressed for Christmas dinner.


December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

As we left church late this afternoon, the sky was already a deep blue and a thin moon shone just above the bare treetops. We spent the evening at my mother's house, eating and laughing, opening presents, telling stories and reminiscing about events that took place over the summer. During our candle ceremony, we talked about how thankful we were for each other. As we walked out into the cold to get into our cars and come home, bright stars glittered down from the dark winter sky.

It's almost time for bed. Boy in Black is sitting on the floor of my office, trying to come up with a creative way to wrap a silly present he has for his sister. Shaggy Hair Boy is playing the piano. My husband has sneaked off to bring in a gift that he hid somewhere. With-a-Why is upstairs talking to his sister.

As the winter wind blows against the house, I can hear the music of the wind chimes that dangle on the front porch. The dark woods around us are quiet, the pine trees reaching up to the star-filled sky. Inside, the Christmas tree glows with soft colours. And in the village under the Christmas tree, Mama Cat is guarding the castle.

Mama Cat

Day after the party

Our household is slowly recovering from last night's party, which was fun and noisy. Most of our friends have large families, and our holiday parties used to be filled with little kids, who would go upstairs to play with train tracks in the boys' bedroom, but those children have turned into teenagers, with adult-sized bodies. We had so many people crammed into this house that it was almost impossible to move. At first I tried to weave my way through the crowd, darting over to refill the punch bowl for the tenth time, or setting more food out onto the table, but eventually the crowd was too big even for all those skills I honed at college frat parties. I began delegating tasks to anyone nearby. "Here pass this on until it gets to the table." When a latecoming guest handed me a carefully wrapped bag of homemade cookies, I sent it flying over the heads of guests and into the kitchen area, where Red-haired Niece caught it neatly, opening the bag to put the cookies on a plate. Not a single cookie was broken. See, Boy in Black gets those Ultimate Frisbee skills from his mother.

Our house was filled to bursting, with some guests even standing in the laundry room with bowls of chili or cups of punch. My Red-haired Niece, a grad student who is known for throwing big parties herself, said to me, "If you were a college student, the cops would be at your door shutting down this party by now."

Today, we are eating leftovers, cleaning the kitchen, and taking naps. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew are playing together, happy to be reunited. Dandelion Niece has gone to Pretty Colour Lakes with Neighbor Girl and her mother. My Beautiful Wonderful Smart Daughter is still working on some kind of secret project, a gift she is making for her brothers. The boy band is jamming. My husband is heading out to the grocery store, to get some real food now that some of the party food has been eaten and we have room in the refrigerator again. Blonde Niece has gone home to wrap presents. Tonight the family will gather at my mother's house.

It's wonderful to have three days of eating, talking, and being with people we love.

December 23, 2006

Party food

There's something satisfying about buying large quantities of food. My daughter and I went to the wholesale club first and filled a cart until it was overflowing. For our holiday punch, for example, I bought four gallons of cranberry juice, sixteen liters of Fizzy Lemony Drink that Comes in a Green Plastic Bottle, eight containers of frozen lemonade, and six lemons. I actually make the punch in a normal size punch bowl and keep adding stuff as the punch disappears, but sometimes I am tempted to mix it all up in a big new garbage can like they do at college frat parties.

I usually hate grocery shopping because it's boring – buying the same stuff every week – but shopping for a party is fun. The wholesale club is this huge warehouse so Beautiful Wonderful Smart Daughter and I brought cell phones and kept calling each other, even when we were in the same aisle. I can imagine that the customers around us found our witty dialogue far less amusing than we did.

We brought home a carload of food from the wholesale club, and then I went by myself to the local grocery store to get all the produce I needed. I've shopped in this same store my whole life, which means I run into people I know all the time. Normally, almost everyone in the store follows the same path, so shopping is somewhat orderly. Near the holidays, though, everyone is buying specialty items, and shoppers are going in all directions, circling back for things they forgot and stopping to talk to each other.

I saw my third-grade teacher. She is making fish for Christmas Eve. I saw Nurse Friend, who was in her role of social worker, helping someone else shop. I saw Monking Friend, whose oldest son came home from college just after midnight last night. I saw Older Woman with a million kids. She is making turkey for the Christmas meal. As I stood in the check-out line, I could women all around me talking about what foods they were making for holiday meals and which relatives would be home for Christmas.

I like getting hugs as I grocery shop. And I like cooking for a large group of people. I spent the morning chopping up vegetables, stirring big vats of chili. My husband was cleaning the house, with this noble idea that it should look nice for our friends, and kept coming into the kitchen area with random questions like, "How can I cover up the hole in the wall? Tape a Christmas decoration over it?" I'd like to say that my wonderful children were also pitching in and cleaning like crazy, offering to help cook, and helping with everything, but I don't want to give parents of young children who read my blog any kind of false ideas about what it will be like when your kids are teenagers. Maybe there are parents out there somewhere who can get their teenage kids to help clean without resorting to bribes and threats and guilt trips, but so far, I am not one of them.

Yesterday, I did the food preparation, as much as can be done ahead of time, my husband did the cleaning, with some grudging help from the kids, and then we went off to a holiday party in the evening. Today, the kids are still asleep, and we are doing all kinds of last minute stuff before our party tonight. We've got food enough for a large crowd and a fire crackling in the fireplace. It's a grey, overcast day, but inside the house, everything is warm and cosy.

December 22, 2006


Last year I wrote a post about how difficult the holiday season can be for people who have experienced a loss over the year. I wrote about the man in the red sweater who had just been widowed for the second time. His wife had just died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He is in his early eighties.

Tonight, we are going to that same party, at the same house with people eating the same foods and wearing their same holiday clothes. When my husband called his friend, Auto Shop Owner, to let him know we would be at the party, they began talking about all the people who would be coming to the party. My husband asked about Red Sweater. It's been over a year now since Red Sweater's wife died.

It turns out that Red Sweater is bringing a date to the party. He's been seeing a woman he's been friends with for years. He'll be smiling again this year, telling stories again, and eating some of those holiday cookies.

December 20, 2006

Under the tree

Under the tree

When my mother was little, she says she used to spend hours lying on the floor on her stomach, staring at the Christmas village under the tree. It was a village of delicate little houses and glittery snow. Her story gave my father the idea of building a Christmas village for our tree, using odds and ends of wood he had in the basement. The village he built was sturdy – so that kids could play with it – but also pretty. My mother painted all the little houses and bridges. I can remember setting it up with my little sister and carefully arranging the lights of the Christmas tree so that they shown into the streets. A mirror made a lovely pond, and pine cones served as trees. In those days, hardly anyone had Christmas villages – we were way ahead of our times – so it was hard to find figures of people to go in the village but eventually Christmas villages became fashionable again and you could buy little figures. And at a flea market, my mother found a lead ice skater just like the one in the Christmas village of her childhood.

I can remember neighbor kids playing with the village, and one of our extras proudly bringing us something he thought would fit in. It was a scantily clad woman with unrealistically large breasts hanging onto a lamp post, the kind of decorative statue sometimes seen in the 70s when basement bars and sexist decor were both in style. My parents graciously accepted the gift from the enthusiastic but clueless kid, and then my father got out his acrylics and painted a more modest outfit onto the woman. We also had any number of villagers that were missing arms and limbs, due to the breakable nature of the porcelain figures. The horseman on the white steed crossing the bridge was missing his head, which gave him kind of a mysterious air.

When I got married, my parents made me my own Christmas village. It was built sturdy, of course, so that kids could play with it. Because I spent a semester in London during college, my Christmas village has a British theme to it. My parents for a few years would add a piece each Christmas – Buckingham Palace, one year, Saint Paul's Cathedral the next. It's got a castle too, as well as a little tea shop modeled after my favorite tea shop in London, and the Mitre, which was my favorite pub.

My father has no use for delicate Christmas decorations that kids aren't supposed to touch, and he has always said, "Let kids play with the village. If they break anything, I'll fix it."

So that has always been the rule. When families with young kids come here and I hear the parents starting to tell their kids not to touch the village, I always jump in and say, "Oh, they are supposed to play with the village. Kids are allowed to touch whatever they want in the village." The kids always give me a grateful look and then flop down on their stomachs to move around the houses and push the train through. It can entertain them for hours.

When I look at the village the next day after having young visitors, I'll often notice strange things – like all the people lined up on the flat roof of the British museum, as if evacuating from a fire. One of my own kids used to like to put all the pine trees in one spot so that it looked like a Christmas tree lot. When Boy in Black's friends were in seventh grade, they eagerly set up the village for me, and took apart the pine trees so that they had a pile of trees and a pile of trunks. They made a little sign that said, "Trees $15, Trunks $5."

I can remember that SweetFunny Extra especially liked the broken parts of the village, particularly some of the mangled trees we'd gotten at a place that sold model trains. He would hold up a tree that still looked like a tree and say, "Here is a tree." Then he would hold up a mangled tree, all twisted and contorted: "Here is a tree on drugs."

The cats, too, have been known to wander through the village, or curl up near it. You might think this would cause the villagers to panic and run, like they always did in the Godzilla movies, but luckily, inanimate figures continue to smile and ice skate no matter what danger hovers nearby. I've come to think that the village looks peaceful with a sleepy cat in the background, nestled behind the castle or the cathedral, like a furry dragon that hovers in the mountains to protect the people from harm.

December 19, 2006

The very thought

It's just a small rectangle of cardboard, exactly the size of a credit card. It's bright pink, usually, or sometimes black, and big letters on it scream, "Free Panty!"

Because I have a credit card to a lingerie shop, I get these little cards in the mail all the time. I don't throw them away because I think to myself, "Well, if I happen to be near the lingerie shop sometime this week, I might as well stop and get a free pair of panties." I mean, who in their right mind would turn down a free pair of panties?

But I don't go to that shop very often any more because a certain blogger taught me how I could buy lingerie of all types online – the trick is to know your size, know which brands fit you best, and not be afraid to spend money on expensive stuff. So mostly the cards end up migrating to various spots in the house, turning up on the kitchen counter, under my desk, or on the living floor. My daughter treats the cards like any other kind of junk mail, either sweeping them into the garbage or checking the expiration dates to see if she can swipe a card and claim a free pair of panties for herself. My teenage sons, however, treat the cards the way any reasonable person might treat a venomous snake that has slithered into the room.

Shaggy Hair Boy will be cleaning the living room, gathering up juice glasses and crumpled school papers and miscellaneous sneakers, and suddenly, he will stop dead in his tracks, looking at the little pink card in horror and then turning to shield his eyes. "MOM!" he'll say to me in a tone that indicates that this is a matter of great urgency, "Could you take that out of here?"

Even logical, level-headed Boy in Black will not touch one of the cards. "We don't want to see that," he'll say and then suddenly become absorbed in his laptop computer, averting his eyes from those evil words.

It's not like I leave panties strewn about the living room – my lingerie is kept upstairs in my bedroom, unless it's hanging in the laundry room to dry. But apparently just seeing the word PANTY, or perhaps the very thought of their Mom buying lingerie, or worse yet, wearing it, is enough to send teenage boys into a paralysis of horror that can only be overcome by a few hours playing computer games.

December 18, 2006

Mission Impossible

I went to the mall the other night on a serious mission. I was determined to buy a Christmas present for my little sister. I know I've said before that I don't buy presents for adults, but my youngest sister is an exception, partly because she has no kids and partly because I keep forgetting that she is all grown up now. I would rather spend an afternoon at the dentist's than spend a few hours at the mall so the fact that I went voluntarily to this dreadful monument to consumerism shows my devotion to my sister.

Of course, I did not go alone. Shopping malls, as my architect students have patiently explained to me, are designed to be confusing so that consumers will wander around aimlessly, spending money, trapped like parents who attempt one of those corn mazes, except it's worse because there's no teenager with a megaphone to shout helpful hints about which way to go. I have no chance in such an atmosphere. I would not even attempt such a trip without my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter to guide me.

And let me explain the enormity of our task. Urban Sophisticate is impossible to buy for. First, she wears trendy sophisticated clothes and lives in the city that is way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to fashion. The only way I could buy her something fashionable is if I flew to Paris. And even then, I am clearly not up to the task. The other thing to consider is that her home looks like something out of magazine so I couldn't buy anything for her apartment without first getting a degree in interior decorating. But worse, her tastefully decorated urban apartment is damned small that she doesn't have an extra closet or drawer in which to toss "it's the thought that counts" kind of a gift I might be reasonably able to pick out.

At one store, my daughter and I were discussing the dilemma, when a salesperson overheard us. "Who are you buying for?" she asked cheerfully, "We have something for everyone here."

"It's my sister, " I said. "She's 36, sophisticated, lives in Big City Like No Other."

"She lives in Big City Like No Other?" the salesperson said. Her cheery demeanor changed to one of resignation. "You can't buy her anything in Snowstorm City."


We exchanged smiles, she shrugged, and we continued on. By then, I was already beginning to achieve that daze that I get after about thirty minutes in mall so we went to the food court (the one thing I can unerringly locate in a mall) to fortify ourselves. I do enjoy the eating part of shopping, and I like having all kinds of little food places lined up in one spot.

An hour later, we were still just sitting at a table, relaxed and talking. I was enjoying myself. It was fun to sit and talk to my daughter. Then I glanced at my watch and realized with a panic that we weren't shopping at all. We'd bought nothing.

I leapt to my feet, knocking over the plastic red tray of food, and we set off again. This time, I half-heartedly tried to look into store windows and make suggestions. At that point, I was desperate, willing to buy anything. That's why it was handy to have my daughter along. I would point to some random piece of clothing that I thought might be sophisticated, based mainly on the fact that it was something I didn't own. My daughter would say: "Are you kidding? She would hate that." And we'd keep walking. Pretty soon, I got the hang of this whole fashion thing, and I would point into store windows saying, in what I hoped was a sufficiently snobby tone, "See that? She'd hate that." And my daughter would nod in agreement. It was actually kind of fun.

Then we passed a store called Waddling Creatures, Female and Male. As we gazed through the big glass window in front, we could see all kind of country home decorations, festooned with ribbon and calico and little hearts carved out of wood. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was incredible. An entire store filled with stuff Urban Sophisticate would absolutely hate.

My daughter laughed. "You know what would be fun? Some year let's all agree to only buy presents that we know the other person would hate. That would be soooo much easier."

I think she's right.

December 17, 2006


The latest meme going around the blogs involves getting assigned a letter of the alphabet and then listing ten things you love that begin with that letter. When I commented on the meme over at PPB's, she gave me the letter T, which she said stood for time. So I picked out some T words and started writing the meme up, using all my favorite T words, and then somehow I got it into my head that I could only use T words and nothing else. Here is the result. I only regret that I just didn't have room for tongue-twister, totem, or tiddly-winks.

Part of the meme is supposed to include me assigning letters to anyone who comments, but as my readers know, I am not very quick about answering comments, especially on weekends. So if you leave a comment and want to do the meme, take the first letter from the word verification screen. And cheat if you want. No one will ever know.

Travelling together

This train traced the trail through tiny towns,
twisted through throbbing traffic,
trembled through tulips thronging tidy triangles.
Together, the two travelled through tall trees,
teeming trilliums, tilted tombstones. Tigers.
Tugboats thrust tuneful tidings towards towpaths.
Toy trucks trailed tinsel through tollgates.
Tropical tiffany temples tickled their throats.

Through thistle, thorns, toothaches, therapy,
through tattered tie-dyed tapestries, they travelled.
Thunder teased the trees, terrified tadpoles.
Tenderly, they talked through tea,
tight-roped through tears, tiptoed to thanks.
They tasted tangerines, tried tap-dance, trusted tango.

Tenacious, they twinkled through tunnels
talking, thrashing, tumbling.
Thirsty, they tugged time tendrils
towards thick towels, tents, turtledoves.
Toes touched, teeth tickled, talcumed thighs tingled,
trumpets thrilled through twilight.

December 15, 2006

Nothing in the world can buy

When my kids were little, they were always very excited about decorating the Christmas tree. They would wait eagerly for me to pull ornaments out of the box and then run over to put them on the tree. I can remember the first year my daughter was old enough to help. I handed her about a dozen ornaments, one at a time, and then when I looked up from the box, she had lined them all up on the very same branch, which was sagging from the weight. We'd play Christmas music while we decorated the tree, and then we'd all admire how it looked.

The teenage years have changed that heart-warming tradition. We still decorate the tree together, but the scene is less like a greeting card commercial and more like a Saturday Night Live skit. With teenagers, I've learned to lower my standards about family rituals. So long as the teenagers are gathered in the same room with us, I count them as happily participating. And if ridiculous jokes and teasing comments are how they express their affection, well, I guess I will take that.

Usually, my husband claims the job of putting on the tree lights, mostly because he has really specific ideas about how he wants them put on. We have the kind of old-fashioned strings of big lights in different colours, and he will spend hours carefully arranging the five strings of lights so that you can't see the green wires. He's got this whole system which he will carefully explain to anyone who will listen: "See, you put one light on the outside, and then weave the lights back to the inside of the tree, and put the next light on the inside, and then alternate." I myself have never understood this compulsion to hide the strings. Is he trying to fool people into thinking that the lights are magic, that somehow a pine tree will start glowing with red, blue, green, and white all on its own? Does he think that our friends and family are that stupid?

This year because we've all been pretty busy and because my husband's method takes forever and because I have no patience, I decided to break with tradition. I decided to put the lights on in the afternoon so that the tree would be all ready to decorate when my husband got home from work, saving all kinds of time, and preventing the usual scenario of us decorating a tree at midnight on a school night. My kids are fine with staying up until midnight on school nights, but I am getting too old to function past nine o'clock. I then offered each of my kids a chance to put the lights on, but they seemed to think it would be more fun to watch me tackle the job.

I am not very tall, so even standing on a kitchen chair, I cannot reach the top of the tree. You would think this would inspire my tallest son to offer to help, but instead, he chose to watch from the chair and mock my efforts. "MOM! What is that? You can't possibly be serious!"

I looked at him, "Want to help?"

"Oh, I would ... but I'm busy studying for my organic chem final."

"Studying? How is that studying? Since when does playing some weird riddle game on your laptop count at studying?"

Boy in Black looked up from the computer and waved his hand at the chemistry textbook at his feet. "I'm multi-tasking."

I tried to get help from the next tallest person, Shaggy Hair Boy, but he too claimed he was busy studying. Of course, since he was leaning over the same laptop as Boy in Black, engrossed in the same puzzle, it didn't look to me like he was studying anything but apparently as long as you are in the same room as your textbook, you get to use studying as an excuse.

Not that he didn't have helpful advice, though: "That's all wrong! You are not using the system!"

"The system?" I asked.

"Yeah," Boy in Black explained patiently. "You put one light on the outside, and then weave the lights back to the inside of the tree, and put the next light on the inside, and then alternate."

Shaggy Hair nodded, "No one is supposed to see the wires!'

Obviously, my husband has brainwashed them. I glared down from the chair where I was standing with strings of glowing lights draped all over my body. "Do either of you want to do this?"

They both laughed. Clearly, I was asking a rhetorical question. What self-respecting teenager would choose to help his mother when he could instead tease her about the way she did things?

I ended up putting the lights on in my own haphazard way, much to the delight of the teenagers who saw raw material for jokes in my every move. "You've ruined Christmas," Boy in Black announced in a somber tone, "It's just not the same if we can see those green wires."

Thankfully, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter and With-a-Why rallied with some holiday spirit and put some ornaments on the tree. My daughter likes rooting through the big box to find the home-made ones that have school photos on them. We've got ornaments from all my own kids, plus some of their cousins. Because the kids on my side of the family are painfully shy when they are young, the school photographs are never of a smiling happy child, but usually of a grim, terrified kid who is scared to death because some stranger is taking his photograph. Add the fact that the kids in the family are all pretty skinny – and well, the happy holiday ornaments look like they should come with text that say: "Send money and we will release this child."

Boy in Black's approach to decorating the tree was pretty low-key. By low-key, I mean that he and Sailor Boy gathered nearby with two laptop computers, playing some kind of horrible computer game that he claims is not violent at all, even though it's got the word war in the title, and he would look up now and then to tell a funny story about past Christmas tree mishaps. "Remember the time I decided that it would be fun to decorate the tree by lobbing ornaments across the room? Yeah, that got me out of decorating the tree for life."

Shaggy Hair and Blonde Niece were on the other end of the couch, both doing homework, occasionally consulting each other on matters of deep importance: "Which books did he say would be on the test?" But Blonde Niece would look up at the tree and say things like, "That looks nice."

So yeah, holiday traditions do change as a family gets older. My husband, to his credit, said only positive things about the way I'd put on the lights. Well, mainly, he said he was happy I had put them on so that he didn't have to. And even if certain young people in the room were too cool to admit how much they enjoyed the ritual, it felt good to have my two older kids home as we gathered to mock childhood photos, make jokes about each other, and decorate the Christmas tree.

Christmas tree

Shaggy Hair Boy studying underneath the Christmas tree.

December 14, 2006

Career plan

After one semester in college, Boy in Black has got his career all figured out. He announced it the other day.

"I've decided what I want to be. I'm going to get a doctorate in physics, and then be a hobo who hangs out on the street corner with a guitar."

"A hobo?"

"Yeah, I could see myself doing that. People would be saying to their kids, you need some help in Physics? Go see that hobo on the street corner. He's mad smart in physics."

As he talked, he was getting dressed so he could drive Skater Boy to the music store. He was wearing old pants patched with duct tape and his usual black t-shirt. Over this outfit, he pulled on a wrinkled flannel shirt, a shapeless black hoodie, and these pink fingerless mittens that he had taken from his sister. He hasn't shaved since September. His long uncombed hair hangs in his face, some of it tied back with a black bandana, which gives him sort of a disreputable pirate look. He's tall and dark, and the facial hair makes him look older than eighteen.

"See, I'm already halfway there."

December 13, 2006

What I learned this semester

At the end of the fall semester, I ask my first year students to write on an index card one thing they learned their first semester in college. I tell them that they can include things they learned in the residence halls or from their friends or in any class. Then I shuffle the cards and read them aloud. Here's what they wrote this year.

No matter how early you wake up, you will never be awake enough for an 8 am Chemistry lab. This will result in spilled chemicals.

People aren't always what they seem in the beginning.

How to be more social while still working hard to do well in college.

Lewis Dot Structures.

To appreciate home-cooked food.

My town is really boring compared to college.

How to make pasta in a microwave.

That college students can be just as immature as high school students.

More than I ever thought I would know about falconry.

I've learned not to yell at boys in the girls' bathroom at 3 am because someone will write it up as a noise violation.

It's cold here.

It's almost impossible to maintain a healthy long-distance relationship.

Leftover food gets really smelly if you don't do something about it.

I write better than I thought. I learned to believe in myself.

Apples are pomes, olives are drupes, and carbon comes from animal poop.

I am not good at everything. COUGH*Chemistry*COUGH. But I am smart.

I learned the importance of friendship and the necessity to be socially involved.

I learned way too much about the way that trees work. Like the way that leaves fall off and how the water gets to every cell.

It's okay to be happy.

Hydrochloric acid can burn a hole in your shirt.

That I have to wake up earlier on weekends because the dining hall closes at 6:30 p.m.

I learned how to live with a bunch of girls and share a bathroom with all of them.

Good bagels are hard to find.

The TA can be the nicest person in the world, but when it comes to grading, you will hate him with all your passion.

Fall asleep in Calculus and the teacher will kick you.

Writing without structure is enough structure for me.

Plants have hormones that cause them to either lose their leaves/needles, hold onto their leaves/needles, and cause different growth patterns.

You actually need to study in college.

Put your garbage in the right container or people will get pissed.

The entire life cycle of a plant and any detail dealing with it. Honestly ....

No matter what the topic is, there will always be a difference of opinion in a group.

I learned how to design a cemetery.

Tolerance is the key to living with other humans.

December 12, 2006

It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

When people talk about holiday decorations, they often comment on the colors or the lights or the visual effects. My favorite part of having a Christmas tree in the house is the way it smells. We haven't decorated our tree yet — our two college kids have final exams to take and final papers to write this week — but I love having it set up in the living room, the piney smell of the branches filling the room. If I close my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a pine forest.

I am home grading papers, which is most certainly not my favorite activity. In fact, you might say that I hate grading papers. But I am enjoying the smells of my household — the delicious aroma of vegan chocolate cake in the oven, the logs burning in the fireplace, and that great Christmas tree smell.


With-a-Why patiently waiting until it's time to decorate the tree.

December 11, 2006

Dashing through the snow

As Chip pointed out on his blog, the traditional trip to cut down a Christmas tree is a bit different with teenagers than with little kids. Children get so excited about everything: they will happily trudge through the snow for hours to find the perfect tree and will be thrilled by something as simple as a ride in a haywagon pulled by a tractor. I can remember the time years ago, when my husband and I had no kids of our own, and we brought my two young nieces to help us get a tree. They were bouncing up and down with excitement at every part of the adventure. Free candy canes! Wreaths with red bows! On the drive home, when the tree flew off the roof of the car and landed in a snowbank, they both screamed with laughter and excitement. They talked about that incident for years.

Teenagers tend to be more nonchalant. My kids came willingly on Sunday to get our Christmas tree, but more to please me than anything else. The Christmas tree farm is on a hill, and as we climbed up the dirt road, I noticed that Boy in Black was carrying a frisbee. As we reached the meadow at the top of the hill, he and Shaggy Hair began playing frisbee while the rest of us walked about the groves of Christmas trees to look for one that was big enough.

It was a beautiful day for walking around a hillside. The ground was covered with snow, but much of it was melting in the afternoon sun, and I could see golden fields of dried grasses in the distance. As usual, we found a tree in the farthest possible spot, off near the edge of the farmer's land. Little kids can take a long time to choose a tree, but older kids are much quicker. The four kids gathered near the first tree my husband pointed to and said things like, "Yeah, that's fine."

When the kids were little, they used to all help carry the tree, everyone wanting to be part of the process. We'd drag it across the snow to the dirt road and wait for a ride on the hay wagon. With big kids, the process is much different. Boy in Black took one look at the eight-foot tree that we'd just cut down, handed the frisbee to With-a-Why, and then picked the tree up with both hands. Carrying the tree above his head, he took off running across the fields, yelling, "I can beat that tractor down the hill!"

We all chased after him, laughing, as the tall skinny kid with the tree on his shoulders went skidding down the slope of mud and ice, running as fast as he could all the way to the parking lot. I will say this about getting a tree with grown kids – it is certainly faster.

December 10, 2006

Winter walk


Despite the busyness of the weekend, I sneaked out early yesterday morning to take a walk with my parents at Pretty Colour Lakes. I haven't been able to walk in my own woods for the last couple of weeks because it's been hunting season. The sound of gunshot makes me hesitate to wander far from my house. I wear a bright red coat, and I know enough to sing or make noise in the woods during hunting season, but I just don't find it peaceful to share the woods with men carrying guns. I could post the land and keep the hunters out, but I don't feel right about that either, since some of my neighbors have hunted here since childhood. Who am I to tell them they can't?

Hunting season ends today, and I am happy about that. Winters are long here, and I know from experience that I need to spend at least an hour each day outside, or I'll be miserable. Whether I am doing something exciting like snowboarding or relaxing like hiking around in my own woods or mundane like shoveling the driveway, just being outside breathing in the cold fresh air puts me in a better mood. When I was a baby, my mother says she used to bundle all of us kids up and take us outside for an hour, no matter how low the temperature dropped; that was part of her recipe for keeping us healthy and making sure we slept well. She and my father, both in their seventies and in very good health, still stick to that formula.

Yesterday, we hiked the trail around Pretty Colour Lake. How different it looked. All summer, the park is filled with green, green, green – leaves that ripple yellow green, green needles that give off scent in the heat, lake water that reflects green blue, bushes and ferns and green that edge the paths, green lawns where teenagers play frisbee. And in October, the park bursts with overwhelming colour: brilliant red and orange maple trees, whole trees saturated with colour, bright yellow leaves and that bright blue sky. Even in November, the more muted colours of autumn, the yellows and browns and darker reds, cover the ground in the form of fallen leaves, and green mosses appear everywhere, glowing.

But a few inches of snow and icy weather transforms the landscape. In December, all colour drains from the landscape. Even the sky was white, and the water of the lake a dark grey. Except for the dark greens of the cedar trees, we walked through a 1930s black and white movie. It was a monochrome landscape, with white snow outlining curves branches and trunks and the bare roots of dead trees. Of course, the summer crowds disappear with the warm weather, and we were the only people in the park. Later in the winter, a handful of people will come here to cross-country ski or snowshoe, but yesterday, we had the woods to ourselves. When I handed my camera to my father, he snapped a shot of my mother and me walking down the trail, our bright coats the only bits of colour in the winter landscape.

Mom and me

December 09, 2006


December is the month for parties, for gatherings of friends and families. Weekends are suddenly busy. Those of us who have children in college are looking forward to having them home for a month. My own two college kids are here this weekend so that we can go as a family to cut down a Christmas tree. The weather has cooperated; a snowstorm dumped about six inches of snow across the landscape yesterday. The glittering white world outside the sliding glass doors makes our firelit living room that much cozier.

Today, I am busy looking for a Santa hat for With-a-Why to wear to his Christmas piano recital this afternoon and trying to decide what tacky item from the house to bring to a party tonight that includes a "recycled gift" exchange. In theory, I should be also baking something delicious to bring to the party, but I predict we will instead be dashing to the grocery store on our way to grab something already-made. Spouse is writing out a list of chores for the kids to do, including moving the living room furniture around to make room for the Christmas tree we will be getting tomorrow. I am making my usual pronouncements about how the house has to be clean before we bring in a tree. Everyone is ignoring me.

In the midst of this busyness, I am thinking of a conversation I had this week with Kindergarten Friend. We were doing our usual recap of what was going on with family members and friends. My brother is engaged to a woman that Kindergarten Friend has known since childhood, and I told her she'd be seeing them at our party this year. For more than twenty years, my husband and I have thrown a party on the Saturday before Christmas Eve: this year, because it's so close to Christmas, everyone in my extended family will be there.

The holiday season, with its annual gatherings and traditions that never change, can be both a comforting reminder of the stability in our lives and a marker of loss. Kindergarten Friend and I reminisced about the times in childhood that I used to help decorate her family's Christmas tree. Her father died four years ago, but I can still clearly remember his comments thirty-five years ago about the Christmas tree we were decorating; we both laughed at the memory. Her father liked a tree that looked perfect, the decorations all evenly spaced out. I used to say that they were the only family I knew who get a live Christmas tree and shape it and decorate it so carefully that it looked artificial.

It is still hard to believe that Kindergarten Friend and I are both grown up. I have a daughter who will be spending spring semester in London; even some of my kids are adults now! Kindergarten Friend's kids are both still young, but she has a nephew who is about the same age as my daughter. He is in the air force.

"We won't be seeing him over the holidays," she said.

She paused. I said nothing, because I knew what would come next. Every holiday season now, some of the young people in our community are absent.

"He was shipped to Iraq last Friday."

December 07, 2006


It was a celebration, an evening of singing and drumming and dancing, an evening of community and thanksgiving.

We gathered in a big gym near campus, with a polished wood floor and bleachers to sit on. Long tables held food and water, and people piled their winter coats near the walls. A group of local native women, men, and children led the dancing, with one older native woman explaining the dances and inviting everyone to join in. The singing was chant-like, with enough repetition that those of who did not know the language could sometimes join in. Each dance had a name and some specific elements, but every dance meant moving in a circle around the gym, with white people like me trying to learn the steps by watching and following the leaders.

The native dancers who were hosting this celebration chose to wear their traditional clothing. Four of the boys wore headdresses, with feathers that reveal by their arrangement which nation the boy belongs to. All the dancers wore shirts of pretty colors, with long strings that hung down and swayed back and forth, shirts with fancy beadwork and designs. The men wore breech cloths, the women skirts, and all wore leggings underneath and moccasins on their feet. All three layers were made of fabric, and Older Woman With Microphone explained that native people in this area have been using fabric for about 400 years. The colorful layered outfits and soft moccasins looked like they would be comfortable for hours of dancing, and I could not help but compare this to dances at corporate holiday parties in my own culture, dances in which women wear crippling footwear like stiletto heels, where you see women sitting at the edge of the dance floor with their high heels in their hands, resting their poor sore feet.

Older Woman explained to us that these dances were social dances, not ceremonial dances. The ceremonial dances are not done in public. One dance was for women only, and we moved in a circle, twisting our bodies back and forth so that our feet slid across the floor, the soles of our feet never losing contact with the earth. Other dances included moving along with a partner, the line turning back on itself so that we had to dance through two lines of people who stretched their hands out towards us, a dance that reminded me of the Virginia Reel and the childhood game London Bridge is Falling Down.

Always, we all kept our eyes on the native dancers in the circle, trying to follow their movements, until we were all moving in a shuffling, stomping circle, grandmothers and teenagers and children and professors and college students, people in jeans and suit jackets and holiday sweaters and t-shirts and blazers and flouncy blouses, all of us moving to the same rhythm, following the voices that sang in a language that most of us did not understand.

One boy about the age of Boy in Black, with the same long skinny body that my son has, performed a hoop dance, gradually picking up and dancing with eight hoops. We watched, applauding, as he spun and twirled, pulling his body through the hoops, balancing the hoops, holding them in patterns, dancing and moving so fast that we barely had time to see each pattern before he would shift to another one, his gorgeously coloured outfit moving and twirling with him, his hands and legs holding onto all eight hoops, all to the beat of the two drummers, father and son, who kept up the fast rhythm, the hypnotic music.

The evening ended with food and conversation, with drinks of water for our sweaty bodies, and of course, with words of thanks spoken solemnly by one of the older men in the native language of people in this area. Older Man explained that he had learned this language, ironically, as a second language because his mother, put in a boarding school, had been forbidden to speak the language, punished and shamed for the language of her people. His people are still working to preserve this language, make sure that it continues. He spoke into the microphone, and the words filled the room, words that I understand now because I've read the translation so many times, the words of thanksgiving.

December 06, 2006

The white cloth

White cloth

I know that some of you are looking at that photo and saying, "Why is jo(e) posting a photo of a cat on a Wednesday? Doesn't she know that Friday is cat blogging day?"

Of course, others of you are shocked to see a cat on the kitchen counter. You are thinking – how unsanitary, I am never eating at jo(e)'s house. But let me reassure you. Come to my house and there's a good chance that you will be eating delivery pizza out of a cardboard box. The habits of my cats will not be a factor.

And to get back to that original question, this isn't a photo of a cat. Look closer. It's a photo of a white cloth.

The white cloth is the answer to a question that several readers asked me a few posts ago. I had casually mentioned that I don't buy paper towels, that I don't like using disposable products, and other parents emailed me to ask, "What do you use to mop up spills? With all those kids, you must use something! Don't your kids spill stuff?"

In fact, spills happen all the time in our house. I think teenagers are worse than toddlers when it comes to spills. First of all, no self-respecting teenager will use one of those little tiny sippy cups. No. A teenager will pour a huge quantity of weird red juice, like maybe a gallon or so, into a tall glass (or a vase if every glass is dirty) and then leave the glass on the floor near the feet of some other teenager who is practicing a Jimi Hendrix move with an electric guitar. In our house, someone it always eating or drinking something, and when you combine scattered half-filled cups and bowls with bizarre ideas like, "Let's throw lit matches on the floor and see if we can blow them out before we burn holes in the carpet," well, spills happen.

When inevitably, the mug of hot cocoa gets knocked over by a kid standing on a chair to tack blankets over the window for an extra-dark game of Monster, someone yells, "Get some white cloths!" And one of the kids (usually an extra, not one of my own kids) will grab a handful of white cloths from under the sink, toss them on the spill, and jump up and down on them until all the liquid is absorbed. The white cloths then get thrown into a big plastic bucket that looks suspiciously like a diaper pail. When the pail is full, one of us (okay, usually my husband) dumps them in the washer with some detergent and bleach and washes a load of white cloths in exactly the same way you would wash a load of diapers.

Diapers are, of course, the origin of the white cloth habit. For about twelve years, our household had at least one kid in diapers so we always had plenty of diapers on hand. And a thick cotton diaper is maybe a thousand times more absorbent than a paper towel. Who would use a paper towel when you could use a diaper instead? And besides, as I've mentioned before, I don't like to buy disposable products.

When the kids were little, we washed diapers every other day, but then even after the last kid stopped wearing diapers, I saw no reason to get rid of the diaper pail. We went on using the diapers in all the ways you would use any kind of rag – to clean a sink, to mop up a spill, to wipe snot from the face of a toddler, to tuck into a kid's shirt as a bib, to toss on the floor when dripping wet teenagers come in from playing Ultimate Frisbee. When some of the diapers wore out completely, I replaced them with generic white cotton cloths sold at a wholesale club. We stopped calling them diapers, because white cloth just sounds so much classier.

When we go on car trips, we grab a stack to toss in the car with us so that everyone can put one on their lap when they are eating sandwiches that drip with salad dressing. When I carve a watermelon, I toss white cloths underneath the cutting board to absorb all the juice that runs off. When a kid comes in with an injury, I put ice cubes in a white cloth. When we bring in our icy snowboards and prop them in the hallway, we put white cloths underneath to absorb the melted snow. When I accidentally give a plant too much water, and water comes pouring out of the bottom of the pot, dripping down onto the carpet, I grab some white cloths. When the kid who is standing on the table to duct tape toys to the ceiling fan knocks a bowl of soup to the floor, I grab some white cloths.

I don't know how any household manages without them.

December 05, 2006


with guitar

Twice a week, Boy in Black drives back to Train Track Village for a drum or guitar lesson. Usually, he'll stop home for a few hours. The afternoons here are dark and cold now that winter is coming, but the house seems cozy as I sit on the couch with my laptop. Shaggy Hair will work on his homework, while With-a-Why will focus intently on his drawings and ask me to make him soup. I usually build a fire as soon as I get home, and Boy in Black will get out his guitar and harmonica. It's a nice atmosphere: a fire in the fireplace, cats stretched out sleepily in the warmth, and some music from the boy who thinks he is the next Bob Dylan.

December 04, 2006

That tasty Christmas tree

Pets and Christmas trees have long been a dangerous combination. When I was a kid, I can remember watching one of our cats climb the just-cut spruce tree in our living room; I think she thought the tree had been placed there for her benefit. When you are a little kid, and not the person who has to mop up all the water, it's exciting to watch a cat climb to the top of tree that is swaying back and forth dangerously. It's possible that my parents did not find the toppling Christmas tree as entertaining as we kids did, because after that, my father began tying wires to the top of every Christmas tree and attaching the wires to curtain rods or screws in the wall. I had at least one high school friend who mocked the wires lashing the tree into position, which he said gave the impression we were preparing for a natural disaster rather than a holiday party. Our parties always had kind of a Poseidon Adventure theme going on.

Peripatetic Polar Bear reports that having a Christmas tree has helped her discern the religious leanings of her cats. I don't think I've ever been patient enough with pets to take note of their spiritual practices. (Is there any religion that encourages peeing in annoying places? If so, I've got a bunch of disciples here.) I do think Christmas trees can cause bizarre behavior among all kinds of creatures. We had this dog when I was growing up — a black lab, well, a mutt really, but he was partly black lab — whose only skill was barking at anything and everything. On television shows, wild barking always means a smart dog is alerting you to something terrible ("Timmy has fallen down the well again!"), but in real life, some dogs just bark all the time. Anyhow, this dog was so excited by the Christmas tree that he actually ate a glowing red light bulb. He chomped right down on it. Surprisingly, it did not hurt him the least, although it did short out a whole string of lights.

When I was about ten, I decided one year I was going to have my own little Christmas tree in the bedroom I shared with my baby sister. So on a hot day in August, I wandered the fields up at my parents' camp until I found a white pine seedling just the right size, which I dug up, put in a big pot, and lugged half a mile or so back to camp, where I kept it in the shade until I could pack it in the back of the car to come home with us. That fall, I kept the little tree in my room, on top of a chest of drawers, and watered it every week. At the beginning of December, I decorated the tree with a string of little lights and some little tiny ornaments. I can still remember how pretty it was.

After Christmas, I took all the little ornaments off the tree, but continued to care for it. In the spring, I decided it was time to plant my tree outdoors. I was so proud of having a tree that would keep on growing; even then, I had environmentalist leanings. I lugged the pot out to the backyard, setting it down near the horse paddock while I found a shovel and went to dig a hole in a spot that needed a pine tree. While I dug, I thought fondly of how someday I would point this tree out to my own children and tell them the story of how it had been my own little Christmas tree.

Once the hole was dug, I went back to get the tree — and it was gone! Our horse, an appaloosa that loved to eat, had put her head through the fence, grabbed the carefully nurtured little tree with her teeth, and eaten the whole thing in a couple of gulps.

December 03, 2006

Black Ice

In early December in Snowstorm Region, car accidents happen pretty often. The beginning of winter creates black ice on roads that haven't yet been heavily salted. You can't see black ice, especially at night. It happens to every driver sooner or later: you hit a patch of ice, and your car spins out of control. It's a frightening, helpless feeling because there is nothing you can do once the car starts spinning. It's scariest when you have passengers in the car and can do nothing to protect them.

It's been fifteen years, exactly fifteen years today, since the car accident that changed my life, but I can remember the details vividly. It began as a lovely winter night, full of anticipation. My sister-in-law was in labor, and we were driving to the hospital so she could give birth. She and my brother had not been married very long, but she had four kids from a previous marriage, and she had asked me to come along to be a support person for the four kids. We were all excited to watch the baby being born. It was late at night and just beginning to snow as we left their driveway in two vehicles, and we all thought that was a good omen: the first snow of the year is special snow.

Things were fine until we were on the highway. Then my brother, just ahead of me, hit a patch of black ice and his van went into the median, sliding to a stop in the snow. He and his wife, who was in active labor, got into my station wagon along with the four kids. We didn’t have enough seatbelts for everyone, but we crammed everyone in. We came to the next bridge, and then my car hit another patch of black ice. The car spun out of control and crashed into the guard rail.

It was a nightmare. My niece, sitting behind me, was screaming so loud that I thought her legs had been cut off. My sister-in-law, in the seat next to me, was silent. The horn kept blaring. I’d broken something in the steering column when my face smashed against the steering wheel. Cars zoomed by us as I gathered the children, pulling them away from the dangerous traffic, checking them to see if they were okay. My brother yanked my sister-in-law from the front seat, and a passing car took them on to the hospital.

When the ambulance arrived, I was angry at the driver because he barely glanced at the children, who were standing around me in a circle, and instead focused on me. He kept telling me that the only way he would transport me to the hospital would be if I let him strap me to a board. I kept trying to explain to him that I was supposed to be taking care of the children. "I’m fine," I kept saying, "I didn’t get hurt."

He put his hands to my face and then pulled them away. He held them out to show me that they were filled with blood.

It was a long night in the hospital, all of us huddled in the emergency room, the kids dazed but okay, me bleeding profusely all over everything, leaving bloodstains on the kids when I hugged them, and trailing drops of blood when I would make the trek up to the other floor where my sister-in-law was laboring, with packs of ice on her injuries. My right hand was broken but I didn't know it yet because I had refused X-rays, and I was still in some kind of shock that made everything seem unreal.

When morning came, my niece, Drama Niece, was born, healthy and beautiful.

The injuries healed over the next few months. Well, at least the physical ones did. The only physical reminder I have from that night is the throbbing I get in my right hand just before it rains. But that night somehow stirred up a stew of emotional issues for my sister-in-law and brother, leading to all kinds of crazy behavior: a lawsuit, angry words, and eight years of silence from both her and my brother. My right hand healed after six weeks in a cast; the emotional healing from the pain that began that night took considerable longer.

Every year, I dread this anniversary. It's a scab that gets ripped off, smaller each year but still present. I have to remind myself that the car accident is in the past: the children with me that night have grown to adulthood, the lawsuit settled out of court because they had no case, my sister-in-law died of breast cancer a few years ago, and my brother, after his wife's funeral, began speaking to the family again.

Over the last year, I've come to see the role thanksgiving plays in healing. As some of my readers know, I have been participating in a year-long dialogue between native and white people in this area. During the year of discussions, lectures, performances, and talking circles, one of the things that has impressed me the most is the way that the native elders, the People of the Longhouse, have kept stressing this need for thanksgiving. The words that come before all else.

So this year on this anniversary, I am going to try to be thankful. Not for the car accident that happened fifteen years ago, but for all the people in my life who helped me deal with everything that happened after that. That painful period of my life led to all kinds of awareness and realizations: I learned to take better care of myself, I began dealing with emotional issues I had avoided, I began to understand the need to confide in close friends. I began writing poetry as a way to heal. I learned reiki. I grew up.

Yes, it still seems unfair that I hit black ice that night. I don't believe in the stupid cliche that "things happen for a reason." I think sometimes weather patterns leave black ice on the highway, and the average station wagon is not designed to deal with it.

But growth and richness can come from painful situations, and I have come to think that one role pain can play in our lives is to emphasize the ways in which humans need each other. I have shared the painful details of that period with close friends, and my pain has deepened those friendships. The car accident was a catalyst that led to growth, to healing. I am thankful for patient friends and a supportive husband who helped me deal with the emotional chaos that began on a dark highway fifteen years ago.

December 01, 2006

Favorite Toys Meme

These were my favorite toys when I was a kid.

1. Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. I loved these dolls dearly. They slept with me every night and came with me when I went to college.

2. Red plastic toboggans. In my childhood, I think they had just been invented. They were so much faster than the old sleds with metal runners. They've been replaced, for the most part, with the inflatable tubes that you see on hills nowadays, but some loyalists still hold out for the plastic toboggan.

3. Wooden blocks. No household with young children is complete without wooden blocks. I can spend hours playing with wooden blocks. You can tell a lot about a person by handing her a box of wooden blocks and seeing what she builds.

4. Train tracks and trains. I know these are still around because I've read about them on blogs, although for some mysterious reason the trains now have people names. In my day, trains did not have names. They were just the "yellow train" or the "red train" or "that's the train I always use and don't you dare take it." The train tracks of my childhood were grey plastic ones, but by the time I had my own kids, wooden train tracks had become popular. We live near the Famous Timber Company that makes wooden train tracks and trains, and I used to buy them wholesale (you could fill a bag with tracks and buy them by the pound) so we have a huge train track collection. I fully intend to play trains with my grandchildren.

5. The game that you put together so that marbles run down ramps. I don't know what it was called but it was so much fun to watch the marbles zoom around.

6. Trucks, the kind that can move and dig dirt. When I was a kid, the trucks were metal and could dig far more effectively than the safe plastic ones you see today. My parents had an entire truckload of sand dumped into our back yard so we had the biggest sandpile of any kid I knew. My brother and I spent long summer mornings playing trucks. Our truck driver names were Jo and Joe.

7. Spirograph. I loved the colored pens, the cool designs.

8. Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders. We played board games all the time when I was a kid. The excitement of picking up a card and seeing that you had just gotten the ice cream float! I loved these games because they required no skill. I still like that kind of game. It's the only way I can win anything.

9. Jigsaw puzzles. My mother would set up a card table against the picture window, and we would spend a winter afternoon putting the puzzle together. I would look up to watch the snow coming down and hope for a snow day so that we could stay home and work on the puzzle the next day.

10. Modeling clay. I was pretty old before I knew that clay came in different colors. The clay we had was lumpy and brown-grey, and we kept it in an old coffee can. But we would spend whole afternoons sitting at the kitchen table making things. Snakes were my specialty. I was never really good at anything else. But I loved it just the same.