Strange Meadow Lark . . .

Strange Meadow Lark
OK, yes, I did use the title just so I could get a Brubeck song into the post for his birthday, too, but it’s my prerogative, I’m doing the writing after all.

The holidays are a scramble, even on the best of years, particularly financially.  I have four kids, which makes for a lot less money to dole out between children.  Now that I’ve lost my wife, and by virtue of that, a second income, I’ve lost a lot of ability to get presents and pay the bills.  (If you think that’s all I miss, by the way, go back and read previous blog posts here and then try to criticize me!)  Before you say it’s what I get for having four kids – I knew what I was doing, I went ahead and slept with my wife, I could have found ways to have only 2 kids.

Sure.

I never thought I’d be doing this alone, though.

Most of what we have left from Andrea is great.  We have a lot of amazing traditions, things we came up with together, and things that she brought to the table that added to the way my family handled the holidays and decorating and the kids.  I am eternally grateful to Andrea for giving me so many things that I never thought I would experience.  I have an ability now to go through the house, know what goes where, how to decorate little pieces, make the house look nice, and somehow still feel like I’ve got some semblance of manhood when I’ve finished.

But there are some traditions that I honestly, sincerely, wish she had left the hell alone.  I grew up in the Midwest, and while so many people around the country criticize the middle section of our nation, there’s just so much to appreciate that they don’t understand.  People there are strong.  Their mettle is tested every winter with below-zero wind chills and they get battered by thunderstorms and tornadoes every Spring.  But for every hail storm there’s an appreciation of the beauty of the lightning that accompanies them.  For every tornado there’s the knowledge that comes, where you recognize the temperature drop, the hail, then the eerie calm and greenish-grey clouds just before the funnel forms.  You are strong, you are smart and you are instinctive.  When I was getting ready to head to college, going through the last year of high school, my mother made me help make dinner every night.  She taught me how to make homemade bread; how to bake cookies; how to clean up as you go so you don’t have to clean it ALL up after; how to persevere when things go wrong.  When I got married I already knew how to clean.  With my little brother I’d changed diapers – cloth ones and you have to WASH those, folks.  I learned how to be a good man, holding onto tradition and faith and strength.  Those traits have helped me get through this year.

The holidays are amazing there.  We have Christmas done up, snow on the ground, the trees decorated, presents under the tree, lights everywhere, it’s an event.  We used to visit my Grandma’s house, just a couple miles into town, and you could just feel Christmas.  My youth was filled with cooking . . . turkey and ham in the oven; there was bread dressing; my family: my Mom and Grandma made sugar cookies, Lincoln Logs (peanut butter, coconut, dipped in chocolate); pecan sandies; cinnamon rolls; kolaches; pumpkin and pecan pie; lace cookies, all of it.  They cooked for weeks, the temperature cold enough they put the containers on the back porch and it kept everything fresh.  I don’t have the time to do this.  Neither does my wife’s family.  I can cook, and Thanksgiving I did it all, but the all-encompassing feeling wasn’t there.  We just didn’t feel like we were embracing the holiday.

But there are also odd traditions that they brought to us that I never celebrated, nor did my family, nor my Mom’s Irish relatives.  To me they are excuses to have yet another holiday, something for people with too much time on their hands and too little imagination to take yet another tradition that some people did have and try to force everyone to do it.

My kids came home tonight . . . again . . . and asked if they could put their shoes out.

“It’s Saint Nicholas Day, Dad!”

Now, if you haven’t heard of it, I certainly hadn’t before my wife’s family got involved, the kids put out their shoes and they get candy, coins, oranges, and presents.  Sound familiar?  Oh, wait, it’s a miniature stocking stuffer moment.  It’s another thing I have to remember and yet another strange meadowlark that just started popping up.  I get that some people honor the saint this day.  I get it’s a tradition in some cultures.  Not in ALL cultures.  I can’t keep up.  It’s 9pm, everyone’s going to bed and I have to put shoes out.  Nick has to come put crap in their freaking shoes and I’m still behind on the nightly routine.  It happens every year and it frustrates the hell out of me.

Can we stop with the over-extension of holidays?  Do we have to decorate for Halloween as big and bright as we do for Christmas?  Do we have to take other people’s traditions – cultures that are NOT our own – and dumb them down, castrate them, and apply them to a vanilla-flavored version of their true purpose?  Nick’s coming at Christmas.  He doesn’t need a teaser trailer.  The school does it.  Now we have to do it at home.  Every year, some new tradition starts getting made up because Martha Stewart apparently hasn’t made enough money and people want to make more work for those of us that are just scraping by.  I want my kids to have a good year and amazing traditions.  I don’t feel like I should have them thrust upon me.  What’s next, Festivus for the rest of us?

Now before you all start criticizing me and telling me about the tradition, how your family did it, how it’s a real occasion, I don’t doubt you or any of that.  But it’s not MY tradition, it’s not a tradition everywhere.  So why are you forcing me to follow it by your intense conversation about it with my kids?  Here’s what this succeeds in doing: raising expectations that are already hard for me to meet .  Even when Andrea was here, she made us do this because someone they knew started it.  But I don’t want these traditions, these holidays that others used but not us.  I hate that the amazing week of Christmas that I had with family: food and the smell of baking and feelings of love are being replaced by stuffing candy and junk in shoes without really discussing why the hell you’re doing that in the first place.

St. Nicholas had a day, December the 6th, because that’s when certain cultures celebrated him.  He had his own tradition.  Part of Nick carried over into everything from “Sinter Klaus” to what we know as Santa.

Yet we now have both the shoes . . . AND . . . the stockings, presents, tree, and all of that later on – on December 25th.

Enough already!  And before you give me the “just don’t do it” speech, you tell your kids why they’re the only ones at school who St. Nick skipped last night.  Maybe you haven’t been very good.  Maybe you’re not on the good list and that’s why he skipped your house!  It’s like the old peer pressure from high school except this time I don’t get the happy, dizzy buzz that comes with what they’re forcing down my throat.

I’m trying so hard to survive this year without screwing my kids up completely.  That’s hard enough just in trying to keep them turning in their homework, preventing fights or bad behavior and learning who is trying to help you and who’s just trying to make themselves feel better.  This whole year’s been awful.  Now I add the strange traditions that have nothing to do with my family or how I grew up and suddenly I feel like the train’s derailing again.  I can hear the strange meadow lark singing off key from the rest of the flock.

Yes, I know, this just sounds angry and complaining, but I’m trying to give my kids what I had.  I want them to feel the holidays as I felt them, though I know it’s impossible.  Their Mom’s not here, the woman’s touch isn’t in our house, it’s all gone wrong.

So the worst part of it all is that we did it anyway.  All this complaining, the entire diatribe, and I put out the shoes.  Why?  Because it’s true, I can’t let the kids fall.  Even the smallest little, annoying thing that wouldn’t have been such a big deal last year is expanded now.  Nothing is little.  The tiniest crack can become the biggest chasm because we’re still fumbling around blindly in the darkness.  Each holiday or event is like a light post along the way.  I hate this freaking tradition, partially because I never remember to do it – it’s not in my litany of traditions from my family – partially because it’s yet another thing I have to get right . . . alone.  The kids don’t really care, I know.  They get their sugar high – thanks again for that – and they’re happy.

So here I sit, the only grumpy person in a sea of Rachel Ray’s and Martha’s, bitching that it’s not a “good thing”, only to come to the harsh realization.

It’s me who’s the strange meadow lark.

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