Those who read here will realize that I don’t often post on weekends. I do often post from what inspires me. Often that’s good writing by others, either musically, cinematically, hell . . . even phonetically or telephonically. Regardless, when something strikes me, I tend to share it.
This is one of those times.
Abbi, my oldest, convinced me I needed to see this movie that starred, of all people Alyssa Milano. You remember her, right? The little girl from Who’s the Boss and that show Charmed from the ’90s (of which I can only remember that a Morrissey song was the theme . . . sorry!). I didn’t groan but must have had a skeptical look on my face. Abbi, you see, has a heart of gold, though she tries to act sometimes that the gold has some frost coating it. That golden pumper in there absolutely adores a good romantic movie, particularly a comedy.
The funny thing is, I began to love those same movies . . . the crazy silly ones, not the sappy classic ones . . . and sat many nights watching them with her. We saw Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade and loved it. We’ve compared what works best from each version of Sabrina – the Billy Wilder and Sidney Polak versions. We saw John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks, Bogie, Bacall, all of them.
Then came this movie . . . titled My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.
Abbi informed me that the writer struggled to get it made and finally . . . Milano offered to help produce it just so the film could get to the screen. She plays a lead along with a character actor who’s in some decent television stuff. Abbi hooked me in when she told me Beau Bridges and Carol Kane were in it as well.
But she got me to watch because she said the main guy reminded her of me. He’s a writer – who makes little money at it. He buys gifts for Milano that mean something rather than just expensive things. He jumps in front of her and covers her when a car is about to splash them rather than bemoaning how awful it was. She said all those things were actions she’d not only heard I had done but witnessed them herself. . . things I couldn’t tell you about but she swears are true.
So I watched the film . . . and it’s just . . . good. I mean, it’s not Citizen Kane, don’t get that impression. But it’s, I don’t know, just more accurate to life. I won’t give away the plot twist – though I had it pegged fairly early – but it’s a film I watched and for weeks it’s stuck with me. One line, which my daughter called to my attention before we watched the film, in particular.
“You’re my Charlie Brown,” says Milano to her boyfriend.
Here’s the brief explanation . . . and I remember the reference from the Charlie Brown specials. Eventually, after years of angst and pain, Charlie Brown gets a kiss from the Little Red-Haired girl on the cartoons. When she does it, Charlie Brown floats and flies through the air.
“When you kiss me, I feel like I can fly,” she says, “just like Charlie Brown in that cartoon. Nobody’s ever done that before, but you. You’re my Charlie Brown.”
“It’s so cuute!,” my daughter says. And she’s right . . . and so’s the movie.
It’s really not how good you kiss, or how great you are in bed or even how many people you’ve dated. It’s the feeling you get when you’re with that person who sees you and gets you. You do feel like you can fly.
So many people say to settle or lower standards or even to just be happy. But I don’t want my daughters . . . hell, my sons, even, to feel that way. I want them to kiss that little red-haired girl (or brown, or blonde or brunette) and fly. Love is the one thing that simultaneously separates us from both animal and machine. We feel our whole bodies change when that person even approaches us. Our brains are basically organic computers . . . so why do smells or songs or stories make us suddenly remember and our hearts start to race?
I want my kids to have that.
I kind of want it again, too.
Now if there was just a little red-haired girl nearby . . .
So we finally decorated the tree. Well, trees. Over the weekend we went to a tree farm and picked out a tree, something we all agreed on and got it into the house, put it up, got the lights on it and . . . ran out of time and couldn’t decorate it. It was as if I’d shot all four of them in the chest with a spear gun.
I’m not Ebeneezer here, I love Christmas, but we have a LOT of stuff. While the outside of our house may not show it, step inside and there’s garland, Santa figures, snow globes, stockings, manger scenes, all of it. When we were in Texas Andrea worked for Target so she’d waited until a week after Christmas and bought an artificial tree, lights already on it, for 70% off. It was important because we just didn’t have the money to buy a tree every year. Sure, there are those places that have the discount trees and low prices, but we did that one year. Apart from the tree falling – 3 times – on my head as we tried to get it stabilized in the rickety stand we had, the tree had been cut so many weeks before getting to us that it was already dry and the needles falling just a week or so after we bought it.
So artificial was the way to go. It was our second, actually. Years ago, when we were first married, my Dad got us an artificial tree. We didn’t even have Abbi, but we were both barely scraping by, living in an apartment, and my Dad felt pretty sorry for us, I think. At that time he owned his own Pharmacy and store in a small town in Nebraska. He had one tree left, one he was reserving for the store itself, to decorate, put up on the floor, but instead he showed up in Omaha and gave it to us, lights, tinsel, all of it. It wasn’t an amazing tree, but we loved it.
Last year we had a little money so we’d gone to get a real tree. This year, we don’t have a little money, but I got a tree anyway. We had to keep things as normal as possible, and as much as it hurts, we have to do the holiday. We picked it out, put it up, and after getting the lights on the outside of the house, the kids went to bed. I then went about the task of trying to decorate with the materials their Mom left behind. Leopard spotted bows, red velvet ribbons, garland with lights on it, all being put up wherever I could find a spot for it. It’s all been squished and wrinkled in the move so I spent an inordinate amount of time smoothing out the creases. Every time I’d try to say it was good enough I remembered the arguments and grumpy comments I’d made in past years, re-doing those same decorations because Andrea said it didn’t look right. I was so persnickety, offhand comments coming out of my mouth.
Last night I realized how right she’d always been. Every time I tried to leave one that wasn’t quite right I could see how awful it was. How right she was. By the time I’d finished some of the first night’s decorations it was already past Midnight and I still had to do the night’s routine.
So last night we moved onto the trees. That Target special we put at the top of the stairs, the tree visible when you walk in because you can see the upstairs landing. We put the real tree by the door. I’d made that awful, aching decision about their Mom’s stocking yesterday. I thought that would be the worst of it, now we’d just decorate the tree and it would be the first semblance of Christmas spirit and fun in our house. We put “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” soundtrack on the computer, which is near the tree, and listened to it while we decorated. (If you don’t have this, by the way, you’re a damn fool. It’s the greatest Christmas album ever)
What I hadn’t realized was how many memories were waiting for me in the tissue-wrapped treasures inside those red-and-green tote boxes. I’d forgotten just how we’d celebrated every year, it was so natural and we never really had to think about it. But as we started taking the ornaments out of the wrappings, the glass and delicate wiring exposing with each fold, I started to see them: the dates. The names. The dedications on all the old ornaments, one for every year. The hand-made star with Abbi’s picture in it, the back saying: “1997: To Dave, I love you, Andrea” . . . in her handwriting. The little kids sleeping in their chairs, a little black-haired boy on one side, a blonde little girl on the other, sparking memories of her telling me “I’d wait up with you every year.”
The kids don’t have these memories, they are part of them. Little picture frames with their photos in them. Andrea’ remembered the year we got married that I loved the classic “Winnie the Pooh” book because my Mom read it to me – not the Disneyfied version, the original, classic drawings. There were little ornaments, things she’d taken time to hunt down that had a frame with that classic character just because she remembered an offhand remark I’d made.
She was everywhere.
I did my best to give the kids the regular, nondescript ornaments so they didn’t have to go through deciphering the past, but I’m not sure if they would have had the same connection to the ornaments I did. I knew doing this would be awkward, but I just hadn’t thought about everything. There were Mikasa crystal ornaments – really expensive ones – that my Grandma had given us for our first Christmas. Another one from her that was for Abbi when she thought it would mean something to her. Snowmen with the year and her name on the back.
Christmas cards drawn at school that say: “I love you Mommy.”
I’ve said before it’s not the days themselves that worry me so much, it’s the stuff out in left field that just hit us between the eyes. I didn’t see this coming, though I should have. The cards pushed me over the edge. I’m not upset that they didn’t make “I love you Daddy” cards, it’s not that at all. I’m torn up because I know what she meant to them, the fact that all this stuff is here is proof. Each of them is like a little ghost, floating on the green needles of the tree, pulling a little bit of me away at a time. They loved her so much and now I’m all they have left.
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure right now. Pressure to make sure they have a good Christmas. Pressure to keep their spirits up when you know they’ll be down. Pressure to get everything decorated and put together right. Burning the Midnight Lamp.
Pressure to get it right, because like everything else when she was around, Christmas was always perfect. So how do you celebrate this amazing season when she’s not around . . . when you know it can’t be perfect by the mere fact of her absence?
I don’t. I let the kids put up the ornaments, wherever we could without bunching them all together. I hung up the stockings my Grandma made even when Andrea wouldn’t because they didn’t “match” her concepts.
I did the only thing I could. I took what I loved about her and her ideas and changed them. This is going to sound a little harsh, but I took what I loved of her from the season and did what I wanted. She probably wouldn’t be particularly happy with how I’ve decorated the house or where the ornaments are placed, but there’s part of me that cannot care about that.
The reality is, she is gone, she left us. We’re left to do this alone, without her. I hate it, as much as I hate going on without her. We’d have perfection if she’d been here, but she’s not. Instead, we’ll have everything I can muster. We’ll have a mishmash of ideas, a house splashed with memories.
A while back I mentioned the things I felt Andrea had stolen from us when she left. It’s not that I think she’s a thief and had any kind of malicious intent, nothing like that. It’s more that she was part of me and as such had access to the most intimate, deepest loves, fears, traditions, all of that.
But she stole Christmas. Not like the Grinch, though it might be an apt simile, but she took it and it will never be the same.
My family doesn’t just like Christmas, we really live for it. Not like Clark Griswold, (though my Dad get razzed that airplanes might land on our lawn because of all the lights once, but we lived on 3 acres in the country…) just that overall, happy, almost bubbly feeling. I think the adjective “joyous” is over-used, but it really does fit for the holidays in our house.
It always was that way for me. I put stockings up in my apartment when I was in college, even if I was going home for the holidays. I bought presents, no matter how cheap, just to give something to my friends and family. We always had a big dinner, opened presents late on Christmas Eve and then went to Midnight Mass in order to get to bed. My brother and I would get up at 3 or 4 and sneak down, flashlights in hand, and look for what Santa brought us and then sneak back up, trying not to wake Mom and Dad, just so we knew. We just couldn’t wait. One year my Mom took us out into the country where my grandparents owned some property: an old farm that was now abandoned. I didn’t know at the time that it was because we didn’t have a lot of money, we just thought it was fun. We had thermos of hot chocolate, we had on big, poofy snow pants and coats, gloves, whole nine yards. When we got there we looked in the shelter belt for a great tree. We did find one, too. We sang “O Christmas Tree”, drank out cocoa, and each took a turn with the saw on the tree. We cut it down, took it home, watered it, all of it. Even shook the snow off the needles before we took it inside. It was probably pure necessity for my Mom, but it was magical to us.
It took a little while for that to hit home when I got married. The first Christmas I remember with Andrea started off really poorly. Getting our tree wasn’t at all like the search above. We picked up her sister, who lived with us in Omaha at the time, and went to look for the tree. It didn’t start well, and at the time I just didn’t get it. I was SO happy. I was married, we were together, we were on the way to get a tree and look for everything. We were getting new ornaments. I already had presents. Hell, we even had stockings.
Andrea and her sister weren’t having it, though. The moment we left the house something was wrong; horribly wrong. Andrea looked at me with all I can describe as disdain. I hadn’t really seen this. I mean, we’d had arguments. If you don’t have disagreements or arguments as a couple you’re not really in a healthy relationship. But this was just pure, unadulterated anger. My driving was wrong. I was going too fast. I didn’t open the door for her and her sister to get in the car. Why was I choosing this tree lot? What is wrong with you, this kind of tree won’t hold ornaments right! Andrea and her sister started yelling at each other, in public, at the lot. Not making a scene, just mad. Arguing. Poking at each other to see who reacts first.
I couldn’t take it.
“What the hell is wrong with you two?”
“What do you mean,” was likely Andrea’s answer, and I remember she had the look of someone who didn’t want to admit there was a problem, but knew there was, digging in and holding her ground.
“You two have been at each other’s throats, yelling, it’s like you’re trying to get into a fight and I don’t get it. This is Christmas, it’s supposed to be happy. I love this stuff! If you can’t do this then go to the car, I’ll get a tree and you can help decorate it when I get home.”
Later they apologized. You see, Christmas, holidays, none of that were fun or positive experiences for her. Her memory for every Christmas was getting in fights, her parents yelling at each other on the way to the tree lot or a tree farm. Her sister and she getting into fights then getting spanked. Her Mom yelling at her Dad and telling him to knock it off. Christmas wasn’t fun in her house. She dreaded it, and that had carried over to me, even though the catalyst for their animosity wasn’t there.
Both of them saw that they’d never had a good memory of getting ready for Christmas. They loved the day, had great dinners, all of that, but the season . . . they didn’t have a connection. That’s where we came in. After that first Christmas, Andrea joined in, hook-line-and sinker. Where we got out of control, she became the decorator. Matching ribbons and bows on the tree instead of tinsel. We still had our little homemade ornaments, but by the time we’d hit last year Andrea was just as giddy and happy in the season as we were. Santas on the ledge. Everything. Like so many things in our house, she made it . . . perfect.
The perfection is hard to live up to. Like I said, she became part of the holiday. Now, we can’t go get coffee at Starbucks without her. The music in the background is that old Christmas music, the Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole that Andrea used to play in the car. My oldest broke down on Friday because she couldn’t take it any more. Andrea was part of the season and the season was surrounding and overwhelming her. I can’t blame her, I feel it too.
I took the kids this weekend to get a tree. They were all really excited, but I could see it was weighing on them. The arguments started. The boys started fighting with their sister – and not the normal amount, every boy hates their sister when they’re a kid, but they still love them a lot. This was reminiscent of the first Christmas with Andrea. It only got better when we finally went to get the tree. They all lost their anger and stress and raced through the rows of trees to find one to cut down. It was up in the mountains at this little place we found by accident last year and they wanted to go back. We even bought a tiny little tree in a pot that looks like the Charlie Brown tree just so they’d have something more.
I got out all the stuff to decorate, ornaments and all. We plan on putting those on tomorrow night. (Monday) Today we did outside lights and garland, all the stuff that Andrea left behind. The kids are ecstatic about doing the decorating but they’re so tenuous about it they just can’t help but poke at each other. It gets to me and makes me lose my temper.
Then tonight, as they were drifting to sleep, I put the stockings up on the fireplace. We had these stocking holders, the metal kind that have a hook that hangs down from the mantle, spelling out the words “NOEL”.
We had stockings with all our names on them. I didn’t know what to do. There are six. Abbi, Hannah, Noah, Sam, Dave . . . and Andrea.
I actually stared at her stocking for quite awhile trying to figure out what to do. I really didn’t know. Still don’t.
It has so many things wrong with it. If I put it out, what happens then? Santa put stuff in everyone’s stockings. Even Mom and Dad. So put the stocking up and Santa doesn’t fill the stocking – it reinforces that Mom’s not here. Fill the stocking, it confuses them and they won’t know what to make of that. If it’s empty it really does represent an emptiness for them, their Mom’s not here for Christmas. But leave the stocking off and you’re making it real. It’s really Christmas, it’s actually here.
And it’s actually here without her.
I know, you think I put too much thought into this. It’s too much philosophy for a stocking. But look at what the season alone has done to these four wonderful kids. It’s tugging at them in ways they can’t describe, not like their oldest sibling, and they act the only way they can. They act out.
So I left the stocking off, as much as it hurts. I never shared this decision with them, it wasn’t something that we needed to do together. Sometimes you have to do things that hurt because they’re what’s best for everyone.
Like I said, she took Christmas with her. I didn’t want to leave her out, but somehow I had to try and steal it back.