Tag Archives: tree

Old Stories

At the Trees
At the Trees

Over the weekend, as I stated in my last post, I took the kids to the Calaveras County Big Trees park.  It was during the trip to that very state park, though, that my kids asked me if I’d ever been to the park before.  I had, but it had been a very, very long time.  In fact, the only time I’d actually visited I wasn’t even a resident of the state of California.  I wasn’t married yet…may not even have been engaged.

When I started dating Andrea, things were pretty hot and heavy at first.  We spent nearly every free moment together.  When she went off on any kind of break, particularly over the summer, I visited.  This was one particular break, most likely Spring Break, as I distinctly remembered the trip.  It wasn’t memorable because of the trees or the drive or the altitude…it was memorable because I had to have a tooth pulled and I waited until after the trip to visit Andrea to have it done.  This was problematic because I ended up having it pulled on the day of my computer final.  (still managed to get an “A” in it, though)

I told my kids the story, of how I had come out and visited their Mom.  How we drove all the way to Big Trees because, frankly, her father wanted to take us there.  I was all for it, but I distinctly remember Andrea being less than thrilled.  Still…she caved in and did it anyway.  If it gave us a chance to have some wine and a picnic – a fact I left out of the story for the kids – their mother was all in.  I went along and, frankly, hopped up on narcotics for the pain in my infected gums and aching tooth, I could have visited the Calaveras County landfill and not cared.

Why I bring this up, though, is because there was a dichotomy to the story.  I had fondness for their Mom, and my brain still remembers great details of everything that happened in those first years with her.  They were intense and fiery and sexy and I would go back to those very memories whenever things got bad or difficult to remind myself…this is why you married this woman.

But during the trip, when I’d bring up the trip with their mother, each of the kids would have their own qualifications for what likely happened:

2013-08-10 14.42.35“I doubt Mom would have walked up this trail, Dad.”  That was true.  It was near vertical in places and filled with tree roots and their Mom was likely dressed to the nines, even to go to a state park.
“She didn’t like hiking.  Mom wasn’t an outdoorsy type.”  True again.
“Did you stay a long time Dad?”
“No, kiddo. ”
“Because of Mom?”
“Well…no…your Mom probably wanted to stay.”
“Grandpa, right?”  That was right.  Andrea’s Dad liked to say he visited places, but he didn’t spend a lot of time there once he’d arrived.  He’d go, see the sights and get out.  Lingering wasn’t something her family did.  Camping they did, but I wasn’t up for that and we weren’t in a position to do it at that time.

It was interesting, to me and I had come to realize that we had swung the pendulum both ways: we started out two years ago adoring everything about Andrea.  She was perfection, the beautiful photos from her youth and the smile and the love she showed us.  A year later we were talking about the bad things, the stuff that put us through so much stress.  That seemed all we could dwell on.  Now, though, we’ve reached the happy medium, which is what marriage really is/was, right?  We had hard times, we had amazing times.  I’m sure my own kids will have their vision of how their Dad raised them and there will be things about me that drive them completely bonkers.  I hope by the end they realize I tried my best.

But as we stood there next to a tree that was thousands of years old, I knew they’d at least remember visiting the place.  Where they weren’t real sure they wanted to go after we got home it was all they could talk about.

As I tucked in the boys for the night they informed me “we had the best day, Dad!”

That’s all I could hope for.

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It’s Christmas . . . Don’t Be Sad for Me

There’s a recurring phrase that is uttered throughout this time of year.  Not to each other, it’s not a common phrase like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or “Happy New Year” . . . nothing like that.  It’s a phrase that I hear a lot . . .and it’s not just me.  I know others who lost their spouse and they get it too:

“It must just be so hard this time of year.”

Well . . . sure, it’s kind of hard.  But the thing is it’s not as hard as you think.

I know, I know, I’ve written about this before, here and on Good Enough Mother.

Still, I think it’s worth exploring just one more time.

A photo of one of our early, chaotic Christmases . . .
A photo of one of our early, chaotic Christmases . . .

Fall and Christmas are my favorite times of the year, they always have been.  I absolutely marvel at the change in the scenery, the firey red leaves and the muted earth tones that nature herself foists upon us as the weather turns colder.  The hardest part of the year . . . and it’s no coincidence that the blog started right then . . . was the fall that first year.  I love the crisp change in the season and the ability to put on a warm sweater and then find the person you love and just hold them.  It’s not sexual, it’s not lascivious, it’s sensual.  It’s loving and close and just . . . warm, inside and out.  I loved walking and hearing the leaves crunch under our feet.  I loved making drinks after and warming up and relaxing and starting a fire and just enjoying the season.

Christmas was the same.  It was stressful, painful, difficult, expensive, and just plain ridiculous.  I loved every m

Getting the Tree
Getting the Tree

inute of it.

That first Fall and Christmas were really hard for me and I don’t remember much about them.  Sure, I remember the presents and how the kids reacted, but the season?  Nothing.

But we made it through the cold.  It was a hard fought year, not one without its own stresses, but we made it.  We’re okay.  That’s hard for people to understand or believe, that we could possibly be okay.  I get that, it’s hard to imagine what you would do if the circumstances happened to you.  I didn’t have to imagine.

Still, last Christmas was great.  This one . . . though we don’t have as much money and I couldn’t get us out to visit my folks . . . it’s still great.  Why?  The kids and I are together and that’s all that matters.  We’re stronger together than when we’re apart.

As much as I love this time of year, last year I still woke up every morning having to adjust to the emptiness next to me in the bed.  This year I get up and do my routine.  That’s not losing her, that’s living with living without her.

It was important to me . . . the kids . . . all the family that we not lose the holidays to our loss.  It would be so easy to despair and make it a horrible time of year.  Instead, we embraced the holiday.  We bought the tree, we listened to Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas record, and we didn’t let little things get to us.

Tonight I made two pies, tarts and cookies.  We have the stuff for Christmas meal.  We have the stuff we need for the holiday.  I’m not sad, I’m excited.  The routines that could have killed us I embrace and enjoy.

So tomorrow night . . . well, tonight, since it’s now after Midnight as I write this, I’ll prepare for the big guy in the red suit to get credit for being the Christmas hero.  I’ll do what I’ve done every Christmas Eve since we lived in Texas . . . I’ll turn on one of my favorite movies – The Apartment with Jack Lemmon, and ready the house for Santa’s presents.  I’ll take a moment to realize my own Miss Kubelik isn’t here but still love every minute of the exhaustion that the season brings with it.  Sure, I’ll have twinges and memories.  That wound inside will always have moments that hurt.  Sights, smells, songs, even routines and traditions will bring that.  But it’s about remembering and honoring as much as it is moving forward.  The kids and I deserve to have great, happy, Merry Christmases.

It’s not about loss, you see.  It’s about life.

 

I never thought it was a bad little tree

Christmas Is Coming by Vince Guaraldi

Over the weekend I ran a piece on Rene Syler’s site – Good Enough Mother that informed the world that yes, I had managed to toss out one of the hundreds of “traditions” that my wife had brought to our family.

You see, my wife loooooved to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which basically involved putting confections into smelly kids’ shoes.  My wife, you see, loved her traditions she just didn’t want to be the one who actually did the work for them.  That’s not me being mean, it’s just reality.

But this weekend we did another one . . . one that seems more like our own than one that involved Andrea.

Indian Rock Tree Farm
Indian Rock Tree Farm

Some years ago, when stumbling through the Sierra foothills looking for a tree farm to buy a fresh-cut Christmas tree, we happened upon this small, family-run tree farm.  We’d bought a really nice tree, they treated us very well, and the kids had a lot of fun.  We hadn’t gone back, though.  Of all the traditions that my wife loved to keep she never really kept up the idea that we go to the same places or frequent the same spots.  We had to have the family traditions from her upbringing – even if they made me absolutely freaking crazy.

So last year, when we needed a tree and I didn’t want to use the artificial one that we’d been using for so long since the Indian Rock Tree Farm in the Sierras trip, I decided to go back to one of my family traditions.  I remember, years ago when I was a kid, going out to my grandparents’ old farm, where a massive couple shelterbelts stood sentry on either side of the road into the lot.  I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, but we went in, had hot chocolate in a thermos, trudged in the snow, and took turns sawing down a tree for the house.  We sang O Christmas Tree and danced around and had just a great, memorable time.

So last year I took to the internet and found the place we’d cut the tree those years ago.  It was time to start our own traditions again.  I did again today.

The Indian Rock Tree Farm isn’t a huge place, it’s really a small little family run place.  There’s a fire in an old barrel, candy canes for the kids, and it’s just beautiful.  As you get out of the car you can smell the pine . . . it’s nestled between two peaks and you see nothing but trees and smell the air.  It’s the closest to the Black Hills of South Dakota anyplace has come for me.

The kids...at the tree farm
The kids…at the tree farm

This year we found a tree in record time.  It was a little crisp, our breath snaking out in wisps as we walked.  Abbi looked at me and – as she has every time it gets cold, in a routine we’d developed when she was a tiny girl – goes “I’m a dragon!” and blew the steam upward.  Last year there were arguments, and the stress of being in the holidays made it hard to find a tree.  The loss still weighed a little heavy on us.  But this year . . . the tree just appeared and we all agreed.  It was maybe 10 minutes and we had it!

Waiting by the fire
Waiting by the fire

We waited by the fire as they bundled up the tree and smiled.  We Cleaned up the area for the tree at home.  Then, as the day turned to night, I made some cookies and hot chocolate and we started decorating.  I put on Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas record, another tradition of mine, and Sam decided to wear the lights as we tested them making us all giggle.  We all marveled at pictures of the kids as they were tiny in the ornaments.  We reminisced about the ornaments that we’d all gotten as gifts: a crystal angel that my Grandma gave Abbi.  Another one – a snowflake – given to me and Andrea during our first year together by my Grandma as well.  It felt, by leaps and bounds, like it was Christmas.

Sam being silly
Sam being silly

A lot of people come to me and say “it must be so hard this time of year for you!”  Yes, there are those moments – where Hannah finds an old ornament of Andrea’s; when an ornament with “wish” on it sparks Noah to say “maybe I should wish for Mom to come back!”

But I handle those things with aplomb now.  “Let’s think about wishing for things we can make come true.  How about that?” I ask him.
“Yeah…that’s true,” he says, and there’s no breakdown moment.  There’s no darkening of the mood.  Christmas comes every year, and though Andrea did it up brilliantly every year, I refuse to let the amazing feeling I get every winter be spoiled by loss.  I want all four of them to remember this like it’s the best time every year, too.  Sure, Andrea’s gone, physically, but we honor her and my Grandpa and everyone in our family by celebrating.  It’s not a small thing, it’s a beautiful thing.

Traditions are just that – things that bring you comfort.  There’s a reason I have 1 tub of stuff to decorate in the fall and something like 8 of them for Christmas.  Traditions like putting food in shoes – those were little things that brought treats and appeased kids for my wife and her family.  But Christmas in my house . . . Christmas is the tradition.  Getting the tree, decorating, eating cookies and cocoa, those all make me smile.

I put the angel on top the tree, looking like a cross between Andrea and Abbi, and nobody gets sad. “I picked out that tree topper, I thought it was beautiful,” Abbi says  with a smile.

I come down from the stool and quote Linus Van Pelt from Charlie Brown’s Christmas special – “I never thought it was such a bad little tree.  It’s not bad at all, really.”
Then the kids chimed in . . . “it just needed a little love!”  A truer statement couldn’t be said.

Our Tree
Our Tree

Leave the World a Bit Better…

Lonely Boy by The Black Keys from their LP El Camino

20120113-104448.jpg
Those Damn Cookies I Had to Make!

I was in a mad dash scramble tonight from the moment I entered the door. It also came after a day when one interview cancelled and I was running around crazy, so my mood had not been particularly pleasant. I hadn’t even taken my coat off and standing above me, looking through the banister, was Sam hollering “can we go to the school’s International Passport night? We get a free dress pass tomorrow if we do!”

If I hadn’t needed to eliminate a load of wash for the evening I wouldn’t have even considered it. On top of scrambling to fry a bunch of burgers and cook fries for dinner, I had to head to the grocery store to get the ingredients for a recipe of Persian cookies that I’d volunteered to make for “International Meal” at Hannah’s class tomorrow. I stood there, wool P-coat still around my shoulders, looking into the kitchen, out the front door, and still hadn’t put my briefcase down from the work day. You know what happened next, I was doomed.

But the stress didn’t end. First, Hannah informs me that there are more than 30 kids in her class alone, therefore I have to make 3 dozen cookies. I’m running around realizing I don’t have hamburger buns. The kids are all shouting that they want to go because it starts at 6:30 and I haven’t even half finished with the dinner yet . . . and I suddenly realize the “lesson” I’ve been trying to teach Hannah about not doing her chores has backfired. Not only is there no room at the table, the entire kitchen is a mess. The more I clean the angrier I get, and I was already angry.

Little did I know that the dreaded and well-known Manoucheri curse was going to rear its ugly head soon.

We all went to the evening, running into parents I hadn’t seen and walking through the chaos of the gymnasium filled with maps, games, foods, all of it from around the world. It was a little bit of pride that took me when the kids had to put dots on where they were born and we had two separate states, neither of them California, and the people around looked like we’d just landed here in our shuttle craft from the Martian mother ship. (not the parent running the booth or the teachers, but there is a contingent and pervasive mentality that if you’re here in California why would you ever want to leave?) But seeing the map, the little dots on Keller/Ft. Worth, Texas and then Omaha, Nebraska, I didn’t just think about the fact they were born there, there’s a flash of memories that rush through your brain. You get overwhelmed with memories.

Noah is still processing the latest string of emotions that hit all of us, I think. He didn’t want to go to the International Night because he was worried he’d get lost in the mass of people and not be able to find me, a fear that he’s gotten in just the last couple months. A fear that I can only help him to face, but he’ll have to tackle it at some point and I can only help him get the tools, I can’t face it for him.
“Will you stay with me when we go to the tables?” he asked more pleading than anything else.
“Of course, Monkey, I’ll be right next to you. Don’t worry.”

It wasn’t painful, it was fairly easy and we saw friends who make us smile. I loaded everyone up, now hopped up on lemonade and sugar cookies and went to Safeway. I went in to get cookie ingredients and Noah got out and came along with me, leaving the other 3 kids in the car. He reached up, put his hand in mine, and quietly said “I love you, Daddy.”

It melted some of the stress.
“Love you too, Monkey. Very much.”

It was the drive home that was hard. Abbi nearly lost it. Yesterday I bought tickets to see the band “The Black Keys” during a presale for registered users of the band’s website, and since I’d gotten their latest album on presale for Abbi for her birthday they gave me a password to order tickets early. I’d gotten three, one for me and the girls, who love the band. On the way home, her friend had informed her, after her very short period of bliss, that the concert was on the same night as the Prom. The Prom which Santa had gotten a very expensive, very nice designer dress that was an insane amount of stress and difficulty for both me and the re-suited fat man!

“Maybe I’ll just skip the prom. Nobody’s going to ask me anyway, and I want to see the Black Keys!” was her response. I looked at her and had to say something.
“You know, I can’t say for certain that the Black Keys will be around in 20 years, but I can say that if you skip the prom, you’ll have to deal with that forever.”

Her response is one I’ve heard and told myself countless times. “I won’t get asked” or “I’m always second in everyone’s mind” or “I’m a good friend but they never think of me as a date” all things I don’t agree with, but what can I say? I was the same way. All I could say was how, even in my youth, when I was shy, quiet, lacking self-confidence, I asked a girl to the prom. I never took a date to Homecoming, Sweetheart, none of the other dances. I always went, but I never took a date. The Prom . . . prom was different.

You have to understand why this was such a big deal for me. I’ve recounted before how I couldn’t ask a girl out easily. I had paralyzing fear and shyness. I’d dial 6 numbers and never get to the 7th. I’d ask then panic wondering how I could have gotten myself into the situation. I think they were going out with me because they felt sorry for me. None of these things were true, at least I don’t think, but I thought them nonetheless. But I overcame that, just long enough, to ask a girl I had a crush on to the prom. I rented a tuxedo, talked with friends about what they were doing, and then asked, quite unsuccessfully, my father if I might drive the convertible to the dance. (I knew the answer, but hey, you gotta ask!) I may have been an outsider, so to speak, but even I asked a girl to the prom. Me, the geeky, lanky, shy boy. Abbi’s none of those things. She’s outgoing, happy, funny, and smart. One of the good things, I thought, of going to this public school was that she’d get to have a social life and interaction with boys, much as that bothers me as a Dad. She gets a taste of real life, to live her own John Hughes film.

The boys then asked the question that started the philosophical thinking in my head: “did you know mommy when you asked this girl to the dance, Daddy?” Of course, I didn’t. I lived in Nebraska, Andrea grew up in California, we were literally a world apart. I was in a small town she was in Sacramento, a large town trying to act small.
“What happened at that dance, Daddy?” I couldn’t lie. Sure, I got the courage to ask someone to the dance. Didn’t change that I was still shy, geeky, lanky, and not the most confident of people. Not the shining moment that I would have hoped, but I went. I asked someone, and good or bad memory (it’s not all bad, take it from me) I went.

Then they asked what I’d been thinking: “but Mommy didn’t have a bad time when she went out with you?”
“No, she saw something inside me, something I don’t know I even saw myself, kiddo.”
“So what did she do?”
“She was you Mom, guys. She showed me who I could be. She didn’t let me be shy. She was tall, beautiful, and funny.” Abbi looked my way and saw I’d noticed and she turned away. The boys asked . . . “so is that why you married her, Dad, and not that other girl?”

“I don’t know that marrying anyone else was ever on my mind, kiddo. I loved your Mom, and she loved me…all of me, she didn’t even see the things I worried about, she just blew past them and brought me up next to her. It’s like she’d known me all along, even if I didn’t know the person she saw, she let me be who I’d always wanted to be. She saw who I really was . . . even if I didn’t…”

I could feel my eyes welling up and I was glad it was dark.
” …and I miss her. I miss her a whole lot.”

When I got home the reminiscence didn’t stop. Abbi was still horrified at her luck of losing the concert to the prom. So I solved the problem. I got tickets to the show the night before, with the little I had saved for new pickups for my guitar. I told her to find kids who would want the Sacramento tickets, the presale for Oakland hadn’t ended and we got tickets for there instead.

“Mom always said that you were the best at solving problems,” Abbi told me. Andrea did used to say that. She thought I should have been an ER doctor, or some other high-stress job because she always thought I thrived on the problems and coming up with ways around them. She’d once said that if we’d had to fight on the battlefield that she knows I’d be more like the guy who took the reigns when the Colonel was killed and got his men out of harm’s way. I still feel like I’d reverted to being the kid who barely asked the girl to the Prom.

While I made the cookies for school the next day, running the dishwasher full of old dishes Hannah had neglected, I had the TV on to a random channel. On it, a person brought up a very old saying: “the main thing is to leave this world a little better than when you entered it.” It’s a saying I’ve heard before, one that I always liked, but it really made me think.

There’s the what-ifs . . . how many more amazing things could this beautiful woman have accomplished in her time? What more could I have expected from just being in her sphere of influence? I don’t lie when I say I am the man I am today because of her. Then I started to think about everything.

When we met, I was a technical guy. I did the occasional reporting, but more than anything I was a photographer, nothing more. Now, I’m an investigative journalist. I’ve won awards, I’ve met world leaders, I’ve seen amazing things. I would never have done any of it, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, if not for the woman who never bothered to look at me as less than I was. She just saw . . . me. I so wish I could have seen what more she would have done, what she would have given the world. The Alzheimers drugs she’d helped research in school. The lives she might have saved catching drug interactions. The materials she might have written in some sort of drug research.

But in the end, she did leave the world better than when she found it. At least my world. I’m here, today, writing and solving the “Manoucheri curse” yet again because she showed me I could.

When I came up to start writing I checked my Facebook page and saw my daughter had posted a message:
“Who has the best Dad in the world?! I do!!!!”
Really, that’s all I needed. She’s more like her Mom than she ever realized.

 

Long Way from Home

Long Way from Home from Brotherly Love by the Vaughan Brothers

Crepe Myrtles, the trees Andrea favored

I had a rather unique problem tonight, one that I didn’t think would be any big deal, not for me at least.  It wasn’t even something I’d thought about since we moved out of our home and into the rental where we’ve lived for the last many months.

Abbi, my oldest, had ordered something from Amazon.com and had it shipped.  She was scratching her head at the kitchen table asking me if I’d picked up the mail or if there was a package.  When the box wasn’t there I looked up at her with a sudden cognition realizing exactly what she had done.  You see, Abbi hadn’t ordered anything online, particularly from Amazon, since last year – and I don’t mean last year, December 2011, but last year, January or February of last year.  When she’d ordered her box, she had never bothered to change the settings of her account and simply pushed the “order” button and said ship it off without realizing they were sending the box to our old house.  The tracking information said it was delivered at noon and it obviously was at the old house.

I saw her struggling with it.  Once before, in a bit of routine memory, she had accidentally turned into the road leading to our old house on the way home from school.  She couldn’t turn around, it’s a small 2-lane almost country road that led to our old neighborhood, so she turned into the cul-de-sac where we had lived.  The house was empty, the back yard being landscaped and everything just torn up.  Which is what it did to her, tore her up.  She was a bit overwhelmed.  She had to park the car and compose herself then continue home.

I didn’t think I’d have the same problem, I really didn’t.  I had moved us out of the house, done the walk-through and everything when we left, did the “broom clean” bit and even did the round about looking at the yard and everything to make sure we had gotten it all.  I left knowing full well that this wasn’t the home of our dreams.  This wasn’t my middle child’s view at all.

The day I announced we were moving Hannah went into a panic.
“This is our house, Daddy!  Mom wanted to live here!”

But she didn’t.  That was the only irony that kept me going.  Andrea didn’t want to live here.  Sure, she’d found the home, even slyly, using her very feminine wily ways of conversation to get me to buy into the fact we needed to buy into the housing market that was giving me heart palpitations because of the massive disparity in costs from the market in Texas, where we’d lived prior.  I said before, Andrea had ways of making me say and do things I would never have done before.  It was good in some ways, but in others, like buying a home right before the market tanked, that’s bad.  I don’t say this to make it sound like Andrea always got her way or tried to make me a virtual slave to her ideas and ideals.  Far from it.  In fact, there were moments where we nearly didn’t make it because I caved in too much and had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to help her since she helped me so much.

The ways it helped, of course, are evident.  I met a friend for lunch today and when I talked about my kids and going through teenage shyness and self deprecation I told her how I was shy, paralyzingly so, in my teenage years.  It was horrible, and I even regret it but couldn’t help it then.  I was so scared of rejection, so lacking in self-confidence I nearly couldn’t function.  In a group of friends I might be fine.  When I had a crush on a girl I so desperately wanted to ask out, I would – and this isn’t an exaggeration – dial the first 6 numbers and physically couldn’t get to the 7th.  I would hover over the number.  I had an old push-button phone that would dial out the number like a rotary phone and even if I got to the number, I’d hang up before the last number went through.  The few times I went out I was so amazed I’d gotten to the date I couldn’t think what to do.  I was quiet, shy, and just stupid.  Let’s face it.  Wish I’d been less of a dweeb, but it took Andrea to see that it wasn’t really me.  It took her not just befriending me, but loving me, showing me I was worthwhile.  It’s funny, just withing a couple months, when we’d just started dating, I must have made a pretty drastic change.  People I’d spoken with in my college classes normally wouldn’t have given me a glance – not because they were mean, I gave them no reason – were asking me to out for drinks.  Girls were saying hello.  I was actually being flirted with, even enjoyed it, but knew . . . I had found the person who really knew me and she was waiting for me.

My friend said they couldn’t picture that.  They saw me as so outgoing and confident, the complete antithesis of what I was describing.
“That’s Andrea,” was all I could say.  “She looked at me and saw something.  God knows what, but she saw it, pulled me out of there.  I have to wonder what her friends thought, because I know some of them had to be wondering what was going through her head.”  I’ve said it before, but I’m so much better for having fallen in love with her.  I just wish I’d told her that more often.

But where she made me better, she made me worse, too.  We bought our home, thought we’d argued and negotiated well. The price was far lower than market, by a lot.  But then the market didn’t just “adjust”, it tanked.  I liked the house, it was nice, it was big, and it was somewhat comfortable.  It had two ovens which was amazing.  But by the same token, the space between the kitchen island and the fridge was barely enough to fit one person, let alone two through.  The pantry was deep but narrow.  The light fixtures weren’t normal screw-in lights, but plug-in one-brand flourescent only.  The furnace filter was off-sized and had to be custom ordered.  The house was always drafty and the back yard was literally a mountain of a hill that couldn’t grow ANYTHING.  I tried, used a jackhammer on the rocks, tried to plant jasmine in the soil, planted carpet roses and hiked up the back yard.  But we never had the money to finish it.  The house cost so much we couldn’t afford to do anything else.  The enjoyment you’re supposed to get from having a home just wasn’t the same.  It echoed massively.  The place was loud.

We moved because we had to.  Financially, sure.  We didn’t have a second income.  I can’t use the social security for such a large mortgage payment.  I can’t do it without a second income, and it was just too much to handle alone. More importantly, though, my daughter and I couldn’t look around without seeing Andrea.  She was on the couch in the living room.  She was at the table, a mug of coffee in her hands.  Her form in the front room, where the Christmas tree was every year opening presents.  Abbi said everywhere she turned she saw Andrea and she just couldn’t take it any more.

So I took up the mantle of getting her package from the old house.  I thought it would be fine.  I wasn’t sure if there were people there or not.  I wasn’t sure what I’d say, but it wasn’t like I wanted to tour the home, I just wanted Abbi’s box.  But the closer I got to the neighborhood I started to feel like that kid again.  My heart started to beat so hard it was skipping, the tachycardia I had as a teen becoming evident again, making it hard to breathe.  I turned onto the road and started up the giant hill, the mile of asphalt leading to the small neighborhood.  I realized there might still be friends in the houses, maybe out and about.  I went from the strong, confident journalist to the teenager who was dizzy from the hormones and emotion of trying to ask out that girl all over again.  I told myself I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, knowing full well I knew exactly what I was feeling.  I hadn’t been back here since we’d packed up the trucks and moved.  I had no idea who was in there now, never really met them.

I pulled up and the Christmas lights were still up on the house.  A giant dumpster was out front, a Christmas tree in it, rocks and landscaping garbage in it.  I walked up and saw Abbi’s box on the porch even though the people were obviously home.  Through the windows I’d seen new paint, different colors even on the walls.  I grabbed the box and turned around and noticed something wasn’t right.

The lawn right by the front of the house, the small sections of grass that went on either side of the sidewalk normally bordered the two garages of the home – one a small one-car and the other the normal garage.  In the middle, when we left, were two trees, pieces we’d loved when we moved in because they were Andrea’s favorite.  They were crepe myrtles. The trees were tall, still young, and they flowered every Spring in beautiful colors and made her smile.  As I turned around, the front grass had been covered with mulch, tons of little tufts, desert kind of plants filling the whole area.  The trees were gone.  The things she’d loves so much had been ripped out, sitting in that dumpster, unceremoniously disposed.

I couldn’t take it.  That was the last bit.  I was glad I hadn’t had to talk to the people inside, but I couldn’t believe it.  I was angry, though I had no right to be, it isn’t my house.  I was sad, so much so that it just broke my heart.  I know it shouldn’t, Andrea didn’t like the house, she didn’t want to live there forever, or even much longer when we were together.  But now, the piece she liked, the bit that made me smile every time I marched up the walk to the door when I got home, was gone.  Not just gone, but ripped up, torn out and tossed aside.

I wasn’t bawling, not screaming or beside myself.  But it affected me.  I took the box, my eyes watering and sniffing a little as I walked up to the car and couldn’t bring myself to look back at it.  It’s not that the house had changed it’s that I just couldn’t face it.  I realized I was just starting to fall apart.  Simultaneously I was turning into the teenaged wallflower and angry, simpering man.  I realized that I’d weighed myself down this whole time.  I could tell you more about my shoes and the sidewalk than the world around me because I look down and trudge along like a man weighed down by a cord of wood.  After putting the box on the passenger side I looked up.  I inhaled a deep breath, opened my eyes, and realized I’d been staring at the ground wherever I went for the last nine months.  So I looked up and noticed up there, nearly at eye level, was the moon, nearly full, orange, and beautiful.  The woman’s profile staring back at me in the right lower corner and the stars around it.  The crisp air made the night clear and I saw the stars, brilliant and twinkling at me.

It made me think of her, of how her eyes sparkled like those stars when she smiled and of how the first time we visited my folks and it scared her because there was no light, just the stars.  I looked around me, seemingly for the first time in months, and realized even the neighborhood was dead.  Our home sat there, the lights and Christmas decorations still gaudily glinting there.  The house across the street empty, dead.  The neighbors selling, another house, vacant.  Andrea wasn’t here anymore, but she really never was.  I’d prayed this would make me more hopeful, but in the end it just resigned me to the truth.

All of it had changed.  We left and left it all behind.  The house wasn’t the house any more.  It felt like the place was just standing there while we moved.  Like Andrea, we’d left it behind, like so many crepe myrtles in a dumpster.

I try to hold on to my son’s analogy, that she’s there, in my heart, the biggest portion.  But I have been looking back so much to try and keep standing, to shoulder it all that I haven’t just . . . looked.  It’s really hard, nearly harder now than we even thought the holidays would be.  I think I realized, as I drove away, that it was because we want so badly to hold onto what is back there, but the more we move, the farther it falls behind us.  It made me feel even worse to finally realize it, and I had to pull out, into a Target parking lot, wandering the store aimlessly, because I didn’t want my daughter to feel like I’d been so affected by a simple package retrieval.

After a short while I composed myself, headed home and went to our new house.  I had to get the boys ready for bed, the midnight snacks going.  I had to get moving to the daily routine, knowing full well that with each little action, I was pulling us farther away from the world I’d just revisited.

And I took some solace knowing that even though it was left behind, Andrea’s body lies under two new trees, the same kind, those beautiful crepe myrtles, and at least there I can visit and know she might see them, wherever she is, and smile.

Pining for the ensuing chaos . . .

Noah wishes you a Merry-Xmas - my daughter took and had to share it!

Simple Things by the Tedeschi Trucks Band

I’m writing at the end of what could, possibly should, have been the worst day ever.  Christmas is an amazing time, and we love it in our house, always have.  It’s just such an amazing time and all the kids really do love getting presents, but they are actually just as excited by what they had to give as well.  It’s always been that way.

But this had all the makings of being the worse day.  I entered the Christmas weekend with every intention of tackling the day and addressing if we keep our routine of opening presents Christmas Day or keeping with the tradition that started with Andrea and waiting until morning.  It’s really tempting, it is, to change everything, make a new start in every way, not just some.  I had not thought about it and kept it off hoping to remove the decision.

The kids sang in the church choir, so it was left to Abbi, my oldest, and I to hold vigil in the pew with the thousands of people who don’t normally go to church and act aggravated with everyone who does in the parking lot because they’re in a hurry to leave right after communion and not hear the choir and didn’t realize that everything with the mass had changed and why does the priest take so long to give his homily when he knows Santa’s coming . . . etc. . . you get the picture.  It’s enough to make you avoid going at all.

But I sat there, smiling, proud and puffed up like always when the kids sing, and you can’t help but remember.  The year before, Andrea and I had gotten there later . . . because she wasn’t ready.  So I dropped the kids off and went back to the house to pick her up.  By the time we’d arrived, of course, it was only about 25 minutes before mass.  Anyone who has gone to Christmas mass knows you may as well get out your wallflower shoes because you’re not getting a seat that late.  Andrea’s knees were shot, the bones of her joints literally grinding together with every walk.  So we had to beg the parking attendant to let us up so I could drop her at the curb to avoid the uphill walk.  By the time I’d gotten to the church I was aggravated and she was angry, and there was no place to sit.  In the lobby I’d found a chair that matched the pews so I stole it and placed it next to a row and stood next to her.  I may have been angry, but I wasn’t heartless, and I was still chivalrous.

So sitting there yesterday I remembered looking at Andrea.  I remembered the kids singing, some of the same carols, and had to look at my shoes for a bit to think about the fact that we’d changed things.  We got there an hour early.  We had seats.  I’d gotten the outfits and the socks, shoes, did the boys’ hair . . . and Abbi helped her sister.  We were stressed, rumpled, and wrinkled, but we were there.  We’d avoided the screaming, shouting, sweating and running around; we’d missed the ensuing chaos that normally swept us into the abyss of stress and high blood pressure.  I sat there remembering Andrea’s tirade about how she always got everyone else ready and not herself, how she hated my frustration with having to drop her at the curb; how we weren’t sure if there was enough stuff for every kid.

I missed it.

I know, it’s horrible, scary, frustrating and painful, but it’s real life.  It’s how the holidays normally are.  I don’t have my family near me.  A handful of states separate us.  Distance, finances and weather isolate us here and I have to speak to my family, my firm foundation, on the ph0ne.  They always had a house full of people.  Me and my brothers, the kids when they were born, the snow, the ice, wind chill, and the mass of annoying but necessary relatives at my grandmother’s house with plate, container and bowl filled with every pie, cookie and holiday treat imaginable.  They were simple things, but things we need more than ever and will never have again.  My mother, Dad, their home, their goodies: pecan sandies, oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies, sour cream kolaches and their company, my brothers, their wives . . . they’re all impossibly far away.

With that missing, Andrea missing, the chaos calmed, it seemed so unlike Christmas.  Good friends asked us to come over Christmas Eve to have drinks, company and . . . chaos.  It was marvelous.  We brought pies, they had tacos, margaritas, cookies, cake, cheesecake . . . and kids.  Lots of kids, Dance Revolution on the Wii, and conversation.  They adopted us for the night – just a couple hours – and it made all the difference.  I heard giggling screams from the other room.  Insane laughter as kids and adults tried to dance like the impossibly ’80s looking avatars on the game system and the incredulous shouts as several kids couldn’t believe their friend had never seen “The Princess Bride”.

I tried to keep the holiday busy.  The more downtime the more time we had to reflect, which put us in the place I sat during church.  Reflecting on how our perfect chaos had disappeared and we were left to figure it out.

There are things that, as a Dad, I won’t ever get right.  Santa got suggestions for a dress from me this year.  When it was under the stocking this morning Abbi was floored.  When she tried it on, it didn’t fit.  As Dad, giving measurements to Santa, I hadn’t taken . . . well, taken the upper part of her body into consideration.  My wife is gone, and as a Dad, you don’t go into your daughter’s room and say “I’m going to run this tape measure across your chest now.”  it doesn’t work that way, it’s creepy that way.  But I should have done it, and I will have to from now on.  The roles aren’t reversed, they’re increased.

So now I keep an eye on the schedule for the bowl games so I can see our Huskers play.  But I also have to come to terms with knowing now that I have to measure a girl’s chest, waist, inseem, and everything, not just guess on size.  I can watch my thrillers knowing that my daughters need someone to watch “Top Model” with so they have a parent to make fun of the judges and Tyra Banks.  A year ago I’d have hidden in the office and played my guitar.  Now, I know what my daughter likes about certain designers and why she hates the leader and am just as confused that the foregone winner is tossed out without explanation.

Why?  The chaos was good.  The confusion, the anger, the vented frustration were all things that showed we cared.  The Grinch’s “noise, noise, noise NOISE!” is also what makes us aware that we’re surrounded by people and that we are lucky to have them.  So where some thought I did too much, bought too many presents and spent too much time swirling around I say we succeeded.  It could have been so easy to sink into the morass of depression today.  After 3 hours sleep and a son coming down the stairs just as Santa was leaving the presents only to be interrupted and disappear at the last minute leaving me holding the . . . er . . . stocking.  But we saw friends, I gave them great presents, we played with toys and games all day, visited my sister-in-law and had a great dinner with people, and were able to have Christmas.

So we didn’t have Christmas without her.  We had Christmas.  We loved that we got through it and hated that we did, knowing it meant another momentous occasion we pulled off without her here to make it what it was.

We were pining for the ensuing chaos, but in the end, we had a very Merry Christmas, we really did, in spite of ourselves.

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope you had family and chaos all around you.  It’s not a curse, it’s a blessing.

Our family, prepping for Xmas, and capturing the calm before the chaos (photo by Photographer in the Family - link on home page)

Take a Breath, a Deep Breath Now . . .

Take a Breath (Live) by David Gilmour from “Live at Gdansk”

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One of the new holiday events . . . part of our new story

People have a mistaken expectation of what the holidays will be like in my household this year. I am getting the typical, and honestly sincere thoughts and support from a great deal of friends and family. But I can’t tell them whether or not the holidays will be amazing or brutal because I just have no idea. There are days – well, let’s be honest, it’s more like moments – when things are brilliant. We bought our tree, we cut it down, made s’mores, put up the decorations, talked about what we wanted from Christmas, all the typical stuff you’d think about as a family during Christmas.

But then there are the moments that just make your heart feel like it’s being ripped out of your chest while it’s still beating. I found her stocking with the rest of them and didn’t know what to do about it. Half of our ornaments were pieces my in-laws wanted to rid themselves of and dropped off to us a number of years back, all of them Andrea’s.

There’s one that hurt more than anything, that I hadn’t anticipated or expected. I was just pulling out a simple, homemade ornament, one that was shaped like a star, and inside was Abbi’s picture. The picture itself was an event. Abbi was in this robin’s egg blue outfit with black velvet on the cuffs and collar. There was some sort of white furry material on her hat and she had the biggest, most amazing smile on her face for a child in that time between baby and toddler. She was sitting on a little red chair, and she couldn’t have been happier. The picture had been taped through the back of the star, the center of the ornament open so that the face of the picture showed through. The star itself was a little wooden thing, a red star with the shape accentuated by a white line that traced the shape of it’s pieces as well.

Pictures are hard. By their very nature they capture entire moments in a singular frame. In this particular case I remembered the fighting Abbi did with Andrea to get the outfit on, the complaints about doing her hair, the pouting face and her lip sticking out when her mother asked her to sit still while she put her bow in her hair. Then the girly-girl was so proud of all the compliments and gushing parents talking about her as we stood in line waiting to get the picture taken. It was another example of what was so right in our house when Andrea helped us put the holidays together.

But flipping it over was worse. On the back, Andrea had written “I love you, Dave, with all my heart. Andrea, 1996.”

You wouldn’t think that little line would have such impact, but it does. It swirls around your head. You know how ridiculous you feel seeing the small line and the emotions that well up in your chest. You wonder how you’re going to do this without letting the kids see you starting to fall apart and stopping the whole process. It’s like little pieces of her ghost float there on the tree.

I had to debate the stockings . . . do I leave hers up? If I do, will the kids then wonder why Santa didn’t put anything in it, or do they get confused if he does? The decorations from last year that are so beautiful you put them up but so many memories of her that you are surrounded, again, by her?

But the presents go under the tree, and you smile about the stuff you’ve managed to get hoping your present is perfect. Your kids worry you don’t have anything and feel for you. There are just as many moments sitting there that make you smile as ones that make you sad.

I can’t tell people what this holiday will be like because I really don’t have any idea. Nor do they. I mean, sure, lots of people have lost a loved one, or been widowed (widowed? widowered? Whatever . . . ) but I can’t take their experience and make it my expectation. It won’t be the same because I’m not them. This could be the hardest, worst day of the year. It could also be one of the most amazing. I just don’t and won’t know until midnight strikes on Dec. 25th. That’s when the indicators will hit.

So when it’s time to put together pieces that say “some assembly required” knowing full well that only a Chinese engineer with tiny hands and a tenuous grasp of the English language could construct I’ll continue my own, singular tradition that I started years ago, in another state, when I had a perfect life and I had my best friend, my love, and my four kids near me, but all sleeping.

That night, while the kids lay all asnooze in their beds, Andrea gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep on the couch. I was busy bandaging a cut from the screwdriver that had stripped a cruddy Chinese-made screw on a present and I did what most parents would never do.

I took a breath. A deep breath.

Andrea was so beautiful. Even then, I looked at her and was amazed at the woman who moments ago had annoyed me with her obsessive control of how I placed the presents because it had to be placed just-so. I stood back, while she laid there in flannel pajamas with coffee cups all over them and it all melted away. I looked at Abbi, Hannah, Noah and Sam, too, and realized that I was fortunate. One of my favorite movies, “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine (before she went crazy and started realizing she was Joan of Arc in another lifetime), was on the TV. I should have finished right there and went to bed. Instead, I moved over, put Andrea’s head on my lap, and watched the rest of the movie. I knew it probably only be 3 hours before the kids snuck out of bed and looked at their presents, but what the hell. It’s Christmas.

So this year, I’ll take a breath. For the first time since Abbi was my only child, I’ve got the shopping done, the presents wrapped and the thoughts to Santa for his Midnight gift run. It won’t be the same, not this year, but how could it be? This is the new story, the next chapter in the Manoucheri household. None of us wanted it, but fighting it won’t do any good. It won’t be easy, but I also know there’s a lot to reflect on that’s good. We have a roof over our heads. I have an amazing job, one that I shouldn’t have been able to get. I have four amazing little children who make life wonderful. I was fortunate to come into a little money and make Chirstmas a little better. Like everything in our lives, it’d be perfect if she was just here. But she’s not, and we have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve done OK without her, which none of us wants to do. But we do it, or the lines on the page become stilted.

So Saturday night I’ll have some hot chocolate, turn on my AppleTV and watch “The Apartment” and wish I had my own version of Miss Kubelik next to me . . . and I’ll take a breath.

A deep breath now.

Seasonal Effective Disorder

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The boys before the presents overflowed.

It would be so easy to screw this all up. It really would. I’m not saying I haven’t, by the way, I think like most parents, I wouldn’t know if I did until I was so far into the morass of troubles that it would be too hard to find the way out.

I thought I was on the wrong track about the holidays until this weekend. I am constantly worried that all I do is harp on what isn’t completed in the house and pushing to eat all their dinner. I tell them they have to have fruit instead of plain processed bought candies. I make desserts because there’s some ingredient in all the bought stuff that literally has my kids climbing the walls when they eat the tiniest bit. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t plain sugar, I cook with that all the time and the kids are fine.

Every year we sacrificed in order to get my kids the presents and Christmas that we thought we’d had. There were two things wrong with this scenario. First, of course, is that fact that when we got the Christmases we both thought were “typical” in our households we were teenagers, our parents were doing very well, and they owned their own businesses. When our kids are babies or little, they really don’t care. As long as there’s paper to rip and a box to play in, they’re happy, something I’m not sure we ever completely grasped. The other problem was that I could never tell Andrea “no”. Never. I mean, there were things I put my foot down about, sure. I would never stop playing guitar. I wasn’t going to let my wife feed her jealousy and somewhat crazy thoughts that my mother liked my brothers’ wives better than her. (Totally wrong, by the way, and the way they dropped everything they were doing to help us should prove that) But financially, I was a moron when she would ask for things. I wanted to give her the world and I did it quite often at costs I could never have afforded. It was a dangerous thing and I’d never met a woman before or since that had that effect on me.

When Christmas came, we got everything we could afford and then some . . . and then the fat guy in a red suit got all the credit when he brought something bigger. The kids loved Mac and Cheese so they never noticed if that’s what we ate for a month or two regularly.

So you can see my dilemma, at least I hope you can. What message did we send those kids? Now that she’s not here, what happens? I admit, I over-compensated this Christmas. I bought a lot. I sold some old stock from my last job, the last bastions of a bygone era of my life that I figured needed to go because it wasn’t going to earn me much more money anyway. Once everything was wrapped and the “letters to Santa” sent for what he should bring, I was concerned. There were a lot of presents under there. Sure, some were for grandparents, or uncle/aunt. But I was really worried that in a year fraught with tragedy, stress and impossible problems I was making things worse.

I have a son who got into inordinate amounts of trouble at school, and a lot of that is the fact that he sees the world from a different angle. He likes to be the center of attention, and I’m working on that, but he also has a very funny, very skewed view of the world. I didn’t want him to see this as reason to continue acting out or as the way it will be from now on. This is a “good” Christmas, financially, but they won’t all be. They’re going to get sparser and sparser.

I have a daughter who has two days of a month’s grounding because she didn’t do her homework, lied to me about the assignments due and why the grades were so bad and then was in danger of being held back. I can’t get her to do the one chore of unloading/loading the dishwasher. I am constantly on her back to do things because the more I say the less she does. She’s the one child that, when we’re late getting out the door, moves slower as a result. My father once told her if she moved any slower she’d be moving backwards. Even she had to laugh at that.

I look and wonder if the kids are more concerned about the presents. One morning I overheard Noah telling his sister Hannah: “Hannah, you only have 2 presents under there. I have more.” I was worried about it. They always have this insane competitive nature – something they got from their mother. (not pushing that off, it’s true, she was insane about competing for things) I catch them counting every time I peek into the room.

Then this weekend when I thought I was going to have to trim down the gift giving, that same son, the one I thought was competing with presents, came up and asked me something.

“Can I come with you to Target today, Daddy?”
“Why son?”
“I want to get Abbi, Hannah and Sam presents. I want to make sure they have some.”
“I put presents under there for them, it’s OK, Noah, they’ll have stuff to open.”
“I know, but I want to get them something. I already have something for you. I put it under the tree already.”

You see, Noah wasn’t competing the presents, he was worried that his brother and sisters wouldn’t have as much. He was trying to ensure the balance was there and was more concerned about giving something. He had even checked prices and asked if we could pay for what he wanted to get them. He was also very worried because there was nothing under the tree for me.

I almost cried.

I guess I had never really thought about that fact, that there was nothing under there for Dad. What do you tell the kids when you’re the only one in charge of Christmas? How do you handle the fact that they’re dealing with a season that is meant to be shared and you have no partner to share it with? I realized right there that I was compensating not for their loss but for mine. I wanted their Christmas to be great, but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t tell that there was one name that was obviously missing under the tree, too.

I didn’t need the reminder that my kids are amazing, but I got it anyway. It looked like, at least in this instance, I’d done something right to make him worry more about everyone else than himself.

I wish I could just figure out what it was. That way I could make them think this way about their chores. The dishwasher still needs to be unloaded.

Noah and Sam, before the presents overflowed

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

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.

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The five remaining stockings...