Christmas Vacation

My son is a holiday dictator.  I mean that in a good way.  He has taken our playful observances of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas and imposed a strict timeline of decor, tradition and excitement.  He can be depended on to initiate and sometimes completely take over decorating for the holidays and only due to his short stature are we obliged to hang lights above 4 ft or help with the stove and measuring if baking is required.

Since he was old enough to talk he would come outside and help me in any way he could to prop, hang and dig our Halloween decorations into place.  It didn’t help that I would talk about Halloween starting around the end of August and build the momentum until we had baked Halloween cupcakes, bought more Halloween decorations to add to our growing collection, tried on and played with our tickle trunk of costumes for several weeks and slowly overtook the end tables, mantle, walls and coffee table with an assortment of kitschy Halloween paraphernalia.  My husband eventually imposed an October 1 start date on our Halloween madness so that no planning or purchase of  goods or early decorating could be mentioned so as to minimize his growing ire with our enthusiasm.

Valentine’s Day was forever imposed on happy memories when we took our 14 month old son to a fancy restaurant on a ‘family date.’  Most people would think us insane to attempt it but we were on kid #1 and we wanted to maintain some sort of normalcy in our relationship.  Our son recognized our attire and decorum had changed in the candle lit and flowered setting.  He similarly put on a charming display of smiles and goodwill as he wolfed down mashed potatoes and braised beef in a wine reduction sauce.  The delicate desserts of chocolate encrusted confection impressed him as much as it did us.  The crowning moment came when we handed our Valentine’s Day cards to one another which we alternatively gushed over and then handed an envelope over to our toddler; he opened it to discover a card embossed with a smiling truck and large billowing hearts.  He was over the moon to receive it and he kept opening and closing it, each time looking up to express his amazement.  Every year we go on a ‘family date’ on Valentine’s Day and believe me, kid #1 and #2 love getting their cards and sometimes a few red, shiny knick knacks to go with it.

Easter is of course the time of the Bunny and all the tasty treats waiting to be found.  St. Patrick’s Day found a foothold when the year long ban on sugary cereal was lifted by a rascally leprechaun who left an opened box of Lucky Charms and wee little gifts of tiny handwriting and a forgotten shoe (the shoe was taken to school the next day for the other children to marvel at and is now in storage in a treasure box hidden somewhere in my son’s room).

Nothing quite compares to my son’s reverence for the tradition of Christmas.  By the time December 25th had been realized this year, my son had made laborious attempts at creating a magical feeling in our household.  He was adamant about purchasing a 12 ft blow up Santa with his own savings of gift and allowance money but his father and I demurred and made the purchase ourselves.   He strung the tree with lights before I even knew he had finished and he brought up the ornaments from the basement with the fervor of reclaimed memories.  Despite the Christmas music and his little sister’s drunken delight in the glass balls and delicate figurines, he grumbled the tree was perhaps too haphazardly assembled and would require some better coordination of lights, garlands and ornamentation to be truly beautiful.   He then could not stand the hollow beneath the lowest branches and proceeded to wrap the presents he had purchased at the school Christmas flea market and even hustled to make some drawings carefully folded and wrapped so as to add height to the first stack of shiny papered packages.  Surfaces were claimed for singing dioramas of polar bears and penguins and removable hooks were attached to the walls and mantle to string even more lights.  His little sister got on the wagon of festive cheer by insisting beautiful cookies were to be made for Santa and our friends.  On Christmas eve the four of us sat around the table for several hours dabbing the final edible beads on our iced sugar cookies of trees, snowmen and snowflakes.

What happens to a boy as he grows up each year with another layer of memory and fondness for the warm glow of family and magic?  Four Christmases ago, when his little sister was just 7 month old and I and my husband were straining under broken sleep, the reality of searching out a live tree was too daunting.  The family in Saskatchewan, 7 driving hours away, was anticipating our visit and the new baby for Christmas so we told our son that we would forego a tree that year.  Our son had just turned six a few days before and he made a remarkable decision.  We had a three foot plastic tree in a weighted decorative pot with white lights meant to decorate the outdoor threshold of a home.  He asked that we bring it up from the basement and use it as our Christmas tree.  We thought it was a great idea and decided the white lights would suffice for decoration.  But, over the next several days while we were distracted with the usual baby/household demands, he dug through the Christmas boxes and finished decorating the humble tree by himself with a plethora of ornaments.  It had begun.

To give you a sense of what awaits our family you need only to watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” circa 1989.  Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the torch bearer to all hopes and dreams of Christmas past and present.  Hours are spent on a confusing array of string lights, ladder and staple gun to bring messianic splendor to his home’s and family’s exterior.  An epic crusade to the forest finds him the perfect tree which induces his daughter’s hypothermia and overwhelms his living room.   When it is destroyed by neglected watering and a reckless cigar, he is driven to a temporary insanity which finds him hacking down a front yard evergreen.  Two thirds through the movie I had my epiphany – all Clark Griswolds were once little boys who embraced the holidays with overzealous dreams and lofty ambitions.  They were the boys that hauled the boxes two times their weight up from the basement and began the decorating in earnest while mom and dad drank wine and played cribbage.  These were the boys that grew up to be men with synchronized Christmas music and light shows that choked up neighborhood traffic and were later posted on YouTube.  I saw all of it clearly and in the midst of the movie I turned to my son and jokingly said, “That’s you.  That’s you when you’re a dad.”  Except my son didn’t laugh.  He turned back to the screen, took in the frenetic joy of chaos, lights, family and eggnog and gave a knowing nod in agreement. Damned if I hadn’t raised our torch bearer.   He would surpass even my own aspirations of holiday grandeur.  Now, I just had to survive several more years before he relinquished my home and decorations in exchange for his own.  It’s a wonderful life when you got family like this.








The Dark Side of Love

I’ve decided to write about love.  February 14th is just around the corner and I thought, hey what a great topic.  Except, right now my husband and I are having an argument and I’m having a daydream about renting a fabulous apartment where I can entertain handsome suitors on the weekends I don’t have the kids.   I also fantasize my husband finally realizes my profound wisdom and disavows his inner voice in favour of blind servitude.  Too bad reality gets in the way of most fantasies.

Both my husband and I come from broken marriages.  I think our parents’ generation really took to the novelty of it.  These are people who grew up in the normalcy of domestic abuse, racism, paternalism and sexual oppression.  They were in their twenties when the 60’s liberation begun and by the time they hit their thirties, their world view had been drastically altered.   In your thirties, you stop eagerly engaging new playground friends in favour of a  nuanced selection of personalities that best accommodate your beliefs.  More tellingly, you start shedding people that piss you off.  Today, this means unfriending on Facebook; in our parent’s time it meant not returning phone calls or answering the front door or getting a divorce.  With women working, it wasn’t a bad idea anymore.  To hell with Mr. Simpson, Mrs. Simpson can buy her own milk and give it away for free if she damn well feels like it.  Of course, the kids grew up a bit smarter – or so we thought.  We realized getting divorced meant no more fancy cereal or vacations for several years while the lawyers got paid and new furniture was bought.  It also meant new adults showed up who smelled different and took up room on the couch.  Sometimes it was okay. Sometimes it really sucked.

When I decided to get married, I was 26.  I had a pretty good idea of what I liked and what I didn’t like.  I didn’t like drug addicts or alcoholics.  I liked good kissers.  I didn’t like physically or verbally abusive assholes.  I liked good food and anyone who could cook it for me.  When my husband asked me to marry him in a bar in an anxiety ridden moment of drunken hope, I said yes.  Since we had only been dating 8 short months and living together for 4, I stipulated an opt out clause of one year.  For one year, my husband was on pins and needles waiting for me to disembark.  We’ve now been married 11 years and have two really cute kids.  He is a great cook, a great kisser and a great friend.   During our arguments when I have those secret movies in my head along the plotlines of Sex In The City,  my imaginations never go as far as elopement.  My reality is much better than Carrie Bradshaw’s frustrations with Mr. Big and the trappings of existential urbanity.

I don’t pretend to understand what a good marriage looks like.  My mother remarried an alcoholic who thought domestic violence was normal until my mother beat it out of him.  I was angry for a long time because she worked and he stayed home and watched a lot of television. But, I realized in my twenties that whatever they had seemed to work in a really, really strange way.  My step-dad is incredibly quiet and my mother likes to talk a lot.  She sometimes forgets to filter important things out like anything inflammatory to her coworkers or her students so we moved every couple of years.  My step-dad does two great things: he always listens to her and he always agrees with her.   For my Mom with an insatiable need to be heard and to be accepted, these are gifts he gives her in abundance.  He simply accepts her for who she is and has never asked her to change.  In return, my mother has loved and provided for a man with a Gr. 8 education who would have likely died on the streets in an alcoholic stupor.  My Mom is really smart but she thinks her husband is brilliant.  He says a lot without saying anything at all.

Love is not always shiny and white.  It can be dark and subjective.  I have a friend who has been divorced twice from abusive men and is now dating a much younger man from her church and schooling him in everything but coitus.  He can’t imagine marrying a divorcee with two kids and she can’t imagine getting ensnared in another marriage but they scramble to share every spare moment together.  I have another friend who has had two beautiful children with a man currently relegated to roommate-with-benefits; he looks after the kids but sleeps in the basement bedroom until invited.  The fulcrum of their power balance was decidedly shifted when he returned after 6 months in absentia after the birth of their first child.  The guilt of desertion was a sentence of submission.  Another friend, extremely adept at everything, married a man plagued my ineptitude. The only thing he did really well was fall madly in love with her.  Disillusioned by her inability to transform him into a prince, and stifled by his growing insecurity and jealousy, she divorced him.  Their divorce was finalized at the same time he entered into a hospice for Lou Gehrig’s disease, the stress of the divorce having brought on the acute symptoms of a disease that in retrospect may have attributed to some of his prior failings.  She takes their 5 year old son for weekly visits to the hospice, her angry disappointment now softened to compassion as she watches her ex husband’s slow demise.  These are love stories unlike those told in movies and fairy tales; there is no satiety at the ending.  Like anything sticky and sweet, gorging on empty calories can be its own satisfaction.  Having an emaciated heart is no fun.

If love does not liberate us from ourselves then why bother?  Perhaps it shouldn’t.  Perhaps the benefit is found in the sharing of our pathologies.  Entwining ourselves is implicit in our desire to love though fraught with an infinity of opportunities to inflict pain.  Everyone has to decide for themselves what is bearable.   My measure are the good moments far outweigh the bad.  So far, so good.