Ready to Know

Santa is a big deal in our house. Letters are written and given to Hermey, our Elf on the Shelf, for safe passage. Santa’s personality and lifestyle choices are hotly debated (“Where do you think he vacations? Does he brush his teeth?”). Notes for Santa are left at bedsides.

Over the years, I have done nothing to diminish Ella and Annie’s belief in Santa; on the contrary, I’ve encouraged it. Stocking gifts are wrapped just so every Christmas and placed outside the girls’ bedrooms. Hermey has brought back letters from St. Nick bearing the North Pole postal cancellation. If a gift wasn’t able to be procured, Santa has provided a written explanation. He might even get “caught” in our living room Christmas photos every year.
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See, I love Christmas. I also love magic and wonder and hope, all of which continue to bloom and surround the girls every Christmas season. For that, I am thrilled. There is so damned much in the world today that is all too sad, practical, and heavy. Despite how hard we try to protect our kids from losing loved ones, financial difficulties, work-related stress, divorce, etc., we cannot. Beyond our own homes, our 24/7 media make it all but impossible for even children to avoid at least some exposure to natural disasters, refugee crises, racial tensions, gun violence, diseases, deaths of celebrities, politics.

Allowing our girls to put aside the all-too-real world, allowing them to experience awe and joy and delighted anticipation through Santa, allowing them to believe in something magical – to just be kids for a little while longer (while simultaneously celebrating the happiness that is Christmas) – has been one of my most important and fulfilling decisions as a parent. That they have so adored Santa and all he represents to them – love, mischief, kindness, generosity – and that they have felt so loved in return has made that decision even more wonderful.

Because Santa is so special to Ella and Annie, I have gone to great lengths to protect him. Questions were answered with deliberate and measured responses that were never misleading but never laid everything on the table, either.

The girls are normal human children, however, so as they’ve grown older, doubts have understandably crept in. The details that were easily glossed over as kindergarteners (How can Santa possibly reach everyone’s house in one night? If these gifts came form the North Pole, why does it say they were made in China?) were harder to ignore in 3rd or 4th grade. With each passing year, though, even as they posited and became dubious, it became clear that they did not want Santa to be something else; they still wanted him to be real. Despite their curiosity and occasional downright skepticism, they told us – literally and figuratively – that they did not want us to answer the question they’d been throwing at us: “Are you and Daddy really Santa?”

They didn’t really want to know. So we didn’t tell them.

It was complicated too, though, because keeping up the myth of Santa in the age of live streaming and Google searching and school bus taunting is, quite frankly, exhausting. Still, we’d made it through this holiday season with the girls writing letters to Santa and placing them beside Hermey, leaving food for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, and genuinely being thrilled that “he remembered” everything they asked for on Christmas morning. They believed for another year. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought no more of it.

Which was why it caught me by such surprise when – last week, a full 11 days after Christmas – Ella interrupted our otherwise non-Christmas dinner conversation with an extremely direct, “So. Tell me the truth. Are you guys the ones who buy the gifts we ask for from Santa and put them in the living room each year?”

Her well-crafted question left little wiggle room to spin the response in such a way that it didn’t tell her what she didn’t want to know: the truth. Spinning my wheels, I gave her one of my standard Santa deflections. “Hm. How come you’re asking?”

She sat up a little straighter and enunciated clearly, as though maybe she’d practiced beforehand, “Because when I was on your computer today on Amazon, right there under Stuff You’d Bought were the exact gifts I’d asked Santa for. So I’m thinking that, yeah, you guys are the ones who buy the Santa gifts and give them to us.”

Welp.
Shit.
THANKS A LOT, AMAZON.

Apparently, despite maybe not wanting to know the truth, Ella was ready to hear it after all. There was only one (big) problem: Annie, who was sitting three feet away. At two years Ella’s junior, Annie still very much believes – and, despite her curiosity and bravado, it was quickly obvious that Annie really, really, really did not want to hear the answer to Ella’s question.
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Christmas morning breakfast-making

After volleying back and forth for a bit, Ella agreed to table the discussion for a later time. I was relieved – not only for Annie’s sake, but also because it meant I’d have the opportunity to prepare for how I’d planned, for years, to break the Santa News… via a letter I’d seen on the internet.

The gist was this: explain that we are not, in fact, Santa – but we act as Santa and fill her stocking, buy her “Santa” gifts, etc; let her know that we think believing in Santa and acting as Santa are tremendously important and are about sharing love, kindness, wonder, and hope; and that, now that she was “in” on it, we would like her to preserve the magic of Santa for those who still believe (see: Annie).

I was not at all sure how this would go over. I’ve heard stories of kids who were furious with their parents for, as they saw it, lying to them. I’ve heard of others who were so upset and heartbroken, they fell apart. Nick and I crossed our fingers that Ella would see it as we did: that believing in Santa felt so amazing and brought her such happiness, and “real life” is so pressing and heavy, we wanted to preserve this bit of childhood for as long as we could.

At bedtime, we checked to see if Ella wanted to hear a more detailed answer to her earlier question. She hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that yes, she did.

She was finally, truly ready.

Rather than read the letter herself, Ella asked me to do it. When my voice hitched at the part about how we hoped she would continue these traditions for her own children someday, I discovered the other reason I’ve gone to such lengths to keep Santa all these years: because I loved it so much.

I loved how earnestly the girls debated which reindeer was Santa’s favorite. I loved how carefully they looked over the cookies each Christmas Eve, selecting the ones that were just right. I loved the twinkle in their eyes as they flew down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager to see if he’d actually come. Simply, I adored the deep-seated joy that Santa brought them; playing a part in cultivating that joy was one of my favorite parts of Christmas, of being a parent.

After I’d finished reading and we asked if she had any questions, the first words out of Ella’s mouth were directed at Nick: “Wait. So you drink the whiskey every year?? Is THAT why we leave whiskey for Santa?”

(Nick told her this was one of his more brilliant parenting decisions. Why we didn’t decide 13 Christmases ago that Santa needed chocolate and a Starbucks for the journey home is a solid failure on my part.)
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Cookies… milk… and whiskey

Ella had a few other queries, most of which we answered. I did, however, flat-out refuse to explain how Santa’s image appears in our photos each year or how I create Hermey’s handwriting; some things are meant to be kept secret.

To our delight and relief, after some time to process and assimilate, Ella seemed to feel exactly the way we did about Santa. Although I’m sure she was disappointed that a plump, omniscient, bearded elf does not, in fact, deliver her presents each year, she took in our explanation and made it her own.

As we were finishing the conversation, I told her that, despite this new information, I planned to continue all of our traditions every year – from putting stockings the hallway to moving Hermey to scattering reindeer food. Before I could complete my sentence, Ella chimed in with, “Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without those!”

She also informed me that she will still be leaving a letter with Hermey to deliver to Santa… because that’s just what we do, and that’s the truth.
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‘Hamilton’ style: Hermey will be back…

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RACK on!

At our house, Christmas is Christmas because of the traditions. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without, among (many) other things, visits by Hermey (our house elf), eating popcorn while putting up the tree, receiving new pjs on Christmas Eve, or leaving a shot of whiskey for Santa alongside the cookies and milk (it’s cold on that ride, folks). I’ve always been someone who thrives on memories and ceremony and I was fortunate enough to have Nick agree to adopt nearly all of the Christmas customs that I celebrated growing up.

My girls have cottoned to these traditions just as strongly. If I forget something, or if I dare attempt to change even the smallest detail, Annie and Ella call me out immediately (“What happened?? These musical reindeer have always been in the dining room!”). (You know that we totally have musical reindeer.) While I’m all for honoring these established practices, sometimes it’s fun to try something new.

This year, I decided to try out two ideas: unwrapping and reading a Christmas book on every day of advent and practicing Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, or RACKs. (I’d love to claim that I thought up these schemes on my own but I totally stole them from my BFF Pinterest.) Given that I didn’t want to purchase 24 new holiday books, and given that we already have oodles of said books in the house, I opted to simply wrap two dozen of them and stack them up, ready to be opened each night.

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Yes, I forgot to take a photo until after two weeks had passed. And yes, the books were stored on the dog kennel. We fancy up in here.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve done regular read-alouds with both girls, so I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go if I asked them to gather cozily on my bed and… unwrap… used Christmas books… But, to my delight, they seemed to really enjoy it – even look forward to it. Annie, especially (our bookworm), would bound into the bedroom each night and practically shimmer as she waited to see what the title would be, although both she and Ella exclaimed happily over favorites (“I love this one!”) and new (to them) titles (“I’ve never seen this one before!”). It was a quiet and lovely way to end each day; we’ll do it again for sure next year.

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Cuddling in bed with our latest tome, with our previous volumes visible in the basket in the background…
Also, be forewarned: while you think it will be a thought-provoking, solemn holiday tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s
The Little Match Girl might actually cause your children to have nightmares and imagine how it would feel to freeze to death. Oops.

If I were forced to choose just one new tradition to continue, however, it would actually be the RACKs. In contrast to the peaceful, sleep-inducing book tradition, the RACKs were vibrant and invigorating. The premise was really simple: find some way, any way, to be kind to another person. As I wrote on my Facebook page when I invited other friends to join the cause, they could be anything, “from really simple, non-monetary kindnesses (taking out the garbage, allowing someone to wedge in front of you in heavy traffic) to slightly bigger but not terribly complicated gestures (bringing a treat to a co-worker or the bus driver, giving a gift card to your postal worker, paying for coffee for the person behind you in line) to activities that require a bit more forethought (printing RACK cards and attaching candy canes to them and “bombing” a parking lot, taping microwave popcorn to a RedBox box) to things that are of a bit more significance monetarily (“sponsoring” a family for the holidays, donating to a food bank, etc.)… Whatever floats your boat and makes you happy because you think that it will make other people happy.
Anonymously. Randomly. Kindly.”

(One of my Jewish friends pointed out that these did not have to be only for Christmas, as they could be Random Acts of Chanukah Kindness, too. So awesome.)

The first official RACK that the girls and I did was to candy cane “bomb” the parking lot at their school so that the teachers would see the canes on their way out that afternoon. We invited Annie’s Girl Scout troop and their siblings to join us (see, I told you I’d rock my monthly meeting) and the response was super.

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Girl Scouts preparing their canes…

We could hardly keep up with the kids as they raced from car to car, gleefully slipping notes under windshields and ecstatically squealing with delight at the mere thought that this might brighten their teachers’ day.

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After that, Annie and Ella and I were on a roll. We did chores around the house for one another just because. (Even though I’d normally grumble significantly at the thought of putting the girls’ clothes away to spare their lazy bums, or at the idea of doing the dishes for Nick so he could watch the hockey game in peace, somehow it felt different – good. Really good.) They made cards and brought them into school. We took RACK cards and candy canes with us and distributed them often – to the guys who helped load our Christmas tree onto the car, to people in line at Starbucks. We taped dollars around the dollar store and chuckled imagining people finding them and absconding away with their bounty.

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By far, though, our favorite experience was when we RACKed out at the post office. We ventured over one afternoon when the girls got home from school and, as expected, the line was at least 20 people deep; suffice it to say that no one was smiling. Ella and Annie each walked up to the counter, chose an employee, and simply stood there, waiting until the most recent customer had finished. Once there was a slight break in the action, they politely slipped in and handed over the cards and candy.

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I can’t claim credit for this cute card, either – I found it here.

The postal workers looked stunned at first – but they quickly caught on and thanked the girls quite earnestly. The reaction from the other customers was instantaneous. I could see the grins creep over their faces, despite the packages at their feet and the seemingly interminable wait in line. The new twinkle in their eyes was unmistakable, that hint of happiness in the most unexpected of places.

We weren’t through, though, having brought with us three small collections of stamps along with other RACK cards. One at a time, we randomly chose customers in line and gave them the goodies. Their appreciative smiles were fantastic, but it was what happened next that was really incredible. As we were finishing, one of the recipients left her place in line to come over to us. She leaned in low, took my arm, and said, “My dad used to tell me to do something kind for someone else every single day. I’ve never forgotten that; it’s one of the most important lessons I learned. That’s what you’re teaching your daughters here today. Thanks for helping me to remember my dad, and to remember what’s most important. Your girls will never forget this.”

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It took me at least two minutes to Photoshop my thumb to remove the hangnails and icky cuticles and leftover nail polish. Good thing I’m not vain or it might have been three.

Stunned, I started to pull Ella and Annie in to me to tell them how much their simple gesture had meant to this stranger when the final woman to whom they’d given the stamps called over to us to stop.

“Wait, wait! Don’t leave! Come here for a moment!”

Puzzled, we did as she asked, only to find ourselves waiting for at least five minutes (no exaggeration) while she looked through her purse. (It’s one thing to do a random act of kindness and then flee anonymously into the night. [Or afternoon.] It’s another to do said act of kindness and then hang around while people stare at you. Awkward.) At last, after telling us umpteen times how thoughtful we were, what a lovely gesture this was, she emerged with a five dollar bill.

“Here, I want you to have this.”

We briefly tried to protest, but she would have none of it.

“No, no. You keep it. You were so kind to me today – you made me feel so special. At the very least, go out and buy yourselves a couple of ice creams at McDonalds. Five dollars should do that, right? Go to McDonalds and treat yourselves. I can’t thank you enough for doing this for me.”

I finally decided that it would be extremely rude of us to turn away her act of kindness – after all, how would we have felt if we’d been rebuffed while performing any of our RACKs? – so we thanked her profusely and took off for the car.

The girls were dumbfounded. “Mom – we weren’t doing this to get paid!” they argued. “We actually made money in the post office today!” Still, they couldn’t stop grinning like hyenas all the way home – not because of their newfound riches but because, in their words, “Doing nice things for other people is the best feeling ever!”

And so it was. Every time I thought of the way the postal workers’ faces lit up, or the way the customers’ demeanor changed when they saw what Ella and Annie were up to, or how that woman spoke about her dad, or about the lady who felt so moved, she actually paid us – literally – a kindness in return, I felt like I was walking on air.

This is what Christmas is supposed to be, is it not? Doing unto others. Spreading joy. Sharing magic. The truest spirit of Christmas there is.

During the drive home, it was agreed that I would keep the five dollar bill (since, they wisely cautioned, it would probably be a bad idea to rip it in half). When I asked how they’d like to spend it, since we don’t really go to McDonalds all that often, their response was swift: “We really should spend it doing something nice for someone else, right Mom?”

We did exactly that.

Yep. We’ll definitely be doing RACKs again next Christmas. Can’t wait!*

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* fear not, we’re now on a mission to do RAKs throughout the year, so we won’t have to hold off until Christmas… but I have a feeling it will feel extra-awesome to do RACKs again when the time comes.

 

Do you believe in magic?

Every year, we visit the same Santa Claus. I don’t just mean the same place or the same general “Santa,” but actually the very same human being. We discovered him a good many years back when we went to get our Christmas tree at a local nursery and stumbled upon a Christmas Open House they were hosting.

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2009. OH, FOR CUTE.

The great part of this is that “our” Santa actually remembers the girls, which makes them feel pretty fantastic. (It doesn’t hurt that Santa hands out little goodie bags filled with candy, a coloring book, and these awesome glasses that “react” to bright lights and make it seem as though snowflakes or gingerbread men are dancing around the bulbs of your Christmas tree. Side note: wearing these glasses while driving is not advised.) The best part of this – or so I thought – is that Ella and Annie believe, to their core, that this is THE Santa Claus, so they feel like they’re in on a secret and basically the coolest, luckiest girls on the planet.

(They will tell you, point-blank, that the other Santas – the ones at the mall or on TV at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – are merely helpers, perhaps associated with The Big Guy himself, or perhaps just actors dressing the part. This doesn’t bother them or make Santa less real; they understand that one man can only be in one place at a time, duh, so there simply have to be understudies and stunt doubles.)

This belief began because “our” Santa has a real beard, unlike the Santas they’d met previously. It was cemented because they’ve seen photo evidence of Santa delivering presents to our house on Christmas Eve and (coincidentally) The Real Mr. Claus looks remarkably like the Santa at our local nursery. xmas day5I will fully accept responsibility, and declare myself guilty, for this deception because Annie and Ella’s belief in Santa – their desire for him to be real – is so strong and deep, I am willing to do almost anything to protect it; this is a ruse that I am absolutely willing to perpetuate. But as for the photo Santa resembling “our” Santa? MAMA GOT LUCKY THERE, FOLKS.
If you want to be creepy magical like me, check out this website.

When we arrived at the Christmas Open House on Saturday, our sole purpose was to see Santa; we’d already gotten our tree last week, so we only planned to stay for a few minutes, chat with St. Nick, grab the goodies, and leave. The moment we approached him at his bench, his face brightened and his smile beckoned them over.

“My gosh, how the two of you have grown!”

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He invited them to sit beside him and they made a little small talk, during which Santa mentioned that “your elf has been filling me in – he says that you’ve been pretty good this year!” Ella snuck a glance my way, one that showed me she was thinking what I was: How the heck does Santa know for sure that we have an elf (on the shelf)? We do, but wouldn’t that kind of blow his cover if we didn’t?

Naturally, Jolly Old St. Nicholas asked the girls what they’d like for Christmas. Annie listed her three items (the agreed upon appropriate number) and then Ella had her turn, telling him she’d like “an electronic writing thing” (actually a Boogie Board; Santa said he’d talk to the elves about it), a bracelet maker, and an American Girl doll. He laughed at that one, asking her, “Didn’t you get one of those last year?” She laughed back and agreed that she had – to which he replied, “But you can never have too many of those, can you? You need another to keep the first one company!” – and then she shot me The Look again.

Because, yes, she had received an American Girl doll last year, but it seemed unlikely that “Santa” would have remembered such a thing 365 days, and countless visitors, later. It seemed especially unlikely because Ella had never mentioned it to Santa at all; Nick and I had given her that doll last Christmas.

Soon enough, their visit was over, hugs were had, goodie bags were doled out, and the girls were by my side again, with both of them immediately saying, “How did Santa know we got American Girl dolls last year??” To which I replied, very honestly, “I have no idea.”

They were silent for a moment, thinking, when they both looked up at the same time and said, “Then he really MUST be the real Santa!”

Still dazed from the mystical Santa visit, I noticed that the nursery was selling well-priced poinsettias and Christmas cactuses (cacti?), which we give to the girls’ teachers each year, so I sent them over to look at the plants and select the ones they wanted. Meanwhile, I approached the cashiers for a large box in which to put our purchases. As I waited, The Man With All The Toys left his post and came up to me.

“I just wanted to thank you for bringing your daughters here every year. It means a lot to me.”

Oh, my goodness. Thank YOU so much for remembering them!

“How could I not? They’re beautiful and polite, and I love seeing how they grow!”

Thank you very much. Visiting you is one of our Christmas traditions each year. I know they won’t believe forever, but for now, they do, and you make magic for them each time we’re here. Thank you for the magic.

“Well, I certainly try. We all need a little magic.”

I still have no idea how he knew that we have an elf on the shelf, or that Ella and Annie received American Girl dolls last year. It could have been dumb luck – it probably was dumb luck – but it was pretty uncanny. Whatever the reason, my girls came away from our visit floating on air, certain that Santa Claus himself had just given them a hug and told them that they’d been good this year.

And hey… you just never know.

Christmas magic, my friends, indeed. That is the very, very best part.

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Right This Very Minute

I’m not feeling quite myself this year. I don’t know exactly why – anxiety? Hints of depression? Late Thanksgiving, meaning fewer days between then and Christmas, meaning OhMyGodThereIsNoTimeWTF stress? I don’t know, but it’s been a bit rough these past few weeks.

I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays bring a mix of emotions for so many people – the glorious highs of… traditions! Food! Time with family! Decorating the tree! Yes, let’s watch Elf for the third time this month! And the soul-crushing lows of… so much to do! Time with family! What do you mean you want to ask Santa for something different? Holy crap, did I move the damn elf tonight? I AM BEING MERRY AND BRIGHT. This time of year can be difficult and stressful and exhausting under really good circumstances, but when you struggle with anxiety and depression, it can be a whole other ballgame.

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When I was growing up, we used to watch the Rockefeller Center tree lighting on TV every year. Sometimes, in the living room, cozied up on the couch with a blanket. Other times, in the kitchen, standing beside the island or propped on one of the swivel bar chairs. I don’t remember many of the performances, but I do remember the grand ending: that magical moment when POP! all of the thousand gazillion lights illuminated at once, its own little Christmas miracle.

Because we lived just an hour outside of Manhattan, we used to see the tree quite often, too. It is absolutely as grand and marvelous in person as it is on television – more so, really – with the skating rink below (which is usually so crowded, you couldn’t pay me to set foot skate on it, but whatever) and – what used to be – quaint shops lining the plaza.

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Visiting the tree in 2011.

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Approximately ten days ago, a couple of friends and family members posted on Facebook that they had already completed their Christmas shopping. I didn’t really read their posts as bragging – more just jauntily and proudly stating a fact – but it still made me kind of want to refill their salt shakers with sugar.

Was I jealous? You bet your ass I was. Because, at that time, I had not purchased one single Christmas gift. NOT ONE SINGLE GIFT. Well, that’s not entirely true, because Nick and I picked up a few things for family members in Puerto Rico when we were there this summer, but I had not yet actively begun my real Christmas shopping. Alongside that jealousy, however, was a feeling of sheer panic: holy shit, I need to get shopping NOW but I have NO IDEA what to get everyone. There was exasperation. There was shame. There were tears. It was ugly.

Christmas is, really and truly, my most favorite time of the year. I’m “allowed” to listen to Christmas music on my birthday (November 22nd), but I sneak it earlier when I’m alone because it makes me so happy. The traditions my family has are among my most looked-forward-to moments of all of the days. I love December – the smells, the food; even that madness-inducing elf (who is rarely on a shelf) makes me smile rather than grouse. But the joy just hasn’t been there, which has only made me more upset.

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I was mid-sentence talking to Annie last week when I suddenly remembered something from my to-do book that I’d forgotten about. As I recalled the item, I gasped out loud and interrupted myself, saying, “Oh shoot – I forgot about that!” Understandably, Annie asked what the problem was. I explained that there wasn’t really a problem – I’d just forgotten to do something on my list, and I’d need to do it later. I then sighed and muttered that I had a helluva lot to do, so my list would never really end – that’s just the way it is.

Annie brightened. “Mom? Let’s say that all of the things you have to do weigh something.”

Okay.

“Let’s say that they weigh ten pounds. You’re carrying ten pounds.”

Okay, I can do that.

“Well now, guess what? You only have to carry five pounds!”

Ummm… And why is that?

“Because I’m going to take the other five pounds from you to help you out so you don’t have as much to do. Does that feel better?”

Sweet love, it feels incredible. That might be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.

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Our advent calendars started a three days ago. This year, we’re doing RACKS – random acts of Christmas kindness – and I absolutely love that. I love that it makes me think of something beyond myself for a day, that I’m looking out into the world. I’m finding it really pretty amazing.

I’m also finding it hard to concentrate on what I want to be doing – RACKs, watching Christmas movies with the girls, reading Christmas books, just sitting back and enjoying the season – because of all the things I need to be doing. Most of the presents have been purchased by now (thank God for Amazon; setting foot into actual stores is making me break out in hives this year), but the ones that require some thought and attention – the homemade ones, the ones using photos and love and goodness, the ones that mean the most to me – are the ones that also require the most time and energy. I love doing it – I really do – but it is also exhausting and stressful.

Ditto for other Christmas traditions. That advent calendar? One of the best parts of the season, bar none, but it takes weeks of planning (and purchasing and researching and prepping) to pull it off successfully. I adore reading Christmas books with the girls and saw this cute idea online for wrapping 24 books and reading one each day. But then I found that I actually had to wrap the damn books, and now we need to find time to read them, which sometimes – even only three days in – feels more like a punishment than a reward.

How is it possible that the things I love the most are also the things that make me the most crazy?

Scratch that. I could say the same thing about basically every member of my family. Point taken.

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The girls asked that we set aside time tonight to listen to the latest installment in our Percy Jackson saga. I agreed, especially given that it was early enough to listen to Percy and read tonight’s Christmas book. It would be a good night, damn it all!

We’d just begun listening to our new chapter shortly after 8 p.m. when the phone rang; I had no idea who would be calling (we don’t get too many calls at that hour aside from telemarketers) and was quite surprised to see my mom’s number on the caller ID. This was a particularly strange time to call; what on earth could she want? Did I forget to do something? Had something bad happened?

Hi, Mom!

“Honey? I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Rockefeller Center tree lighting is taking place tonight…”

Oh – no, I didn’t know…

“…  and Mariah Carey is singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’**.”

** Ella’s favorite Christmas song, ever

Oh, okay…

“I mean right now. She’s singing right now, so if you want to turn it on…”

Great! I will! It’s on NBC, right?

“Yes, NBC…”

Thanks, Mom – turning it on now!

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I paused the CD, fumbled with the remote and found our NBC affiliate (ironically, one of only two channels that I’ve actually memorized because virtually everything I watch is DVR’d), and we listened to Mariah. As the broadcast went to commercial, it informed us of who the upcoming singers and performers would be, including some names Ella and Annie recognized immediately – Idina Menzel (“That’s ELSA!!”), Pentatonix, Sara Bareilles (“She sings ‘Brave’!”), Lady Gaga, the Rockettes.

“Mom! Can we please watch the rest?? I don’t care if we skip Percy – we need to see this!”

And I realized, this wasn’t part of the plan… but yes indeed, we do need to see this. This is exactly what we need – a little Christmas, right this very minute. We scrambled upstairs and climbed into my bed to watch the TV in there and the girls were absolutely entranced, listening to every artist – even the ones with whom they were completely unfamiliar – with rapt attention.

Pentatonix had just begun to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when the phone rang again (“Who the $*#& is it now??”) and I heard my dad’s voice on the other end.

“Just wanted to be sure that you’re watching the Rockefeller Center…”

Yes! We are! We’re watching right now – thank you!

“Okay, good. Talk to you later.”

And with that, he hung up, having said all he needed to say.

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During the commercial breaks, the girls and I found the time to read tonight’s book (Light of Christmas, about a boy who’s chosen to light his village’s Christmas tree – how d’you like THEM apples??). We snuggled closer after I expressed my surprise that the NBC Today Show hosts actually mentioned the protests that were occurring because of the failure to indict the (white) NYPD police officer who killed (black) Eric Garner after he put him in an (illegal) chokehold.

“But that’s not fair, Mama! How can that happen? Why are some people still afraid of black people? Why are black people still treated differently?”

Ah, my dears, the questions for the ages… I am so, so glad that you are asking, and we must continue this discussion… but for tonight I hope you’ll forgive me if we agree that it is not okay, agree that we must keep talking and make change, and then agree to take a deep breath and try to enjoy this tree lighting. 

“Okay, Mom. Let’s do that.”

And so we did, turning off the lights in the bedroom moments before the Rockefeller tree burst into dazzling color, twinkling everywhere – magic, right before our eyes.

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I don’t know if it was fate, God, Santa Claus, or just good luck that guided my parents tonight, but the fact that both of them called to tell me about the tree lighting was really something spectacular. I cannot remember the last time that happened.

Whatever the reason, I’m damned glad they did, because tonight – for the first time in a long while – I feel like myself again. I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep (and, at 10:30 p.m., that’s saying something), but, because of those stolen magic moments with Annie and Ella, I somehow feel like it will all be okay.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to accomplish a few things before my alarm goes off to remind me to put the elf in a new place. I’m thinking maybe atop the new little Christmas tree that my mom sent the girls for Thanksgiving – you know, full circle and all that.

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My view tonight – Ella on my left, Annie on my right, and Pentatonix on the TV. It was delightful.

And it feels so good

Last week, the most tremendous thing happened. It all started when I began reading a fantastic blog, Momastery. Its writer, Glennon, is hilarious, well-written, poignant, intelligent, self-effacing – basically all of the good stuff you want in a writer (or at least all of the good stuff I want in a blog writer). Momastery has gazillions of followers, both on the blog and the Facebook page, and for the past several years, the extended Momastery community (Together Rising) has done this amazing thing called Holiday Hands.

The premise is so simple, you might almost overlook it: people who need help, ask for it; people who have the ability to help, provide help to those who need it. The practice itself is also simple – people in need, whether it be a financial or emotional, submit their requests, which are then relayed (on a specific date that is announced well in advance) on the Together Rising site. Those who are able to provide help then scroll through the requests, decide where/how they can help, and then comment on the request indicating how much they can do (“We can fulfill your entire request!” or “We can provide $20 toward your medical bills!”). Finally, some emails are exchanged to confirm that everything is good, and voila – wishes granted.

(BTW – it is voila [or, if you’re really being technical, voilà, because it’s French], with the O before the I. It isn’t viola – that’s a string instrument. And it definitely isn’t wala or anything similar; that’s just… no. But I digress.)

I was out during the morning that the Holiday Hands requests went “live,” so I didn’t get to the listings until nearly an hour after they’d first opened up to the public, but I figured there would be so many to fulfill, I’d still have plenty of time. Little did I know how incredibly generous the Momastery community is; in just that hour, nearly all of the wishes had already been granted! As I scrolled through the requests and saw the comments saying, “I’ve got this!” or “We will fill this one!”, I actually began to get annoyed. Is there NO ONE I can help?? How has every one of these been taken? I WANT TO DO SOMETHING, DAMN IT!

And then I got a hold of myself and realized that the lack of people in need was a really good thing, so I breathed a little and began to search more calmly until I found a wish that had yet to be completely granted – a mom having a very difficult holiday season was asking for a few gift cards to her 11 year-old daughter’s favorite stores, so she could present her with a gift card “wreath” for Christmas. WE CAN DO THAT! I very eagerly commented and emailed the mom saying, Yes, we’d love to help! and then (im)patiently waited to hear back from her confirming that she’d received my message.

As the afternoon wore on and I hadn’t heard back yet, I began to wonder whether or not I had, in fact, been too late and her wish had already been granted. Having read so many of the heart wrenching requests, I knew that I didn’t want to stop there – I really, really wanted to help one of these women and their families – so I sat back at the computer to take one last look through all of the requests. Perhaps I’d missed something.

When I saw it, immediately, I knew: Harry Potter Anything! That was the heading. I began to read – about a family who has experienced a very difficult year, full of upheaval and loss, and about a boy who found salvation through Harry Potter. His mom said that all she wanted was for her son to receive something – anything – Harry Potter-related for Christmas, and politely asked if anyone had any Harry Potter stuff to pass on. I saw that several other people had already responded – the request was marked as “Taken” – but, after all that Harry has meant to Ella, to our entire family, I knew that I couldn’t let this one go, so I posted a quick comment saying we’d love to help, too.

And thus began an absolutely amazing email exchange between the mom, Heather, and me, where we shared a bit more about what Harry has meant to our families, shared Halloween photos, and shared stories. I’ve never met her or her kids, but I feel a deep connection to Heather; Harry can do that to you.

Eventually, I heard back from the first mom I’d emailed – the request had not yet been fulfilled, so the gift cards will be much-appreciated! That night during dinner, I told the Annie and Ella the whole story – about the Holiday Hands site, about these families, about how I’d signed us up to help. At first, they were speechless; then, they cried; then, they laughed and smiled ear to ear as I read them post after post from people whose wishes had been fulfilled, about how grateful they were, about how this community was changing their lives.

“So, mom? We’re helping make their Christmases better?”

Yep, you got it.

“That’s AWESOME! I LOVE helping! It feels SO GOOD!!”

And, indeed, it does – it feels incredibly, to-the-bone good to help, to spread love, to reach out. We spent another hour poring over the portion of Holiday Hands site (“Love LetHers“) where people have requested support in non-monetary ways — sending cards to family members in the armed forces, writing notes to sick children — and, with each one we read, they would exclaim, “I want to do that!” Eventually, we realized that we wanted to help every single person who had asked for a card or letter, and that, realistically, we couldn’t do that… but the girls are absolutely committed to sending cards to Australia, to England, and to a soldier overseas.

Actually, they’re more than committed… they’re thrilled. Because it feels SO GOOD.

There are no two ways about it: my children are privileged. They live very comfortable lives and, I hope, they will never have a Christmas when they have to go without. While I am so, so grateful for this, I also find that it can be difficult to help them to appreciate what they have, to understand that so many people’s lives are not like theirs. As Nick says, they certainly don’t need to feel guilty about that, but having some perspective, recognizing how fortunate they are, and being genuinely appreciative of it – not taking it for granted – is one of the things I strive for the most as a parent.

This year, Holiday Hands helped me do that. In that moment, when Ella and Annie understood that others were in need but that we would help, it was like an entire world opened up to them. There was such joy in our kitchen that night, the kind of joy that only comes from reaching beyond yourself and out to others. I can’t wait to see the kind of joy that we find when we actually fulfill these wishes.

I know that the families who requested help on Holiday Hands feel grateful – but I can promise you that I feel grateful, too, in so very many ways.

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This photo was taken after trick-or-treating and relates in absolutely no way to the content of this post, unless you count that Ella dressed as Bellatrix from Harry Potter. Or unless you count how fortunate they were to receive so much candy, but that’s a stretch.
They are two of the things for which I’m the most grateful, though. So we’ll go with that.

If the shoe (doesn’t) fit…

For Christmas, Nick (and the girls, but really it was Nick because he spent all of the time fighting crowds and searching the web and putting things in his “shopping basket” and pressing “order” and having the boxes delivered to our house) gave me two pairs of Merrells, something I’d been coveting for a long while but hadn’t wanted to pony up and purchase for myself. I loved my old Merrells, which were easily slip-on-able and paired perfectly with an array of outfits, from substitute teacher (a tidy top – perhaps a well-fitted sweater – and khakis or slacks; yes, I said slacks) to piano instructor (a clean shirt that’s not a t-shirt and pants that aren’t jeans) to school volunteer (a mostly clean shirt and probably jeans) to errand-runner/dog walker/ chore-doer (anything that doesn’t smell from five inches away). So much did I love them, in fact, they were worn through — and so new Merrells appeared on my Christmas wish list.

The first pair I opened were similar to clogs, except more stylish, so that when covered by the hem of my pants, they resemble attractive boots. Very good. The second pair was different than any Merrell style I’d seen before – a low-cut boot – but they also seemed good. I immediately removed the inner padding from the left shoe (in this case, wadded up brown paper and a cardboard insert that matched the mold of the toe of the boot), slid it on, and remarked that they were fab. Hooray for husbands who a) remember what I asked for for Christmas and b) chose wisely. Happy me.

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These be the ones

On Christmas, I bummed around in my indoor/outdoor slippers (I call them this because they have a really thick, rubber sole with a wicked tread, enabling them to easily make a trip to the mailbox… or, say, into the third grade classroom to help out with Math Facts. What? These? Yep, my slippers. Forgot I even had ’em on! Super comfy, though), so it wasn’t until the 26th that I officially christened my Merrells. I wore the clogs in the morning to run errands and then decided that the boots might be a better choice for the afternoon, as my feet were getting chilly.

I popped those babies right on and began to walk around, but was slightly discouraged to discover that the right shoe (the one I had not tried previously) felt a little tight. This is not an uncommon occurrence; I broke my left leg thirty years ago, so my left foot has been smaller than my right since then. Also – not to be graphic, but this is important to the story – it seems that I’m developing a bunion on my right big toe. Aside from being unsightly, this bump is mostly frustrating because it can make certain shoes uncomfortable — like, apparently, my new boots.

As I went about my business, putting away the previous day’s bounty, packing for our trip to visit my mom and stepdad, and getting the house ready for our dog sitter, the discomfort in my right foot gave way to outright pain. Still, I pressed on, thinking that perhaps if I wore the shoes for an extended period of time, I’d stretch the right one out and it would fit better. Also – and I realize that this makes no sense – I kind of got pissed. Like, seriously, this stupid bunion is effing up my new shoes?? This bunion is ruining my awesome Christmas gift? I WILL SHOW IT WHO’S BOSS.  

I’ve never claimed to be the world’s most rational person.

The hours wore on, and the pain in my right foot became more and more pronounced, and I became more and more upset. By this time – many hours later – I was practically limping, and was sure that, when I removed the shoe, the aching would be so severe, I’d be hobbling around for the rest of the night, and maybe the following day as well. Nick asked how I liked the shoes, and I said that I liked them fine, but that the right one was just a wee bit tight – it must be my stupid bunion. He felt terrible for giving me shoes that didn’t fit properly and asked if I was planning to bring them with us on our trip. When I told him that I’d love to, but I didn’t think it was possible because I didn’t want to lose half of my toes due to lack of circulation, he suggested that we put a tennis ball in the right toe to stretch it out while we were gone. This seemed like a good idea, but I wasn’t about to start now — I was still showing my bunion who was boss.

I’ve never been a very good boss, however, so I’d also begun to panic a bit (who, me?). Hadn’t the podiatrist said that I was fine so long as my foot wasn’t in pain, but if the bump started hurting consistently, I’d need surgery? This must be it – I’d reached the end; there was no hope. Could he get me in as soon as we got back from our trip? When would the surgery be scheduled? How long would it take to recover? BUT I DON’T WANT TO DIE.

Again, rationality is not my strong suit.

Just as I was about to vacuum, Nick noticed me Tiny Timming my way around the living room and told me that enough was enough: take off the damn shoe right now, and he’d stuff a tennis ball inside. He even offered to do the vacuuming while I located and put on my indoor/outdoor slippers (sold!). I gingerly took off my right shoe, breathing an enormous sigh of relief as soon as my foot was released, and handed it to Nick, who turned around to go find one of the dogs’ tennis balls (an un-chewed one, I assume, although at that point I didn’t really care). Before he’d even left the room, however, Nick turned back to me with a quizzical look on his face.

“Uhhh, Em?”

Yes?

“You said that this shoe was the only one that was tight?”

Yes.

“Just in the toe area?”

(exasperated sigh) YES. Because of the bunion. The bunion that will need immediate surgery as soon as we return. How many days do you think you can take off of work?

“Ummm… Just wondering, but do you think that this might have anything to do with it?”

And from the shoe Nick withdrew the cardboard insert that matched the mold of the toe of the boot… the insert that I had already removed from the left shoe, but which I had completely forgotten was even in the right one.

Huh. Look at that.

“Maybe it will fit better now?”

Could be. I can certainly try it on.
(shifts vacuum from one hand to the other as I slip on the boot)
Well, hot damn!

“It fits?”

Yes! Yes it does!

“Does it feel okay?”

It feels great! 

“There’s no pressure or anything?”

Nope! There’s plenty of room! WHO KNEW THESE WERE SO COMFORTABLE??

“Thank God. I was really worried that I’d given you a gift that didn’t fit.”

And I was really worried about writing a living will.

“What?”

THESE ARE AWESOME BOOTS. I am so wearing them on our trip.

“So… I’ll skip the tennis ball thing…”

Yes, please.

“Glad we got that solved.”

 

And I’m really glad I married a man who is not only an excellent gift-giver, but also a genius. Or, at least, a little bit more rational than I.
But, man, let me tell you – I vacuum like a champ.

 

Are We There Yet?

Greetings from the highway.

Two days after our truly magical Christmas, we’re off to begin the second half of our holiday festivities, this time visiting my mom and stepdad in Westchester County outside of New York City, where we used to live before we moved to Rochester. And, due to the wonders of modern technology, I can actually write about it live – from my computer, not my phone. I know you’re thrilled.

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Nick and I have a long history of road trips together, starting back in college when we thought it was no big deal to jump in a car and drive five or six hours just because, and continuing on our trips to Colorado and Minnesota, plus literally dozens of sojourns around the Northeastern USA. Many of them come off without a hitch and fade into a blurry mesh; others are much more… memorable.

There was the time, as college students, when Nick and I were visiting my family’s condo in Okemo, Vermont and decided to drive to Montreal – a good eight-hour journey – to see the Canadiens play. We left early enough to tour the city a bit, then scored tickets to the game that night. When the usher guided us to our seats, speaking in rapid French, we were to embarrassed to admit that we hadn’t quite understood what he’d said, so we  muttered, “Oui!” and hoped it would suffice. Disgusted, the usher glowered at us and reprimanded – in English – “You didn’t understand a word I just said, did you?” Um, nope. “Then why did you say ‘yes’?” Merd.

Newly married, we made a similar one-day round-trip trek to visit my BFF, Kiki, for her dad’s 60th birthday. My mom was out of town at the time, and we were watching her dog, a Sheltie named Jasmine, who got along just fine with our Madison. Knowing we’d be gone for, oh, fifteen hours or so – with no one available to let the dogs out mid-day – we opted to take both hounds along. Jazz was used to traveling in her crate, so we set her up in the back of the car, with Maddy chilling on her dog bed nearby. All went well until Mads got up to shift positions and a low, menacing growl emanated from the kennel; it seemed that Jazz didn’t so much like being cooped up in a moving vehicle with another dog encroaching on her territory, and began snarling viciously, snapping at the crate’s wire walls, each time Maddy so much as breathed. I managed to crawl over the seats and into the way back, where I draped a blanket over Jazz’s kennel to block Madison from her view, which worked nicely until we rounded a corner, and the blanket would slip, and Maddy would move, and suddenly it was Wild Kingdom all over again. The dogs were more than a little frazzled by the time we arrived in New Hampshire for the celebration. Surprise! Happy Birthday! We’ve brought dogs! Let’s party! 

Come to think of it, we’ve done a heckuva lot of driving with dogs, from our cross-country disaster with Madison to taking our CCI pups with us anywhere and everywhere. On one such occasion, we had our first CCI dog, Diamond, with us as we again made our way to Vermont. About halfway through the trip, we began to notice this… odor… enveloping us any time Dizey stood up to circle and lie back down again in, in that dizzy-making way that dogs do. Yep, Di had gone into heat and was making a mess all over the floor of the minivan. Awesome. 

In case you’re wondering, WalMart does sell doggie diapers. They’re gross, but effective.

Diamond isn’t the only one of us who’s had… trouble… in the car. Sure, we’ve had our fair share of kid-vomit moments, but those are a dime a dozen, no? More unique was the time we were driving with a potty-training Ella who desperately needed to make a pit stop. Careening off the highway, we looked for a gas station, restaurant, or anyplace with indoor plumbing, only to be met by the northern Massachusetts wilderness. We decided our next-best bet was to find a safe spot to pull over and have Ella let loose on the side of the road, but everywhere we turned, the road either had no shoulder, or we were in a residential neighborhood. As Ella’s pleading became ever-more dire, we finally found a field-like area and skidded to a halt. Vaulting out of the front seat, we undid her carseat buckles with lightning speed and placed her on the ground to take care of business, careful to hold her hands and help her squat down…

… when this man appeared out of nowhere. “What are you doing here?” Um, sorry, but our daughter really needed to go to the bathroom… “Well, you’re on my property.” Right. Our daughter is now peeing on your lawn. Super. Reeeally, really sorry about that. We’ll just clean her up and get on our way.

There was also the time when we were visiting my sister- and brother-in-law in Colorado, and Nick was working all day, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to drive the girls up into the foothills, because when you’re this close to the Rockies, you can’t not see them up close, right? Ella had said she didn’t really feel well – and, in fact, she did have a fever – but after a dose of Tylenol, she perked up considerably. By the time we’d cruised west out of Denver and were winding our way amongst the peaks of the mountains, the Tylenol had begun to wear off, and Ella started to fade. Not wanting to let this first-in-a-lifetime moment pass by, I found a spot with a beautiful view and had the girls get outside for a photo op.

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Best mom, ever.

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET??

We flew home the following morning with the sickest, most feverish, vomiting, hacking kiddo, then raced her to urgent care as soon as we landed, where they immediately proclaimed she had severe pneumonia. But at least we have the photos.

Most of our road trips these days are taken with just the four of us (and our hounds), but occasionally, friends or family will join us. On one such occasion, when Ella was about two, we were dragging my sister-in-law, Emi, along with us, and things began to go south. Both of our kids have always hated being trapped in their car seats (you know how people say they’d go for a drive to calm their kids down? HAHA. I would rather take a 12-hour flight than a 3-hour drive with our girls), and have generally been miserable travelers after the first hour or so. On this particular trip, Annie was screeching like a banshee despite my attempts to calm her (ever tried to breastfeed a kid from a moving vehicle? NOT EASY, MY FRIENDS), and Ella – who was growing ever-more agitated with being stuck in her own seat and listening to her sister’s wailing – requested “Daddy’s song.”

And so Nick began singing “Faith” by George Michael, a song he’d sung to Ella countless times before, but whose lyrics he’d never really contemplated. “Well, I guess it would be nice… if I could touch your body… I know not everybody has a body like you…” Emi’s head whipped around so fast, I thought she’d injure herself. So this is how it is with your family. Not awkward at all.

Today, it’s just the four of us again – the dogs are happily home with our fantabulous house sitter – and, three hours in, it’s already been an adventure. The moment we closed the doors, Annie began watching newly-downloaded episodes of Sofia the First, oblivious to everything around her.

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Ella, preferring to wait till halfway through the drive to watch the 6th Harry Potter movie, began chatting with Nick and me, laughing out loud about that time when every single one of us forgot something and we had to turn around and return only minutes after we’d departed. The chuckles had barely escaped her lips when Ella drew a startled breath and confessed, “I left my American Girl doll at home.” Another time, we’d have said too bad, but this trip, her brand-new, much-beloved doll might actually be… important… so Nick and I both took our own deep breaths as we turned that car right around. At least we were only twenty minutes from the house – let’s add forty minutes to the trip! It’ll be fun!

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As we rounded the bend in the park near home, Ella poked her sister to show her the mushroom house, and Annie – still wearing headphones, looking up from her screen for the first time since sitting down – clearly registered that we’d been in the car for quite a while (so we should be well on our way to Grandma’s), did a double-take, and stage whispered, “Why are we going home??” 

Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!

Family bondage bonding is the best.