Good Grief-What a Month I’m Having!

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait to say buh-bye to 2015. It was another year of being single, working my butt off in production more so than writing, and selling the home I had lived in for almost a decade with my former husband and our kids. I spent some time free-lance writing and even submitted work to journals. In April I participated in the poem-a-day movement, and in November, I spent a wonderful weekend with two of my best friends at a writing workshop in Port Townsend. But as Christmas songs played in the dentist office, gas stations and department stores, my optimism fell like a snowflake.

New Year’s Eve was spent with my ten-year-old son Vinny and another best friend, my sister from another mister, Aimee. I’d had a daughter disappointment right before the New Year, which I’d rather not disclose, but believed that 2016 would be a better year! But not long after my holiday vacation ended, I had a personal disappointment. Normally I don’t let life get me down; but when it rains, it pours, and I have lost my umbrella.

Suffice it to say, a blog is a safe space to share. But part of me thinks no one wants to hear my problems. And others tell me that I am the only person who can control my life. I need to make changes. I need to read self-help books. I need to let things go. I need to be honest about my needs. Saying those things and doing them are as different as heat and cold.

And I don’t want to be negative. I want to offer life-affirming tips for dealing with everyday disappointments. But right now, all I have is advice from others. I write to understand my life, so I’ve been working on an “after the divorce” essay and several poems. I’ve been talking to every friend who will listen. I’m sure I’m a real treat.

Last week, after hearing of my so-called disappointments, I turned into a Peanuts character, walking along the street with my head down. While kicking a stone, the toe of my boot stuck to the sidewalk and I fell face-first on the concrete. I cracked the glass on the front of my iPhone and my ego. It was the perfect end to a perfect week.

On a bright note, I finished a book called What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage by Amy Sutherland. What a pleasure it was to read. Sutherland talks about positive reinforcement and rewarding behavior–stuff from psych 101, but with real life examples. She observed aspiring animal trainers that work with predators, ones that can tear arms off or kill people with a bite to the neck.

Basically I learned to ignore bad behavior, a daughter screaming in my face, or a client criticizing my brochure, and reward good behavior: Thank you for picking up your dirty socks, Daughter, and Thank you, Client, for your feedback. I’m writing this in its simplest form, but feel free to check it out yourself. I’m going to reread the book.

My plan moving ahead, and you know I have one, is to dress for success, support, not enable, my daughters, and build character in my son. I will breathe deeply before walking into a difficult situation, smile when I don’t feel like smiling, and write as much as possible. Let’s hope February is a better month.

 

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Yankee Swap Not for Everyone

Fifteen years ago at a family Christmas party, I played my first game of Yankee Swap, AKA, Dirty Santa, the White Elephant gift exchange, etc. You know, the game where you bring a gift already wrapped, pick a number, open a present and get your present stolen. This game has become a staple at holiday parties, and I’ll be darned if I can figure out how it embodies any type of holiday, generosity or giving spirit.

You may say, “Oh, it’s all in good fun,” or “Have a sense of humor,” but every time I’ve been to one of these parties, I’ve witnessed hurt feelings, under the breath comments, or out-right yelling. Now, that might be a regular ordeal at some holiday dinners with family, but family is crazy. We all know you can’t choose your relatives. But you can choose whether or not you wish to be involved in a game at Christmas time where you steal presents.

At my first Yankee Swap, I received an adorable Mikasa candy dish etched with snowmen. I was delighted, and I had no idea how the game worked. No poker face. My boyfriend’s mother “Lola” planned to steal my gift. When she reached for it, I held it tight and said, “Please don’t take this. I have so few nice things.” Lola laughed and made a remark about how she knew where my daughters got their whining from. Lola let me keep the Mikasa candy dish. I still have it, and I use it every Thanksgiving and Christmas to hold olives. I always think of Lola and her remark when I place the dish on my dinner table.

I married into a family where my sister-in-law, “Margie,” loved Yankee Swap, organized every Christmas gift exchange, with a $50 limit and a strict rule: no gag gifts. My last Yankee Swap with the family was a doozie. Of course, Margie ended up with number 1, which meant she got to inspect all the gifts at the end of the game and steal whichever one she wanted. I had received a beautiful wrought iron wall hanging. Margie stole it, which coincidentally meant I ended up with the gift I had brought. When I said that out loud, she leapt up in front of the crowded room and yelled, “I’m so tired of this bullshit!” She ran over to her husband and insisted he take her home. He refused. At the end of the long silent night, I left without the wall hanging. After the new year, when my husband’s grandmother called me to come get the wall hanging, I donated it to a silent auction for charity. That was last time I participated in Margie’s Magical Christmas gift exchange.

At my last Yankee Swap, there was a $20 max for the gifts. I brought a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer set of figurines: Hermie, the Bumble, even Cornelius, from the perennial show. The person who received it kept waving it in the air, saying, “Someone steal this, please.” I should have. One person brought in a bag full of used books that stunk like mildew. Every gift I received–wine, gift certificates, pewter trivet–was stolen. I tried desperately not to get attached. Incidentally, my best friend stole the trivet. All is fair during the war on Christmas I guess. Another friend asked me if I was the person who brought the hookah. Wow, I thought, what am I putting out there? I left the party with a note pad and water bottle.

When I looked up who invented Yankee Swap, I couldn’t find a particular person. But the rules emphasized that the game was light-hearted, just for fun, and whimsical. Isn’t stealing a bit greedy and mean-spirited? I see nothing wrong with the boring old Secret Santa, or making someone a gift just for them, or sending them a card that says I love you. But then again, I spend most of my money on books, vintage clothing and dog treats.

Finding a Mother’s Day Card

Every May I sift through the glut of greeting cards
with their glowing notes: Thank you for raising me,
You’ve always been there, and To my best friend.
I look for the one that says, Enjoy your day,
because Carla, as my mother signs letters to me,
was never a Mom. She and my father split up
when I was a baby, and Dad told her never to come back.
She went away to college, traveled the world,
let another woman feed me, bathe me, beat me
with leather belts. I see her in a black turtleneck and
blue jeans, svelte, five-ten, hair to her waist, bright green eyes,
cheek bones that could slice paper. She sips Scotch,
smokes Marlboro Reds, poses for art students, sketches
self-portraits. At 40, she walks down the aisle, again,
settles into a new life in New England, spends her days
in an art studio piecing magazine clippings into collage art,
teaching millionaires’ wives how to paint. We met once
in my hometown, hugged like strangers, dined on prime rib,
returned to our separate lives of sending letters
about the weather. Some friends say I owe her judgment,
others, respect. As every new spring brings
its buckets of rain, I wonder what we owe each other.

1973-The Year My Brother and I Ruined Christmas

Christmas Eve finally arrives. Tony is seven, and I am five. We beg my father and stepmother Vickie to let us open just one gift before going to bed, but they won’t relent. My father sits on the couch with his arm around Vickie. “The quicker you get to bed,” he says, “the quicker Santa will get here.” So we shuffle to our bedroom, my stomach tight.

I have just barely closed my eyes when Tony shakes me awake. For a moment I forget where I am, searching the blue walls for clues. I rub my eyes.

“Come on,” Tony says. “Let’s see what Santa brought.”

It’s still dark outside. I ask Tony again whether it’s really time to get up. “Yes,” he says, “Let’s go.” I hold tight to his hand as he drags me down the hall, tiptoeing past the room where my father and Vickie sleep.

When we step inside the living room, presents—rectangles, squares, lumpy spheres—form a pile around the tree. I have never seen so many gifts in my life. Tony clicks on the light and for a few moments, I stand there, ogling the shiny foil bows, white and crimson wrapping paper, the overfilled stockings hanging from the cardboard fireplace. This is Christmas!

Tony kneels in front of the tree and starts to pick through the gifts. “This is for me!” he says, shaking the box.

“I want one!” I say, snatching the first present I see. I tear open the wrapping to find a pair of women’s bedroom slippers. I slide my small foot inside the giant slipper. “These don’t fit.” I toss the pair behind me. I open a box with a sweater that’s way too big.

“No way,” Tony says. His light brown hair sticks up in front like devil’s horns. “It’s the Evel Knievel stunt cycle!” He squeezes the box. “I got it!”

“Where’s my presents?” I huff, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Right here, dummy,” Tony says, dropping a rectangular box in my lap.

I open it to find a Tiffany Taylor doll, which looks even more beautiful than on the TV commercial. Tiffany is two feet tall and wears a glittery gold bodysuit beneath a lime green skirt that attaches at her abdomen with Velcro. Her slip-on mules match the skirt. Tiffany has blond hair parted down the middle, but when you grab the top of her head and rotate, she has brown hair and bangs.

The next gift I open is a personal grooming kit with a white plastic hairbrush, comb, and mirror made of pearly plastic. I hold the mirror in front of my face. “Yes, dah-ling,” I say. “I vill be right wid you.”

There’s a really big gift. It’s the Sunshine Family Dolls. It comes with a camper and a surrey cycle. The baby is so cute.

“What the hell are you doing?” My father booms, standing above us in nothing but tighty-whities. His hair sticks up like the bride of Frankenstein. “Get your asses back in bed.”

Tony and I sprint past our father, guarding our hind-ends from spankings. My father slips into his bedroom with Vickie and slams the door. I throw myself on the bed and bury my head in the pillow. Tony sits on his bed.

“We ruined Christmas,” I wail.

Tony lays back on the bed and folds his hands behind his head. I pull the covers over me and hide. We both fall asleep.

We are lying still when Vickie walks into our bedroom. She is wearing her ever-present light blue bathrobe. Her hair is messy and she wears no makeup. “Your father and I are disappointed because we wanted to watch you open your presents,” she says. “And some of those weren’t even for you.”

I start crying again. Tony sits up.

“Now, go wash up,” she says, “Your dad and I will meet you in the kitchen.”

Usually, Vickie flew off the handle over something as small as spilled milk. But, neither she nor my father scolded us that day. We played with our new toys, had dinner. Even today, I’m surprised they were so kind about the whole thing. My kids never tried anything so subversive with me, and I wonder how I would have handled it. . . I know I would have made them re-wrap the presents not for them.