Lovely Living, The Work of Becoming

merry christmas: thoughts on tradition + what comes after seasons of waiting

As a child, I was militant about holiday traditions. The music we played when we decorated the Christmas tree, the dishes served on Christmas Eve, the snack we chose when we drove through neighborhoods at night, looking for lit-up houses. My mother, survivor of a sad childhood and painful Christmases, worked hard to create a whole season of warmth and love and the familial familiar. She did far too good of a job. I looked forward to the month of December with an anxious longing. There was so much light for us to bottle up, so few days to do so.

I remember waiting for the nights to grow so long the bus would drop us off in the dark. I’d run down the hill towards home, looking for the straw star, hanging in the kitchen window, gold against the deep blue of winter night. As an eight year old, it stirred in me something too deep to name. Family or home or some form of safety so fundamental, so elemental it strikes against our evolutionary code.

Last year, my grandfather died two days before Christmas. A sudden, cruel phone call that cut through all the tinsel and lights. Grief and then illness cut Christmas short. I pulled all the decorations down on the night before his funeral, and boxed them hurriedly. My grief was dark. I needed lights off to feel it, sit with it.

I wonder if it’s the coming anniversary of his death that has tempered this holiday season, or if it’s simply, as I’m finding in different ways all across my life, that I don’t need the rhythms to give me comfort this year. I decorated a tree, sweet and small and a hand-me-down from my grandmother, but not on the pre-appointed date (day after Thanksgiving, always, so the short season will be as long as possible). I’ve watched some of the movies, listened to some of the music, but have done neither with the same kind of strategy. It sounds silly, but I had a schedule — this movie, at this point in the month, to accompany this activity. I baked cookies, both alone and with people, but I haven’t baked what I always deem “traditional” yet. At this point, I likely won’t get to them at all.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom had to talk to me about my traditions-stringency. It was too much for the rest of the family, too much for her. I had so many expectations, so many demands. I took the joy out of our customs when I required they be performed, and I removed from our family the ability to relax into the season, adapt to our always-changing selves.

I mellowed out after that. (Thank God. I remember the anxiety I used to feel to try to squeeze! it! all! in! Even as a child, I worried about how fleeting the holiday season was, and how long it would take to get back to it again. In high school, I faked sick to give myself an extra day to bake cookies, and sit under the lights of our tree). But even with my mellowing, I was still careful to perform my traditions. This song, first thing on the morning of Black Friday, as I unpacked the decorations. Thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I always cried as a child, silently and without understanding, on the drive back home from my grandparents’ house. I was so desperate to stock up on joy; I couldn’t stomach it all ending.

This year, I feel mellower than ever about Christmas. Two days from the day and on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I don’t feel desperate or giddy or anxious or panicked about what the season was or what the next few days will be.

When I decorated my Christmas tree, I turned into a child again. I cleaned my apartment, organizing corners and dusting off shelves, to prepare for the tree, and when I unpacked the ornaments, I did so with the explosiveness of a toddler — everything out so I could see it. Then I hung each ornament with extraordinary care, tracking down the memory that accompanies each one. When I drove home, one night in the dark, I nearly wept at all the lights on houses and trees. Every single decoration tickled something young and enchanted inside of me. One of the first pieces of writing I ever had published was a short essay about Christmas wonder that my dad sent in to the Twin Cities newspaper without me knowing. I re-read it this year, and even though I shudder at my use of adjectives (people, who, other than 16 year old Torrie, uses words like dulcet and cordiality), I resonated with the idea that Christmas is a season of “anticipation,” of “the beautiful, unrestrained and determined faith of a child.”

I don’t observe Advent, but I do think about what it means to wait. Last year at this time, I was sad and angry, and, although I didn’t know it at time, on the brink of some of the deepest soul-searching and self-building I’ve done yet. I was waiting for something hidden inside me to come to bloom. Out of the darkness of my grandfather’s death, out of the ensuing grief and the shattering loneliness that marked the first months of 2018 came something really beautiful: a life I was happy to be living.

This Christmas, I’ve felt less beholden to a performance of Christmas and more childlike about Christmas than I have in years. I feel mellow and happy and glad for the season. I baked a cake on Wednesday, and plan to frost it before we leave for a Christmas party today. My mom said about Thanksgiving that she likes how our family is at ease, but doesn’t want us to sacrifice tradition. I don’t see it that way. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, with the people I love. We plan to bake cut-out cookies, the kind we baked when my brother and I were young, but who knows how much of the family will actually participate. We’re going to be together. We’re going to sit in front of an actual fireplace (my parents heat their house with burning wood). We’ll have stockings hung, and trees lit, and I’m sure I’ll get shouted down when I suggested we watch a Christmas movie together. (At this point, that’s happened enough to call it tradition). I’ve done about half the Christmas “stuff” I usually do, and have enjoyed all of it twice as much. After Christmas day, I’ll have some time off work. I’m looking forward to rest, to New Year’s Eve, to 2018 beginning. I’m so grateful for all of it.

I wonder if this is what it’s like to be, at least for a little while, at the end of the waiting. To just, for a little while, be.

Storyteller, The Work of Becoming

What Followed Us Out: My Parents’ Memories and My Own

Sparkler
This has been happening more frequently in the past few years. When afternoons that I’m with my family stretch long, we—my parents, my brother and I—turn to reminiscing. Yesterday, it happened on the deck that my dad built with my uncle. The shadows were lengthening, wreaking havoc on their shadow-chasing dog. When we do start sharing memories, collectively we only have about an inch of perspective. I’m young enough that I can still feel childhood in my bones, and my parents are far, far from the age where memories turn cloudy and sentimental.

It’s interesting what happens when we start sharing what followed us.

Our memories warp themselves with time. with experience, and with the inevitability fallibility of our chemistry. My parents and I line up our warpings, and try to decide which is truer. I can remember them reading books they can’t remember reading. They try to remember when it was that they went tubing on the Apple River—was that before kids or was it with kids? Was Dad with?

What they remember my dad working and working and working. They were young, with young kids, and the on-call hours for an electrical lineman were good. My dad could work whole weeks of overtime stacked on top of whole weeks of regular work, and still spring back. (Although I remember him falling asleep face-down on the floor when he came home to play with us. We climbed on him, drove trucks over him, played with him still while he slept). My mom remembers tucking kids in to bed alone, and not being able to talk to her husband when he was called out to relight what storms and wind and malfunction had blown out. With pain, they remember their far that all we’d remember of our dad was him working.

I remember our dad coming home. I remember the playing on the floor, and the climbing all around him, and the giggling at where he fell asleep, when he fell asleep. I remember him being home from dinner, and I remember thinking that when my dad was at work, he was building substations, that he’d built every substation in the territory, (because once, he’d shown us one that he had built).

I remember a severe storm that blew our power, and created lakes between our house and the neighbors. We hid under the basement stairs—Aaron with all his books stacked smallest to largest—until the sirens stopped. Then we all went outside. The storm had turned out neighborhood into a battle zone—the wind and the rain and the lightening at war with everything that thought it should remain on the ground. Neighbors were out too, and the adults talked, and compared damage, and we all listened quiet to an explosion that came from somewhere else.

Dad was already working, and because this was before cell phones, we didn’t know where he was. It was well past bedtime, but my mom had packed Aaron and I into our car seats and booster chairs to bring us down to the station, to ask company dispatch where exactly he was, confirm for us that he was safe.

Then he came home with a truck so big it shook the ground when it idled, and this is what I remember—hearing the truck and feeling its tremors and knowing, before I could see it, that it was our dad. He came home to tell us he was safe, and tell us that he’d still be working, and probably to say something to mom that would help her get through another night, another day of single parenting.

I remember him coming into the garage, and having to twist up and around in my booster seat to see him through our car’s back window. He was dark, but ringed with light from the truck behind him, and I think his crew mates got out to say hi too.

I was five, and that’s the oldest memory of have of thinking, and knowing, that my dad was a hero, gone back out in the storm.

Later that night, after my mom had let me crawl into her bed, because dad was still going to be working, she woke me up, and told me to look outside. The power was out everywhere on our block and in our town, but just over the hill that our sat beneath was a fuzzy glow of electric light. I watched it for a few minutes, and then heard the hum as the power in our house came back to life. It was the sound of life for our little house, the sound of our dad’s care for us.

I knew he was at the end of our street—he and a crew who also knew that he had family and small kids on that block. Before he went out into the night to restring power lines and replace poles that had been cracked by straight-line winds, he’d turned our block back on.

I know from my parents that that storm became a “dedicated storm,” which meant that the damage was so bad that all the linemen worked 18 hours on, 6 hours off until the power across the territory was destroyed. I don’t remember him being gone for the next few days, even though I know he was.

I remember falling back asleep knowing, for the second time that night, that my dad was a hero.

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It’s this that we lay side by side in waning summer light. The warpings of our shared lives, of our interlocked memories. My parents both remember the absences, the short tempers, and the times they said no when it could have been just as easy to say yes to us kids. They feel the mistakes they think they made, and sometimes, they apologize, fifteen, twenty years later. When I try to place the pains and fears that my parents carried out of our childhood into the map of my own memory, I usually can’t. There’s no place for the hurts they thought we’d feel, the pain they thought they might have given us.

What followed them out of our childhood wasn’t what followed us.

As a family, we fit our separate warpings into something whole, and try to point to what is true, each of us feeling what followed us out.

What followed me was that light at the end of our dark street.

On Writing, Poetry, Storyteller

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Stone House FlowersOne of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip.

Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don’t know if that’s true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she’d been one of my grandma’s primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was still at my grandparent’s townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in a fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard,
frothy green carrot tops and poppies,
my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease.
I joined her for a harvest,
Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body.
She closed her eyes and I
fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden,
and filling it with her last calla lilies,
I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises,
where I found her vase
tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips,
sweet as the ones she blessed herself.
Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand,
where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes
and now leave flowers in her broken vase.