Tag Archives: family

My Sister

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The family she arrived to

My earliest memory of my sister was of a man coming to our house to speak with my parents. He was there to see if our home was a stable one. One where my sister would be welcomed and provided for. One where she would not only be safe, but hopefully nurtured and loved. I remember my mom essentially asking me to be on my best behavior before they arrived, but who’s to say whether or not that actually happened. I was, after all, just 6 years old.

I didn’t really understand why we were getting another sister. I had 2 already. There were 3 of us boys. I don’t think much of an effort was made to explain it, but that said, I have a six year old now and it’s remarkable the things he doesn’t hear us saying and the things he does. Maybe there was a giant family meeting. Maybe it was just the few words of encouragement to act normal when the interviewer came over to meet us.

Maya Lin (this is the name of the designer of the Vietnam Memorial and I will be using it in place of my sisters name in this post) was a teenage girl from Vietnam and we were a very big and ever growing family of white, suburban, Great Lakes style americans. We must have been quite a shock to her. Tall, pale and rembunctiously carefree. We were loud and curious, bold and kind. We were a station wagon with wood paneling kind of family who couldn’t have been more American. I can’t for the life of me, now, imagine what it was like for her to be dropped into this story as a young girl. At the time it never ocurred to me to wonder.

I was not all that welcoming. It’s just not a strength of little boys. I argued with her over the TV. A lot. To my memory my mom always sided with Maya. I was always cordial in screaming about how unfair it was and storming out of the room. I was a real charmer back then. Before long she acclimated. Never has more been swept aside in so short a time as me brushing past the acclimation process. But what can I know. She was plopped down into a new home and made a member of a new family in an instant. It was never questioned, never fretted on. Not from our side, my side at least.

Sure, my mother will tell you, if you ask, about that time, about her incredulous reaction to seeing snow fall, a thing she’d come accustomed to in no time as we lived in the 3rd snowiest city in America according to the video I watched on Facebook yesterday. It was from The Weather Channel and it meshes with my memory and the common understanding of where I’m from. She’ll tell you about how she had to have the TV to watch Soap Operas, a thing that was banned in my house for the wild disregard for moral behavior, to learn the language. My mom, and I don’t know how she figured this out, showed her these shows because all the characters spoke slowly, they over emoted, they spoke directly to the camera in close up and they repeated themselves over and over. Minus the horrid personal behavior, they were ideal for teaching the language. The other favorite was West Side Story. Musical theater courses through both sides of my family and while the appeal of this was lost on six year old me, the effect for language acquisition was also helpful. And she flat loved West Side Story. Mom would also tell you of her struggles acclimating to school and the challenge it was for her in that short time before she got the language down and made a friend or two.

I’d tell you about the new smells that as a 6 year old I thought were horrifying. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had a little boy. I had to leave the room the other day because I was eating a banana and this was just too much for Teddy to handle. In my case it was the smells of the food that I now realize I really missed out on. My palate has grown in sophistication since then and at this time when half my calories comes from cough drops and the other half comes from cold, discarded, nuggeted meats it feels like a real missed opportunity. Then there was the smell of bad overboiled hot dogs coming from the bathroom when her friend came over. It was just a home perm, a thing a thousand teenage girls that year did in my town, but none lived with us. My older brothers were yet to pull the trigger on the home perm.

Whatever her experience I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it was a fully family version of growing up. It was sadly not the ideal version of family that was taken from her. But it was a very loving one she made her way to and became a part of. And because she did I learned of the small but thriving Vietnamese community where we went to shop with her. I saw the food from all over the world I had never imagined existed so close to me. I learned the look of government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letter paper that allowed her to get what I think were censored letters from her family in Vietnam. It taught me that I could love her in all the same complicated ways we all love our individual family members. I remember being sad when we dropped her off at college and happy when she could and would come home for holidays. I remember missing her way of eating, a thing you don’t think can be different, so different before you see it. I remember feeling like something was missing when she wasn’t there and feeling like we were all home when she was.

Our whole family was growing as this all took place. We were adding new members and each of us growing as well. By the time she was done with college she had a boyfriend. A Vietnamese boyfriend. I was 16(ish) and we were now 6 Medler’s (My youngest brother was born in 84) and everyone that would be a part of our family had arrived, to one degree or another, by this point. Whether it was right after college or a few years later her boyfriend eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The wedding was to be in King Of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I don’t know why, but I think they were living there at the time. She worked at a bank, I know that much, but honestly, she could have been president or a part time teller. Regardless I now look back on her asking me to be in her wedding with immense pride. It’s a real honor that she thought of me. I’m afraid at the time I was not so gracious. I said no. Yeah. I was also from a family where they respected my right to do such a thing. I’m sorry I did that. I’m incredibly thankful that they also asked my older brothers, both of whom have been and remain far more gracious in such matters.

Well, shortly before the wedding, and I mean very shortly, one of those government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letters arrived to alert Maya that her whole family was being released (had been granted visa’s.) I can’t begin to imagine how this felt for her. She hadn’t seen her mother and father and sisters and brothers since leaving. They hadn’t seen her since she was taken away. I can’t get into details I don’t know, but I know that what happened in the time between her leaving home and arriving to us was scary. She was made to leave in a moments notice and she was in a camp for some period of time. There were long periods when she was cargo on boats with no place to go, having no idea what life would hold if there was a future. She experienced and endured, as a teenage girl, innocent and surely terrified, things I know I never would have endured. But now she was here. My big sister. Annoying and loving. My honest to god sister. All the while waiting and hoping she could see her family again.

They would be arriving in a short time and once there the wedding would be in a matter of days. I remember us all, now in a minivan, making our way from Brockport New York down to Philly and checking into as few rooms as were reasonable for our large family, and getting dressed in our fancy duds. Mike and Eric in their tuxes and I in my Don Johnson whites (it was the 80’s) and my sisters in their best. My parents were old pros. They left enough time for us to woof down some happy meals and such in the parking ot of the McDonalds before heading over to the wedding, where all the food would be stuff our sensibilities hadn’t yet caught up to. I’m sure they were traditional Vietnamese wedding foods, but we weren’t really the traditional Vietnamese wedding goers. Not by a long shot. My Abraham Lincoln looking father matched old Abe in every detail, even height and frame. 6’4″ and slender, of Irish and Finnish descent. Still, we were there, her family. We weren’t in the front row, as that was for her Vietnamese family, but we were ushers and pasrticipants, those of us wise enough to recognize and accept that honor. Again, very sorry.

Anyway, there I sat, a foreigner in my homeland at a joyous celebration for my sister and her new husband. The ceremony was in Vietnamese and we knew to follow along. Our little league of nations pew at the church each weekend was one that taught us how to be attuned to ritual and cermony and this was no different. Just a different language. I remember looking back as the music started. My father and sister emerged, arm in arm. They walked down the aisle, she a bride and he her dad. It was beautiful. When they got to the first pew my father stopped, removed his arm and kissed her cheek and handed her hand to her fathers arm who took her the rest of the way and ceremonially gave her away.

I can’t imagine what this was like for her Vietnamese family. I can say that a lot of what I now see as extraordinarily meaningful was not so profound in the moment. I didn’t realize it all, what it all meant at the time. I’m discovering layers even as I write it here.

Our lives take on different meanings as they beat ever forward. Contexts and understandings change as we do. I know that my sister was meant to be a part of my family. It may not have been predestined, it may have come as the result of wretched circumstance. But in the end the love that we had, that persists to this days as we are all flung far and wide is something I’m so thankful for.

Fathers and Suns

You perform a rhapsody

Day in and out

Of love and pain and laughs and tears

And I fall for every prop

You look at me for all

As if I caused the sun to shine

Told the moon to rise and sparkle

Were it asked you’d say 

I was the one. The one.

Who dragged the moon to the sky 

Who put the sun to bed

Who rose at dawn to wake the world 

Shook it out of bed

I won’t abuse you of this thought

Or fail it while you carry

A necessary delusion that keeps us all merry

That makes me large enough to carry

The love and pride and fear  and worry

That you alone have brought

I warrant a giants space

A gods all knowing visage

With all the pride and love you give me

The illusion won’t stand forever 

Soon you will discern

That who you thought were mighty

Were little but concerned

And eager and bemused

Agobbed at what life wrought

As soon as you arrived we knew 

The gifts that weren’t yet bought

The truth that we disguise

Is evident to other eyes

To any looking at you and the grown ups who can’t catch up

While you labor in a lie

One we all must cling to

The truth, it’s you not I

That we all revolve and cling to

You are the sun and we the earth 

As much as we can figure

But if that’s wrong and you’re the earth

Than that should only figure 

Of all celestial bodies it’s the moon that we must be

As the sun that shines and alights us

Is all that we can see. 

Our Adventures…

img_4314I’m running out of nights like this. I lie in the dark trying to get comfortable in a single bed with a big four year old who wants me there and wants me out of his way all at once. We talk a lot about how he doesn’t want to sleep, how he doesn’t know how to sleep. We used to talk about how closing his eyes hurt him. I’ve since learned to stop asking him to close those eyes.

This is all after I’ve read the 6 year old as much Harry Potter (we’re on ‘Chamber of Secrets’ and he seems to love it!!) as I can before my eyes fail or his drift off. I love that we’ve gotten to the Harry Potter stage, even if I did rush it a little. The natural magnetic force keeping us ever connected is loosening as he ventures out in the world and our relationship is evolving, as it should. I’m happy we’re taking these nightly adventures to Hogwarts. I loved reading these books the first time around, but for me that was my 20’s and 30’s. Reading with him is making me acutely aware and evermore enchanted by all I am seeing now that I’m experiencing it all with a little guy who is more able to see the wonder and magic that Harry Potter and his friends and their escapades have to offer.

I haven’t always relished the putting the kids to sleep thing. Until recently we were each taking one kid and not getting out until real late, at which time we’d start the nightly cleanup. I’d be grumpy and tired and frustrated and my wife, far better at transitioning than I, would be left looking for adult conversation with a brooding lump who couldn’t be bothered to take his headphones all the way off. If you ask my wife I could still probably use an exit room akin to those ones I’ve seen in therapists offices on sitcoms. A place to process my feelings and decompress after putting the boys to bed.

Making the transition to the daddy that shares an interest with a kid from one who is the caretaker is one that happens organically. You recognize it piece by piece. You mark it in books first. Lifted his head, rolled over, first solid food, crawled, first words, first steps. Somehow they feel like your own accomplishments. To a small degree they are and in perspective they are amongst the most important minor roles you’ll ever take in any endeavor in your life. But they aren’t yours. These things, all of them, are there’s. We get the early credit as we should, but they are emerging. Each milestone marking a tick further along as they make it all the way to the people they will be. We are so caught up documenting every tree that the forest grows up around us and behind us and without us noticing we are wrapped up in discovering the life we missed along the way. Understanding the journey we made from lifting our heads and rolling over all the way to now. In doing so we learn that we were magical creatures once too. We were once the tour guides of life for the great adventurers we were once so unable to notice as they were disguised as our parents.

img_4321Eventually it’s an adventure inside an adventure inside an adventure out into infinity. We can look backwards and imagine our lineage as a seemingly never ending line, emerging and submerging each to the next all the way to the horizon. I find myself endlessly curious about the lives of all of them. I lie in bed wondering if my own parents felt this strange mix of weary burden and enlightened awe as they lie in the dark wondering if they were doing it right. Did they ever lie in that bed as the defiant and playful 3 year old while there parents wondered why they were given so much to carry and so much to be carried by. It’s all so obvious now, to me, this joy that I feel in the midst of the frustrations and among fluctuating confidence that can bounce so wildly between feeling absolutely assured that I’m nailing this whole parenting thing and the utter and obvious understanding that I am completely unequal to the task and am failing in ways that will inevitably go echoing into a future that scares me because I can’t know how it will all turn out. If it will all turn out.

Before long I’m back to the story. Back to the excitement of seeing what will happen to the boy who lived under the stairs. Excited to see how he will once again foil the indefatigably awful Dursley’s so he can make his way back to where he needs to be, with his friends, finding the life that is awaiting him. Full of adventure and meaning and life and love and tragedy. Hoping that he makes it through without the scars burdening him so greatly that he can’t be who he was supposed to be. Hoping beyond hope that there’s a story about the evil ones that makes it all make sense in a way that wasn’t just pure evil. Hoping the Dursley’s find peace and Harry can find forgiveness and understanding when he eventually gets to an age and thinks, ‘What the hell was all that about?!’ Hoping love will find each and every one of the people that matter. Hoping it will reach the Harry’s and Ron’s and Hermione’s, sure, but also the Neville’s and even the Draco’s and Crabbe and Goyle’s.

The adventure goes on far further than I ever imagined as a kid. It stretches out before me and beyond me ever morphing and suddenly surprising. The further I go the more I want. I lay in the dark adrift in adventure, wondering and wanting more than I ever could have thought imaginable while also knowing I won’t be around to see it all play out.

Let’s Talk About Sex (The ‘You Have Kids!’ Edition)

We’ve been DTF  since jump. It’s one of those things I guess. Pretty happy to find that it’s hardly diminished in quality despite the rapid aging and overall physical toll raising kids has had on me. No, quality is not the issue. Our problem is quantity.

img_3372That’s right. This is a married, middle aged sex post. There’s nothing graphic to scare you away, though the topic is the topic. Grab a glass of wine or a cold one and see if any of what I’m saying strikes a chord. If you know me and have no wish to think of me as a sexual being and it’s already to late as I referenced my sexual life already and you have inadvertently and regretfully already constructed a horrifying picture in your mind I’d advise you go find the old bottle with the handle in the liquor cubby. The one in the back you bought for a super bowl party 15 years back, and just guzzle. After slamming your computer shut or throwing your phone away and smashing it like those guys with the fax machine in Office Space, erase all record of me. Wake up, check that you retained enough senses to unfollow, unfriend and unremember me before blacking out and move on with your life. Nothing to see here.

I don’t want to hear any morality nonsense. Firstly we’re married so discussing the beautiful coming together (Not literally. Too high risk. We are committed turn takers, a stance I’ll defend to the death.) of a portly man who retains mere glimmers of his former beauty and his ageless, perfect wife (Seriously. Think Peter and  Lois of the Griffin family. This image will reflect the vast disparity between her physical appeal and mine. It’s great to be in it, for me at least. Can’t speak for the wife, but I don’t need any photos either so I get where you might be coming from. Pics of her, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, but yeah, as for me, nah.. That’s a hard pass (Boom)) is decidedly in bounds. As far as your pearl clutching at the idea of middle aged folks doing the deed, I just don’t care anymore. Don’t let anyone tell you there are NO advantages to becoming an old man and losing your fastball. I may be a junkballer now (boom) but at least I no longer care about your opinions regarding my life. It’s remarkably freeing getting old.

So, anyway…

img_2150Here’s my complaint. We would love to have more ‘alone time’ then we get. Let’s not beat around the bush (boom), it’s all their fault. These little, well, let’s just say ‘rhymes with dockblockers’ are unwitting masters of their chosen form. It ain’t just the simple stuff either. There’s plenty of that garden variety salt in their game, sure. There’s more though. They’re playing the long game as well. Let me show you what I mean.

Sex is a generous and warm way for us to give and receive love. It’s great for that. Do you know when those feelings of love are often stirred? When you are being that version of your family that you hoped you’d be as you strolled out of that hospital, baby in hand wondering, ‘Holy crap. Is no one going to stop me? Am I just allowed to take this person home? What the hell. I don’t think I’m tall enough for this type of responsibility.’ Say after grabbing pumpkins and cider at the farm market. Everyone was cute in their autumnal sweaters and cords. Maybe I threw on those jeans that make me feel sexy. A flirty scarf might have even been thrown on last minute. Why not. We’re worth it. For a sunny, crisp afternoon it was easy to think we were the couple we impersonate in our professionally staged family photos. It felt great!

So great that we lost our heads. We started making out in the kitchen while lunch was being defrosted in the toaster oven and the kids were distracted by the Curious George Halloween special on Netflix. These were heady times. We should have proceeded with caution. But we didn’t. That’s kinda the point of heady times.

‘Wanna have some sexy time..’ one of you says.

‘Hell yeah! I’m a man ain’t I?’ one of us replies. Okay. It was me. ‘I mean seriously. I am right? I can still do this right?’ My lady is my support in many ways and confidence is a fleeting thing in your forties. At least in so far as physical prowess goes. At least for me it is. Stop judging me. Move on.

‘After the kids go to bed.’

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod… That’s it. That’s the time we can do it (boom)! She’s serious.

‘Yes. Oh my god, yes!’ I reply.

‘I don’t know, they’re looking pretty beat at the moment.’ It’s a joke, but you know, whatevs. She’s digging me.

This is a good day. There’s a ton left to do and seemingly endless hours until we reach the promised land. But it shines in my minds like a beacon on a hill as I climb. Through meals, laundry, cleaning, laundry, playing, cleaning, laundry and folding laundry and bath time all the way until we put them to bed. Through it all we stole kisses and wayward grabs, having fun and laughing. Smiling and flirting, knowing we knew what was coming (boom) and we were excited for it. Fueled by lust and love and coffee we finally arrived at nightfall. Kids fed, cleaned, watered and pottied there was only one hurdle left to clear.

This is where our ‘bad’ parenting comes in. Please note, we are wonderful parents. They are nearly as lucky to have us as we are to have them. But the component skills of parenthood, the things one must master to be able to sustain without losing your mind daily, well, we haven’t been great about those things. This is never more evident then at bedtime.

To be fair the look we have by now, sun having gone down (we never really adhered to that early to bed approach so many successful put-to-bedders have ascribed) baths and meals prepared and given, our energy is waning. But that’s okay. Our enthusiasm for the endeavor remains. We give one another a wink as we head to seperate bedrooms and begin the long days journey into slumber. Falling asleep is not a default reaction to being tired. So the nightly wrestling match begins. I can’t speak for her but in our room, it’s almost impossible to survive the process with anything approaching an iota of energy left.

Thus begins the ‘dockblocking’ of which I noted.

img_1811Board books. Curse thee. Sure, some are better than others. I get that.. I can get down with the Little Blue Truck. I have a love hate relationship with Goodnight Moon. I can certainly appreciate the cleverness of the assorted Seussian delights that dot the bookshelf (piles next to the bed) of my kids bedroom. The problem is that they are a very VERY powerful narcotic once you’ve read them, in the right order, 200 times or so. By now, 1800+ readings in it’s positively deadening. The ability to read an entire book with my eyes closed, turning the page at the right times is a cool trick, sure. But its accompanied so often by my kid, bright eyed and bushy tailed turning to wake me up and force more of this on me. Any more of this little blue truck and a little blue pill wouldn’t even be able to get me to the ‘finish line’ of our earlier promise.

Next, lights out and in bed. More bad at parenting here. We have never had the will to let them shed a tear in pursuit of sleep. We’ve tried but our inevitable, lilly livered buckling has left these boys unable to close there eyes without us laying next to them. For, at times, hours. This is the death of me. More often than not when my forty something constitution collides with their toddler level energy for a whole day I am unaware, perhaps, but the game is over. Long over by this point. Lets say, by some miracle I don’t fall asleep with my kids. Just for arguments sake. This series of events, this hustle (I’m convinced they are doing this on purpose to keep me away from mommy) has already worked.

As I exit the room I am weary. My ears are hot with exhaustion and I’m long overdue for bed. Having taken the hours I was expected to take my wife, having succumbed as well, in her own way to the other one in the other room has decided that I’m not coming out. On goes the jammys and the robe. These are not anything other than comfortable and delightful. I too am in my formless, baggy, old and tattered ‘sleep shorts’. We are not ideally clothed for this endeavor, but it could happen. We are kid free. At least we should be for the next 3-5 hours when kid 2 makes his way to our bed. We let him sleep there. It’s in line with our other poor decisions, it really shouldn’t surprise you. By the time we are on the couch, either said or not, that’s it. Ballgame (sad boom) over.

I should note, there is germ warfare at play as well. In general we all have varying degrees of chest and head colds at all times. This wasn’t true before they showed up. I’m not accusing them of purposeful espionage, per se. I’m not ruling it out though. For whatever the reasons might be symptoms get real persistent at these times. I doubt this is intentional, but again, I don’t rule it out.

That’s it. More often than not this is how sexy time plays (itself) out in our house. Stoked by feelings of warm connectedness. Given oxygen with stolen kisses and hidden grabs. Promised and anticipated. Doused. Dissipated.

 

 

Funny Boys

Charlie: I like this one.

Teddy: I like pick pun

Charlie: What’s a ‘pick pun’?

Teddy: Um.. It’s a kind of pun?

Charlie: What’s a ‘pun’?

Teddy: It’s a type of berry.

************

These conversations happen all the time now. So often I don’t even hear them. They are part of the white noise of parenthood, the ever present hum that fills the background of our lives and colors the corners of the spaces we share. They are amazing and we hardly ever notice them. But we were in the car and I happened to note the entire exchange. Once it hit me I couldn’t stop laughing. Like, fully exhaled, tears coming, hysterical laughter. This was brilliantly funny.

First is the simple mock of ‘I like pick pun.’ This is a four year old’s greatest tool when confronting an irresistible force such as an older brother with whom he is endlessly enamored with and to whom he feels the yoke of tyranny. The force is strong in Teddy and he will be free the yoke sooner than I might even imagine, but for now the older brother is living up to his first born obligations as an authoritarian leader. He can’t and won’t be dissuaded. Though we do check his power whenever we see him abusing it. We’re even preemptive if we think any situation, from which order to eat his dinner to how long he is entitled to play with his own toys before ‘sharing’ them (like a feudal tax) to his (tor)mentor, the older brother.

Charlie, for his part, ever the straight man in this entire exchange, took his younger brother at face value. He was genuinely curious as to what a ‘pick pun’ was. The air of my second child changed. What was a playful, mocking tone immediately became something far more worthy of genuine consideration. His idol and hero noticed him. He asked him a question. He was interested in what was being said to him! I could practically hear his inner monologue as he pondered what to say now that he’d found himself here. ‘OMG, this is really happening. He want’s to know something that I can tell him… Don’t blow it… What is a pick pun, what is a pick pun.. ‘It’s a kind of pun.?.’ ‘

A good deal of the humor was in this shift from total silliness to serious.

‘What’s a pun’ said Charlie.

It worked! Teddy tested the waters with nonsensical logic and he bought it. He was on the line. This was more than a bite.. Now, how to reel him in..

‘It’s a type of berry.’

Talk about nailing the dismount…Brilliant! My boy is a creative genius!

Some might say that this simple exchange is not worthy of this level of line by line analysis. To them I say leave the assessment of my child’s genius to me. For now I will proceed knowing that regardless of whether or not these boys decide to develop this act, regardless of whether they choose the fame and riches of comedy genius, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps they will find more fulfillment in some other line of endeavor. But I’ll know, I’ll always know that they will always have this talent to fall back on. Not only as a career, but as a tool to navigate everything from meeting people to handling rejection. These boys are legit and the ‘yes and’ crowd should keep an eye on this up and coming improvisational duo.

What’s a pick pun.

It’s a kind of pun.

Gold, Jerry!

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Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

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I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.

More Than Life Itself

ILYMTLI. I love you more than life itself.

Real people have real tragedy. Sometimes unique and awful. Other times universal and awful. So when Michael ‘positivity’ Davies, he of the Men In Blazers podcast, thanked the many GFOP’s (fans of the podcast) who’d reached out through email and social media to send their condolences for the recent passing of his mother, I could feel his pain, even if he wasn’t sharing it. He remained positive, remained grateful. But in there I could hear the sadness and in the sadness I could see the love he had for the woman he credited with making him a football fan.

In wrapping up the discussion, before moving on to the weeks events in the Premier League, he noted that he loved how his mother always signed off on everything she wrote to him with ILYMTLI. It stood for ‘I love you more than life itself’, which both hosts agreed was practically a gushing paean to the love of a mother for her child for a woman of her generation in England. What with their stiff upper lip defiance of the decimating effects of the war. He knew he was loved and felt lucky to have been told so. He was made more aware of how appreciative he was when she passed.

I think love, in addition to all it’s other benefits, is a tool we have to understand life. At the moment while I’m in the middle, little ones to one side and wise old heads to the other, I’m starting to understand the scope of my life because I can see the most of it that I ever will. I am lucky that the bonds I have reflect what Mrs Davies so clearly felt and what was so clearly perceived by her son. My mother and my father loved and love their children more than life itself. I love my children the same way. I love them far more than I ever knew I could love anyone. Maybe love, the type that stretches out looking to connect, to understand, maybe that is running a deficit these days. Maybe our seeming lack of empathy, however it has come to be is creating negative spaces for unexpected and unrecognized compassion to grow.

There is love in the relief. Amidst the unwavering anxiety and stress is a love and empathy that is unmistakeable. I write often emotionally attached, perspective driven, heartwarming stories that satisfy fully ones need for warmth, my need for it. But if I’m being honest there is often a shadow energy of fear and sorrow and worry. It may be unspoken, or it may be hinted at but most times its there and it allows for my evocations of love and hope to have more impact. I’m not suffusing the stories or anything, that’s just the reality for me right now. All of this, life itself has only become something I can truly appreciate now that I am able to see that I can’t hold it forever. Now that I know that the stories I’m most intrigued by, most invested in, most in love with, my sons, are stories that must outlast my time here. That’s if I’m lucky. I won’t dare entertain other outcomes. But the slippery nature of life, the dawning understanding of my own mortality at the same time as I learn my purpose can lend an underlying air of sadness that is often the impetus to live more fully and more in the moment and can result in great joy and peace and love.

Love does important work when it is hiding in the background, allowing space for fear and anger and envy and anxiety. Love is smart and sees the long game. Love knows survival wins in the end and is content to wait quietly in the background for her moment while her more eager and urgent compatriots burn themselves out. Those other emotions for all their bluster are unsustainable. She stays steady in the air we breathe and finds just the moment to engage again.

Love, empathy, compassion. These are things that disguise themselves as wonderful frivolities but they are not frivolous. They are the ultimate payoff for our toils. Without them all of this, all of life, so grand and connected, is for nothing.

There is a lot of love that is going to be needed someday when all the anger and fear that are so ubiquitous in the air right now burns out. I hope it does so before it grows and causes irrevocable tragedy. I hope that we are able to correct our course before the whole world is set aflame. I’m doing my best to protect the spaces that are safe for tenderness and caring. But those spaces that feel safe are getting smaller and smaller.

I hope for an equal swing to love and empathy and kindness and understanding that will arise as the pendulum swings back the other way, whenever that my be.