We snuck off to New York last month. We didn’t tell my father. We visited my birth family and best friend, but we did not visit my dad. I wasn’t trying to punish him. He did it to himself. I told him that my birth mother wanted to buy us plane tickets to visit and he said, “Don’t go taking money from her. You’re getting too involved. She wants to mother you. She has a mother complex.”
I used to hate Valentine’s Day. I spent seven years between marriages as a single girl and I hated it. All I wanted was to fall in love. I dated from time to time, but I’m not one of those women who needed to have a boyfriend, so if the guy wasn’t right, I didn’t keep him on the payroll. There were times I was desperate for a date – it was the companionship, not the sex – and I did initiate one relationship just to avoid showing up to social events alone. Everybody knew he was just a stopgap partner. We called him “short-term parking.”
It was really hard to go through all those years essentially alone and wondering what was wrong with me. Why I couldn’t meet the right guy? And then I met Matt and we fell in love and that was that. He’d broken up with his first wife seven months before we met. So in my “everything happens for a reason” mindset, I believed I had to be available when he came along.
I feel for my single friends, but there’s a limit to my sympathy. I have several women friends who are in their late 30s or early 40s and still single. And all they want to do is meet Mr. Right. And they don’t know why it’s taking so long.
I do. The truth is that they’re not doing it right. They’re overlooking the men who would be good partners because they’re focusing on the superficial. One of them likes the guys who hang out in the free weight room at the gym and go clubbing at night – not exactly husband and father material. Another friend is tall and she has a height requirement for her men. I wanted to fix her up with a wonderful guy, and I bet they would have liked each other, but she rejected him upon learning he was two inches shorter than her. Another friend likes country boys – to her credit, she does date outside the genre, but a boy has to be country for serious consideration. Plus, she’s looking in D.C. – it’s not exactly Nashville. She also excludes divorced men from her roster. She doesn’t understand that if a guy hasn’t been married by the time he’s 40, it’s a good bet that something’s wrong with him.
I wish all of these girlfriends well, and I actively pray that they’ll find someone, but I think they have to focus on finding the right person, rather than the right type. My husband says they’re too picky, and I see what he means by that, but if choosing a life partner isn’t something to be picky about, then what is? I applaud their pickiness when they reject someone who isn’t right, because despite their age, they won’t settle. No one should settle. Settling breeds divorce. But passing over possible partners for superficial reasons is what keeps them single.
Although they’ve had lots of practice dating, they still don’t realize what they’re looking for. They should be saying, “I want a new best friend who listens to 20 percent of what I say, that I can count on to get things done 10 percent of the time, with whom I can argue 10 percent of the time, and will spend the remaining 60 percent of the time asking for sex.” That’s a husband, girls. In ten years, you’re going to care more about how often he takes out the garbage than how muscular or how tall or how country he is.
If my friends in the audience still want to find a man, I’ll share this story. I don’t know if I did anything magical to find Matt, but I did follow a friend’s advice. She told me to write down all the qualities I wanted in a man, and tuck that piece of paper in my Bible. I did. I came across the paper the first year we were married and Matt had all the qualities I’d listed. Maybe there was some magic in that slip of paper. I’m sure God brought us together. I don’t know if the paper in my Bible helped, but it certainly seems that way. It didn’t hurt. And for my single friends rejecting guys out of hand, divine intervention may be the only way they’ll find exactly what they’re looking for. The practice is not limited to Bibles. Any sacred tome will do.
Maybe by writing those qualities down, I was able to overlook the superficial qualities we see in people we date, and focus on the important stuff: the personality and compatibility and the laughter that ensued. And I’m not saying there was anything superficially wrong with Matt – he was hot from the start and he still is – but he wasn’t my typical type. I liked Italian-looking guys – dark hair, brown or green eyes, olive skin – and Matt’s got light skin with medium brown hair and hazel eyes. He’s the reason Rose looks like the white version of me. But Matt is the perfect guy for me. We connect on so many levels, we respect each other and we make each other laugh. That’s what’s important.
That’s what it all comes down to: the important stuff. So if you’re reading this and you’re still single, do the good guys a favor and reevaluate your selection criteria. The big things are that you laugh at the same things, you have the same tolerance for tidiness, and you don’t run out of things to say to each other. Because when you find the One, you’ll want to grow old with him, and height shrinks, muscles sag, and country can turn redneck right before your eyes.
I tried to kill myself.
Twenty-four years ago, after a shameful bout of promiscuity, drug use and my first brush with manic depression, the thing that put me over the edge was my date’s indifference at the senior prom. After he rebuffed me a few times on the boat that served as our ballroom, I went down to my cabin and took some pills. I hoped that the pills, combined with the half-gram of coke I’d snorted, would do the trick. Fortunately the pills were just cold medicine but they were strong enough to counteract the coke’s stimulant effects. I slept for a few hours and then woke up wondering what I’d done. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to die. I told one of our chaperones what I’d done and they had me at the school psychologist’s office on Monday morning.
Years later I learned that I’d performed more of a suicidal “gesture” than an “attempt,” but it felt the same to me. I just wanted things to end. I wanted to get out of waking up the next morning and having another horrible day. I didn’t see much of a future, at least one I could enjoy. I went to therapy all summer and once I got to college, away from the shame and the dysfunction at home, I quit drugs, lost weight and began to look forward to a long, happy life.
This year more than any, I’m so grateful for that “failure.” 2010 has been an amazing year for me. I got pregnant after a year of trying, a discouraging prognosis, and giving up on the whole idea. Despite my age, Christian was born healthy and normal in all aspects – and darned cute too, if I do say so myself.
This year I reunited with my birth mother and we’re building a wonderful relationship. She’s giving me the mothering I still need at 42, and I’m giving her the daughter she never had. I finally have a parenting coach. My mother could never do that for me, because her Alzheimer’s disease took her away before my daughter was born.
I just had my first phone calls with my birth father, and that’s been a great experience as well. He’s warm and welcoming, even though he endured so much heartbreak around the events of my birth. He’s my shot at a good relationship with a father figure.
This year I attended my first real writer’s conference, had three publishing professionals ask to see my work, and I got laid off from my day job so I could realize my 17-year dream of working solely as a writer. I’ve seen this blog grow from 100 readers to more than 800 each month, and I’ve received such encouraging feedback from everyone. Let me pause for a moment to say thank you. The publishing industry says I need a lot more readers to sell a memoir, but my numbers are growing so I’m confident I’ll get there, and every little bit helps.
If I had known what this year would bring, maybe I wouldn’t have tried to off myself so many years ago. Then again, I’d have had to wait 24 years for 2010, and 17-year-olds are not patient. That day I couldn’t see brighter days. I couldn’t see how my life would get better, but it did. And I didn’t have to wait 24 years for that.
Had I known how the freedom and positive environment would affect me at college, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d finish my college career in Florida, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d publish my first essay on the second try, I wouldn’t have done it. All those things were right around the corner for me back then.
My first writing job was doing obituaries at my hometown newspaper. Even though my position was the lowest of the low, I loved that job, and I was so proud that I wrote for the same newspaper that brought me the comics and Ann Landers since I was 6. One thing I learned from being the “Obitch” was that more people die during the holiday season than any other time of year. We didn’t know why. We just saw it happen year after year.
We didn’t get a lot of suicides at the obit desk, at least not that many obvious ones. But so many people get depressed during the holidays that it made us wonder. I used to think that people got depressed about the holidays and just gave up on living. The whole idea made me so sad. Maybe if they knew what was coming up for them, they would have held on.
The holidays used to depress me too. After my divorce, I spent six years as a single girl in Washington, D.C. – a place reputed to host three women for every man. I had a boyfriend during the holidays only once during that singlehood. But I started the plan to bring on better holidays back then. One year I spent 12 hours driving home for Christmas in the snow, and my parents tried to cheat me out of the New York pizza I’d been promised, and then handed me my Christmas present in a wadded-up grocery bag. (See “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for details.) I vowed never to spend Christmas with them again, and ever since I’ve chosen my Christmas “family,” without the fights, without the drama, and without the heartache that Christmas used to bring.
During those single days, I had one date for New Year’s Eve over a six-year span, yet somehow I always found someone to kiss at midnight. And every New Year’s Eve album has pictures of me dancing with a bottle or two of champagne in my hands well after midnight. I would have preferred to have had a date, but just being able to dress up and go out was enough for me.
And I spent the seventh New Year’s Eve with Matt, whom I’d started dating that August. We married three years later. He’d been divorced only nine months when we met, so if I’d met anyone sooner, I’d have missed out on the love of my life. Meeting him was a good foundation for my belief that everything happens for a reason.
The holidays are supposed to be celebrations. And they’re not celebrations unless you actually celebrate. They’re not about drama and they’re not necessarily about family. Spend them with the people you love and choose your holiday company wisely. If your real family doesn’t cut it for you, find people who do. You can always see your real family when there’s less drama and pressure. If the holidays depress you, figure out what you can change to make them better. Then do it. And never forget that you have no idea what might be around the corner. I wish you a very Happy New Year!
“But now times are rough
And I got too much stuff
Can’t explain the likes of me”
One Particular Harbor - Jimmy Buffett
I’m dreading Christmas this year. Not for the usual reasons – I’m not visiting family or anything like that. We’ll be here with friends we love. That part’s great. It’s Christmas morning that’ll kill me. I just dread the inevitable influx of stuff that Christmas brings.
I am so sick of stuff. Not Matt’s and my stuff so much, it’s the kids’ stuff that kills me. This year we’re enduring a quadruple whammy of gift assault. The first wham came when my mother-in-law visited at the end of August. She lives on the East Coast and only sees her grandchild(ren) once or twice a year. (She still hasn’t seen the baby.) Naturally she wants to spoil them, and she does.
This year we thought we’d try for less stuff, so we explained to Rose and Grandma that we would celebrate Rose’s birthday during Grandma’s visit. So we did. We got a cake and Grandma bought Rose a ton of presents, including “Dora the Explorer” sheets and comforter. Rose was beside herself. I was beside the big pile, shaking my head. We thought Grandma would hold back for Rose’s actual birthday, around Thanksgiving, but our brilliant plan backfired and Rose got a ton more stuff, including “Little Mermaid” sheets and a comforter.
Between Rose’s un-birthday and Thanksgiving, Rose’s new grandmother came to visit. Thrilled to be a Yaya, my newfound birth mother brought gifts and then took the kids to Toys ‘R’ Us where she stocked them up some more.
Then came Rose’s birthday. Again, more stuff, and this time it came not only from both grandmas, but friends as well. Among other things, Rose got three pillow pets. My dad sent his usual check, and for once, I considered it the most thoughtful gift of all. Toys don’t pay for college and money doesn’t take up space.
And all of this conspicuous consumption raged in the middle of a recession. There are people out there who lost their houses and can’t pay their rent, but our kids have more toys than they know what to do with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for Rose’s grandparents and doubly grateful that they are in a position to buy gifts in such difficult times. And I’m happy that they’re doing their part to stimulate the economy, but the truth is, knowing what’s out there, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for having so much when there are so many people with nothing. I feel even worse now for complaining.
And then comes Christmas. Matt’s mom loves Christmas. Last Christmas, she sent so many gifts that Rose burned out on opening gifts halfway through the pile. Rose, then two years old, walked away from the enormous pile of Christmas gifts that stood pristine before her. We told her to come back – there was more to open, we said – but she decided she’d had enough presents and hopped on her tricycle. She just wanted to play.
So this Christmas, we’ve decided that Grandma will be Santa. We will buy Rose only one gift, and Christian gets nothing. He’s got everything he needs and he’s too young to notice. But we’re still faced with the prospect of too many gifts.
I’d love to give at least half of her gifts away. Sounds simple enough, but what happens when the Grandmas ask her how she likes them? I don’t want to lie to them when all they wanted to do is please their grandchildren. And Rose has an incredible memory for things like gifts. Once she opens a gift and sees it, it’s forged in her brain. If we furtively remove it from her pile, she’ll ask us, “Where’s my Candy Land game?” Maybe not Christmas Day, maybe not the next, but she will ask for it, soon and for the rest of her life. She’ll know she got it and that it’s gone, and that’s kind of a harsh thing to do to a three-year-old. We did it with some stuff last year, and we were able to donate the toys, but she was younger and easier to fool.
This is a great opportunity to teach her about giving, you’re saying. Teach her to give to those who are less fortunate.
Charity is a great idea in theory, but have you ever tried to get a three-year-old to give up her stuff? She’s at the age where everything is “Mine, mine, mine!” A couple of months ago I gave Rose’s bag of Craisins to a woman begging at a stoplight and she cried for two days. I explained to her that we had more Craisins at home and the woman couldn’t afford to buy her own. That argument was lost on her. She has no idea what “less fortunate” means. She just knows she doesn’t want to give up her stuff. We’ve been lucky enough, knock wood, to survive this recession so far, but we’ve been unable to make her understand that many people haven’t.
Her grandmas put a lot of thought and effort into buying gifts for the kids, and withholding gifts would hurt their feelings. We don’t want to hurt them, either. They’d understand more about giving, but they’d want to know the kids enjoyed their gifts before we gave them away.
So you see my dilemma. I can’t refuse gifts; I can’t withhold gifts; and I can’t give gifts away. I even tried to propose to Grandma that she put half of her gift money in an account for each kid, so by the time they graduate high school, they’d be able to pay for any college they want. She laughed. It wasn’t a joke.
I wish I had a solution to this “problem.” I wish we could give more where it really counts and teach our kids to appreciate what they have. Someday they’ll be old enough to understand. When they are, we’ll start a tradition of giving away one (or more) gifts every year. But for now, I’ve got to bite the bullet, clean up the wrapping paper and find a place for all of this freakin’ stuff.
“Hold still,” my mom said through the pins clamped between her lips. She tugged as the gray fabric pulled at my arms. “We’ve got to cut this more if we want it to look like a shark,” she determined, her eyebrows crinkled, “Hmm, now how do we do this?” She studied the fabric. “Ok, take it off,” she said.
She laid the costume on the ground, took a pencil, and under the arm, she drew an arc. “That should do it,” she said. She slipped the piece beneath the needle of the machine, and stitched the line she’d drawn. Exactly. I couldn’t even see the pencil line anymore. “I hate sewing,” she complained as she cut the ends of the thread.
It was Halloween Eve – mischief night to some — but to me, wardrobe and dress rehearsal. The day before my favorite day of the year. The next day I’d go to school and everyone would compliment my costume or shout out in the hall. This was the best costume yet. So far I’d been a chocolate chip cookie, a nun and the Pillsbury Dough boy. The chocolate chip cookie in third grade started it all. Our neighborhood ran a costume contest every year. I was too old for it now but my cookie costume had placed second years ago, when Amy’s Statue of Liberty won first prize. I was mad because my costume was better but they gave it to her because she had brain cancer. I didn’t forgive those judges until after Amy died.
I loved when people recognized my costume in the halls. “Michelin Man,” they’d say about my dough boy costume, and when I told them who I really was, they’d kick the stuffing that’d collected in the bottom and I squealed “Tee hee.” On Halloween, I could start a conversation with anyone. People really wanted to talk to me. We didn’t have a contest at school but it didn’t matter. That day I was the belle of the ball.
My mother hated to sew. She went to fashion high school. I don’t know why, because the piano was her first and only love, but that’s the story. She loved fashion but she hated sewing. But I benefited from my mom’s misdirected education. Every Halloween my mom would make me a costume. It was great having a mom who could sew because I wanted such elaborate costumes. Besides the chocolate chip cookie and the Pillsbury Dough Boy, I was a shark, a nun, and my personal favorite, Cousin It from the Addams family. We’d work on the costumes all week and then on the eve of Halloween we’d finish, with my mom sewing furiously and me yawning and rubbing my eyes until 11:30 when they were finally done.
Then I’d get to the bus stop at 7 a.m. and my day in the sun would begin. I woke up tired, but all the compliments and attention electrified me. I spent class time writing notes to my friends about all the attention, and tugging and primping my costume for my next curtain call between classes. Then the shouts and laughs started again.
After school the younger kids would trick or treat. The little kids had the afternoon, but the night belonged to us. That was when the bombs dropped on Lake MacGregor. I’d toss aside my painfully elaborate costume and dress as a bum with a pillowcase groaning with eggs and shaving cream. I’d meet up with the other bums and we’d bomb some houses. We’d bomb people we didn’t like. No tricks, just vandalism. If someone’d ratted on us smoking, we’d bomb their house, or their car, or their mailbox. But mostly we bombed each other.
Halloween was the night that gangs roamed the street. Upscale, suburban, honor-student gangs. Red Mills would meet up with Lake MacGregor and we’d throw eggs at each other. We’d break eggs on heads. We’d bump into someone in the dark and shower them with shaving cream. Shaving cream was just fun. Breaking an egg on a head hurts. And I never did it, but sometimes the older kids would mug the little kids for their candy. Somebody mugged me and Alison once and I still had bad memories.
On Halloween night, the cops would cruise our neighborhood in an effort to mediate the mayhem. Anyone caught with eggs or shaving cream got a free ride home in the squad car. Once they took Joel, from the richer side of town. Everybody joked that he went down yelling, “You can’t do this to me! My Dad’s a doctor!”
So when I returned home last year for Halloween I was understandably excited. It was Rose’s first real Halloween and she’d spend it in my hometown. She’d meet my best friend, my sister really, and it would be just like the old days, except this time I’d had to make my own costume because we’d come to bury my mother.
I’d been making my own costumes for some time now. I was 41 and just starting a family. It was the first time my father would meet Rose. In a month, she’d be two.
My mom had been gone for eight years by the time she died. Alzheimer’s slowly encroached upon every system in her body, making it a slow, painful death for everyone. By the time her body gave out we’d grieved, and lamented, and lashed out enough to accept the dull feeling of relief. Throughout the 13 years of her decline my helplessness had evolved into numbness, dry tears and a longing for her final breath.
So Halloween was a fitting time to go home. I loved costumes but never warmed to the creepy aspects of the celebration. Halloween was the day my own tormentors couldn’t get to me. Even my father got a kick out of my costumes. He’d take pictures and compliment my creativity. But this year it was death that brought us together.
We spent the first day at the funeral. After a cookie-cutter Greek Orthodox ceremony at the church, I’d read my eulogy and we loaded into the cars. We rode with my dad, who drove straight to the cemetery leaving the procession to sort itself out. As we drove down the back route my dad had dictated in the directions, I fielded calls from lost cousins. “You’re supposed to wait for the HEARSE!”
“I know, Dina, I know.” But my dad never noticed nor subscribed to proper decorum.
At the cemetery, we waited for the lost cousins but people complained that they had other commitments so we started the ceremony. I watched the pallbearers carry the coffin to its perch above the grave, and set the two flower arrangements – from my best friend’s family – our neighbors for 35 years – and my office –around the coffin. My dad didn’t want flowers or donations or anyone to know, really. Although my mother had taught piano to half the town, my dad insisted a wake was superfluous. If we’d had a wake, he’d have been forced to admit that Mom died of Alzheimer’s. And of course, it would have cost money — a concept to which my dad was most averse. It was safer to pretend that mom was like a stone dropped into a pond – she caused some ripples then disappeared, as if she’d never existed.
He got his wish. Her brother and sister didn’t stay for the luncheon. Her sister was too upset and her brother’s son/driver had to work an evening shift, so we had lunch with the few remaining mourners and our family priest. My dad had chosen an Italian restaurant, God bless him, so I got my New York food fix my first day home. No matter how numb you feel, a good veal marsala will bring you back to the pleasures of the flesh.
We spent the rest of the week at my best friend’s house, watching Rose fall in love with her aunt and uncle and rehashing the funeral. We tried to figure out what to do for Halloween. Rose had to trick or treat – she was old enough now and for God’s sake, she was my daughter so I had to teach her about Halloween. We had to coordinate with Cathi’s sister’s kids and we considered doing it in our old neighborhood – her parents still lived next door to my dad – but in the end, her sister’s kids chose their own trick-or-treating territory.
And it was fun. I dressed as a polygamist from a radical Mormon sect, Rose was a parrot, and Matt had planned on a traditional all-white suit to compliment my outfit, but the funeral had pre-empted his costume hunt, so he followed us, drinking “coffee” out of a to-go cup and taking pictures.
Rose loved trick-or-treating and bugged us to go back out once we’d come in for more “coffee.” We laughed amongst the mayhem that only nine young kids in a 1950s-era cottage can provide, and left tired and happy, feeling lucky to have spent my favorite holiday with my chosen “family.” I realized that much as my dad had tried, my mom’s life wasn’t just a ripple in a pond. She left me with 40 years worth of treasured memories, a line of custom-handmade costumes and the opportunity to spend Rose’s first Halloween with the people I loved the most.