I can tell it’s December when my stats are full of searches for Hanna’s Christmas! If you’re new: it’s been out of print for a long time, so here’s a read-aloud video to share with your kids.
If you’re on the hunt for a used copy, set yourself a reminder to check Amazon Marketplace and eBay in June or July. 🙂 Resellers tend to mark the book up to ludicrous prices at this time of year, when demand is high.
I’m a bit off my game—ordinarily, New Year’s Day posts gallop out of my fingertips even before I’ve cleared the New Year’s Eve sleep out of my eyes. This year, my head’s in seventeen places at once. A family member is ill, a friend’s baby is in the hospital, some other things are afoot. But our Christmas, here at home, was lovely: mellow, merry, and messy—which is possibly the most succinct description of our family dynamic I’ve ever managed.
A highlight of the week (for Beanie, Jane, and me) was singing in a choir at the Sea World Christmas show on Sunday night. A friend of ours is the choir director at a parish in downtown San Diego, and his group was invited to perform in Shamu’s Christmas. He extended the invitation to our homeschooling circle, and thus it was that my girls and I found ourselves decked in blue robes, singing Silent Night and Joy to the World while orcas fountained out of the water behind us. And then in front of us. None of my pictures (from the rehearsal, sans orcas) came out, but it would take a magical photographer to capture the wonder of the moment. An unforgettable experience.
Last night was paninis, gingerbread men, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a perfect celebration.
Craigslist did the trick, and a guy with a truck delivered us of the very bulky Ikea TV cabinet we bought—possibly our first furniture purchase ever, come to think of it—way back in our NYC days. We can’t fathom, now, how the moving men got it down the stairs of our apartment in Astoria, especially the narrow landing bit at the top. The thing served us well, and we’re glad it’s gone. The living room feels spacious now, and that’s with Christmas beginning to fill its corners.
We got about half the decorations up yesterday during Huck’s nap: the lights (two strings outside, three strings inside; I like to see them shine in the darkness), the stockings, the nutcrackers, the nativity set, the wooden Santa in the traditional red garb, the ceramic Santa in his unusual and gorgeous hunter green suit. Huck played with the creche figures all afternoon, but I guess he forgot about the decorations overnight, because this morning when he came trotting down the hall into the living room, he gasped and stopped in his tracks.
“The ’Ristmas room!” he shouted, literally jumping for joy.
Oh, he is funny these days. When I was first untangling the strands of lights I’d pulled out of the bin in the garage, I heard a sudden crunching sound and looked up to the sight of my little boy sticking out his tongue, upon which lay shards of broken green Christmas light. He’d bitten it right off the strand. He stood there calmly, nose wrinkled in disgust, unfazed by my shrieks. I picked the shards off his tongue, finger-swept around his gums. Terrifying. No cuts (the lights must be made of plastic these days? not glass?), no blood. “No taste good,” he informed me. You don’t say.
During today’s nap—we time everything quiet or fragile to coincide with his naps—we finished The Cottage at Bantry Bay, which I’ve been reading to the three middle girls. That last chapter is a doozy and I kept getting choked up, which always seems to tickle them. When Paddy tells what happened with the box of old poems in Dublin—you see it coming six chapters away, but still, it gets me—I really thought I might have to hand the book over to Scott for the last few pages. But he’d had to slip back to his desk, so I got myself together and faltered out the end.
Then we opened the last of the ’Ristmas boxes, the one with the ornaments, and the girls trimmed the tree. Rilla looked alarmed when those words were uttered at the outset of the endeavor: she thought it meant cutting the tree to make it smaller, and ours is already quite small. “It means hanging the ornaments,” we explained, and her relief was immense. They took great pains to hang all the breakable things up high, well out of Huck’s reach. Not, I suspect, that it will matter. A kid who’ll bite clean through a light bulb (egad, just writing it gives me the shivers) will stick at nothing. Glass baubles, we hardly knew ye.
Well, it has been a funny old Christmas in these parts. About half of us, including me, were sick with a rather vicious bug on Christmas Eve & Christmas Day—fever, chills, aches, cough—and others succumbed over the weekend. Today, Tuesday, the fifth day of Christmas, most of us have climbed back to normal. I’m sitting in the playroom watching three girls ride scooters in rings around the patio, while half a dozen sparrows scold them from the bushes. The feeder sat empty since Wednesday (you can tell I was really sick) and the birds are very happy to have their feast before them at last.
On Christmas Eve, around light-twinkling time, I was starting to feel a little sorry for myself, knowing I’d miss Mass the next morning. Then I thought about Billy and started writing the post I’ve been carrying in my heart for a very long time, and that snapped everything back into perspective. We had a lovely Christmas, fever and chills nothwithstanding. Happy children, the Babe in the manger, candy canes, beeswax candles tied with red ribbon, sparkly lights on the neighbor’s palm trees, a snuggly blanket and a little girl at just the right age for that stack of Jan Brett books she found in the basket. Scott took the healthy kids to church on Christmas morning and I stayed home with the little ones. Later he made a ham dinner. A good day. They are all good days, even the hard ones.
Today I feel almost back to normal, except for the lingering cough. I wandered into the backyard this morning and started pulling weeds, and suddenly there were pruners in my hand and I was whacking away at three months’ worth of neglect. I chopped the overgrown salvia bushes back to reasonable clumps, and beneath their straggly branches we found legions of seedlings: columbine and nasturtium, mostly.
And in the veggie patch the delightful surprise of a tomato plant and some tender cilantro seedlings. It’s all looking very springy back there and I know that must sound so strange to all my friends in the wintry parts of the world. Three years here, and this climate is still a wonder to me.
Against the back wall, a geranium is blooming: here’s where I find my Christmas red and green.
Now it’s later, and Scott is chopping potatoes for soup. It got cold here fast when night fell, chilling my toes, but the girls are still out there riding. Rose’s Christmas present was a new bike, inspiring a new passion for all wheeled conveyances, it seems.
Whack, whack, the knife on the cutting board. Shrrr, shrrr, the wheels on the cement. “You know what just occurred to me?” asks Scott. “Meryl Streep really did have to learn to chop onions at a dizzying speed.” He’s thinking of Julie & Julia, and he’s right, that was one of the scenes where I forgot I was watching an actress play Julia Child. Tonight, after the kids are down, I think we’ll watch part three of Lark Rise to Candleford, which we started last night. I’m so enjoying seeing Lydia Bennet of the BBC Pride & Prejudice all grown up and doing well. (Though I wish she’d spend less time riding horses with the Squire. Worrisome.)
Tonight I am thinking of Billy, as I do this time every year.
Billy was 15 when we met him, a tall, sturdy boy, athletic, strong. He was a sophomore in high school and an adventure rollerblader, the kind of fearless kid who rides down stair rails on his skates. We met him on the cancer ward at the children’s hospital. Jane was two, pretty deep into her high-dose chemo regimen for leukemia at that point. Billy had leukemia too.
Jane and Billy were roommates several times during the nine months of Jane’s in-patient chemo protocol. I will never forget the sight of big, strapping Billy sitting patiently beside my tiny little toddler on a hospital chair, entertaining her with fantastic playdough creations. To this day the smell of playdough brings to my mind the picture of Billy and Jane, her giggles, his affectionate grin, their two bald heads.
Billy had a different form of leukemia than Jane’s, one that could be harder to fight. His chemo regimen was pretty intense and he had months of terrible sickness. Throughout the ordeal he was goodnatured and upbeat, sweet to his mother, charming to the nurses. He looked forward to turning sixteen and learning to drive; he had been saving for a Corvette since he was 12 years old and had managed to squirrel away over a thousand dollars so far.
One day there was a ripple of excitement in the cancer ward. A radio station was having a contest: whoever could get the most famous celebrity to call in on his or her behalf would win…a Corvette. We were wild for Billy to win, all of us, the patients, parents, doctors, nurses. Everyone wracked their brains for any kind of celebrity contacts who might be persuaded to call in on Billy’s behalf. Scott had met Mark Hamill a couple of times in the Batman offices—these were the days when Scott was a Batman editor and Mark was doing the voice of the Joker for the animated show. If you called Scott at work and got his voice mail, it was Mark Hamill’s Joker voice you heard on the message.
So Scott put a call in, but Mark was away and couldn’t be reached. No matter: a nurse came running in with the exciting news that somebody in the lab knew somebody who worked on the set of Frasier. Kelsey Grammar had agreed to call in for Billy.
We huddled around the radio, waiting anxiously for the call. Billy was calm, grinning, enjoying the fun, while his mother and most of the other adults were jittery with hopeful anticipation. The big moment arrived: the radio host said he had a very special caller on the line. “Can you hear me, sir?” he asked.
And that rich and mellifluous voice rolled out the words we all knew so well from his show: “I’m listening.”
We screamed with laughter—then hushed, suddenly, because there was a second voice chiming in, dapper and sprightly: “Hello hello!”
“NILES!” shouted Billy’s mother, Jen. It was true: Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce were on the line. Billy was a shoo-in for that Corvette, for sure.
Alas, it was not to be. Kelsey and David were out-celebritied by one Mr. Paul Newman, who called in on behalf of the guy who worked as the cook at Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp, a summer camp for kids with cancer. Jen shrugged and said, “Well, yeah. I mean, Paul Newman.”
“Really?” asked Billy. “Who the heck is Paul Newman?”
He took his loss in good stride, remarking that if he had to lose, he was glad it was to a guy who worked at that camp. Besides, he had his Corvette savings fund. Some of us mothers may have grumbled a bit, ahem, feeling that if only Luke Skywalker had been in town he might have given Butch Cassidy a run for his money. (But probably not. I mean, Paul Newman.) But Billy was a great sport, and the whole thing was a bright spot in a string of difficult, chemo-filled days.
The only time I ever heard Billy break down was the day the doctors told him one of his chemo drugs had seriously and irreparably damaged his heart. Jane’s protocol, too, involved high doses of this very dangerous drug, but she was one of the fortunate ones; her heart suffered no ill effects from it. But Billy…Billy’s heart had taken a blow. Jane and I were on the other side of a hospital curtain, watching Blue’s Clues on her video monitor, when the doctors broke the news. You try not to listen, but those rooms are tiny and even with the curtain pulled, you are sitting practically side by side. Billy was told his days of adventure skating were behind him, and he would have to avoid contact sports. On our TV, Steve asked the audience if they had any ideas where he might find the next clue, and in the silence before invisible children told him to check the refrigerator, I overheard the low sobs of a teenaged boy with a broken heart.
But the good news, the great news, was that the poison had worked: Billy’s cancer was gone. Around Christmas time he was jubilantly discharged in remission. He used his Make-a-Wish Foundation wish to take his family on a celebratory cruise, as I recall. I thought it was typically sweet of him to use the wish for something his whole family—mother, father, little brother—could enjoy together.
A day or two before Christmas, Jane and I walked into the hospital playroom and were surprised to discover that the playroom’s ancient, pokey, maddening excuse for a computer had been replaced by a state-of-the-art system, complete with printer and a stack of kids’ games on CD-ROM.
“It’s a present from Billy,” the playroom attendant told me. “He spent his Corvette money. He said the kids here should have a computer that really worked.”
Billy’s cancer was gone, and he hoped never to set foot in that playroom again. He spent his car fund. Even now, a dozen years later, I can’t think about it without tearing up.
And then, months later, his cancer returned. He endured a transplant, and then graft-versus-host disease, and finally, after years of fighting the valiant fight, Billy’s body had had enough. He was 19 when he died.
Every year at Christmas I think about him, about that gift he gave the kids in the playroom, the endless stream of children whose lives have been turned upside down and whose days and nights are filled with pain and sickness and needle-sticks and tedium. I think about the 12-year-old kid deciding to start saving up for a red Corvette, and the 16-year-old who was looking forward to learning to drive.
Mostly I remember the big kid shaping playdough monsters for my little girl, going rrrahr as the dinosaur stalked the blue bunny rabbit, and Jane convulsing with giggles. “More, more!”
His cardiac muscle may have given out in the end, but there was nothing, nothing in the world stronger than Billy’s heart.
One of the many treasures of Balboa Park is the Spreckels Pipe Organ—the world’s largest outdoor musical instrument. San Diego employs a civic organist and offers free organ concerts on many Sunday afternoons throughout the year. I’ve been wanting to attend one ever since we moved here, and yesterday we happened to think of it just in time to catch the Christmas concert and community sing-along. The timing was perfect; my mother was visiting for the weekend. (She comes out for my birthday every year, which is the best possible present.)
We wore our new Christmas hats that my sister Merry made for us.
It was really too warm for them, but we were full of Christmas spirit.
As were the many doggies who attended the concert along with enthusiastic carol-singers.
It was all very merry and bright.
Possibly a little too bright.
Our all potential Christmas card photos turned out to be outtakes. That’s okay because I’ve already abandoned hope on sending out Christmas cards this year anyway.
The best part was when the organist invited audience members to join her onstage for the carol-singing. We didn’t know we’d get to be part of the concert! Beanie, Jane, and I were eager to sing. The rest of the gang watched from the back of the amphitheater.
We thought of our snowed-under East Coast friends when we sang White Christmas.
(Out here it’s a white T-shirt Christmas.)
The best part was the final song—an enthusiastic and somewhat ad-libbed rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. It is still ringing in my ears.
Methinks we have ourselves a new holiday tradition.
I couldn’t help but grin today at the contrast between the cozy Advent post I wrote before the children awoke, the one celebrating the best moments of the past week, and the complicated, messy, full-of-friction day that commenced as soon as the first child staggered out of bed. The thing is, every day is complicated, messy, and full of friction. And every day has glorious or cozy moments worth celebrating. I seldom bother to chronicle the friction and the mess because writing time is fleeting and precious—and childhood even more so. I’d rather capture the small joys that I might forget—or take for granted—if I don’t take time to set them down in words.
Pondering this, something that struck me was the difference between blogging and real-life conversation. If a friend calls me on the phone, I’m unlikely to say, “We just had the loveliest half hour while Jane played carols on the piano, and I curled up on the sofa with a quilt and the laptop, and Rose was at the other end reading Betsy-Tacy, and Wonderboy was next to me looking at family pictures on an old cell phone that isn’t a phone anymore, and Beanie was dragging Rilla up and down the hall on a blanket and Rilla kept shouting, ‘Faster, Mama Duck!'”
All that is true; it was a lovely half hour, and I Twittered some of it so I wouldn’t forget it. But it’s unlikely I’d have said anything of the sort on the phone. Somehow that just isn’t how phone conversation works, or face-to-face chat, either. No, in person I’d have been much more likely to tell my listening chum about how my hips are killing me, KILLING me, to the point that by the end of the day I can barely walk, much less stand over the stove, which is why my children had to make themselves oatmeal for dinner tonight. And I’ve got this cruel little cough which has caused a bit of cartilage (so I’m told) to pop out of place in my rib cage, so that every time I cough there’s a fierce stab of pain, and I’m desperately hoping it goes away before I go into labor because the thought of pushing through this rib pain…I shudder to think of it.
Or: I figured out that the coughing started the day I brought home the Christmas tree, so we moved it outside and I bought a tiny little inglorious fake tree to replace the tiny little inglorious real one I’d picked up at Fresh and Easy the week before. And we decorated the outside tree—it’s by the front steps—with a beautiful string of fake cranberries I bought on clearance at Joann’s after Christmas last year. But then it rained. And rained and rained. And the deep red berries are now bright pink. And mushy. They’re still kind of pretty as long as you don’t touch them, but Rilla must touch them every time she passes by, and then she winds up with smears of fuschia-colored mush on her hands, and her clothes, and my pant legs, and anything else she can manage to touch on our way to the kitchen sink.
Or: You know how Scott’s car got hit in that parking lot last month? Big truck pulling into the lot caught his front bumper and peeled it halfway off? Would you believe the other guy’s insurance company says he isn’t at fault?? (Though he totally admitted it, himself, at the time of the incident: there was no doubt. Scott’s car was parked. The truck hit him.) And if we can’t get this decision reversed, we’re out $500 for the deductible? Can you believe that?
Or: So I went to Confession today and of course I had all the kids with me, and I left them in the cry room which is all the way in the back of the church, and I was all the way in the front where the confessionals are but I could hear Wonderboy shrieking. He was inside a soundproofed room, but I could hear him. So I got out of line and walked back to the cry room to see what on earth was the problem. Turned out Rose and Rilla were playing tag. Which would be okay, more or less, since they were alone in a closed and did I mention soundproofed room, and it’s not like Mass was going on or anything, but Wonderboy was totally shattered by this breach of churchy decorum and he was howling at them to stop. And then after Confession he cried all the way home because I am trying to ease him out of his fixation on this one particular Sing ‘n Learn cassette he expects to listen to every single time we’re in the van, and the rest of us are all sick of it (though we’ve all got the state capitals down pat, that’s for sure). But he is convinced that the sky is going to crumble and fall upon our heads if we do not listen to that rassafrassin’ tape every single second we’re driving. And then Rose brought up the question of how the seating arrangements will change after the baby comes, and she was furious to learn that she’ll have to move to the back row because the infant seat only fits in the middle row, and Wonderboy has to have the other middle-row spot because he gets into too much mischief if he’s sitting within pinching range of one of his siblings. But Rose despises the crowded back seat, and she is livid at the injustice of it all, disgusted that we aren’t getting a bigger vehicle, completely unswayed by such reasonable explanations as “with the economy the way it is, now isn’t the time to take on a new car payment, and the minivan is almost paid off.” “So we won’t be able to ride ALL TOGETHER as a family anymore?” Rose wailed—because the minivan seats seven and we’re about to become eight. And in case you’re wondering, a cheery pep talk about sacrifice and frugality and ‘just think of all the making-do Kit Kittredge’s family had to do during the Great Depression’ is not likely to meet with resounding applause at such a moment. I’m just saying.
Or: Is it just me, or are your kids bickering a lot more than usual too, the closer we get to Christmas? And why, why, WHYYYY, was I ever so foolish as to begin the gingerbread house tradition? Because every year it becomes a giant sticky thorn in my side. There’s no going back, though, not after the precedent was set ten years ago. But at least this year Jane did most of the hard part, the housebuilding. We’re going to decorate tomorrow but this is a kit I picked up in that same after-Christmas sale at Joann’s last year, and the gumdrops are hard as rocks, and if you can’t eat half the decorations as you’re working on the house, most of the fun is gone. So I guess I’ll have to run out tomorrow and buy some new gumdrops. Arrrgh.
So there you go. That’s what you’d get if you were Alice, calling me on the phone. And you would very satisfyingly commiserate by firing back with similar anecdotes of your own. (“I’ll see your hip pain and raise you four sick kids, a doctor’s appointment, and a car encased in ice.” At which point I fold. Because the cranberry-melting rain is gone, and we had a gorgeous blue sky and sweater weather again today.)
Life is messy, and complicated, and full of friction. That stable in Bethlehem must have smelled like manure. Was the manger clean? I had to scrub so much grime off the infant carseat yesterday, and it had only been sitting in a closed garage for a year. Not even a real garage—it’s just a storage room, really. But the parts of the Nativity story we celebrate are the shining star, and the awestruck shepherds, and the singing of angels. The image of the baby swaddled snugly, sleeping in the hay, with His mother smiling down at Him in wonder, oblivious to the muck and the grime and the prickling straw and the snorts of the livestock: that’s the image we’ve carried in our hearts for two thousand years. That doesn’t mean the muck wasn’t there. It’s just not the important part of the story, the thing worth holding on to. The muck is always there, always here. But so is the radiant star, the heavenly choir, the sleeping Child so full of promise and hope.
My children may bicker, and I may—almost certainly will—complain. But the bickering and the griping are chaff, and what’s left when the winds of time carry them away are the golden kernels I want to savor: Carol of the Bells ringing out from Jane’s piano; my little boy leaning against me and laughing for joy at a picture of his daddy; a girl-child lost in a beloved book, her fury long forgotten; riotous squeals up and down the hallway from a toddler on a magic carpet pulled by a giggling, curly-haired Mama Duck. Colored lights gleaming on a cute little tree that, if you squint just right, almost looks real, and doesn’t make me cough. Headlights in the window: that dear red car, its bumper restored, pulling into the driveway next to a soon-to-be-too-small-for-the-very-best-of-reasons minivan. An infant carseat, scrubbed and ready, waiting to be buckled into place and filled with our own little bundle of promise and hope.