Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ghost of Christmas Past

Christmas vacation is the time to clean out closets and yesterday I put this machine this on the trash pile. It's a sure sign that I don't have kids in the home any more.

In the olden days this gizmo was in the car every time we traveled than 10 miles from home. I would sooner have left on a trip without my left foot than without the nebulizer. Boy#2 had persnickety lungs and if he picked up a cold he tended to forget how to breathe. After a couple of hospitalizations, wonderful Dr. H prescribed a breathing machine to save us trips to the emergency room.

Dr. H also made me a promise: "He'll outgrow this," he told me as I chased Two around the examining room. (Albuterol is a wonderful bronchial relaxer, but its side effects can turn a charming two-year-old into a crazed monkey.) I winced and told Dr. H that I would be holding him to that promise.

For the next ten years or so, up until Two's adolescent years, we broke out the breathing machine a dozen times every year. It's been plugged in outside convenience stores in the middle of nowhere and once, when I didn't think he would survive the hour-long trip, at the fire station halfway between home and the doctor's office.

The asthma seemed to be especially bad around Christmas--the first series of winter colds were making the rounds then, and the trip over the river and through several states to grandmother's house in Texas always seemed to be accompanied by the nebulizer pump's racket.

As I put the machine on the get-rid-of pile, I realized that Dr. H's promise had come true. Two has breathed easily for a decade.

Some parts of their childhoods I don't miss at all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One Year

Family Portrait, 1971

My text chime rang this morning just after I woke up. It was my younger sister.

"I'm thinking about Mom."

My mom was the wisest, funniest, smartest, most loving, most talented person I've ever known. She was, as my best friend from high school described her, the icon mom. She cooked and cleaned and sewed for her five children and she drove the tractor for haying and earned her master's degree while working full-time as a dietician.

She was the mom who made everything right just by walking into the room. 

She was losing her mind.

A year ago today she was going up some steps from the garage into the house when she somehow lost her balance and fell over backwards, hitting her head on the concrete floor. Excellent and immediate medical care prolonged her life for 26 hours, time for her grown children to gather and whisper final messages and for her husband of 57 years to sit by her bedside for one last time.

I wrote in her eulogy about the moments after the medical team made its final assessment, and we agreed that she would not want her life prolonged artificially:

We kissed her one last time, and each of us whispered a message to her, then we left the room to give the team room to work. It was only a few minutes later that they called us back. Every trace of medical equipment had been removed, and Mom looked absolutely beautiful. (She always did have lovely skin.) She was breathing rapidly. We stood around her, each of us touching this woman without whom we can’t imagine our lives. Dad led in prayer, then several of us told her good-bye in our own ways, then we began to sing. “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” her favorite hymn. And “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” even though had to “watermelon, watermelon” our way through the end of it because we didn’t remember the words. “Amazing Grace,” then “Shine on Harvest Moon,” which was one of her favorite songs for singing in the car. (I can only imagine what the families of the other intensive care patients thought as they heard us belting out “I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July.”) Mom gave a gasp and was quiet. “How about Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” my aunt suggested. We sang the verse, and the chorus, and during the verse, there was one final gasp. Before we finished, we knew we had witnessed a miracle.

It was a miracle because my mom had been the wisest, funniest, smartest, most compassionate, most talented of mothers, but she was losing her mind, and she hated that beyond measure.

Mom didn't fear much. Again, from her eulogy:

From the time she was young Mom talked of the reality that women, as they age, become either little old ladies or characters. "I," she declared, "plan to be a character." She was practically fearless. Of course, when the kids were little she paid my older sister a quarter  per head to dispose of the dead mice trapped in the annual fall in-migration into Shady Oaks’ 100-year-old limestone farmhouse, but that was because they were disgusting, not because they were something to be feared.  But the one thing she feared was, as she put it, losing her dignity. She had seen her own mother, a smart, sassy, stylish 70-year-old, spiral through Alzheimer’s into a broken 80-year-old. She desperately wanted to avoid this, and hated that she was slipping. Just last week she had to double her dose of Aricept."

I have no doubt that Mom had been praying she would be spared the indignity of Alzheimer's, and I know she would be delighted that her final moments in life were a lesson in the faithfulness of God. He whisked her away before she could embarrass herself or become a burden. 

This doesn't mean we haven't grieved this year. Every milestone has been hard, and I still haven't erased the phone message from last Christmas, the final time I heard her voice. But this grief has been different from the grief I felt after a dear young friend died. That grief was violent, raw, cruel, the kind that tossed me a hundred feet in the air and let me fall. The grief for Mom was subtle and unexpected and mixed with joy. It’s the difference between a life barely started and a life well spent. 

I replied to my sister's text almost immediately.

"I'm thinking of Mom, too," I said. "She was our first, and perhaps our best, example of how to love."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Boy#3 and I were watching Mythbusters this week during a break in the chaos. Do girls (and parents of girls) enjoy this fabulous show as much as the Boys and their parents do? It seems like this fascinating combination of science and bodily noises and fluids is a testosterone-driven phenomenon, but I could be wrong.

As it turned out, the episode we were watching was a re-run, from March 2007. The episode explored dog myths, including one described thusly: Will running a zig-zag pattern and doubling back really throw off a bloodhound's legendary nose?

Fine, sounds interesting. But as Adam and Jamie were conspiring to throw off the legendary nose, they offhandedly threw out the fact that a bloodhound doesn't follow the smell of perspiration, as one might think would be the case considering the adrenaline and mileage involved in fleeing a broken-out-of prison. No, the bloodhound follows the smell of skin.

A human being sheds a million dead skin cells a day, they said, and the bloodhound is simply picking up the scent of these cells that trail behind the runner. It's kind of like Hansel and Gretel, but with body components rather than bread crumbs.

As I ran the dustmop this morning, I couldn't get this fact out of my mind. That means that in addition to the two ornament hangers, the life-sized dust bunnies, and a DARNING NEEDLE (what the heck?) my dustmop accumulated, I also was sweeping up the cast-off outer layer of my family.

Ick. I haven't been so grossed out since I found out that Soylent Green is people.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Leftovers

As I was doing my Christmas Eve cooking, it occurred to me that my kitchen has become much more serene since I began doing three simple things.

First, I keep all my recipes easily accessible. They are here, here, and here.

Then I loop a grocery sack around a drawer pull and keep trash off the counters, thusly:

Finally, so that no one interrupts the intricate culinary dance, I send Husband off to work and make sure no Boys are out of bed until the clock reads at least this:

This last step is the easiest.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

All I Wanted for Christmas

When Boy#4 was born, there were those who thought I'd be disappointed at not having a girl to round out our family.

Not at all. One of my first thoughts (after "Is he healthy?" and "If you value your life, bring me something cold to drink,") was "Great! A barbershop quartet!"

My father sang in a barbershop quartet and my childhood memories are laced with four-part harmony. I loved the idea that our boys also would want to make music together and would some day inherit that joy of team.

What I didn't know when Four was born was that none of them would be able to carry a tune in a bucket. Oh, I guess that's an exaggeration, but the bucket had better be pretty darned big and have padded edges. I put away my dreams of  barbershop quartet like some parents put away their dreams of number one draft picks.

Last night before our Christmas Eve service Two, Three, and Four  sat outside the church in sub-freezing temperatures welcoming worshipers with carols played on brass instruments. I hadn't requested this; they volunteered, knowing how much it would mean to me. Boy#1 (who claimed he had deliberately chosen to play the viola for such moments as this) was solicitous and tender as he escorted his 89-year-old grandmother to her chair and stowed her walker.

I thought when they were born that I wanted a barbershop quartet. What I really wanted was sons who would become kind, thoughtful, God-loving men.

Don't bother bringing me anything, Santa. I have everything I want.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Let the Games Begin!

Because as we all know, it's not a party until the tuba arrives.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kitchen Archaeology

I have one clip on the refrigerator that's kept at eye level where I can't possibly ignore it. This is where the extra-special-important papers are kept.

Every once in a while, though, the clip gets so full it loses its will to live. Then I have to go through the papers and discard the ones that are no longer important. This happened a few days ago.

I found the orders my mother-in-law will need when she has a medical procedure in a few weeks. (They're shown in the photo above, with the name expertly edited out. Now you see why I hire graphic designers.)

Then there's the yummy recipe I found for slow cooker chicken lentil soup. I might wait until the Boys have gone back to school to try this one. (You're welcome, Boys, with your inherited-from-your-father dislike of lentils.)

Dig down another layer and it's a menu from one of my favorite finds during the past year, E-Mealz. Menus and shopping lists, all for $5 per month. Love, love, love it. And this is an uncompensated review.

Oh, summer, I do miss you and your homemade ice cream. Cuban Coffee Ice Cream With Dark Chocolate and homemade dulce de leche. The dulce de leche was not so delicious, but the ice cream? Taste buds were invented just for this.

Finally I get down to the bottom layers, and hey! What do you know! The menu and to-do list from exactly one year ago.

 I was wondering what to cook for Christmas dinner and now I don't have to reinvent the wheel, or the list.

The gingerbread man's clippy enthusiasm mirrors my own. I have perfected procrastination.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How I Know the Boys (Minus One) Are Home

1. The leaves are back in the table.

2. The washing machine is running.

3. The telephone is ringing. (It's not for me.)

4. Someone's at the door. (Ditto.)

5. The refrigerator is full.

6. Whoops, the refrigerator is empty.

7. We're deeply mourning basketball losses.

8. The toilet seat is up.

9. Someone says, "It's a good thing that you two, who are the weirdest people in the universe, found each other. What a cute couple."

10. I'm grinning ear to ear.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Seven Traditions

Back in the olden days when the nest was full, the words "Christmas" and "tradition" were practically interchangeable. We WOULD do certain things, because without these certain things Christmas simply wasn't Christmas.  Now that I'm oh, so much older and oh, so much wiser, I pick and choose my traditions. Guess which of the following have fallen by the wayside?

1. Live Christmas tree. The smell. The crisp air as we chose the tree. The charming asymmetry. The grumbling as Husband tried to scrub tree sap off his hands. The creeping fear that it would spontaneously combust and leave us homeless amid a pile of ashes. Hello, pre-lit that takes less than 60 seconds to put up!

2. Decorated Christmas cookies. I believe that if you asked the Boys what they most enjoyed about Christmas they might pick this one. I have an entire basket of Christmas cookie cutters so I would whip up a batch of sugar cookie dough, pull chairs around the island for the shorter decorators, and they would systematically see how many decorations could be piled on each cookie. No restraint here. Except for MomQueenBee's restraint in not shrieking and pushing each and every grubby hand away from the food. I do not share the kitchen easily.

3. Wrapping presents on Christmas Eve. As you may have inferred from previous posts, Husband has an attention to detail and sense of order that is entirely missing in my DNA. This has led to his role as head wrapper. He squares corners and double-folds ends as I sip cocoa and watch old movies.Which leads us to...

4. A Christmas Story. Oh, Ralphie, how I love you, with your soap poisoning and bunny suit. I dream of winning a major prize that is fra-JEE-lee.

5. Shopping with the Boys. When you raise your kids as a pack, there is never enough time with each one individually. I loved these four nights before Christmas, when I'd take each Boy Christmas shopping just by himself. We scoured the aisles of the local stores for just the right gifts, then Boy got to choose any restaurant in town for the two of us to have a post-shopping feast. By the fourth excursion each year I knew every toy WalMart had to offer, but I still was sad when the Boys outgrew the need for a shopping chauffeur.

6. Tree-trimming goodies. There's no time to cook on the night the decorations go up, so I buy fancy crackers (Town House! Woo-hoo!), fancy cheese (not individually sliced!), and Little Smokies. Then I dump a bottle of ginger ale into a pitcher of orange juice, and voila, punch! It's the perfect interlude between "Is the danged thing straight yet?" and "It's the most beautiful one ever."

7. Gathering in. Finals are over, and tomorrow night the first of the Boys will arrive in a flurry of computer cables and bear hugs and big feet. It's glorious chaos.

One day, the Boys will have families of their own. One day, like my mother before me, I will say, "You need to be with your own family and make your own traditions." Then the traditions that wrap around all of us being together will become memories, just like numbers 1, 2, 5, and 6 here. Truly, that will be fine, but I'm glad that day hasn't arrived quite yet.

Seven's the only one I will miss.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Greetings! Everything's Wonderful!

I'm a big fan of the Christmas letter, both as a sender and as a receiver.

I love these little encapsulations that arrive from family and friends at this time of the year, and people who have been recipients of my own efforts know that I do not hold back. None of this "We're all fine!" malarkey for me. No, I recount in loving detail the minutia of the QueenBeen year.

I have a couple of rules which, come to think of it, are the same basic rules I apply to this blog. (No gory medical details, no bad news that people don't already know, and no intentional embarrassment of people I love.)

Long ago Husband had the misguided notion that writing the Christmas letter should be a team effort, one that included both adults in our household. Ha! He has since learned differently. (What? I let him do our tax return without interfering ONE BIT. Fair's fair.)

This year, in fact, when I sent him the first draft for fact-checking, instead of telling me (as he did in 1987, the first year we sent a joint letter) that he thought the informal tone and editorial comments were a little, well, informal and editorial (hrmph!), he opened his response thusly:

A couple of items, most minor, one major,
and most I FEARFULLY submit to you.  

Then he went through the items, all of which were perfectly reasonable, and closed with:

I hope you're still speaking to me after the above suggestions.

Hmmm. Is there an outside chance that maybe I have been a little protective of this project? 


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Stockings Were Hung By...Hooks?

During the Great Upheaval a decade or so ago, when the old house lost its shag rugs and stucco walls, it also lost its fireplace.

It wasn't much of a loss. The fireplace was gas and hadn't worked since we moved in. The mantle was a slab of black-painted pine and the decorative grate had several broken teeth and looked as if David Copperfield should have been crouching in front of it saying, "Please, sir, may I have some more?" (Oh, all right. I'm mixing up my Dickens characters. The fireplace wasn't that great, is what I'm saying.)

So behind the wall you see at the right is a fireplace, and the next person who remodels this house is going to someday shriek at his wife, "Holy cow, Maude, you'll never guess what they covered up here! What a bunch of morons!"

The only problem with losing the fireplace is that we also lost a place by which to hang our stockings with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

(Funny story about the stockings: When we got married I bought a kit and knit stockings for Husband and for me. The kit contained yarn for a green stocking and a red stocking--perfect! I'd make all of our girl stockings in green and all of our boys stockings in red! After Boy#3 I gave up and started using the green yarn for other projects.)

Anyway, I tried several hanging options in the first few years after the remodel. The stockings were hung around the window arch, and draped over the couch, and one year we had a particularly lame-looking stocking chair.

Then it struck me: We needed a stocking ladder! It would look folksy and chic, and store easily in the attic between Yuletides. I found the perfect one in a local antique shop, only $8! Sold!

I brought it home, and Husband agreed it would be perfect "as soon as I get it cleaned up a little."

No, no, no! I told him. That's the charm! The peeling paint! The weathered look!

"No, it just looks old, and used, and not charming," he said, "and I am taking it to the basement and will clean it up just a little."

Long ago I realized I am way too rigid about my preferences--it's Husband's Christmas, too, right?--so I didn't argue. Soon I heard the power sander start up. I gritted my teeth, and fretted. Why didn't Husband see my vision? Finally I sighed and realized that this issue was not worth ruining Christmas with the sulk I was about to start.

Then he came upstairs carrying the ladder. It was perfect. And by perfect, I mean it was still chipped and peeling.

"Ha, ha!" he cried merrily. "Got you that time, didn't I?"

And in spite of that, his stocking was still filled on Christmas morning. Santa must be pretty darned forgiving is all I can say.