Monday, November 26, 2012

Why I Love My Thanksgiving Angels

I have the best Thanksgiving angels.

I don't know who they are going to be each year until they appear, and sometimes they don't appear . . . but that's okay. In case you're wondering, a Thanksgiving angel is a loving, generous person who steps forward before the holiday and invites you and, if you have them, your children over on Thanksgiving.

For the past sixteen years, I have needed Thanksgiving angels because I have had no plans on Turkey Day, no place to go. Thanksgiving is the penultimate family holiday, and I no longer have my birth family. My father died in 1986 and my mother in '95. Oh, and I am an only child. I am aware this is a pretty unusual situation for someone my age, but this is MY situation so I accept it.

What choice do I have?

When I was growing up, things were very different for me on Thanksgiving. We had concrete plans just about every year. First, we would stop at my paternal aunt's house in the Connecticut town next door to our own. I'd stand with the adults sipping my Canada Dry ginger ale like a small grownup while my first cousins once removed who were my age ran around and played with all manner of toys in the large house atop a long, winding driveway. I wanted to stay and join in the play, but we were off in no time to another destination, leaving me with a palpable feeling of longing and regret.

We were headed to my maternal cousin B's house in Greenwich, one more town over and just a fifteen-minute drive from our home in Darien. B is my first cousin yet, like all of my first cousins on both sides of the family, he is much older than me. His four children -- my first cousins once removed -- are my age. B's sister attended this Thanksgiving celebration as well. She lived in Manhattan with her husband and four daughters, also my age. Headed by another cousin of B's, a third family with four sons also my age came as well. Other stray relatives showed up from time to time such as my widower uncle in the early years or an elderly single woman whose exact relation to the family I can't quite place.

You can only imagine how I, the lone only child in the younger generation, felt about these gatherings involving three families of four children each. I LOVED them. TWELVE girls and boys in one fell swoop! TWELVE. For one day nearly every year, I was surrounded by all these relatives my age. It was fantastic. I got to talk to them and play touch football with them like the Kennedys. Then there was the feast -- my favorite meal of the year -- laid out amidst an array of polished silver candlesticks, delicate glass serving dishes, and a beautiful seasonal tablecloth. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and side dishes galore including the absolutely yummy sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. Martha Stewart would have issued her stamp of approved and then some.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day was also bittersweet for me because it came to an end, and I literally didn't see these people again till the following year unless someone in the family got married or died. My parents didn't socialize with the adult relatives and not residing in our town, though two out of three of the families lived within a fifteen-minute radius and the third just an hour away, they did not come into contact with us unless something was planned. Invariably, it was not.

I attended this gathering, which changed homes as B's family moved within the same town and B's sister was able to accommodate the group once her family moved out of the city to Connecticut, from as early as I can remember through the deaths of both of my parents. A couple of years thrown in there the party didn't happen (or perhaps we weren't invited) as I remember one or two Thanksgiving meals eaten at local restaurants. (My mother wasn't a cook.) Then in 1982 -- thirty years ago this year -- my father suffered a near-fatal aortic aneurysm at home on Thanksgiving Day. My father and I didn't make it to the party, though my mother did, briefly. (Don't ask.) Other than these few aberration years, the gathering of cousins was a steady gig I looked forward to all year long.

It was SO important to me, in fact, that I planned to keep on attending even after moving across country to Seattle following my mother's passing. The year she died I delayed my move until after Thanksgiving, and the next year I took a trip back East to coincide with the holiday so I could see my cousins. However, the following year B's wife pulled the proverbial rug out from under me during a long-distance phone call to Seattle. Her family had decided not to host Thanksgiving that year, she said. The three families would be celebrating separately . . . and that was the way it was going to be from then on is the way I understood it.

Alas, Thanksgiving as I knew it had come to an end. Just like that. My favorite day had suddenly become my least favorite day as I wondered how on earth I was going to spend the rest of those Thursdays in November and be happy about them. So began my sixteen years of fending for myself on America's premier family holiday.

Incidentally, I learned some years later through one of the families that the three had NOT gone their separate ways after all, at least not every year. Two of the families were still celebrating together regularly, and I suspect the third joined in from time to time as well since that family was actually the closer one in terms of familial relations. Liars.

What's this? An eleventh-hour invite to a gathering one other aberration year came my way many years later when B's wife let it accidentally slip in a birthday card to me something to the effect of "Hope to see you at R's house on Thanksgiving." (R is B's eldest son and the person who had taken up the mantle of holding the holiday get-togethers). Was I actually going to be invited again? Well, no, I wasn't supposed to be. R inferred as much when he placed a call to me just days before the holiday telling me what time to arrive "according to the written invitations that went out to everyone" else. I suspect I was proffered the backhanded invitation because I had mentioned B's wife's comment in the card to me to another first cousin of mine along with the information that I had been shut out of the party for the past seven years. I asked the other first cousin -- a kind and well-intentioned man -- if he was behind me getting the phone invite. He denied it, but I don't believe him.

Honesty is the characteristic I value most in a person.

Not expecting an invitation from the cousins, I made other plans for the holiday that year. Well, it just so happened that our Thanksgiving angels lived only one Massachusetts town over from R. How about that for a coincidence?! So I told R we could stop by for a little while. And that's exactly what my son Christopher (then only a baby), my boyfriend at the time, and I did.

However, R decided to humiliate me in front of everyone as we excused ourselves to go to the home of our Thanksgiving angels as planned AND as I had told him on the phone about THREE times. (He had called me back repeatedly to make sure we were coming, and I had each time reminded him that we were eating dinner at the other house per our first invitation). "You're LEEEAAAVING???" R bellowed, as we said our goodbyes and thank yous and made our way to the door, to which the others -- not privy to the fact that I had made our plans CRYSTAL CLEAR to R -- piled on with disparaging harumphs and outright abuse. My boyfriend, who had never met these people, was justifiably horrified! As was I.

I have neither seen nor spoken to R since.

If you're thinking to yourself at this point, wow, what shitty people, let me say just two things: 1. You haven't heard the half of it. 2. You're not the first to come up with that particular descriptive adjective in this context. My former psychotherapist in Seattle beat you to it by about thirteen years.

I can't recall what I did every single Thanksgiving since 1997 when B's wife placed that call to me in Seattle. I know I spent a few of them alone, maybe eating frozen pizza or going to a movie. One year a friend from a writing class invited me to her friend's celebration because she was estranged from her own parents. Lo and behold, the friend of the friend decided at the last minute to disinvite me because she'd never met me.

But more often than not, I have happy stories to tell surrounding the holiday, and many of them involve my Thanksgiving angels.

Here is a sampling of some of these wonderful people: Ju is a hilarious cousin once removed on the paternal side of my family. Ra is a friend from my Christian Science camp in Maine growing up. (Also hilarious). We were somewhat subversive cabin counselors together. The party at Ra's house, which happens to be located in my very first hometown of Katonah, New York, was highlighted by the setting off of very cool radio-controlled rockets. Christopher, then a preschooler, was allowed to press the button. We went to Ra's house a couple of times, but it was very far away. Re is a woman from my single mothers' support group. My boys had fun playing with her young twin daughters. Ja is a lovely woman who lives in my town. With her parents and brother visiting from the Midwest, she opened her home to my family and another from the elementary school. T was my Thanksgiving angel this year, inviting us to her beachfront home with many others: Ja's family, another third-grade mother whose children spent the holiday with her ex, a Guatemalan exchange student, members of T's extended family, and her husband's water-polo-playing nephew attending Harvard.

The gorgeous day turned into a starry night and the warmest I ever remember for a Thanksgiving. We went outside to the beach after a scrumptious dinner and stood around a huge bonfire built by T's husband.

My Thanksgiving angels mean the world to me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Day Everything (Well, Almost) Went Right

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the season of being grateful is upon us. It is a time to reflect on family, health, work, love, and other aspects of our life for which we feel blessed. But instead of focusing on one of these significant areas, I decided that I wanted to show gratitude for something very, very mundane -- something micro rather than macro -- a single day during which everything (well, almost) went right.

Last Sunday started with my sons and I sleeping in. Okay, as much sleeping in as is possible in a household with two young boys. As it was the first Sunday since the school year began that we did not have a football game -- Christopher's third- and fourth-grade team lost in the league Super Bowl the previous week by two points! -- we could all hang around the house in our pajamas as long as we so desired.

In fact, it was the first weekend day in SEVEN weeks that we had not had an activity or appointment requiring us to leave the house in the morning. We had driven to Boston the day before to meet one of our half-sibling families -- the half-sister and half-brother of my boys (via their anonymous-donor father) and their two moms -- at the Museum of Science. Previous to that, football practice had been moved to Saturday mornings due to a sundown-to-sunrise outdoor-activity ban resulting from a horse in a neighboring town being testing positive for a mosquite-borne illness. Oh, and a dentist appointment was thrown in there as well.

With nothing to do, I felt no pressure last Sunday to check the status of Chris's uniform first thing, i.e. was it clean? I felt no pressure to get a load of laundry going so it would be dry in time for the late morning practice followed by the game. I felt no pressure to make my son a hearty helping of scrambled eggs and bacon or toast to fortify him for playing defense. And basketball hadn't started yet.

It was that rare weekend between intense sports seasons when parents can actually breathe. Indeed, we were in kickback mode.


But then while leisurely emptying the dryer in the basement storage room, I noticed a pipe leaking. NOOO! Not just dripping, it was leaking copper-stained water in a steady thin stream accumulating on the floor. Hastily, I fetched and threw down numerous towels. I discovered a valve near the leak was loose unlike one in the same position on the other side of it. I couldn't imagine how that had happened since I hadn't touched it, and no one else had been in there. Of course, I considered tightening the valve in the complex, antiquated system but -- not being a plumber or heating expert -- I wanted to check with the professionals first. I certainly didn't want to do anything wrong in case the valve was supposed to be open. Well, I am happy to report I stopped the leak myself after speaking to the heating-company owner and being told to tighten the valve.

Phew! That was fortunate. We didn't have to spend the next hour or more waiting for a technician to arrive, fix the problem, and charge me an arm and a leg for the visit.

My boys were getting along very well on this day for some reason. They didn't fight. I believe it may have been because we were just coming off a particularly rough patch with Charlie acting too aggressive toward Christopher and me being too cranky while trying to manage the situation plus too tired from repeatedly staying up too late on Facebook.

A case of too many toos, in other words.

Around noontime a neighbor called to ask if my sons wanted to play with her son, a first-grader like Charlie. The boys eagerly said yes. They got dressed and met him in our driveway a few minutes later. For the next several hours, they entertained themselves in our cul-de-sac, alternating between riding bikes, scooters, and a skateboard. Charlie did a lot of fast running as usual, and Christopher and the neighbor raced each other on bikes.

We had a tense few minutes when a rough child showed up to join in the play. I watched through the front window then moved outside for a better view from a white Adirondack chair planted in our front yard. Shortly, he was scooped up by car and driven away.

Dodged another bullet! Yay.

My sons and the neighbor moved into our backyard where I suggested they build a giant leaf pile to jump in. I got a miniature rake and hoe out of the shed, and Charlie found the two sets of yellow "bear claws" in another storage area attached to the house. The boys worked hard on the leaf mound, took breaks on our swing set, and enjoyed the fruits of their labor by running and hurling themselves joyfully into the soft brown pile while I snapped their pictures.

While most of this was going on, I was inside putting away laundry. Way overdue and not fun at all . . . yet necessary. The football schedule had been so demanding that basic chores around the house had fallen so far by the wayside they were lying in a ditch! I put away four or five GIANT piles of laundry this day.

That felt GOOOOD!

When the boys were famished from playing, I made lunch. Turkey sandwiches with mayonnaise or mustard for my boys and mustard only (no turkey) for the neighbor. That's the sandwich he wanted, I SWEAR! In fact, he liked it so much he asked for and got a second. Truth be told: He wanted a THIRD! But I reasoned that three French's classic yellow mustard sandwiches might be a bit much. Might, just might give this six year old a tummy ache. So I suggested cookies for dessert instead.

Kids are SO funny!

Next Charlie had the idea to set up some oversized white plastic bowling pins in the street. To make it more interesting, the kids rolled the ball down our sloping driveway toward the pins. Since the driveway surface is rough, the royal blue plastic bowling ball invariably veered off course.

Okay, the game became less interesting and more frustrating.

Things began to wind down, and that was good because it was fast approaching the time we needed to leave to make our 4:30 p.m. commitment in Waltham. Charlie brought out his Nintendo DSi XL to show the neighbor his newest game. I could have said no to turning to technology on a beautiful, warm fall day. Yet the boys had creatively played outdoors in a multitude of ways for hours on end by that point, and the neighbor would be heading home shortly. So I allowed it.

I enjoy attending monthly gatherings of the Boston chapter of Single Mothers by Choice and have been doing so on and off for a long time. In fact, next month marks a full decade since my first meeting. They may not be exciting, but they are important to me as they provide me with a community of single mothers I don't have in my town. My boys have grown up with the children of some of these mothers, and I enjoy catching up with those I have known for many years. In the early days of single motherhood, I needed the group to answer my questions or relay experiences that could help me as I undertook raising one then two infants alone. But for many years now, my motivation for attending meetings has been social and to give back to the group by providing my answers and experiences to those thinking or trying to become mothers, those who are pregnant, and those who are parents of babies or young children.

It was time for "Revenge," my favorite TV drama, when we returned from the meeting in Waltham, having picked up dinner at McDonald's on the way home.

I am very grateful for last Sunday -- a simple, happy day. Now you might think: But she had a leaking pipe, and a rough boy interrupted the sweet playdate. Yes, that is true. However, both problems were averted, and that's why it was a great day.

The reality is there are snags in my life every single day. Some of them become bigger situations to handle, and sometimes I get lucky like I did this time around.

Blessed is the day that is slower-paced and more relaxing. Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Touring the H.M.S. Bounty, R.I.P.

Hurricane Sandy has been devastating and deadly for the East Coast, particularly the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Living in a coastal town one hour north of Boston, my family endured a power outage lasting less than twelve hours and a few downed branches. Nothing, basically. Friends I communicated with on Facebook fared much worse, but I really don't know the full extent of what they suffered through. As a new storm, a nor'easter, churns its way up the East Coast just over a week later -- enough already! -- I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on one aspect of Hurricane Sandy of many that has particularly affected me: the loss of the H.M.S. Bounty, its captain, and one crew member.

First, let me say that I don't consider myself a Sailor the way others are sailors. I know how to sail and can and have sailed Sunfish, catamarans, and twelve-footers in light and moderate winds. True. I have also raced both a few times -- as a teenager, I was awarded a highball glass (pretty funny considering my age and the fact that I grew up a Christian Scientist!) for coming in second in a Sunfish race at my parents' beach club on Long Island Sound but had to be verbally assisted in righting my capsized catamaran in a race not too many years ago in a Florida river while staying at Club Med. I have never owned a sailboat, though I did purchase the original Windsurfer One Design when it first came out and enjoyed tacking that heavy sailboard back in forth in whatever body of water was near my home at the time. Currently, I do not have the opportunity to ply coastal waters in a sailboat, despite my close proximity to a harbor. (Note to self: make friends with people who own boats!) So, no, I am not THAT kind of sailor -- a hard-core sailor -- much less a Tall Ship sailor.

I have the utmost respect for those who are. I also hugely admire people who choose a risky, beyond-the-norm type of life such as the men and women aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. For nearly two years while I budget-traveled around Asia and the South Pacific some twenty-odd years ago, I led such an alternative existence. Today, as a single mother by choice of two young sons (i.e. I am very tied down), I am living the opposite kind of unconventional life. Still, the travel bug and the yen for adventure remain very much with me. Hence, I jumped at the chance to tour the replica of the mutinous vessel immortalized in the classic book "Mutiny on the Bounty," built for the 1962 film of the same name, and featured in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Seeing as my elementary-school-age sons are big fans of the "Pirates" flicks (natch!), and my older son loves history, it was a no-brainer that we would venture to the city next-door to check out the three-masted schooner when it came into port over Labor Day weekend for the annual Schooner Festival.

I wish I could say I had a great talk with Captain Robin Walbridge or that Claudene Christian explained the rope system to us. But the truth is: my six-year-old son does not do well in museum settings, seafaring or otherwise. He is too rambunctious in the company of his older brother. He jumps on him, hangs on him, pulls him, punches him, and kicks him -- anything physical to engage poor Christopher. Thus, the visit on board was marked for me by all of the above plus Christopher's legitimate complaints and my futile attempts at stopping the bad behavior.

I often wish I could leave Charlie at home with another adult in order to get the most out of the event at hand with manageable and appreciative Christopher. But I don't have another adult at home, and I can't afford to hire a babysitter on top of the event's admission price time and time again. Oh, and my house is not presentable enough for a babysitter anyway. Charlie has to come along, and Christopher and I have to deal with whatever Charlie dishes out . . . in public . . . again.

As we stepped on the ship, we passed a man dressed up as Jack Sparrow, the quirky pirate captain from the "Pirates" movies played by Johnny Depp. It was the end of the day on Saturday, September 1, and only a handful of deck hands were on board. The ship was in beautiful condition. Countless ropes, a gorgeous wheel, a handsome wood-paneled control room, economical living quarters. The schooner was smaller than I expected, and I was disappointed she was not in full sail. She was in port so, naturally, her sails were neatly furled.

A woman was selling some kind of handcrafted item on deck -- knitted, perhaps? My recollection is usually much sharper than this, but I was in full-on minimize-making-a-scene mode with Charlie so my mental energies were otherwise occupied. Crew members had tee shirts, postcards, and caps for purchase on the lower level. I wanted to buy a shirt yet resisted because doing so would have precipitated protests from my sons who also would have wanted something of equal value. Always thinking ahead of the cause and effect of each action I take in the company of my boys!

I spoke to a male crew member on deck in his late twenties or early thirties about the ship's itinerary, and I listened in as an older hand explained to another visitor why the two small dining tables downstairs were attached by chains to beams above. (To keep them stable and level during storms). I believe I glimpsed Captain Walbridge. I would have said something to him if our visit had been different, if I'd been without children in tow, or if I'd just been with Christopher. When I Google photos of the captain, he looks familiar to me, but I can't be completely sure. It makes me sad to think that I can't remember this and other details of our visit. I don't believe I ever saw Claudene Christian, the striking blond former cheerleader-doll company founder and alleged direct descendant of Fletcher Christian -- the mutineer aboard the original H.M.S. Bounty who died when that ship was burned off Pitcairn Island in early 1790.

Two Christians meeting the same fate in two different ways 222 years apart while aboard two versions of the same ship: strange.

It was surreal hearing on the news of the replica ship's fate, watching the video of the incredible Coast Guard helicopter rescue of the survivors, and seeing photographs of the magnificent schooner crashed sideways into the ocean like a scene -- ironically -- out of the very "Pirates" movie in which it appeared! The tragedy occurred the day before Christopher's ninth birthday, and we both cried as I told him about it.

This morning I watched the fourteen survivors interviewed on TV together for the first time. They were happy to be alive but somber when talking to "Good Morning America" about their missing captain and deceased shipmate. Douglas Faunt seemed to speak for them all when he said: "After this, I'm never going to have another bad day in my life." Later in the day, I was further touched by the very personal obituary of Captain Walbridge that appeared in the "Tampa Bay Times."

I am grateful the paths of my sons and I crossed those of the H.M.S. Bounty crew. I hope Christopher and Charlie never forget our visit on board the ship and the promise of adventure and personal reward that can be gleaned from living life outside the box. Captain Robin Walbridge and Claudene Christian died doing exactly what they loved.

May they rest in peace.