Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Tis the Season of Ho Ho Ho and Bah Humbug

It's that time of year again. The ho ho ho and the bah humbug all wrapped up together in a giant red bow. The joyful half of the Christmas holiday and the I'm-feeling-stressed-out part.

I would like to say that they land gently like Santa's sleigh on a roof. But, seriously now, we all know that isn't true. They arrive with freight-train-like force the minute Thanksgiving ends, if not before!

As the classic song goes, "It's the most wonderful time of the year." Indeed. I love Christmas and all its trappings. Well, most of them. I could do without the tacky decorations and heavy commercialism.

As a Christian, I understand the meaning of Christmas and appreciate the holiday for its religious roots. As a mother of young boys, I play along with the secular side. Santa Claus and The Elf on a Shelf come to mind, for example.

Yet there is so much more to the holiday that bombards our senses in the month of December and earlier. Christmas items start showing up in pharmacies and department stores right after -- or maybe it's on -- Halloween. At least by early November anyway. It takes off from there.

Shiny ornaments, Advent calendars, silver garland, chocolate reindeer, outdoor lights, an oversized inflatable snow globe, holiday cookbooks, etc. You name it. Somebody has thought of making a buck out of it because Christmas is very big business for retailers.

Just like with Thanksgiving, you'd better start thinking about your plans for Christmas well in advance -- especially if you want to travel somewhere by plane or stay at a resort.

If you are married, you may get together with your relatives or your spouse's kin, the ones you didn't see over Thanksgiving. If you are divorced, you may be turning your kids over to your ex, which may cause you some stress because you'd rather have them. And if you are a single mother by choice like me, you are solely responsible for producing festivities for your children on a scale larger than one month earlier. (Actually, Thanksgiving was late this year. Make that less than one month earlier.)

This year I have something very special in mind for my sons to celebrate my tenth anniversary of full-time single motherhood. I'm not going to write about it in this post, but look for it soon. Christopher and Charlie know what it is, and to say that they are excited would be a gross understatement.

However, my happy anticipation comes hand in hand with added pressure in the area of preparation. Early preparation, that is. In an effort to have it all come together seemlessly, we are making collective sacrifices that save me time and money.


At this point in the month, I had hoped to have our Christmas photo card ready and our newsletter written. Half of the 100 mailings to family and friends should have gone out by now. Uh, can you say "wishful thinking"?! Just like last year, I am way behind. Nothing's been done yet. Nothing. I'm not sure who got cards and newsletters or just cards from me in 2012. But it was precious few, that's who!

Nevertheless, I do know how it happened. From the start of the school year, I lost control of things, including my paperwork. I had too much on my plate when September commenced, and I simply couldn't catch up. (Just so you know, September and June are the toughest months for parents of school-age kids because moms are asked to volunteer for this, contribute to that, sign up for this, and buy that. September comes with a caffeinated JOLT following summer's more leisurely pace while June is exhausting because it's the month to wrap up the entire school year.)


Today's parents, particularly mothers, are stretched way too thin. They work, take care of their families, and keep their homes in order (or at least they try). The Christmas season brings them joy and celebration, brightly colored presents, snowy-night parties, caroling, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (both the Boris Karloff animated and Jim Carrey live-action versions), and so much more.

However, the festivities come loaded with expectations -- of getting and decorating a tree, buying gifts for everyone on their list by December 24th, and whipping up a feast with flair.

Take a deep breath. One. Day. At. A. Time. And please don't forget to sip egg nog with your friends.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving: When No Plans Are the Best Plans

Thanksgiving is my most challenging day of the year.

It's the day my dad suffered a near fatal aortic aneurysm when I was in college, and it's the family holiday more than any other that reminds me how little family I actually have. But mostly it's the day the media delivers me the message -- more like hits me over the head with it! -- that I am supposed to be attending a large gathering of loving kin. Well, crap. If you haven't already, read last year's post ("Why I Love My Thanksgiving Angels," 11/26/12), and you will understand why I dread the day yet feel immense pressure to produce happy plans for my deserving school-age sons.

This year, not receiving an invite to someone else's party, the onus was on me as it has been many times before to come up with something or several somethings.

We'd already done the go-to-the-historical-society thing and watched a turkey being cooked the colonial way . . . and learned during the event that -- despite my being told twice by two different people -- the excruciatingly slow-roasted bird could not be eaten by the visitors that day but instead would be taken home by a staff member! We'd already broken bread with other Thanksgiving weekend tourists at one of Plimoth Plantation's elaborate sit-down meals, and I did not want to spend a lot of money at one of the few area restaurants serving that day. What's more, my sons had already participated in a Turkey Trot in our town that I believed wasn't being repeated. (I learned after the fact, unfortunately, that one did take place. Someone else was in charge.)

Sometimes, though, figuring out our plans is just a matter of keeping my ears pressed firmly to the ground.

Finally, we are free on Sunday mornings. So we've started going to church. I have been wanting to take my boys for some time, but several things have stopped me until now. First, Christopher had to report to his football games the morning of the Sabbath. Secondly, I didn't know which church I would choose. I conducted a brief "church search," as I call it, a few years ago but wasn't completely satisfied with my findings. This summer I took my sons to an anniversary reunion in Maine at the Christian Science camp both my mother and I attended for many years. Predictably, Christopher loved the experience, and we got to spend a couple of nights sleeping in a cabin at the brother camp to boot. My oldest son wants to go to the camp next summer, yet in order to do so he must attend Christian Science Sunday School and learn the religion's basics. And, thirdly, I was concerned about my younger son misbehaving in Sunday School. I needed to wait until I felt he could control himself during instruction.

On November 24 -- our first-ever day in church and Sunday School as a family! -- I took mental note when the First Reader at the area Christian Science church announced that there'd be a service on Thanksgiving. Better yet, it would be a testimony meeting.


Honestly, I can't recall the last Thanksgiving service I attended . . . or if I've ever attended one. I grew up in Christian Science but have not been a regular churchgoer for more than half my life. However, I am familiar with Wednesday evening testimony meetings my mother brought me to during my childhood and youth. I remember liking them. Church members would voluntarily stand one at a time and recount a personal story involving a prayer healing, or they would just give thanks to the church and God.

In fact, I believe my early exposure to testimonies informed my decision years later to become a memoirist. Indeed, I have always loved hearing or reading captivating personal stories, especially when they have a deeper meaning or a transformative message.

I was intrigued by the idea of going to church on Thanksgiving Day and anxious to talk to my sons to see how their first experience in Sunday School had been. Well, it was a great success! Couldn't have been better, actually. Charlie had been a model student. What's more, the boys' teacher was a friend of mine -- someone I went to college with and a former colleague at the Christian Science Monitor many years ago. Let me go as far as to say that I am responsible (or partially, anyway) for her still-intact marriage! Back in our CSM days, she asked me to join her on a group ski trip to Colorado. Her future husband whom she had just met was going, and she wanted a girlfriend with her to act as wingwoman. (This was long before the term was even coined.) Since I love to ski, it didn't take much persuading at all.

E and P now have an adopted Chinese son in third grade. Did I mention my sons are in fourth and second grades? So Christopher and Charlie attended Sunday School with Sam and had fun playing with him in the toy room and outside after the service. Several years ago we had a real playdate with Sam. It was my turn to call E for another, but she knows I am extremely busy with my sons as a full-time single mother. Regrettably, the call never got placed.

My boys were on board with a Thanksgiving church service! I suggested a playdate afterward, but E has a lot of family in that town so she was beholden to them to help prepare the grand meal. Totally understandable. We made plans for the next day. Chris and Charlie were happy to see Sam on Thanksgiving morning and perfectly fine with going straight home afterward in order for me to get our meal ready.

Since it was just the three of us, there was no point buying a whole bird and cooking it in the oven for hours at a time. I served the boys pre-cooked and -packaged turkey thighs from Market Basket, cranberry sauce, couscous, peas, sourdough bread, and berry pie with Peppermint Bark gelato for dessert. Everyone agreed it was all very yummy.

The next day we met E, P, and Sam at a renovated park in a nearby town. Gabe's Run, a large memorial 5K and one-mile fun run, was under way. I had wanted fleet-of-foot Charlie to join the latter, but he wanted more time playing with Sam. Who could blame him?! After an hour or so outside in the bitter cold, we all decided to seek warmth at Bertucci's. Surprisingly, the boys and I had never been to this particular location of the chain Italian restaurant, though it is right next door to the Starbucks I frequent several times a week.

With our neighbors gone for the weekend, the boys had the cul-de-sac all to themselves -- a great and welcome rarity. They rode bikes and a scooter and jumped on a pogo stick before building a giant leaf pile in the backyard and jumping in it. Watching them play together so nicely on the quiet street and behind the house made me feel very happy.

We went to church again yesterday, which happened to be the twenty-seventh anniversary of my father's death. This time E split up the boys for instruction. Charlie and Sam have similar rambunctious energy levels, so she took them. P taught Christopher, a laid-back child of ten going on fourteen.

Meanwhile, I took comfort in the church service. I'd been going through something very tough the previous week and had found some stress relief from housecleaning. (I know. You've never read that in my blog posts!) I'd only told one person besides my sons what had happened, but on Thanksgiving Day I spontaneously and tearfully confided in a complete stranger at church who turned out to be the First Reader's wife! I believe she may have told her husband because the hymn selection and the readings from the podium he's responsible for seemed perfectly designed for me and my current challenge! Whereas I'd been a tearful mess on Thanksgiving during the service, yesterday I held it together like a stiff-upper-lipped New Englander . . . that is, until the singing of the final hymn. How did the First Reader know it was my all-time favorite because it spoke to me like no other?! Before long, my face was soaked, and I was reaching for a tissue in my purse. (I came prepared this time.) As the words "O captive, rise and sing, for thou art free;" and "For every tear to bring full compensation, To give thee confidence for all thy fears." washed over me -- I couldn't sing them myself as I was way too choked up -- I realized that this weekend coming to an end had proceeded exactly as needed.

After the service, we raced home. Charlie was finally going to be in a fun run! Third time's a charm. The boys changed their clothes. I grabbed some snacks -- no time for lunch -- and drove to the Jewish Community Center thirty-seven minutes away for the Dreidel Dash one-miler. Despite the distance and being Christian, we are JCC members because I love the large outdoor pool, the other athletic facilities, and the affordable price. Chris decided to run as well, but I couldn't because I still have plantar fasciitis.

Following the event, we went inside for the Thanksgivikkuh Celebration's Hanukkah party. I ate way too many latkes with applesauce. Seven or eight? Charlie painted a wooden dreidel, and we listened as children were led in the singing of beautiful Hanukkah songs.

We hadn't taken a big trip (and likely gotten stuck in traffic or bad weather). I hadn't had to endure tactless or ignorant comments or misplaced judgments from distant relatives who haven't seen me in countless years. And I hadn't needed to worry about my sons possibly becoming bored or failing to connect with kin they'd never even met.

We had a relaxing, low-pressure long holiday weekend filled with healthy fun, good food, and spirituality. Though we did not spend the holiday at someone else's house, this year I gained yet another new Thanksgiving Angel in E.

Doing our own thing this Thanksgiving weekend turned out to be just right.