28 08 2010

When I started writing My Imperfect Truth I began with the assumption that anyone reading would either be a friend or family member and would already know that I’m gay. Somehow starting a blog with a great big “hey y’all did I mention I’m a lesbian” essay seemed disingenuous and a little attention-grabbing. After all, I reasoned, other writers don’t provide any back story that begins with “so I’m straight…” Being gay is just one of the many things I am, along with freakishly tall, bad at math, a snazzy little dancer, Irish-Italian, and a mom. Besides, every gay person has their coming out story and most of my close friends know mine. Well a glossed-over version of it anyway. I had also made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going detail my coming out story here because it involved the end of my marriage, which was an understandably painful event for my ex-husband. I have too much affection and respect for him to publicly revisit that time. So, to save time, the answers to the questions I invariably get in odd places (cocktail parties, business events and recently a friends wedding reception) are: A) yes I suspected my sexuality from a young age, B) no I didn’t get married hoping it would make me straight. I loved my ex husband and in spite of the marriage ending there were some really terrific times and a pretty spectacular daughter along the way. And, C) um, no I don’t plan to ‘go back to men.’ (I was recently asked that question with Kelly sitting right next to me. Dude really? ). And really that’s always been the end of that. After nearly seven years with Kelly, the most recent of which has been spent happily co-habitating, building a great family home life, traveling together and planning a wedding, I thought I had finally leaped over most of the coming-out hurdles and could sit back and enjoy our happily wedded life. After all, it’s been a long time coming.

When I first came out, my life was a combination of outright terror and tentative excitement. Moving on as a single mom (although one blessed with a supportive and involved co-parent) was scary, and there was some rough water to navigate. My coming out changed my role in many of my personal relationships. I was no longer the straight tag-along to my gay friends and in many ways those relationships required the most care and feeding. Some friends gay and straight felt a bit betrayed by this secret I had kept, others felt I was just being trendy and wasn’t “really” gay. There were some harsh words, some misunderstandings, and the loss of one very dear friendship completely. And then there was my parenting life. Suddenly I was very different from the other moms dropping off their new kindergarten-ers at the local Catholic school where we had decided to send Liza.

I know. This is where I get the inevitable. “Wait a minute, you’re gay but you’re sending your kid to a Catholic school?” question. And my short answer is this: “Yes.” My relationship to my faith is complicated and it’s very personal to me, but at the end of the day it is my faith and I wanted my child raised in that faith, for even as the politics of my church turned its back on me, the prayers, rituals, and hymns comforted me at a time I needed it most. I wanted Liza to attend a school where the academics were rigorous, where the emphasis was on respect and personal responsibility, and where she could be fully a part of the school and parish community. It was absolutely the right decision for her but I was understandably nervous enough about being welcomed as a divorced mom at a Catholic school, let alone a divorced gay mom. For nearly five years I kept that part of my life quiet when dealing with her school. Kelly wasn’t living with us then and aside from a few of Liza’s friends who spent enough time with us to know that Kelly was usually around, no one “officially knew.” But as I grew to trust that the moms and dads of her friends were o.k. with the situation, and as Liza matured, I finally felt comfortable enough at the end of her fourth grade year to ask my friend in charge of volunteers for a school fundraiser if Kelly and I could volunteer together. We were greeted warmly and enthusiastically as we handed out pizza and desserts and Kelly’s joking demeanor was a big hit with the kids. That was the first time I introduced Kelly as my partner to other parents and teachers at her school. And after that we never looked back. Kelly has been there at concerts and plays and when she picks Liza up at her after-school program the teachers never have to ask what child she’s there for. Last spring, when I read of a boy in Massachusetts being denied entry into a Catholic school because he had two moms, it made me doubly thankful for the warm and supportive environment we had found at Liza’s school. This week as the start of sixth grade was upon us, and as our wedding draws closer, I let out a sigh of relief that surely the biggest coming out hurdles were behind me. I was wrong.

There’s an expression in the gay community that you don’t come out just once, you come out over and over again each time you meet someone new. I hadn’t thought until this week how that expression would also be true for my daughter until the night she burst into tears and told me how embarrassed she was that I was gay, and how afraid she was of having to tell new kids at a new school next year, how she was afraid she’d be teased for it, that when we go places as a family she wonders what other people are thinking. The rawness of her emotions slammed into me and I found myself grappling for an answer. I took a deep breath and told her that the people who matter will accept her and her family and the people that don’t are not going to be the people that matter. That we don’t live our lives in secret as if we’re ashamed of who we are, and that by living honestly and openly we are taking away the opportunity for others to use our life as a weapon against us. I told her that sometimes I wonder what people think of our family too, but then I remember how awesome our family is and I remind myself that what other people think is their business. She listened tearfully and said she was done talking about it. I gave her a hug, went into the bathroom, got into the shower, and cried. My coming out had been over 30 years in the making, but Liza had gotten dragged along on my ride and now it was finally catching up with her and it was killing me. Suddenly I doubted everything. Had I handled this the wrong way? Should I have remained closeted at her school and around her friends? I’m used to parental guilt but this one was a doozy. For the next week I proceeded to tread Ilightly and didn’t force the subject. I held my breath that Liza wouldn’t be embarrassed when one of her teachers inquired about what caterer we were using for our wedding and wished us well. Although she was a bit more scowly than usual for a few days by the end of the week we were back to sitting on the deck laughing at wedding scenarios (like Kelly’s suggestion that we have the guests greet each other by rubbing noses) and I hoped that the storm had passed at least for the moment. Kelly thinks I’m naïve to think that my sexuality will never be an issue for Liza with her friends and peers. I continue to maintain that the only way to change minds is to simply live our lives and by doing so show that there’s nothing unusual about our family (well other than the fact that Kelly likes to eat pretzels with taco seasoning sprinkled on them but that’s another blog post entirely). I know most kids are embarrassed by their parents at some point in time and I know Liza wishes I wasn’t so fat, that I could cook, and that I would never again do any show with the local teenage actors who are her friends. But I hope that she can find it in herself someday to be proud that I finally found that courage not to hide who I am. That she can be proud that I’m out.


The Blink

18 07 2010

A dear friend and her husband just welcomed an adorable baby girl to the world and are happily embarking on the adventure of parenthood. As I look at her photos of that teeny baby snuggled and cuddled and loved and coo-ed over I feel that tug that so many moms of older kids feel. That “where did the time go?” feeling. And of course my friend is now hearing what all moms of newborns hear, “don’t blink or you’ll miss something!” Or “you watch, you’ll blink and she’ll be grown!” I steal a glance at my 11-year old sprawled on the couch in her pajama shorts and tank top, fully engulfed in a Lady Gaga video and ponder that parenting phenomenon known as “The Blink.”

Now let me make something clear. I am not one of those sentimental moms that saves every lock of hair, charts every milestone, and has saved every school project or drawing in a colorful bin labeled ‘precious memories.” I’ve chronicled on these pages before that I have never been a great mom and at times never even been a good mom. But even I was blindsided by The Blink. I started thinking about The Blink the other day when trying to remember what summer we took Liza to Storyland. It was then I realized that I don’t think in years. Rather, I think in terms of what grade she was in, what dance recital or play she was doing at the time, but rarely, if ever, by how old she was or what year it was. Looking at a photo of Liza at the pool the summer we moved to my condo I struggled to think how old she had been and was stunned to realize she was just five. FIVE ! A lifetime ago! Yet, at the same time, a mere blink in the endless cycle of back-to-school shopping, Christmas concerts, Easter masses, and Fourth of July fireworks that make up our lives. Here’s the thing, I don’t really remember Liza being any specific age except for four, because that’s the year we first took her to Disneyworld and also the year my marriage ended. (Ok, I also remember the year she was 9 if only because it was a singularly difficult year for both of us and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive it intact). But ask me what she was like at 7 or 3 or 5 and I’ll look at you blankly and then I”ll do my “let’s see…7..that would have been um… 2nd grade? The year she did Jungle Book? Or was she 8 when she did Jungle Book? Hmmmm….” routine.

Here’s my next confession. I vividly remember Liza’s birth, but I don’t remember much about the long hot summer that followed other than my complete inability to effectively parent an infant. And the toddler years after that? One big blur. I was blessed with the world’s greatest daycare providers who surrounded Liza with love and support and guided her through those first steps, toilet training, and her ABCs. To some moms I know this is seen as abandoning my child, for me, it gave me the support network I needed. I didn’t take to motherhood easily. It blindsided me. I was ill-equipped to deal with long days on the toddler swings, nap schedules and Barney. My personal life at the time was troubled and I wasn’t present physically or emotionally in the way I should have been, I call them the lost years. This gap in time is not helped by the fact that I possess photos of Liza as an infant and scores of photos of her from ages 5-11 but nothing from ages 2-4. I think I left those photo albums at her dad’s house – and rightfully so as he should have his share of photo memories of her. But that lack of a visual record does make it hard for me to remember what she was like. It’s almost as if I went straight from that squalling irritated infant to the tween I just bought size 9 adult ballet slippers for. From folding onesies to picking up a tank top in the laundry and wondering if it belonged to the girl or to me. From preparing bottles for her at 2am to asking her to refill my coffee while she’s in the kitchen. From holding hands with a little girl on the beach, to putting my arm around a young woman nearly as tall as I am. The Blink happened.

As I smile as I read my friends exuberant Facebook posts about those heady early days of motherhood, yet my heart aches a little for the baby Liza was and for the kind of intuitive mom she never had. I love being around new babies, I love holding them and smelling that awesome new baby smell and seeing those little faces so full of promise of the world ahead of them and I love seeing those new moms so in love with them and so sure that they will memorize each moment, that they won’t be a victim of the Blink. I look at Liza and search for reminders of her chubby toddler face where the blasé face of a confident young woman now lives. I stop her suddenly in the supermarket and kiss the top of her head so fiercely she pulls away from me with a horrified “MOMMMMM!” I can’t bring that toddler back, that 5, 8 or 10-year old back nor, honestly, would I want to. Liza has grown into a young woman whose company comforts me, whose humor delights me, and whose talent humbles me. But in this moment when I feel that I finally have a handle on this whole mom thing, I hold on to my 11 year-old with all my might because I know. I know soon she’ll be gone on her way to a future bigger than we can imagine. And I’ll be wondering when I blinked.

My Real Mother’s Day

15 05 2010

May 15, 1999 fell on a Saturday, just like today. The weather was spring-warm, the way I like it – not yet too hot. Outside our neighbors on our quiet cul-de-sac were already appearing in their yards to mulch their gardens, plant flowers and mow the lawn. This meant that virtually the entire neighborhood was there to see me lower my enormous 9 months and 3 days pregnant body into our tiny Dodge Colt and head off to the hospital. Finally. It was time, time to meet the restless daughter who had grown inside me for 9 months, sticking her feet under my ribs, kicking in indignation anytime I rested anything on my giant belly (my ex husband used to delight in putting the TV remote there only to watch it fly off after a well placed kick from the baby), and plaguing me with the kind of heartburn that made me feel like an ad for Tums. Our journey to the hospital just a mile or two away felt like something that had been scripted for an old 1970s sitcom. The road we took was under construction, unpaved and bumpy – just the way women in labor like it! A boy on a bicycle darted out into the street causing my ex- husband to slam on the breaks and me to actually utter the line “do that again and this baby is going to be born in the car.” Once at the hospital we watched an elderly couple board the elevator and as David said politely – “we’ll get the next one,” I countered with ‘HOLD THAT ELEVATOR!” There are times when the ability to project to the back row of a theater comes in handy. This was one of those times. Finally safely ensconced in the labor and delivery room as I clung to the cool calm hand of my L&D nurse (A woman I will never forget by the way, I may not remember what I had for breakfast an hour after I eat it but I will always remember her cool hand and her calm, caring demeanor.) Continuing our streak of zingers and wacky set-ups I remember telling her that as hard as I was trying to be strong it really, really REALLLY hurt and I thought I needed something for the pain. Assuring me she would do so as soon as she checked my progress she suddenly got a funny look on her face and said “oh honey, I can’t give you anything.” “WHAT? WHY?”, I wailed. “Because I have your baby’s head in my hands that’s why. She’s almost here!”

I should have known then. I should have known that one miss Elizabeth Rose (named for St. Elizabeth Seton and my favorite aunt Rose) was going to make her entrance a dramatic one. Forty-five minutes later there she was, red-faced, screaming at the indignity of the bright lights, and submitting to her bath where a flock of cooing nurses exclaimed over having a baby with so much thick hair they needed to shampoo and comb it out with the world’s tiniest little baby comb. (Thinking about this moment eleven years later I realize it was her first stop in hair and makeup).

Eleven years. Eleven years since that warm Saturday in May. I realize in the grand scheme of motherhood this is nothing. I know that women with older teens or grown children, smile indulgently at this statement (or roll their eyes) the same way I do when I talk to the mom of an infant or a toddler. We’re all thinking the same thing “Oh honey, that’s nothing. You have no idea what you still have to get through.” But eleven years of being Liza’s mom has taught me a great deal. I’ve been surprised at the things (good and bad) I am capable of and comforted by the confirmation of things I have always known – surprised at my capacity to love and my capacity for anger and frustration, surprised at my ability to care for another human being so completely, and comforted by how complete I feel at the touch of a small hand in mine or the sensation of my body curved around a smaller version of myself during a midsummer thunderstorm.

Never a big believer in giving things for the sake of giving, I’ve always tried to do special things for Liza’s birthdays – tickets to a concert or a special day trip for example. This year, at her request we gave her a complete room makeover – new paint, new comforter and curtains, new ‘wall art,” — the works. Gone are the ballerina lamp and comforter we picked out when we moved into my condo when she was five – replaced by bright polka dots, pink baskets for her scarves and accessories, a new mirror for the endless analyzing of the right shade of lip gloss, and bulletin boards full of photos of her and her friends from school, dance and theater. As I surveyed Kelly’s painting handiwork and the new and improved ‘ready for tweendom’ accessories, I felt a tug on my heart at the little girl trappings that had been boxed up and put away – replaced by “body mist” from Bath and Body works, a stage makeup kit, a journal, and a stack of novels. My baby girl was really gone, embarked on a journey toward adolescence and all the heartbreak, laughter, and angst that accompanies it. This morning as we paused at Liza’s door with her ready for “the big reveal,” as they call it on reality television I said a silent goodbye to her infancy, her toddlerhood, and her young childhood and readied myself for the years to come. Yet after the squeals of excitement and the “O M G”s , Liza asked if it was ok to put back up a fabric she made in daycare 10 years ago – a print of her tiny 1 year old hand with the sentiment ‘put your hand in mine, and I’ll be there any time.” It had been my first Mother’s Day gift from her and we had placed it on her bedroom wall after my divorce as a pledge that we would always be there for each other. When we redecorated I took it down, thinking it might be too childish for her now. When she asked for it back I got my Mother’s Day present all over again. Her hand in mine, now twice the size of the tiny hand on the fabric print. And while that hand doesn’t reach for mine as often as it used to, and while those newly 11-year old eyes roll at me a dozen times a day or more, and while cute tiny overalls and onesies have been replaced by tiny denim shorts and tank tops, underneath it all is that same baby who screamed head-long into my life this day eleven years ago. Happy birthday Liza Rose and thanks for the best Mothers’ Day ever.

Goodnight Joseph. Goodnight Mary.

9 01 2010

Joseph and Mary.  When you see those names does your mind go to that famous biblical couple that gets so much play around this time of year?   Of course. That’s only natural, they’re a pretty big power couple round the holidays.  But when I see those names I think of another couple.  I think of my Joseph and Mary. I think of my parents.

My  father was born in 1916 in New Haven Connecticut to deaf parents — an Italian mother and an Irish father, both first generation Americans.   His family life tended to be on the boisterous side with an Italian grandmother who more than once got in trouble during Prohibition for making wine in his family’s basement, Irish relatives who ran a speakeasy (where he tended bar well before his teens) and a mother fond of placing bets with the local bookies.  He took a young woman named Marian Bergeron to his high school prom.  Marian would later go on to become Miss America 1933.   Swarthy and dark with a cigarette eternally on his lips he went on to college at the University of Miami and was stationed on the Panama Canal during World War II.   As a child I was fascinated by his stories of his pet boa constrictor and his trip to Cuba with his father to tour the rum factories, of his endless parade of cousins with names like “Doll Doll” “Big Al,” and “Chop Chop,” of his stories of riding street cars to school and being taken to a brothel by his dad as a teen to “become a man.”   Even though Connecticut was only a few hours away from our home in Maine, his life seemed worlds away from anything I could comprehend and I wondered what it would have been like to know this grandmother who dried pasta over the backs of her dining room chairs every Sunday and this grandfather who smoked a pipe and carried a pocket watch and had a smile that said “here kid, here’s a quarter go buy yourself a pack of gum.”   For me they did and do exist only in the photo that now rests on my living room shelf.

By contrast my mother grew up in the squeakiest clean city in the country – Salt Lake City.   Born in 1926, also to deaf parents, she lived a life of ice cream with her older brothers on the front porch of their big house, of Pioneer Days and taking care of her baby brother 16 years her junior.  She remembered her childhood as being ‘very poor,’ even though her mother insisted there was “always room for another pair of feet under the kitchen table.’ Hers was a life where being Catholic in a Mormon city meant not being able to be in her best friend’s wedding. Her college studies kept her close to home at the University of Utah.  The photos of her mother looked like what Norman Rockwell would have painted if you prompted him with the word “grandma,” large and gray haired with a permanent smile that said “come in so I can make you a tuna sandwich and a glass of milk.”  As a child I used to stare at her photos wondering what it would have been like to sit on her lap and bury my head in that expansive bosom perennially covered by an apron in nearly every picture.   I was fortunate enough to know my mother’s father however as he lived with us for most of my childhood.  He was the son of a southern gentleman and former slave owner from Arkansas.  An elegant man who dressed in a shirt and tie every day well into his 90s, someone who’d spring for a lobster dinner without thinking but giggle with glee if he managed to get through Sunday mass without putting a dollar in the collection basket.

From these two disparate backgrounds the Catholic good girl from Utah and the chain smoking charmer from Connecticut met in Washington DC where they were each doing graduate work in their studies in education of the deaf at Gallaudet College.   My mother used to tell me when she saw my father in the dining hall she declared “that’s the man I’m going to marry.”  Seven years later my father finally proposed at a DC gas station with the tremendously romantic proposition “Well….how about it?”   On subsequent trips to DC with my family my father would always try to find that same gas station (now in a less than desirable neighborhood) to pay homage to this historic occasion.

My parents story is a love story, of a New Haven boy raised on Italian wine at dinner and bourbon afterwards and his Salt Lake City girl who never had a drink until they met; of two people bound together by the unique experience of growing up with deaf parents, by their tremendous faith and devotion to their church and their firm belief that family was everything;  of a couple that moved  from DC to California to Maine as my father’s career in deaf education progressed until their lives finally settled on an island with a son and two daughters, where lasagna and sauce cooked in the kitchen and scrabble games were played over bourbon manhattans.    They wrote love notes to each other bought each other cards for their ‘half- anniversaries.”  They hugged often and kissed under the mistletoe (and every where else much to the mortification of their teenaged youngest daughter).  My mother, a great correspondent, would sit at night writing cards and letters and my father would watch Pavarotti sing ‘I Pagliacci” on PBS and cry.   And every night from my room across the hall I would hear them say “Goodnight Joseph.  Good night Mary.”

My father died twenty years ago today after a short battle with malignant melanoma.  Once in the waning days of his illness as I felt his life and my tether to a family history I would never recapture slipping away I brought home a copy of “Moonstruck” to watch with him.  After the movie I asked him if it reminded him of his Italian relatives.  From his bed on the couch he smiled wanly and said “my family wasn’t that quiet.”   When I lost my father I lost my biggest fan, who never missed a school, summer stock or community theater performance.  I lost my walking partner who’d tramp for hours with me around our island or our subsequent neighborhoods telling me stories of his past and guiding me as I started uncertainly toward my future.  I lost the man who’d lie on the floor with me in front of the Christmas tree playing game after game of “I spy.”   I lost the man who taught me to love Broadway musicals and Pauline Kael’s movie reviews in the New Yorker.  In many ways when I lost him I lost my childhood and while I no longer can hear his voice in my head to this day the smell of Old Spice instantly makes me think of his bear hugs.

My mom lived eighteen long years after my father’s death, finally giving in to the aggressive breast cancer that took her from us two years ago  (almost exactly to the day that my father died).  Where my father was everyone’s friend and was greeted with shouts of “hey Joe!” wherever he went, my mother, the eternal schoolteacher, was always “Mrs. Youngs” much to her chagrin. Lacking my father’s bon vivant embrace of life she was the navigator guiding our family’s ship through waters both calm and troubled.  She drove carpool and made lunches of tomato soup and grilled cheese.  She made sure we never missed mass, that we wrote our thank you letters before we played with our toys at Christmas, that we knew how to sign so we could communicate with our grandfather, and that we always respected our teachers.  She oversaw our household chores but turned a blind eye when my brother and I would try to clear everything off the kitchen table in one trip or when my sister and I would have water fights while doing the dishes.  She made cookies with me to send to my brother in college, weathered my sister’s tempestuous battles with my father and had a tendency to get weepy at any play, assembly or  sporting event where one of her kids had a chance to shine.  Her door was always open to students needing someone to talk to and her lap was always available for the sobs of emotional daughters struggling to understand life.  Every once in a while she’d break her own rules and let me or my sister stay home from school for no reason saying that “sometimes you just need a day.”  Of course it wasn’t always perfect.  My mother often frustrated me – her worship of my older brother and her way of pursing her lips in disapproval at my choices grated on me and I often felt I couldn’t do anything right.  But when I lost her I lost my confidante, my companion in watching the Kennedy Center honors, my political debate partner, my resource for everything from how long to cook a pork roast to how to weather my infant daughter’s colic.  And of course I lost that lap to cry on.

At my father’s funeral, just before the casket was closed, I knelt with my mother to say goodbye.  She whispered to me “every night I would say Goodnight Joseph ….”  And then she touched my father’s hand and through her tears said it one last time. For years after my father died she would insist that the cracking of her ice in her nightly glass of bourbon and ginger was him saying good night to her.  At my mother’s funeral I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘goodnight Mary” but I knew that somewhere somehow they were together to say it to each other.   For me, time has healed that first intense rush of grief and now on this anniversary weekend of both of their passings, I will say it tonight and know they are with each other and that they are with me.

Good night Joseph. Good night Mary.

The Cat Who Crashed Through the Ceiling and Other Tales of A Family Christmas

20 12 2009

The other day someone asked me how long Kelly had been living with us and as I stopped to add up the weeks I realized it was just shy of three months. Three months?  That’s it?  So seamlessly has our family life shifted and expanded to include Kelly and the cats that it feels as though we’ve always been a family of three (well ok seven if you count the cats).  Oh sure there have been the “why do you leave the dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher?”, the “Is there a reason you like to leave cupboards open after you get something out of them?” and the “I JUST swept that floor and now there’s shredded cheese all over it” er…discussions.  (And no, I’m not going to tell you who the culprits were in any of those examples).   And of course there have been the delightful “you folded and put away the laundry and started dinner?”,  “YOU scooped the litter box?” and the “why don’t I pick up the girl today to give you a little extra time at work?” surprises.   The other night when Kelly worked an additional 3-11 shift I found I couldn’t go to sleep without her there, so accustomed I’d become to our pillow talk at the end of the day.

Spatz the Christmas Cat in a deceptively peaceful moment

So all in all it’s your basic family life with all those “ little things” (with apologies to Mr. Sondheim) that make it all worthwhile and maddening at the same time. And for me, someone who’s felt rudderless with little family for so long, it provides that mooring, that safe harbor to return to each night.  So of course I was looking forward to a ‘real’ family Christmas this year and making our home warm and full of holiday cheer.

After five years as my partner, Kelly is indulgent of my penchant for decorating at Christmas, and humors my endless “No! the Santa on the bike goes on the phone table not the coffee table!” decrees.  However, this year we had to navigate new furniture and the absence of old, resulting in Kelly gallantly clearing her sideboard to give the Santa mugs a new home, and my agreeing to cull down some of the duplicates so they would all fit.  The crèche and the nutcracker collection found new spots as well and it all seemed to work out ok.  Much to my relief the cats left things alone for the most part, although Spatz does show a marked preference for alternating between tipping over and sleeping on top of the  basket of lights and pinecones I have in the living room.  But then there was the issue of the tree.  “In 43 years I’ve never had a fake tree!” I declared.  But Kelly would hear none of it as she worried about cats eating the needles, drinking sap infused water out of the tree stand and dying horrible pine scented deaths.  When she finally uttered the magic phrase “oh for heaven’s sake I’ll even BUY the tree” she finally had a deal.  We managed to find one that wouldn’t break our bank and looked somewhat realistic so one night we set out to set it up while Liza was off at a friend’s house.  The minute we took endless bunches of color-coded branches out of the box and read the instructions I started to cry.  This was so wrong!   Christmas trees came from our annual trip to the lot near the Dunkin Donuts and arrived at our home precariously balanced on the jeep and leaving a trail of needles as we wrestled it through the door – not FROM A BOX.”   Kelly,  bless her heart gently offered to take the tree back and throw the fates to the wind with a real tree so I dried my tears and persevered.  By golly it started to look like a tree.  By the time we got the lights on I felt much better and announced Liza and her friend and I would decorate it the next day while Kelly worked.

The next day while Liza and her friend played up in her room I decided to fold a quick load of laundry before bringing up the decorations.  As I knelt on the floor near the washer/dryer closet folding and sorting I heard a rustling above my head followed by a meow as our cat Spatz suddenly poked his nose through the foam ceiling tile of my drop ceiling.  He had jumped from washer to storage box and into the ceiling tiles quicker than I can polish off a bag of Ruffles.  Did I mention the celing tiles are foam? As in non-cat-body-weight supporting foam?   Much to his dismay I wrestled him to the ground closed the closet door, replaced the tile and sent him on his way.  Less than 30 minutes later as the girls headed down to the basement we heard a thud followed by “mommmma…you better come down here.”  Sure enough Spatz had repeated his new trick and surfed the foam tile down to the carpet below, sauntering away with a look that read “something happened to your ceiling.”

Fortunately I had the tree to distract him.

For the entire first week following our tree trimming we’d return home to find branches knocked off, ornaments rolled across the room and one particularly lovely Clara Nutcracker ornament repeatedly taken down.  While the other cats regarded the tree with mild confusion Spatz saw it as a challenge.  He chewed on lights, batted at ornaments and climbed the fake trunk of the tree in a quest to find those antique breakable family ornaments I’d placed on the  topmost branches in an effort to keep them safe.   After days of me pulling him out of the tree and threatening to banish him to the snow we finally came to a truce the day I returned home to find his favorite toy (a stuffed dog he stole from Liza’s room) lovingly tucked under the tree as a peace offering.  He hasn’t so much as bothered a branch sincet. I can’t say the same for the basement ceiling but in exchange for his leaving the tree alone I daily replace the ceiling tiles and go about my day.

The holiday season can be brutal when you work both in a theater and bookstore and have a daughter who performs in dance, music, and theater.  Between the multiple nutcrackers and Christmas Carols (last tally 4 of the former, 2 of the latter) and the shelving and scanning and the “my wife wants some book that has blue in the title, or maybe the cover is blue. I forget. Anyway do you have that one?”s, it’s easy to just want to wish the holidays away so that life can return to its peaceful ordered existence free of misshapen gingerbread houses and mad dashes to Target and “which costume do you need for today?” conversations.   But the other night when I returned from the theater around 9pm, we ended up all gathering round the dining room table as Kelly researched honeymoon destinations and Liza created virtual rooms on Barbie.com and I relaxed with my nutritionist-sanctioned one glass of Shiraz. I looked at the room bathed in the glow of the tree lights, at the Santa mugs in their new spot, and at the cats curled up near the heating vent and was suddenly gripped with the kind of Christmas excitement I haven’t felt in years.  “You guys!” I said, “look! It’s our first real family Christmas!”  Kelly smiled and murmured ‘mmmm’ without taking her eyes from her search for special Napa Valley Inns, but Liza looked up at me, rolled her eyes and gave me the best Christmas gift she possibly could have.  “ Mommmmma! We’ve been a family for years! The only difference this year is that we all live together..duhhhh!”   Of course Liza, of course.   It may not be “God bless us everyone,” but for my family it’s pretty darn close.  Merry Christmas.

Death and The Holidays

26 11 2009

A year ago I wrote a piece “On Giving Thanks for a New Kind of Family” in which I reconciled my lack of ‘real’ family with the family I’ve created for my self – my friends  who have embraced me literally and figuratively with a fierceness and a love that humbles and touches me.    This year as I again faced a Thanksgiving day spent mostly alone – Kelly working and Liza  with her dad and his family – I found myself slipping back into those patterns of self pity.   Yet, anyone who knows me, knows the last thing I want to be is that person you see coming and think “great here she comes dragging her trail of dead family members behind her like some kind of badge.”  Of course I’m not entirely lacking in family. I have a wonderful big brother, but his busy life as a criminal prosecutor and the comings and goings of his three active teenage boys make it hard for us to get together more than once a year if that.  Kelly’s family has welcomed me into their midst with love and hospitality and I look forward to the day when they are all my in-laws.  And yes, next year at this time Kelly and Liza and I will officially be a family of three, a prospect which excites me and fills those empty spaces in my heart.  But that six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years is full of reminders of my family holidays past and it is always a struggle for me to get through it in one piece .

A recent trend on Facebook has been to undertake a “thirty days of gratitude exercise” and today it seemed everyone’s post mentioned being grateful for FAMILY (all in caps naturally) and the cooking skills of uncles and moms and grandmothers, of baking pies with siblings and rousing games of flag football on frozen lawns.  To read these posts one would think everyone lived in that “very special” Thanksgiving episode of General Hospital where the Quartermaines stop bickering and welcome the Webbers and the Spencers to their house for a lavish dinner and everyone wears turtleneck sweaters whilst sipping wine in front of crackling fires.  Yet, here I sat in an empty house with the four cats for company watching a marathon of  “Ru Paul’s Drag Race “on the LOGO network.  (Frankly, I’m stunned I’m not inspiration for a Hallmark card with a holiday tradition like this. ) Yet, as I read post after post about large family gatherings and travels to distant places and family recipes handed down from generation to generation, I realized that my family has its own morbidly unique tradition:  we all die at the holidays.

Now don’t blanche at that statement.  It’s ok.  Death is part of life after all, and really, what better time to pass away than when your family is already gathered together and the churches are bedecked with evergreens and twinkle lights? When you’ve driven to as many family funerals as I have in front of the backdrop of holiday decorations you develop a certain macabre sense of humor about it.   It all started December 21, 1980 when my grandfather, who lived with us, had a massive heart attack in the back seat of my family station wagon and fell over and died on my 14-year old shoulder.  “He died with someone he loved more than anything, “ my mom would often say to me.  At the time I was traumatized but as the years went on, I realized I had the makings of one hell of a cocktail party story.  Friends sent casseroles and deli trays to my family and for the next decade we made deli sandwiches on Christmas Eve as a nod to those days following his death, and our truncated celebration that year was the first time I’d spend the holidays wrapped in the cocoon of my family as we mourned the loss of someone close to us.

Ten years later my father would pass away on January 9th after an all-too quick battle with malignant melanoma and his funeral took place in the same family church with the same nativity scene in the corner and the same wreaths hung by red velvet ribbons along the walls.   My father’s death is something I don’t speak of often.   I was his baby girl and he was my hero.  He taught me about Broadway musicals and crossword puzzles, how to read the New Yorker, the value of a good walking stick, and how to make the perfect bourbon and ginger for my mother.  His dual Irish/Italian heritage meant he was prone to downing more than a few manhattans each night and then crying while listening to Pavarotti sing  I Pagliacci.   Losing him left a wound on my heart and a hole in my life that has never been filled and not a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here to see me and his granddaughter who looks and acts so much like I did at ten.   For the next thirteen years we celebrated the holidays with out him, my mother alternating between Thanksgivings with my brother and Christmases with my sister, and always raising a toast to my dad on December 28th, their wedding anniversary.

Then in 2003 holiday death came calling for someone far, far too young.  My 45- year old sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma right after Labor Day and died two days before Thanksgiving.   Shell-shocked at this unexpected loss, my brother, mother and I journeyed to Maryland on Thanksgiving Day for the sad occasion of her funeral.   I’ll never forget that long drive from the Baltimore airport to her home in Salisbury, tired, sad and hungry, we stopped at a convenience store for a Thanksgiving dinner of cracker sandwiches and peanuts.   When I returned to New Hampshire the following Monday I was stunned to see the world ablaze with Christmas lights and decorations.  Three weeks later we held a memorial service for Marie at our family church in Maine  — same nativity scene, same wreaths, same deli sandwiches.  By now we had the holiday funeral down pat.

With my sister’s death still raw my brother and I never anticipated that ten months  later we would be faced with my mother’s stage four breast cancer diagnosis.  Coming as it did in July of that year I remember sitting with her at her oncologist appointment thinking idly, “well we’ll have her for another five months,” so sure was I that she too would follow our family pattern of a diagnosis and quick death just in time for the holidays.   I didn’t count on my mother’s tenacity.  She fought back for the next three years, recovering from major invasive surgery, working through physical therapy, enjoying a brief remission, and several more trips out for lunch and dinner with her best friends, “the ABC ladies” who dined alphabetically through all of Greater Portland’s hot restaurants.   But sure enough in December, 2007 during a holiday visit from me and Liza, and my brother and his youngest son, my mom’s condition turned suddenly, horrifically grave and she was rushed to the hospital. There we were once again in the family waiting room under the soft glow of Christmas lights with holiday muzak in the background.  On January 3rd they told us there was no hope.  On January 7th she died and her funeral at that same family church was full of what was by now the comforting and familiar presence of pointsettias and wise men and murmured words of condolences over deli sandwiches from the local Shaws.   During those long sad final days by her bedside my brother and I would often smile wryly at each other and say “here we are again huh, planning a Christmas funeral.”  There’s more I want to say about my mother but that loss is too new still too fresh and who she was deserves more than a pithy sentence at the end of this paragraph.

I share this not to elicit pity or sympathy. My losses are no more or no less tragic than anyone else’s and if anything, they’ve given me, the queen of self -deprecation, some great material.  I share this as explanation for my obsession with gathering my loved ones to me during the holidays, for my insistence that the Christmas lights and decorations (including my impressive and often-mocked Santa Mug collection) come out the day after Thanksgiving, for my reluctance to be alone, for my need to hug Liza tighter than ever, for my love of Christmas carols on the cd player and endless viewings of the musical Scrooge, and for my tendency to tear up when Kelly holds me.   You see, this magical time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s for me is as much about loss as it is about light and giving, as much about pain and sorrow as it is about laughter and pecan pie. But it has given me a fierce appreciation for the people in my life who mean so much to me – for Kelly and Liza who are my world, for my brother Patrick, my sister-in-law Marti and my nephews, for my best friends Joe, Katie, Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Susie, Tara, June, Vicki and Lisa and Debbie,  for “my boys” Chris, Nathan, Jeff and Matt, my new gal pals Deb and Jenn,  and for my amazing cyber pals from Mothertalkers, Banshees and May 99 moms.   During this time I may write you a little more, I may hug you a little harder or reach for your hand more often, I may call a little too much. Or I may get quiet and pull back when I fear my neediness is becoming intrusive.  Bear with me.  You mean the world to me and when you’ve already lost your world three times over you want to hold on to what is left.   To say I am thankful for you would be inadequate.  To say I appreciate you would be trite.  To say I love you would be the truth — imperfect as it may be.   Happy Holidays to you… my family.

On Cohabitation, Cats, Cleaning, and Committment

1 10 2009

Monday. Monday is just hours away. Tomorrow, five years of struggling as a single mom to Liza will start to come to an end and the great co-habitation experiment will begin. For the five years of our relationship, Kelly and I have clung fiercely to our independent lives. For a lesbian couple to be together for five years and still live in separate houses is nearly unheard of. We’ve all heard of that old joke that lesbians bring a u-haul and luggage on their second date – a stereotype Kelly and I were not eager to embrace. She’d lived alone for nearly 7 years when we met, I was freshly divorced and relishing a life of my own after going from college right to marriage in my early twenties. We often joked we’d be the only couple in history to get married, have a big reception and then go home to our individual houses after the honeymoon. Maybe we were only partly joking.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Kelly. I ADORE Kelly. When she came into my life I laughed longer and harder and blushed more furiously than I ever had. In Kelly I found my soul mate, that person who got references to old movies, lived for pop culture, and for some reason completely unbeknownst to me, thought I was beautiful – and made me feel it for the first time in my life. My happiness with Kelly has been so profound that in the early days of our relationship three separate people from completely unrelated walks of my life asked me if I’d “had work done” on my face because all my worry lines were gone. But in spite of the rosy bloom of new love we knew there were some roadblocks to moving in together – the biggest of course being that Liza was still quite young and I was fearful of moving a new person into her life and home too quickly. However there were other differences. “We have different standards of cleanliness,” Kelly used to joke to our friends and she was right. I used to clean the kitchen at her condo after she made me dinner – only to have her clean it again after me. I’d spend all day cleaning my house for her only to b e greeted with a vague mmmm hmmmmm” when I asked her if she noticed. Let’s face it, I’m not exactly a slave to cleaning products. There was also the issue of her cats. While my allergies got better over time due to repeated exposure and, to be fair, while I have come to love all ‘our’ cats – I’d never met anyone like Kelly who, well, let’s just say put their comfort above pretty much anything else. I like the cats but at the end of the day…they’re just cats, an attitude that often puzzles and maddens Kelly.

So this year when we finally decided we were tired of saying goodbye on cold Sunday nights, tired of packing bags for sleepovers back and forth, tired of paying a mortgage and rent, two sets of utilities bills and tired of not feeling like a real family all time, we decided it was time for THE BIG MOVE. Honestly, I’m thrilled that we’ll have a home together. I’m delighted that our lives are moving toward marriage I’m ecstatic that we’ll grow old together. I’m relieved to have another set of arms rowing our financial boat and another pair of shoulders to take on the household responsibilities. And I’m terrified.

Living with another human being can be daunting. It exposes all our strengths and weaknesses and makes us vulnerable to scrutiny. I’m not terrified of what I’ll learn about Kelly. I’m terrified what she’ll learn about me and about what I might do or not do to make her wonder what she ever saw in me. What if I inadvertently let the cats out into the woods behind our house? What if the proliferation of wayward drier sheets all over the house ceases to be a charming quirk and becomes a major irritant? What if she’s horrified that I like to lie in bed at night and watch classic Star Trek episodes on Hulu? What if she discovers my habit of eating a bowl of cereal before bed when I’m stressed out. What if we can’t finesse a shower schedule for 2 women and a girl with varying beauty routines? What if Liza, admittedly not the easiest child to live with, makes her crazy? What if she decides that her life of peace and quiet and cats and cleanliness is more attractive than a life of moody tweens, the Jonas Brothers, and toothpaste hardening on the bathroom counter? What if I never sleep again between nocturnal cat wandering and her penchant to snore after a hard day at work? What if I can’t make her happy?

As I sit back and reflect on the newly cleaned-out closets and empty spaces awaiting Kelly’s clothes, dishes, books and furniture I am surprised to find myself oddly calm. Tomorrow she will come fully into our lives, with her love of Coen brothers movies, her penchant for finishing my sentences, her amazing macaroni and cheese recipe, the uncanny ability to know when I need her to rub my head at night when I can’t sleep, and a heart as big as the universe. Will we drive each other crazy? Most certainly. Will we make a new kind of family out of three headstrong often maddeningly hormonal females? Undoubtedly. Will it all be worth it? Do you have to ask?