Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Mary’s Christmas Wish List

November 28, 2010

Tongue-in-cheek, okay?  Every year I make a “selfish” Christmas list of what I want Santa Claus to bring me.

A tiara.

A real one.  Not one of those party store jobs. I was shopping in Icing, which is like a slightly older version of Claire’s. They had all these gorgeous tiaras and it struck me, why don’t I have a tiara?  I act like a princess.  I could wear it while I am washing dishes. It could make all the mundane things I have to do just a little bit more fun.  You know what would happen of course.  I would wear it to do the laundry.  Then I would forget I have it on, and go pick up my son from school. And then there would be talk.

Yeah, I need a tiara.

Red Cliche Lingerie

This is kind of funny and sad at the same time. At forty-five, I have kind of lost my enthusiasm for sexy lingerie.  I don’t want it for myself now.  I want it for my twenty-forty-four year old self, which has sadly, passed on.  Because there was a time when I really, truly desperately wanted my husband/boyfriend at the time to give me lingerie for Christmas.  I kind of thought that was a given — you are romantically involved with someone — they give you red lingerie for Christmas.  Nope.  Never got any lingerie from any of the men I have been involved with.  Always get a lot of lovely and practical gifts.  Not sure what that says about me.  Can’t be good.

Let me tell you about one Christmas.  I was a young woman, not yet thirty.  I had not yet had a baby.  I had a cute body.  I had a cute husband.  I got the “box.” I mentally crossed my fingers as I untied the ribbon, I thought to myself please, please PLEASE let him have got me some romantic nightie, just this once.  WHAT WAS IN THE BOX was large, long sleeved grey flannel pyjamas.  It was not a small, subtle print, either.  They were pretty splashy and awful.  You know that moment when  you get a present that has so much message in it all you can do is freeze a smile on your face and say thank you, they’re wonderful and inside you’re just screaming?  That was that moment.

Suave Holiday Body Wash

Okay, next to the broken dreams of lingerie-that-never-was and scary self-delusion of tiara, I do think this is a pretty tame request.  Only, I cannot find it. This stuff is like two bucks.  But only Wal-Mart has it, and my Wal-Mart does not have it yet.  People are madly tracking when it comes in on forums.  it smells that great.

Pink Paper Jamz Guitar

I got one of these for my son for his birthday.  $20, I love it, and it really works.  Then I saw the pink one and it was everything I could do not to buy it for myself.  It plays three songs; all from my high school days: Blondie, Pat Benatar, and the Pretenders. To rock out.  Santa, please?

Video Barbie

Do you not love this?  She has a video camera permanently installed in her decolletage!  Go, Barbie!  The damage I could do with that kind of set-up!  I love this for two reasons (1) I kind of really love Barbie and (2) I love shooting video.  I was thinking how cool it would be to have a camera installed in myself so I could be “Video Mary.”  Then I heard on NPR today that some whack-job university professor in New York got paid from some museum in Qatar to DRILL A HOLE in his skull and put a camera in the back of his head.  And they’re going to transmit all the images from his skull back to the museum.  For like, a year.  Only the University is not sure they are cool with that because of issues with their students’ privacy (you THINK?).  That story made me feel pretty queasy when I heard it and of course I immediately thought of poor Video Barbie. But I still think she is cool.  Imagine some little girl… you think she is just playing with her Barbie and she’s making a documentary about YOU and every dumb thing you say.  I just can’t get over it.


Appreciating my gifts on Christmas Day

December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve was beautiful. William and I had a dinner and ate enough wonderful food for three people. We came home and I wrapped presents as fast as I could while he was in the bath.

He couldn’t settle down to sleep. He kept listening for Santa. At about a quarter to two in the morning, I let him go down stairs to see that Santa had come. He did not want to open presents. He just wanted the anticipation to be over.

We tracked Santa online on Norad for a while. That seemed to reassure him. Then we went back to sleep until late morning.

He was pleased to see all the presents in the morning, and he was in a great mood. I made our “traditional” cinnamon rolls (they are reduced fat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls!) sprinkled with red and green sugar. Some bacon. Eggnog. Easy.

We got through stockings. Slowly, through presents. This year, he was much more enchanted with the contents than usual. That made it fun.

By the time we got ourselves together, it was about 2:30. We drove through Georgetown on our way to Washington National Cathedral. It was foggy and there were very few people on the street. Ahead of us on Wisconsin Avenue, a bus had stopped traffic. I wondered why. Then I saw the bus driver and another man bring another man off the bus. They sat him on a low brick wall, and pulled away. He did not look in good shape. No way was I driving on.

I pulled up and rolled down the window. There was no place to pull over because of the banks of heaped up snow. I was not sure if he was homeless. He looked down and out, but clean, and about 65 years old. About the age my dad was when he died. Maybe drunk, maybe not, but something told me maybe sick. I said, are you okay? He said, I’m trying to get to the hospital. I said, hold on a second.

I pulled up to the first available space I could get the car semi-out of the traffic lane, and called 9-1-1. Usually in an emergency, I am pretty calm. Today, however, I was pretty rattled. I think because it was Christmas, and it seemed so sad. They said they would send an ambulance. I told William to wait in the car, and I ran back to the man.

While I was on the phone, he had tried to move across the sidewalk to the curb, about five feet. He hadn’t gotten far. He had fallen to his knees in a snow bank. His bare hands were in the snow. I came up to him and said, I called an ambulance. I started choking up. I put my hands on his shoulders. I said, I’m not going to leave you, okay? I tried to lift him but he was too heavy. He was like dead weight. I bent down to check his face. He was crying. I was crying. Just then, I saw two men. I said, can you help me? They came right over. Then a car stopped, and another. People came. I got a chair from the little cafe that we were in front of and we sat him in that. I told them what happened. I was trying not to cry but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t even ask him his name. I felt so helpless and stupid.

The ambulance came very quickly. The men seemed to know just what to do. I said, is there something I should do? And one of them chuckled, not unkindly, and said lady, this is what we do. Everyday. Story of my life. We’ll take care of him. And then they said, okay you’re going to a warm bed.

And then he was gone. It all happened very quickly.

I got back to the car. William had seen everything, and somehow understood. We went to the National Cathedral, as we planned. We saw the creches and the beautiful floral displays. We stayed for Vespers, and sang Christmas hymns and heard the homily. We prayed for the man, and we prayed for the people we loved, and we prayed for ourselves in the little children’s chapel.

The whole time I kept thinking how this was probably the most blessed Christmas of my life. I had my son with me, I never had so many presents, or so many wonderful things happen to me, and yet this man comes into my life for an afternoon, for a few minutes, and it made me question every thing, and it made me pray, like I have not prayed for anything in a really long time. And is there a purpose behind it? Am I meant to do something? And how, when I feel so powerless?

I think what was so devastating for me is that when I look at this man, I see the man who was once a baby, like Jesus who was once a baby, and I think someone loved him once. Someone loved him and where are those people today, on Christmas Day. His hands were so chapped. How does it happen that a man loses all his people and gets to the point where he has no one? I could not get over that sadness, and I thought how do I begin to try and fix something like that?

I had promised William I would take him to the Kennedy Center and we had dinner and saw the jazz concert and saw such beautiful things, things that I am grateful for and would not want to lose, and all of it colored by the experience of the afternoon, with the echoes of how fortunate I really am.

I got home and called Georgetown Hospital. I described him and they knew just who I meant. They said, we cleaned him, and gave him a meal. He took a nap, and then we put him in a taxi and sent him to a shelter. But he was okay? I asked incredulously. He did not seem okay. If that had been me, in that poor a condition, I think I would have been in a hospital for a week. But she said, no, he was fine. This is what we do, with these cases. I said didn’t he have anybody? I guess I had been hoping somehow that a cousin or brother or someone would have come and got him from the hospital. And that’s when I started crying again. And she said, in a kind way, it was a really nice thing of you to do, to call 9-1-1. There was nothing else to say.

It was a hard thing to happen on Christmas. I have always known about the homeless but it’s been a long time since I have been that close to it. I wish this was something I knew how to fix. You can walk for the homeless, you can give money. But can you give people? How do you give people?

Christmas memories and holiday traditions

December 22, 2009

In conversations with friends, I am struck by the variety of ways in which people celebrate Christmas.

For some, Christmas is invariably spent at home with direct members of the family.  For others, it’s a time to visit with friends and see as many relatives as possible.

Some people have big feasts, and some people have light dinners.

Some go to church, some don’t.

My ex-husband’s family had many traditions I found curious and fascinating.  A family of Italians, they would prepare and eat a feast of seven seafood dishes on Christmas Eve. They also opened their presents on Christmas Eve.  Everything they did, they did as a family.

One friend and her husband go to the movies all day long.

The Christmas memories of my childhood have shaped the way I celebrate the holiday with my own son.

Growing up, I was often in theatrical productions around Christmas.  I had been acting in plays and musicals in Richmond since I was six years old.  For three Christmases running, I performed in a Christmas Carol as one of the Cratchits.  The theater people were my best friends.  We celebrated; we went caroling in our Dickensian costumes.  There was usually a performance on Christmas Eve, and I can remember how exciting it felt to me to be part of the audience’s Christmas celebration.  The best Christmases of my life were those.

My mom was a single mom all of my childhood, and she did a wonderful job of trying to make Christmas special for us.  But she was often tense and unhappy during the holidays.  I am sure she felt the pressure of the holidays, and I suppose she missed my Dad, and her mother, who had died.  So, the theater at Christmas was an important outlet for me, a source of joy, really, when I needed it the most.

After my performance, on Christmas Eve, we went to the elegant home of one of my mother’s friends, who had a lavish party that  evening.  She was a woman who was gracious in everything she did, warm and friendly, and not the least bit condescending to us, which was saying something in a town very much consumed with status and social rank.

She had studied cooking in France, and was a professional interior decorator,  so her house was lovely, and the food was delicious.  On a table cloth shining with china and silver were delicacies such as liver pate and truffles, beef tenderloin, and French cheeses.  We didn’t have much money growing up, so I was a little awed at the sumptuous buffet.

Her guests were museum curators, professors, artists, and other interesting people with refined manners.  I felt honored to be included among her guests, and she made a nice fuss over us when we came in the door.  Santa generally made a quick visit and distributed candy canes to everyone.

Everyone wore their most beautiful clothes and the room sparkled with candlelight.  She had the largest Christmas tree I had ever seen.   It would have been impossible to count its exquisite and varied ornaments.  It was a feast for the senses.

Around 11 or so, many of the guests would get ready to leave for midnight mass at one of the two historic Episcopal churches nearby.  So, she would end the party by turning up the stereo quite loud, and distributing lyrics, and encouraging everyone to sing “Joy to the World” at the top of their voices.  Her enthusiasm was so infectious, it would have been impossible not to join in.  She did this every year, and it always put me in the holiday spirit.

We would also stop at the smaller party of another friend of my mother’s, who was just as kind to us, and who always made sure we felt welcome and gave us nice things to eat.

I was the only church-goer in my family of three.  When I was a young woman, I would sometimes convince my tired mother and sister to go to church that night, and the midnight mass was lovely.  But when we were younger children, we went home to our apartment to bed.  My mom would turn on the television in the living room so she could listen to the Pope’s midnight mass message.  She wasn’t Catholic; she just liked the Pope.  My sister and I would go to bed and try not to hear my mom’s last-minute rustlings and wrappings as she got ready for Christmas.

In the morning, my sister and I would go for stockings first.  There was an orange in our stockings and we usually ate that right away.  My mom used to make Pillsbury sweet rolls (the orange frosted kind) and sometimes cocoa.  I can remember stirring our cocoa with a peppermint stick.  Then with nuts and candy from our stocking, that was our breakfast.

Sometimes, about every other year or so, I would see my father, and when my paternal grandparents were alive for the short time while I was young, we would go to visit them in their home, but these visits were fairly short and for a child like myself, not very rewarding.  Our paternal grandparents had already become attached to and lost two grandchildren they loved very dearly, the children of my father from a previous marriage, and they probably found it hard to be warm and loving to us, after that experience.  My father drank, and he was usually drunk on Christmas.  Still, I was happy to have a chance to see him for a little while, and I got a present and a hug from him.

Then, we would go to my grandfather’s house, where we stayed until at least 6 or 7 pm, as we did every Sunday, Christmas, and Easter.  (My grandmother had died before I was born.)  His wife and her extended family would be there.  My grandpa put out a rather Southern lunch buffet (turkey, fried chicken, Smithfield ham biscuits, baked beans, deviled eggs, shrimp, fruitcake, chocolates)  and many people, mostly older people, came all day long to eat, drink, smoke cigarettes (everyone seemed to smoke back then) and visit with him — his friends, extended family.  They talked about the restaurant business, football, and horse racing. There was a tree, but not much beauty in it, and no Christmas music at all.  It wasn’t much fun for me.  They weren’t unkind, but they showed very little interest in me and my sister, and I suppose we had little in common with them.  I don’t remember my grandfather’s wife saying more than a few words to me all the years I knew her.  It was rare that we were even offered a glass of water.  I suppose we were simply unnoticed.  My sister and I had our toys to play with and we read my grandpa’s copies of Time Magazine and anything else we could find to read to pass the time.  I loved his Labrador dog, Corky, and would pet him, or walk him in the small backyard.  It was a grown-up time, those visits, and we were expected to be quiet and to behave ourselves, to rise when guests came and left, and to be a credit to our family.  Before we left, I would get an embrace from my grandpa, usually some money, and of course, a Christmas present, and then Mom would drive back home, quiet and sullen from the visit.

After my grandfather died, when I was twenty, Christmas Day became more relaxed.  We didn’t have a big Christmas dinner, like some families do.  We snacked on cheese and crackers, and played Christmas music.  I remember a friend came over and we played Trivial Pursuit and that was one of the more fun Christmas Days I can remember.  And then I was twenty-three and married, and I had my own family with whom to celebrate Christmas.

Now that it is just me and my son, it is up to me to set my own Christmas traditions.  Things are different, of course, because I am divorced and I have Christmas with my son every other year.  But I try to make Christmas special.

I would say our Christmas celebrating starts in early December.  Also, we celebrate Christmas through Epiphany (January 6), which is also known as The Twelve Days of Christmas.  So all of our Christmas decorations stay up, and we play music and celebrate, through that day.

January 6 is celebrated as King’s Day in France, where I lived for a short time, and we usually have a King’s cake, although it’s a made up one and not a the luscious pastry affair you find in France.

One thing you will notice about my house, apart from the three Christmas trees, is that we play music on the stereo.  My son and I are both fond of music and we both like to sing!  We like pop, jazz, classical, rhythm and blues, alternative, oldies.  We have lots of Christmas albums, everything from George Shearing and Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys to Sarah MacLachlan.   There is always Christmas music playing at my house, and often one of us is singing along.

My mom’s friends have influenced me to make my home as beautiful at Christmas as I can afford.  I really delight in decorating little touches, small scented candles, and bits of greenery everywhere.  We also splurge some on some treats, like French cheeses, hard candies, and chocolates.

Another Christmas tradition is that I have collected a small trove of Christmas books and stories.  Some old, some new.  So, I always have at least one or two Christmas stories to read to William each night before he falls asleep.  And I have Christmas stories and poems that are written for adults that are a very special part of my Christmas that I re-read each year.

One memory I wanted to preserve for myself, in the way of the Christmases I remember, is the elegance, beauty, and excited anticipation that I associate with Christmas Eve.  So I try to make the evening of Christmas Eve quite special.  If I cook a special meal, it is on Christmas Eve.  But, since it is usually just my son and myself, we go out to a nice restaurant, in our best clothes.

Then, on Christmas Day, I suppose I try to make my Christmas days as unlike those of my childhood as possible!  Not the mornings, of course, which were wonderful.  Now, like then, we open stockings first, and we eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, but the rest of our day is filled with fun things to do.  We don’t like to relax on the couch on Christmas day.  If the weather permits, we take a long walk around the National Christmas tree and see all the little State trees, Yule Log, and Nativity.  Otherwise, we might go to the movies.  One year I went to see a funny play on Christmas Day (and the house was packed!).   Sometimes, we go to the National Cathedral for Vespers at 4 p.m., which is a lovely service.  At 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, there is a free jazz concert at the Kennedy Center.  I went last year, and my son has already told me he would like to go this year.

I think what I have learned about Christmas is that you can make it your own, in whatever way is meaningful to you.  To me, that means less emphasis on presents and feasts and more emphasis on music, the arts, decorations, long walks in Old Town, some quiet and reverent time in church, and spending time with the people who are most important to me.

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