Thursday, December 24, 2015

I believe

One of our two kids may be just pretending to believe in Santa Claus this year. It's okay. He's 10. One of these days we may have to tell him what's up. We have never made a big deal about Santa, beyond the standard traditions of sending a wish list letter and leaving out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. But I've always worried about the day he asks questions for real and I have to give him for-real answers.

So whenever my kids ask me if I believe in Santa Claus, I say I believe in everything Santa stands for, all that he means: generosity, care for everyone, magic, excitement, and love. I tell them that believing in Santa is not just for little kids but for anyone who feels these things during the Christmas season. I never really swear by all the fairy tale details, but I say instead that I've never actually seen Santa Claus in person. 

These are the things my mom said to me, and eventually I got it. I don't remember feeling betrayed or fooled; I felt loved, and I loved my parents even more when I realized the bounty under the tree each year was really from them. 

Yesterday, Happy mentioned that some of the kids in his class were teasing about believing in SC. He said he feels sad for kids who don't believe. But he said it in a way that was really asking me a question. We were out running errands at the time, buying last minute gifts and eating a nice lunch out. A lump formed  in my throat. This may be the day we talk about Santa, I thought...or maybe let's wait until January. 

We came home to a mailbox full of Christmas cards, one addressed to the boys. It was a letter from "Santa's Elf Twinkle," detailing all the excitement of Christmas Eve and the treats Santa brings back to everyone at the North Pole. Adorable. I wish you could have seen Happy's face as he read it aloud to his little brother. Wonder, joy, magic, anticipation. He ran upstairs and taped the letter to his wall, right next to his bed. 

The best part of this letter? I have no idea who sent it.

This, my friends, is the spirit of Christmas -- a random act of kindness that brings unexpected joy.

This is Santa Claus. And I believe. 



Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas cookies... and other holiday tradtions that may not happen

Tommy's Park in Old Port shines bright
I sat frantically on the phone this afternoon, refreshing my browser page in an attempt to purchase tickets to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens "Gardens Aglow" exhibit this weekend. The website kept telling me that there were no times available -- how can this be? There aren't possibly this many people in mid-coast Maine who need to see holiday lights as badly as we do. Come on! If this doesn't work out, what will we do this weekend that will make us feel cheerful and special and holiday-ish? Once I got a voice on the phone, I felt even more frustrated as she told me of the parking problems and crowds; not helping my cheer levels.

Holiday traditions! We all have them. Or at least we think we do. Recently I've been feeling awful about the lack of Christmas traditions in our household. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, as we walked home from school, I asked the kids if they wanted to go to the mall to see Santa. I anticipated "YEAH! Woohoo! I can't wait!" from two glittery-cheerful little kids. But what I got was, "Nah, not really." From both of them, even the littlest one who still believes in the Big Red Jolly Guy. We haven't baked cookies this year because Honey can't eat them. And now we won't see any big light displays.

When I as a kid, we definitely had holiday traditions, and there was a lot of pressure around them. My dad is a traditions guy, like Clark Griswold. Every year, there were things that HAD to be done in order for the Mellos to enjoy the holiday season: Picking a tree from the farm, hauling it home and letting it sit in a bucket of water for a couple days before setting it up on the 2nd weekend in December, so it didn't dry out too soon before New Years. Driving around in the evenings to look at lights, usually in the same neighborhoods because the same people put up the same beautiful displays each year. Attending our friends' neighborhood dinner on Christmas Eve, then walking to church as Santa came by on the firetruck. Baking hundreds of different kinds of cookies to make baskets to take to neighbors and tins to mail to friends. Visiting Santa at the mall or local garden store, long after I weighed more than Santa wanted on his lap. Hot wassail simmering on the stovetop, Christmas CD's on shuffle in the giant Sony stereo. Gramma and Grampa arriving on December 23rd so we could take them to The Carriage House for a fancy anniversary dinner. Every year the same routines...ahem, I mean, traditions.

The Hess trucks come out at Christmas time!
We did have beautiful Christmastimes, it's true. My dad loves Christmas so much that what made our traditions special was the love and hope he shined through them. But you know the holidays that stand out most in my memory? The ones where family traditions veered slightly off course. Like the year my dad was in the hospital with a kidney stone, or the year Mom was laid out awaiting the birth of my sister; we all climbed into the big sofa bed with her big pregnant belly covered in bows while Dad handed out gifts. One Christmas we had a giant squirrel in the house, which meant no candy or cookies in the cabinets, and we came down Christmas morning to find Mr. Squirrel raging in the Have-a-Heart trap; my brother and I were convinced Santa had lured him in there for us.

One year we were in a fender-bender while on our annual drive-around-and-look-at-lights sojourn because Dad jammed his brakes on to see a particularly brilliant display. And the time he drove the van into the garage with the fresh-cut tree on the car roof...which bent up the garage door frame and scraped up the car and sent all of us into fits of laughter.

Or there was the Christmas that my Muslim friend spent the week with us, and we ran to Kmart to buy him boxes of candy and socks so he'd have things to unwrap Christmas morning like the rest of us. There was also the Christmas after Mom passed away, when we couldn't even see the tree through the mountain of gifts Dad had purchased, trying to fill the biggest hole that ever was.

As I hung up the phone today and regained my cool, it struck me: Are the best memories intentional, planned "traditions" -- forced! -- or do they just happen? Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to make everything so frigging magical? Why can't we just let it be, find the magic in each and every small moment?

I look around now and think about some of our current beautiful, memorable in-the-moment traditions:
  •  Realizing after 6 years that the Mr. Christmas ornament actually plays music and syncs the lights on our tree in time... amazing!
  • Zippy putting on the green Eagles Santa hat immediately upon walking in the door after school each day, then wearing it all night, every night...like the happy little elf he is
  • Shitty pop-music holiday music in the background everywhere we go, until someone says "I really hate this song" and we realize we're humming along anyway
  • Hearing the incessant sound effects from the fleet of Hess trucks that came down from the attic with the decorations, mixed with giggles and singing while two brothers who are five years apart in age play together
  • The glee on Honey's face when he comes home from the mall with armloads of gifts for me and the boys...and the way he looks forward to the Black Friday circular in the Thanksgiving newspaper every year
  • Naming our favorite light installations every time we drive through town, as if each time is the first time we've seen them
  • Two cats snoozing side by side on the tree skirt, glowing beneath the colored lights...they so rarely tolerate one another, but the tree skirt is magical
  • Building gingerbread fortresses out of graham crackers on a whim after school, then playing flashlight tag outside to burn off that frosting-induced buzz
  • Little boys who get excited when they find a toy for their brothers at Walgreens or Target or Hannaford when we're out running errands
  • A civics lesson at the dinner table when Happy asked us about why so many people are freaking out in our world these days, which lead to more talk of peace and love and tolerance, which is what I truly wish this season could be about
Tradition-shmadition. Christmas is fun when we're not making ourselves nuts. We're all here together. We're healthy. We're happy. Our toes are warm and our bellies are full. I want my children to remember the moments, not the routines. I want them to have a sense of peace and calm, a season of love and giving and gratitude. And two parents who haven't exhausted themselves forcing it to be all perfect and magical all the time.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Thankful

I'm lying on an Aerobed in my brother's finished basement, listening to the sounds of my blissed out, over-fed, super-loved children's sleepy time breathing. Tomorrow we'll go home after a beautiful couple of days with my family. Bittersweet sleep.

This room itself contains bits and pieces of my childhood holiday memories scattered all around: a needlepoint acrostic of all our names that my mom stitched in the early 80s (before my little sister was born) displayed next to my mom's portrait; a photo collage of snapshots from the early 90s -- in one I'm shown holding a Sports Illustrated with Christian Laettner in the cover; a framed photograph of our entire Stock-Mello family snapped on a Thanksgiving perhaps 20-25 years ago -- that may have been the last time all the aunts and uncles and cousins were together before mom's illness changed us all; a crazy quilt on the Aerobed sewn by my great-grandmother -- she made one for every one of her grandkids, and now we three Mello kids each have one, miraculously saved and intact some 50 years later. The weight of this quilt calms me instantly. The sight of it floods my heart with warmth.
Great-Gramma's crazy quilt

We played tag with the kids at the playground yesterday before dinner, giggling and chasing one another until we all had stitches in our sides (and had to stop to stretch our creaky legs and backs). My boys are so lucky to have this uncle and aunties and grandfather in their lives.

It has occurred to me more than once this weekend how different this is from what most families know. There's no tension or forced togetherness at holidays. There's no need for booze just to get through the day (though a bottle of wine or two does make it more fun!). Nobody comes in at the last minute before dinner or bolts before dessert. Of course we carry wounds, but we've forgiven one another countless times over the years. And we are all here this weekend, hunkered down on a sectional sofa to watch the Macy's parade in our jammies because we love to spend time together. It's a rare gift.

As wacky and grumpy and snarky as we may be apart, we are amazing when we're together. My siblings and I have grown into fully complementary adults. Like this crazy quilt that's held up through decades. Or this needlepoint acrostic with our names woven together. Each of us equal parts serious and silly, with one providing balance for the others whenever necessary. We read each other well, knowing when levity is in order or when it's time to change a subject all together. And you know that little voice that tells you every now and then to call someone you love? It happens. Often when we need a calming voice or a sounding board. We just know.
The Mello Fam, circa 1992

We grew up in such a traditional family, with traditional values and traditional traditions. My father has never been one to stray comfortably from "this is how we've always done it." Yet remarkably, he does now. We all go with the flow now. It seems the only tradition that has stood the test of time is just being together. Such a blessing, really. 

Last night we sat around with guitars and a ukulele, humming and strumming and giggling over improv'ed thanksgiving songs. Hokey, goofy, warm. I glanced between my brother and sister at one point and thought "this is a perfect moment; stash it away." They both were smiling their matching brilliant white-toothed smile, eyes framed with a few barely visible lines that hint at years of joy and flashes of intense grief. I hope they felt it too, that perfect moment in our super sibling triangle. I want to always remember them this way, as the singing, smiling, tag-playing full-grown humans that my children adore.
My favorite turkeys
My mom admonished me long ago, during a particularly ugly spat with my brother, "These are the people who will know you best and ONLY ones who walk through life with you. Be good to each other." It's true. They are. And we are. 

That's a lot to be thankful for. 


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Those four little words

Zippy and I have been cooped up together for three days while he recovers from a pretty nasty upper respiratory yuck. We have snuggled through 24 hours of fever. We have watched approximately 37 hours of Spongebob and 29 hours of Paw Patrol. We have wiped at least 2 gallons of snot. It's been a hella couple days! 

As he started to regain energy this evening, he also started driving me bananas. Finally, while I tried to clean up dishes and he insisted on spinning circles through the kitchen while shrieking some horrible toy commercial jingle, I told him he needed to go in the other room because I was losing patience. I spoke through clenched teeth the way my own mother did when we realized she was about to transform to Mrs. Hyde. Thank God he picked up the cues and retreated to the corner of the dining room. I breathed. Deeply. 

Still not sure what's at the center of the page, but I sure do like the text.
Three minutes later Zippy returned, coming up behind me as I loaded the dishwasher. "I told you I need a break!" I snapped, before turning around an looking into those giant eyes. He quietly presented me with this drawing and a big mushy kiss. "I really love you, mommy." And of course I choked back tears because if there's only one thing I know in all the whole big world, it's this: I ❤️ you Mom. 

This little boy pushes every one of my buttons, it's true. Most days I can barely keep up with him, physically and mentally. But at the end of every day, in the quiet space before we all fall asleep, there's nowhere better than huggled next to this child, his wiry wiggly body finally relaxed, his long eyelashes sheltering those big green eyes (remember when they sparkled bluer than topaz?), and all my hopes and dreams and wishes for him floating in the air around us. 


Angel babe

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Happy Maine-iversary

Right about this time last year, we rolled into the rest stop at Kittery, just across the bridge that marks the Maine state line. One hour from our new home.

We'd been driving all day, with just a few stops here and there, and we all felt jittery and excited and anxious. You know, lwhen your legs feel all twitchy because they've been folded up all day and you've been drinking Cokes and sucking lollipops. The black sky sparkled with a zillion stars -- night seems darker here, maybe because there are fewer people and less light pollution -- and I leaned back to stretch my neck and back. I breathed deeply, yoga-style, while the kids ran and jumped and played around the Smokey the Bear statue. And that's when I smelled it: White pine and salt air. That magical combination that brings back every happy vacation memory from my childhood. Here we are, I realized, in the place I've treasured my whole life for its wide open spaces, rocky shorelines, wild blueberry hillsides. And we live here now. Maine.

Our first morning in Portland, checking out Back Cove
This was a far cry from how I started the day, mind you. As we left South Graylyn Crest, I bawled. I'm talking snot-bubbly, knee-buckly, air-sucky, squinchy-face weeping. I was terrified. 

Honey and Happy were in one car, Zippy and me in the van, both vehicles packed to the ceiling with the things that couldn't go in the moving truck, including two cats, four houseplants, one goldfish and a crayfish in deli containers on the front seat. The truck had pulled out the night before and we'd slept on the floor in our empty house. I drove past my friend's house, waved a last goodbye, and just couldn't pull myself back together. Even after a stop at Wawa for coffee and our last soft pretzels, I couldn't stop sniffling -- and I was so distracted a man came running at the car to rescue the giant coffee I'd left on the roof as we pulled away. (Then I cried even harder thinking of how I'd almost lost my coffee.)

We were leaving our families in New Jersey and Philadelphia. We were leaving our friends and our church in Delaware. We were leaving our jobs. We were leaving our schools. We were leaving our home of 8 years empty...yet unsold! And we were driving 500 miles to a city we'd only visited a couple times -- to a rental home we'd only seen in online photos.

What's more, we only had one income: Mine. Honey had quit his job in Delaware and had nothing lined up in Portland. We hadn't yet enrolled Zippy in preschool, so we didn't know where he would land, either. We figured we had enough money in the bank to get us through three months (without any emergencies, of course). And we had help with our rent from my new employer for three months.

And it was November. In Maine. Where it's dark by 4:30 in winter and snow starts to fall around Thanksgiving.

Portland Head Light. I'll never get tired of this vista.



Ho. Lee. Shit. Even as I write these words, I cannot believe we did this. Can you believe we did this?!

We leaped. Jumped with both feet right out into unknown everything. Come what may.

Yet here I sit, one year later, in our comfy little home listening to Zippy tell me about his field trip to a children's play. I started the day with a PTO meeting, then impromptu coffee with a new friend. Happy and Honey are at a Cub Scout meeting planning their next hiking adventure; tomorrow one of Happy's friends will come over to play after school. The boys walk hand in hand to school each morning, and everyone in the neighborhood knows they come as a set. Honey has an even better job than the one he left behind, working for one of the top companies in Portland. We do swimming lessons, art lessons, Scouts, Bible study group -- just like we always have. And I'm starting to recognize faces of people I know in the farmers market on Saturdays.

Portland is our home now. This quirky little city full of hipsters and lobsters and camera-toting tourists has felt right from the start, even as we tromped through mountains of snow last winter. I watch the sun come up over the cove as I make my way to the office every morning, and every evening I marvel at the pinky-purple sky as I come home. I breathe deeper here, savor moments more fully. My wardrobe consists of jeans, cardigans, yoga pants, and hiking boots. People around me move with less urgency, and I often sense that time off is more valued than time on. Nobody looks at me funny when I collect pine cones and fallen leaves in the park. They don't blink when I pull over to take a photo of a hot-air balloon on a weekday morning commute. Nobody giggles at my older kid's yen to play ukulele or my younger kid's penchant for spinning. We fit into this city's groove.
These wackos amaze me every day.



We're spending this weekend in Acadia National Park, the place where my family vacationed so often, the place responsible for my yearning to take this leap. It seems the appropriate spot to celebrate our first Maine-iversary, to say thank you to the One who provides all things. I'm looking back over this year with awe and wonder, amazed that my kids get to grow up with the pine-and-salt air in their nostrils. And I'm looking at each person in my family with new appreciation. We are brave. We are grateful. We are cozy. We know now we can do hard things.