All I Want for Christmas
Christmas Comes to Queens, 2012
Over sips of coffee in my apartment, which now has water after a day of pipe replacement in the building (running water: so underrated), your Miss O' was considering what sort of deeply political, incendiary post she could offer today, but all she can think about are her nephew Cullen’s two big, new front teeth. While his little face and great, gently sloping dark brown eyes framed by camel-style black eyelashes—and even that head of cowlick-riddled wild golden hair—have been ever as they are, since he was a tiny baby, really, and he’s heightened, of course, it's those two front teeth that tell the real story. This year, after 5 years of annual Thanksgiving visits, I found my nephew greeting me not with a grin of flashing tiny baby teeth, but instead with a grin of surprising largeness, right there in the center beneath his upper lip. Gaps in the baby teeth on the bottom row are evidence of the continuing process of growth, and all that stuff that is both the purpose of life, and which also serves as the creator of moments that cause us to say, foolishly, “And now you are just right. Don’t ever change.”
And yet it all changes, and all very recently, it seems. Richard wept when he and John filmed the twins graduating out of cribs and into new big girl and big boy beds; a young student friend of George and Jean's died yesterday; Mom O' had to have a knee replacement this week; and during my trip out to Columbus, Ohio, brother Pat brought out his yearbook from Rippon Middle School (where everyone who signs it writes, "Don't ever change") to show me people he’d recently reconnected with through Facebook, because this was the last time he’d seen some of them. And, just so, this blog changes: This morning, for example, I had no idea what to write, and there was nothing on this page, and now there is something, and there will be something else, and then I will revise it. The thing about writing is, it’s never, “Don’t ever change,” but rather, “If I change this ONE thing—this phrasing, or this word, or this comma—then it will be perfect.” And then the rereading….and one more change, two more changes…and now it is perfect. And then it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
And then it is. Again. Sort of. For one brief, shining…shit. Gone.
“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union….” More perfect. Ongoing attempts at perfection, one Spielberg movie at a time. If writing has taught me anything—if theater (and any other creative act) has taught me anything—it is to trust the process. Parents know this: As cute as Cullen has been through the years, as delightful and precocious as he is, he has also known his share of childish outbursts and the occasional tantrum, the meltdown that comes when too many people have been in his holiday house for too many days and nights; though really he is such a good little guy, so he has grown into the holiday ebb and flow, you see, and can anticipate arrivals and is assuaged in any feeling of suffocation by an awareness of the coming departures. (On Wednesday, Cullen asked his mom, Traci, “When is everyone going?” And Traci gave him the rundown: “Aunt Lisa is going to the airport Friday morning, and Aunt Kelli and Uncle Charlie and Chris are leaving Friday, too. Uncle Bob and Aunt Cheryl and Camille are leaving Saturday morning, and Kayla leaves Saturday afternoon.” As she spoke, Cullen looked at each person in turn, and prepared himself to miss people (especially his much older cousins, Chris and Kayla), and also to reassure himself that soon his home would be his own again.) And then, as quickly as the awareness comes, it goes, and the fun resumes.
I look at Cullen as through a window into my own growing up, and I think of my parents as I watch my brother and his wife parent their son. The process is such a mystery, whatever we try to do to be better at it. To our parents, we kids are only ever as we ever were—whenever that was. Cullen’s cousin, Chris, who is in college in Boston, said, grinning at something his mother just told him, that his mom and stepdad seem to forget he is 21 now. I told Chris that when I was in my thirties, I guess it was, my mom told me my views on some issue—I can’t remember what it was—and I looked at her. “Mom, I don’t feel that way.” She said, forcefully, that I did. “Mom,” I explained, “when I said that, I was, what, FIFTEEN?” She was unmoved. For her, I am ever only what I WAS. I hope Chris found this reassuring, but I suspect he saw the deeper truth: There is no point in arguing with our parents when it comes to who we are. They have too much memory of us back then. And they always get to pick the then. And then is never now. Dammit anyway.
But these are small annoyances for us, the kids and our parents, as long as we are living. What is unbearable for parents is the loss of children before their time, before the parents go. A few years ago, Cullen lost a cousin, Jamie, who was only 7, to encephalitis. Just yesterday, I learned, a young woman, Jennifer Brune, a dear friend and former student of George and Jeannie’s, died of the cancer that she’d been battling for years now. (As long as I’d seen Jenn, she walked a sloped walk, sporting a bandana to cover her hairless head; all I really knew of her (for I only ever saw her at a few poetry readings in New Jersey, the first when she was still in a wheelchair and not expected to last a month—and that was four or five years ago, I think) was a sly smile; she had, too, a slanted kind of light coming out of her eyes, knowingness and uncertainty all at once. Pain and humor.) How does any parent cope with such a loss—of will be, of now?
(Black and) Blue Christmas
This holiday season, I am thinking of essentials, is what I’m saying, past and present, and wondering about the future. But that ol' fucker, American Corporate Capitalism, tries to foil me at every click and turn.
I actually saw this headline today, and I wish I were making it up: “What to Tell Your Child about Black Friday.” As if gluttonous bargain hunting has the weight of teen sex. Or a pet's death. "Macy's to the Max: My First Time."
Today on Facebook—in the spirit of Black Friday existentialism, apparently—a friend shared his disgust with Oprah’s show My Favorite Things, as she gives away loads of material goods to a screaming audience of material people. The goods are luxury items, and she’s giving these things to people who already have, you know, stuff, and ways of getting stuff (such as transportation to get to her show) and this friend cannot help thinking of people in NEED—you know, Hurricane Sandy victims, for example, who still don’t have access to shelter, heat, a working toilet, or clean water, or any way to get to work. How about she gives away materials or pays more contractors to fix stuff faster? I think it would make great television, wouldn’t it? We do already have a forum for those in need, what with TV’s Bill O’Reilly and his rant about poor people, whom he despises for “wanting things”—things, you know, such as shelter. For their children. Whom he would not allow the poor to abort before they become poor children. But I digress into pesky politics again, all from the televised want of compassion from a fucker like Bill O'Reilly, who makes more money than God for telling us we are suckers for not being Bill O'Reilly.
Let’s get back to shopping, Americans’ blood sport, when they aren’t doing mass shootings (and no sooner typed than I read: two shot outside a Walmart in Florida on Black Friday—greedy for all of it at once, I guess. Excuse me while I throw up.). Today, Saturday, November 24, is Shop Small Day, er, Small Business Saturday, encouraging people to support local businesses, and I hope it works in all the ways intended. I was really proud of the Walmart strikers and got enraged by shoppers who would cross that picket line. I actually read that someone said that it’s “unfair” of the workers to deny the people a chance to shop for bargains, and that if the workers want to strike, they should do it on a "regular" shopping day.
You know who says shit like that? Someone who has never had to fight for a goddamned thing, not ever. Or actually WORKED retail at Christmas. (And I firmly believe that no one in America should get to run for public office unless she or he has taught public high school for one year and has had to work a retail job at Christmas, because THAT, my friends, I$ America, god help us. $$$.)
The CEO of Walmart makes over $8,000/hour (I’d supply the link with the chart to prove it, but goddammit, try a little Google search, won’t you?) and yet pays his employees so little they can only get by by supplementing their paycheck with assistance from food stamps and Medicaid. Another CEO, John Schnatter of Papa John’s, groused that he would either have to raise the price of pizza 14¢ in order to give his employees health care benefits, or else (absorb that cost out of his own massive salary? no...) close his business. And then he took it back (JK! Please buy my pizza, even though I think health care for everyone is unfair...to me). (Miss O’ would rather buy her pizza from little independent Marabella up the block, thanks—um, did I just see Tony Soprano collecting an envelope?—even as your giant PAPA JOHN'S neon sign glares at me from across the street.)
You know what’s really unfair, Papa John? A hurricane that wipes out your entire world. Cancer attacking a girl when she is only a teen and killing her before she can finish college. These things are never okay, but they feel especially rotten at Thanksgiving. So that’s MY fourteen cents. Ass.
Sleighbells Ring. ARE YOU LISTENING?
America: What in the name of Rockefeller, Mom, fried peach pie, and iShit do you actually, really value? Because I must tell you, if nothing else happens for me this entire holiday season, I had the chance to listen to my serious, sweet-voiced nephew as he told me the entire story of Brave even as we watched the movie ("This is where I started crying"), and to stare into his face as he concentrated on tying his shoe laces, as taught to him by his dad, who got practice teaching our brothers Jeff and Mike, using a Dapper Dan doll, which we reminisced about while walking Cullen home from school on Tuesday; I also studied my brother and his wife as they cuddled with their son in the big chair during a Redskins football game, where the 'skins actually beat Dallas to win the thing; marveled as football-scholarship student Chris threw for 50+ yards to his softball-scholarship sister Kayla, who in turn threw for 50 yards, and then threw again, gently, for an easy five yards as she told the little receiver, her cousin Cullen, “Good catch, buddy”; giggled when friend Bob heard the song “Dizzy” from Uncle Charlie's iPod and felt compelled to reenact his 7th grade “dance” and lip-sync to that song, prompting Cullen to jump up and stand in front of Uncle Bob and mimic the dance, his big front teeth over the bottom lip, little fists balled up under his chin, body bobbing lamely—The Bob, we called it (and for the rest of the week: "Hey, Cullen, Cullen—do The Bob," and he would); toasted as a laughing roomful of family and friends drank each other’s health over a feast we all helped to create (even though that giant of a dear man, Great Uncle Tom, could only manage mashed potatoes and some sweet potatoes, relearning to swallow since the radiation for the tumor in his throat—though he will still be playing Santa this year for the charity he started years ago); joined my brother in calling our mom to wish her Happy Thanksgiving in the hospital after her surgery, as she lay in recovery in a bed in a room that would let our dad sleep there, too—and the comfort of knowing brother Jeff is living at home to take care of them. Life could be so much worse, is what I’m saying, and it will be. It’s only a matter of time.
Listen—Cullen’s mom is whispering into your ear. Her arms enfold you from behind, pressing you to her chest, and she’s telling you, as gently as she can, her cheek against yours, how everyone will be leaving us, eventually, since you asked, though not everyone does this on a schedule, so we won’t know exactly when that will be, the leave taking, but it may be sooner than we think, is the safest guess (my friend JC's old black dog, Hansel, who if he'd been a man I would have married him, had to be put down the other week, as I learned in an email with the subject, "sad news," and so it is, sometimes).
It’s occurred to you, their leaving—and you don’t know when you’ll have this chance again. So you look at each of them, one by one in their turn, think of their stories, where they’ve been and who they are now, and you wonder for how long you’ll be seeing them. And then something else happens, as life does, and you’re doing that. Even if it's only shopping.
It’s been so nice seeing you here. Hope you’ll visit often. I’m humbled by your continued reading of this thing, what with the swearing, and the unrelenting politics, and all, to say nothing of the sudden swings into, and away from, sentimental feeling. We enjoy the process, it seems to me. Don't ever change.
Until next time,
Happy holidays and love from Miss O’
P.S. At the risk of getting caught up in the game of good old-fashioned American self-promotion (is my hypocrisy showing?), I share this retail news: Inspired in part by your unreasonable encouragement, Readers, Miss O’s first book, Easier to Live Here: Miss O’ in New York City, will be coming out at the beginning of December (as an eBook for Kindle and Nook) just in time for Christmas shopping, and I hope you’ll take a look at Miss O’s looking about her, and the paragraphs that ensued. The art, by Lisa DiPetto, is worth the price of the book. And then some, really, since the thing will only cost $1.99. Color it a stocking stuffer! (Look out, Amazon shopping STAMPEDE! An eBook Bestseller: The true meaning of Christmas.) Details forthcoming on Facebook. Kisses.