Thursday, December 16, 2010

There's that word again: Perfect

Busy time, this. Today I made a decision to stay in all day, avoiding all errands in order to get all my holiday baking done. Ha! First of all, anyone who thinks she's going to get "all" of anything done with a four year old in tow is seriously delusional. Second of all, the quickest way to assure you're going to be obligated to go to the store is to foolishly announce that you are absolutely NOT going to the store. For me, that statement instantly led to rancid whole wheat flour. (Well, technically, I would wager that it was rancid before I said anything, but you understand what I mean.)

The day began with a once again fallen Christmas tree, which the Man was kind enough to set upright, but it fell to me to pick up all the ornaments that had fallen off, and fix all of the ones that had not fallen off, but were twisted and strange, some of them hanging upside down. In addition, the lights were all wonky from the fall, so I had to figure that out, too, and if I haven't mentioned it before, "the perfect tree in the world" is very sappy. Sappier than a Karen Carpenter Christmas song, the Man has decided, and I'm pretty sure he's right. In any case it's a messy business, fixing that tree.

From the tree I moved on to the kitchen, where for some reason I could not figure out how to bake cookies. Strange, because I bake zillions of them every year around this time, but today I sort of wandered back and forth, looking at recipes, incapable of making a decision. I also made lists of cookie recipients, and counted tins, though I never did come to a conclusion regarding whether the numbers match up. I think I may be coming down with a case of brain fog.

Small wanted to help today, bless her little heart. But she has the sniffles, which has put her out of sorts, and on top of that, well, she's four. She helped me turn the mixer on and off a few times, then lost interest and began singing songs and telling stories. This all sounds very charming, I realize, but there are few things more capable of sucking your brain out through your ears than a four year old, on her 400th chorus of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, or telling you in great detail the particularly fascinating story of why her rubber ducks have decided to hide in a shoebox. When it came to the part where she was explaining to me the relationship between her pull toy ducks and her toy horse, while the pull toy quacked incessantly, I assigned her the task of setting up the Nativity scene in the living room, which kept her out of my hair for about ten minutes, and afforded me enough brain capacity to make lunch.

By naptime, though, I was ready for her to go to sleep. I was hustling her up to her room when she asked me, "Mommy, why does Rudolph have a red shiny nose?"

I was feeling sassy. "Birth defect!" I answered cheerfully.

She had a different explanation. "I think," she said, "that God made his nose bright and red so that he could see through the fog."

I felt bad for being flippant, and I told her she was probably right.

"I also think," she continued, "that our car is just like Rudolph's nose. Because our car doesn't look like ANYBODY else's car in the WHOLE family."

This is true. Our car has been the victim of a few mishaps, and it is not in, shall we say, showroom quality. It looks very poor indeed next to my mother's convertible, or my sister's sporty little suv. But that, I was surprised to learn, is not what Small One meant.

I asked her how our car was different, and she looked at me in surprise that I didn't know something so obvious. "It's big enough to hold our WHOLE family!" she said. Then she continued, "That's why God gave it to us, it's just like Rudolph's nose. It's perfect for us!"

Ahh... where I saw the surface bumps and bruises, she was looking at the deeper blessing. Seems like perfect is her word of the month, and I'm beginning to think that is my Christmas gift from God- the perpetual reminder to see the perfection in the mundane, to understand that things don't need to be flawless to be perfect for us. I think this Christmas will be perfect.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Perfect Tree in the World, Part 2

Every year, usually around the middle of December, we get our Christmas tree. Sometimes it comes from Home Depot, sometimes from a cut your own tree farm, last year it came from our lovely friends at NorthStar Christmas Trees, (in metro Atlanta, that's a great place to get a tree- last year, ours lasted til February!), but no matter the origin, there's always a constant- the party. I throw a "family party" every year, which means each of my kids gets to invite a friend or two, and we drink eggnog and eat festive holiday snacks, listen to Christmas music and make ornaments, and decorate the tree. It's rowdy, and messy, and one of the highlights of the season for me, right up there with the candlelight Christmas Eve service.

This year is a little bit different. This year, I thought we'd have an even more festive time, as my mother and sister now live within a few miles of us. Unfortunately, the timing is all wrong. Middle Child is recovering from her surgery, but still feels rough, and mainly wants to be quiet and still, which pretty much rules out any sort of party plans. So this year, there is eggnog, and some foods that are festive but soft, like pumpkin custard and peppermint ice cream, and there won't be any partying, but we will get the tree decorated eventually, even though it will happen in fits and starts, and that's ok. By week's end, it will be up. Maybe even by wordless Wednesday.

It's ok with me that this is the way it's worked out. This has been the year of plan B turning into plan C, and so on. I've always considered myself to be flexible, this year has pushed me to prove it.

I've already detailed this year's tree acquisition. This morning, the tree was lying on the floor, despite many adjustments last night to the tree stand. The Man picked it up, and I held it steady while he tried to adjust it further, until we decided that what was needed was something to slide under the tree stand, as a brace. Knowing he'd be able to find something that would work in the garage, but not wanting me to have to hold it while he looked, the Man slid a book under the stand, as a temporary measure, and then left to take the dog for a walk.

A few minutes later, I heard a commotion. I was getting dressed, and MC was sleeping, so I asked Small One to look and tell me if the tree had fallen again. A few minutes later I heard her say "No, but someone stuck a book under the...AAAAAAA!"

Yep, she had decided to remedy the situation by pulling the book out from under the tree, and had ended up pulling the whole thing down on top of herself. I dashed down the stairs to find her sprawled, all Flat Stanley-like, arms out to the side, tree on top of her, wailing. I am pleased to report she was shaken but unharmed, though she eyed the tree a little more warily after that, gave it a wider berth.

She's over it tonight. Tonight she discovered the treetop angel, and had to get her Daddy to lift her up so she could put it on the tree. It seemed fitting to me that the angel would go on first, when nothing else will be up until tomorrow and later. "Is this the same angel," she asked, "that watched over Mary, and Joseph, and the baby Jesus?"


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Perfect Tree in the World

This December, so far, has not been great. Because of the recent move, we're far from all the familiar holiday things, our church, our friends, our traditional haunts and celebrations. In addition, Middle Child's recovery from surgery has been slow and difficult, complete with scary moments and feelings (for the mom) of helplessness and inadequacy. Christmas is now only 12 days away, and I'm not ready.

So, this past weekend, we decided to get a tree. We could have gone to Home Depot, or Lowes, or a grocery store, but I'm the romantic type, so I decided to find a "cut your own" lot. We've had a great time, in the past, cutting our own tree, or pumpkin, or picking our own strawberries, so I thought it'd be a good way to go ahead and kickstart this holiday season into gear. I did a little bit of internet research, and found one where you choose your own tree (from their pesticide free, organically grown-whatever that means- Virginia pines) and they cut it down for you. Win win! All the romance with none of the hack sawing! What could be better? We planned to go on Saturday.

Saturday was rainy and grey, and very cold. Not ideal weather for a tree hunt. The website said they were only there on Saturday, except that the first weekend they'd be there on Sunday if the weather was bad on Saturday. I called, to see if that was an every weekend policy, and the man told me he was planning to spend the night at the farm on Saturday and would be there until Sunday at 10:30am, if we wanted to come in the morning.

This was good news, except for the whole church issue. We are trying to find a church, and have thus far been unsuccessful in our efforts, but still, we go every Sunday, to an 11:00 service, and we absolutely did not want to miss any Sundays in Advent. The Man and I discussed this, and discussed MC's medication schedule, and decided that we would get up early, hit the tree farm before church, pick up MC's prescription (that wouldn't be ready until some time after 10), drop it and the tree off at the house, then head for church. This would be perfect, I could already picture in my mind's eye, with Small skipping merrily through the rows of perfect trees, dressed in her beautiful Sunday dress and coat.

We are incurable optimists.

Why did we think that, in a town still unfamiliar to us, we were going to be able to navigate all ends of it successfully on a snowy morning, in time to make it to church?

We started out late, as is our custom, and headed down the highway. Unfortunately, we missed a very valuable part of the directions, and did not realize that there was a point at which we'd be forced to choose between going East or West on another highway before we reached our destination. As we needed to head neither East nor West, but rather North, we were flummoxed, and chose incorrectly. I was on the phone with my sister, who has lived here for years, and she was telling me how to get back on track, when the Man decided he'd found an alternate route, and we'd just take that. (Insert foreboding music here.) Despite my sister's predictions of doom, we headed off, and for about 10 minutes it seemed to be going really well. After that, though, the road that was supposed to take us all the way to our destination suddenly dead-ended. Downtown. Tree farms are not downtown.

I pulled out the map again, and found the way back to where my sister had been pointing us in the first place. Told the Man which exit to take, but as luck would have it, I got distracted by a text from our cell phone company, informing me that they'd taken a double payment from our bank account, and while I was distracted by that, he missed the exit. I looked up to see the next exit approaching, and we made another u-turn.

To our credit, we did not lose our cheerful outlook. We found the road, and were zipping along, Celine Dion caterwauling some overdone holiday tune, Small One asking weird questions from the back seat, ("Why she doesn't sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?" "Why only one reindeer liked Rudolph?"), snow falling more and more heavily... and we passed the farm. It doesn't look like a tree farm, you see, it looks like a long driveway up a hill, with a grove of trees to one side of it. On this particular day, it also featured a man sitting in a truck waiting for some losers who had told him they'd be there a long time before. Two more u-turns, and we finally made it.

And there were the Virginia pines. We didn't know this at the time, but we don't like Virginia pines. We are city dwellers, the kind of people who are inordinately proud when their basil doesn't die, or they can identify a rhododendron. We don't know a schefflera from a pittosporum, nor did we, before Sunday, know a Frazier fir from a Virginia pine. Here's a quick lesson for the rest of you:

Frazier firs

Virginia Pines

Note, Virginia pines do NOT look like Christmas trees, at least in our definition of the word. But at that point, we were running late, we'd made the nice man sit in his truck for an hour, and we were NOT leaving without a tree.

Things you should know about the tree farm man. 1)He is very nice. 2)He is a little frenetic. 3)He could be Alan Arkin's voice twin. Seriously. He looks a little bit like him too, but I'm telling you, if you ever want to do a fake Little Miss Sunshine voiceover, let me know, I'll give you this guy's number, because he is a ringer. We'll call him "Fake Alan Arkin" from here on out.

We get out of the car, it's freezing, it's snowing, and the Man has a look on his face that says "wait, these aren't Christmas trees", so Fake Alan Arkin starts virtually tapdancing around him, giving the Virginia pine spiel. I can only imagine he gets that look a lot, because he had several points ready, such as "these trees smell great" (true) and "Frazier firs aren't native to Tennessee, so these are the seedlings the state gives me." (Did not know that.) We wandered around, FAA went back to sit in his truck, and the Man and Small One each picked out a tree. Small's pick was only about 2 feet taller than she is, and looked pretty much like Charlie Brown's tree (I think Charlie Brown's tree WAS a Virginia pine, in fact), but her second choice was the one her dad found. FAA got out of the truck and chopped it down with a chainsaw (nothing like the sound of a chainsaw to create warm holiday memories) and asked us how long we actually wanted it to be.

The Man estimated that we have nine foot ceilings. For future reference, we don't. We probably have eight foot ceilings, but we did, in fact, come home with at least a nine foot tree. Strapping it to the roof proved to be an arduous task, and one for which Fake Alan Arkin did not want ANY help. He scurried around the minivan like a mad man, looping twine here and there, shooing the Man back into the car every time he got out to help, shouting over the wind that he was SURE it would stay on. By the time he was done, the tree was tied on, but not really to the roof- fully 1/3 of it was hanging off the back. Miraculously, it DID stay on, through the long drive down the highway, Because seriously, we were out of time for any other pursuits. I texted MC and told her to drink the rest of the medicine in the bottle (relax, it was only about 1/6th of a normal dose, but I figured there'd also be a kick from the placebo affect of drinking the whole bottle) and hang tight.

We eventually made it to a little less than half the church service, and Middle Child lived long enough for us to make it home with the new prescription, but as we were driving away from the tree farm, dashing through the snow in our beat up minivan, Small exclaimed from the back seat, "I'm so excited that we got to pick the perfect Christmas tree in the WORLD!"

So here it is, folks, the perfect Christmas tree in the world:

I think my prayer for the rest of the season will be to see it all through the eyes of a child.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Being the Mama

So, of course, the holiday season is upon us, with all that it entails. As luck would have it, Middle Child ended up needing to have her tonsils and adenoids removed right now, just at the beginning of this already hectic season. The surgery was Monday, now it's Friday night, and she's a miserable heap of teenager, complete with fever and throwing up.

I feel really sorry for her. But I feel a little bit sorry for ME, too. I'm not a natural nurse. I'm empathetic, to be sure, but there comes a point where I have NO idea what to do or say. She calls me, and she's in the tub, crying, and she's just barfed, and I have no idea how I can improve this situation in any way. I mean, here's what I know about nausea: it helps to drink ginger ale and eat saltines, neither of which she can do right now. Therefore, once I've given her the anti-nausea medication they prescribed, I'm out of ideas.

I hate being out of ideas, too. I pride myself on being resourceful, and it rankles me that she's in need and there's not really anything to be done. I get frustrated.

Today I was extremely frustrated. I had every intention of having a really productive day, but got hung up on a research project last night, that ended up pushing my "real" work back until really late, and I ended up with close to no sleep before I had to get up again and help MC with her pain meds. The Man let me sleep in, which was wonderful of him, but it also meant I started the day behind schedule.

I was trying to play catch up while my internet lagged, Small One was needy, and MC was weeping in pain.  The phone rang, and just as I answered it I heard a door slam downstairs. Stepping into the hallway to make sure Small hadn't left the building, I discovered that MC had decided to take a bath, and had somehow sloshed enough water onto the floor to create a lovely babbling brook through the upstairs (carpeted) hallway and into Small's room.

When I got off the phone, I cleaned the carpet, found Small, (she was in the downstairs bathroom crying because I hadn't heard her calling me while I was on the phone), wrestled the internet some more, and by that time I was out of sorts, and my morning had slipped away. I needed to shower, I had errands to run, the house was chaotic, both girls were crying, and I was fussing at people. I took a breath and said a little prayer, for calm.

In that moment, it dawned on me. I remembered a conversation I had with a dear friend, maybe a year ago, and she said this brilliant thing: "the mother sets the emotional tone of the house". It was like someone turned on the light for me. I looked at Small, and said, with a new found calm, "Come on, Sweets, let's go get some lunch!" I settled her at the table with a cream cheese and date sandwich and a glass of milk, then ran upstairs to check on MC. Assured that I'd done all I could to help her, I returned to the kitchen, where I sat looking through a cookbook and discussing with Small One, in a calm, quiet voice, which cookies we should make for Christmas presents. Once she was finished, I sent her into her room to pick out some books, and I hopped in the shower. By the time I got out, she was ready to settle down for some reading and snuggle time.

It was amazing. The minute I decided to change the tone, it changed. The house was still a wreck, MC was still miserable, Small was still over tired, but no one was freaking out about it any more. Everything was calm. The girls napped, I took care of business, and when they woke up, I gave MC her medicine, packed Small into the car, ran my errands, came home, made dinner, and baked cookies. It wasn't an early night, but it was ok, because it's Friday.

I have to remember this. There is this choice, and I often make the wrong choice, because I'm not paying enough attention, or I'm tired, and not thinking clearly, but the choice is whether life happens to you, or whether you live it. I have to remember that being the Mama doesn't just mean I'm responsible for the well being of these people, for their food, clothing and shelter, but to teach them how to live their lives. And I do remember that, on the big picture things, but I need to remember it on the day to day things too, because teaching them how to live life includes teaching them how to set their own tone. And what better time to choose peace and calm than during the season of Advent?

"Let everything about you breathe the calm and peace of the soul." ~Paul Gauguin