Specifically, I love that as I am on my own I can celebrate the holidays–within budget–how I see fit. I can’t understand how celebrating in your own way, where it harms none, becomes a point of grumbling to some.
Yesterday I begged Shawn to take me to the Dollar store to see if we could afford a few more decorations for Halloween/Samhain/All Hallow’s Eve. We spent less than $10 and I was able to walk out with 2 head stones, orange pumpkin garland, spider webbing, creepy cloth, a jack o’ lantern lamp and two black ravens. Add those to the orange lights with the mickey mouse light in the front window with the cut-out I printed from the ‘net, plus the dark purple lights in the bed room with the glow-in-the-dark skeleton, I think that’s a good start.
I spent the better part of an hour or two putting everything up but I dream bigger. I dream of big front yards I can festoon with witches silhouettes, homes that have a place for me to plug things in outside–dozens of carved pumpkins lining the walkway to the steps. I want flashing creepy lights and ghostly presences in my windows, bats on my front porch and cawing ravens with hissing cats and scary music weaving from the window. I want a pointy black hat and play into the stereotypes and eskewed traditions because it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s just about leaning over and crying, “Boo!” or scaring yourself and laughing hysterically about it afterward. Especially when you realize how fake it looks and it was just a plastic prop anyway.
When I was done everything Shawn came out and stood before it with a quiet sort of look; the sort of careful scrutiny a man gives his wife’s handiwork when he isn’t sure if he should run screaming or kiss her on the cheek. He settled instead to shake his head slowly then tip up one corner of his mouth in a grin he couldn’t help.
I knew then like I have many times before, it didn’t matter what ridiculous dream I had or wanted–he’d find some way to make it come true and to smile about it.
Once upon a time there was a little girl. She was much like other little girls in the late era of leg warmers, spandex, temperature changing tie-dye clothing and cell phones the size of and weight of a brick. She lived in a far away place where snow fell nearly half the year (or so it seemed) and summer was haze sunflower yellow sun, laughter and magical pony tails.
She had blond hair like her mother and blue eyes like both her mother and father, a single dimple which her father, the King, often said she was given to her by her father’s father–a distant Lord whose demons had long since caught up to him before the little girl had a chance to remember his smile. She dreamed strange as well as wonderful things, sang to the birds, danced and talked to a man in the moon she insisted was there. She told stories to anyone who would listen, cried deeply over the smallest things but laughed just as quickly after. She was given everything she could need or want and never saw the patches in her father’s coat or her mother’s struggle to make sure food was on the table and the princess had all she needed for her tutoring as well as lessons.
When winter came, she was warm. She smiled to see the brilliant hand of winter stretch sparkling-white-blue strong; endless places slumbering under the coat of white. She made men out of it on the castle grounds, shrieked after friends in games of toss-the-snow as well as tag and knew no sadness. She bruised her knees in the grass during summer, ran through fountains in the afternoon and ate frozen things that tasted sweet, sharing them with her friends.
She knew love, this little girl. The love of a father, of a mother, of an aunt and grandmother. She was happy.
And then one day the little girl was not so little anymore.
Winter became less about snow-men or throwing it and more about grades. Summer became a relief in between lessons. And then one day the little girl was a young woman and she realized the cruelty fellow young men and women her age held in their hearts. At first, she seemed heartbroken. Then as time wore on she began to reshape herself in the image of those cruel children. She no longer laughed or played winter or summer but slouched in shadows, was sneered at for being different and sneered at those different from her.
She remembered as a little girl the stories she told. One day the young woman found a musty old place filled with books. Tales written about fantastic places that might have never existed, or perhaps they did and the world–like dreaming dragons on their gold–had forgotten about it. She took as many of these as she could get a hold of and filled her head again with these words. Tales about men in shining armor, dragons and witches, fair folk, elves, and most of all–stories of love. Love between two people that was as beautiful; no one screamed at one another or hurt each other…Or if they did, they always came back together more adoring than before. Stories of great triumph over sorrow, stories that filled the little-girl-grown-odd-young-woman with hope.
Then, she noticed boys.
Then, a boy noticed her.
The young woman drew further and further away from her parents and from the real world. Her head, as they (whomever those stuffy, gray suited ‘they’ people are) say, was in the clouds. The boy and the girl did not find a happily-ever-after, abruptly it turned into what the young-woman thought to be an aching hole. Her parents watched with great sadness their sweet little girl turn into a hungry-for-attention, hollow reflection of what once-was. They ached to tell her to come home and to realize everything would be alright. But she didn’t listen.
She always had her stories, however. She drifted far from her friends and her tutors. She left the kingdom of her father and mother coldly. She dreamed of better things, turning a blind eye to all the paths open to her and sought to fill the strange, open wound in her middle with anything that the road would hand to her. A dangerous thing, for outside of the kingdom were dark things. Dark men and women who used her instead of helped her, who took instead of gave and eventually left her–empty handed and confused in the dust of the road behind them.
The young woman grew into a full grown woman, bitter and chipped obsidian jaded. She did many things to drown the voices of the sweet little girl, the hopeful young woman. She took many paths that were twisted, confusing and wrong. She lead herself down them, let herself be led down them, or unwittingly followed the sweet talk of wolves to find herself down them.
One day she found herself bedraggled beyond help standing at a great cliff. A divide that split down the great kingdom she had traveled in for so long, there was nowhere else to go but down. To the rocks below it or worse. There was no where left to turn. The choices she had made in her life had lead her here. She had made so many mistakes that behind her, even the darkest of paths closed to her. She began to feel herself despair. Until she noticed a tired man on the cliff with her.
He had kind blue eyes and dark, dark brown hair in waves. He too, looked tired but when he smiled at her, just a tiny smile, such a little smile– she felt something lurch inside of her.
“Do you like stories?” he asked her wearily, the sound of his voice startling her.
“I–” she blinked. “Yes. I do. Do you know any good ones?” She hesitantly asked. He nodded, then found a place to sit down. Slowly, she crept near him then sat down too as he began to tell her stories. Great tales about men in shining armor, men in dusty robes with wrinkled smiles, stories about love and hope. Beautiful things that moved her from inside. She begged him to tell her more stories, until his throat was raw and his smile was easier. Then she told him stories. Stories about dragons gleaming in sunsets, proud elves, magic that wove amazing things between people. Stories she had long forgotten but always knew. She told them to him until her voice was hoarse and she could no longer speak.
They had forgotten about the great cliff. All they could see was each other. They fell in love.
But their story didn’t have dragons in it, it had cats. The man didn’t wear a suit of armor from metal, but business attire during work days as per the dress code. She was not a princess even though she had a tiara and the only time she wore a dress was at a wedding of a friend’s a long, long time ago. The magic wasn’t the kind that felled great mountains or protected whole nations–it was the the sort of magic that makes the heart sing when his hand sought her cheek or shoulder in the dead of night. The sort of magic that starts no bigger than a spark and grows into a copper-penny sun warming the middle of your chest a decade later when they looked at one another and realized it had been forever together and neither could imagine life without the other.
Their battles were small, fierce, quiet–often silly–but fought bravely. Their laughter was true. Their lives woven irrevocably together.
He had saved her from that cliff, so long ago. When she looked down at the rocks and though that is all there is left. When she thought there was nowhere else to go. And at night sometimes she hopes that she had saved him from it, too.
Together they wrote new stories in a note book with wrinkled, yellow paper stained with coffee, smelling faintly like her cotton candy perfume and littered with cat hair.
Together, they proved to the world and themselves that when you write them yourself, fairy tales and happy endings do come true.
My first home happens to be a one bedroom apartment. For Shawn and I, we who have children that are feathered and furred instead of human–this fits us perfectly. For the longest time, with our bad financial decisions when we first got together + the way the economy was going, I dreaded that we would become one of those couples. Stuck forever living in a room within his parents house feeling ridiculously uncomfortable for living in a home where two people should not be having to live with their son and his wife at this age and please put some pants on, Mel, next time. The neighbors have been writing us letters. Angry letters.
Now that we have our own place, I can wear no pants and no one will be frightened.
Except maybe Shawn, but he doesn’t count because I married him.
My kitchen is small. There’s enough room on the faded hip pressed board covered in hard plastic 80’s white counter top with faux beige marbling to roll out a loaf of bread. A batch of cookies, chop up veggies and fixin’s for supper. My stove is off-white, my cabinets are pressed wood and water damaged. Sometimes bits of them fall apart but they open and close. My kitchen floor is swept daily but there’ll always be a piece of dry cat food hiding somewhere because a cat can never eat very lady like no matter how many times I tell her not to crunch with her mouth full. Whomever lived here before dinged up the floor in one spot near the stove, too. I imagine it must have been the stove itself being pulled out or maybe even delivered.
The carpet in the living room? I vacuum it every other day now. I have five birds and birds are even messier eaters than cats. Pieces of pellets as well as brightly colored pellet dust fling everywhere. Carefully placed blankets to collect bird pewp and to protect said carpet don’t always work. You can’t always predict where a bird will hike tail and let it fly, y’know? So a spritz bottle of vinegar and a cloth rag handy helps. But there’ll always be a piece of whatever here or there–the millet I use to train them with is light as air and tinier than lady bugs. It’s always all over my desk and around my chair.
My living room walls were pop corned by some genius who decided that cheap texture would be fabulous to hide crooked and uneven walls. On them are the tapestries of Rohan and Gondor, a red dragon mirror, a map of middle earth and photographs I’ve taken of our cats, cards given to me by my online friends, a street sign my husband stole with his friends in college hangs proudly over our door. Flounder, it shines dimly at night by my computer desk’s light.
On the counter that divides the kitchen and the living room a tiny rock water fountain burbles. My bed is a california king memory foam and lately I get up and I make it everyday.
At 32 my life has finally become my life. My home is finally my home. It isn’t a room in my mother-in-law’s house that makes me feel awful because we can’t give them any privacy and it is hard for them to give it to us. My house is cluttered in the way lived in things should be cluttered. There are notes on the fridge, there are magnets with pithy sayings. My desk has pieces of paper with love and sayings scribbled on them. This is a home, it is everything that reflects who I am and who he is–who we are together.
It’s flawed, perfectly.
And yet in the back of my mind sits a woman I don’t rarely like speaking to. She is dour and squatting amidst the chaos, frowning the entire time. She reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s despair, except she isn’t naked–she is clothed in the best, neatest clothing without any cooking stains or bird dander or cat fur and doesn’t cut herself with a ring. She cuts herself with words instead. Words like: Not good enough, and, what a mess you are, and, it’s not clean enough, as well as, it’s not a perfect house. And she laughs in a manner I can only say cruel, showing me pictures of mansions and little new york apartments with summer-bright color schemes and oh-muh-gawd to die for decor. She points at them and says, see? These are clean. These are perfect. You will never have this.
My apartment isn’t the only place she shows up. She’s there when I write. She is there when I draw. She is there when I pass by my reflection in a mirror, when I do my make up; mocking and whispering, pointing out everything that’s wrong. She is there with every single thing I do, trying to hammer home that it isn’t perfect. And if it isn’t perfect than there’s no point in even doing it anymore.
Sometime in my life this woman moved into my head when I wasn’t paying too close attention. Was it when I was just sixteen and realizing boys weren’t gross? When I looked in the mirror and instead of not caring what I saw–I started comparing myself to magazines and girls on television? Was it when I was younger and something was said to me? Did she move in then, when as a child I was too busy day dreaming and, like a starving spider, grew year after year, fat and bitter on the suger-spun dreams of a little girl who thought the whole world would bend to her?
I don’t know. I don’t think the when is so much as important as to the how to get rid of her.
When did perfection in my life mean so much? Especially since I am a creature made of so many flaws? How could I ever start listening to her and expect such an unobtainable goal? How could I let her take away my pride and my joy in all of the beautiful things I already have in my life?
As I sit here writing this, I look around me. My flawed kitchen is lit by the blue and white glow of LED icicle lights, flickering merrily. My husband, a man who I would literally fall apart and cease to be without him sleeps soundly not a room away. My children, who happen to have feathers sleep covered in cages while the furred ones sleep sprawled out on the floor in various cat-yoga sleep shapes. I am alive. I am writing this. I am still creating art. Come Febuary, I will have my very first short story ever published along with several other talented writers in a collection. I was literally exploding into glitter and small puppies when I learned this. I am here, and I have so much more than I ever dreamed I ever could.
I cannot be that woman. I cannot be a creature that seeks perfection at every corner. In it, lies my true heart break. The search for perfection has brought me my blackest depressions and has made me hurt myself far more deeply than anyone ever could have. I cannot be the Martha Stewart of organization. There will never be labels on all the drawers in my head or my life. I will lose my keys. I will forget where we parked the car. I will occasionally throw my pants on the floor before going to bed and leave them there until tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.
I have to let go of perfection.
I have to let go of perfection to let go of all of my imperfections.
When I was a little girl, bright eyed and possibly more hyper-active as well as touch more naive than I am now, Christmas Eve and Christmas day was always spent at my grandmothers.
My grandmother lived in a farmhouse that was at least more than a century old. Two stories tall, it was a proper square of a house. It had a pitch roof and it did not have plastic siding anywhere on it. It was covered in wooden shingles painted bright white. It weathered Nova Scotia’s winters as stoically as it waited through the yellow warmth of its summer. Though for whatever reason my childhood memories think the old home stole all that summer warmth and kept it during the bleak white of December and onward– I remember the inside lit golden–and my grandfather’s habit of keeping the furnace and wood fire burning so hot it could melt a face during the day helped, too.
The house was built so that the focus of the main floor wasn’t actually the living room or the 10 windowed front sun porch that let in all of that fantastic light in the summer (and alternatively, was so poorly insulated let in all that cold air during the winter). It was the kitchen itself. The front door brought you into the porch, the place where your boots, shoes and coats could set while you visited. Immediately to the left of that door was another and that lead into the kitchen. While it is very true that all year ’round the kitchen was the place where everyone would gather and greet, play cards and eat food, laugh and gather ’round for one of my grandmother’s amazing meals–the sun porch and its drafty windows was where the tree and the majority of my grandmother’s Christmas decorations would go up.
I can sit here and conjure the scent of the porch easily. It was a strange mix at the holiday season of pine tree, mildew (because in the summer and spring thaw the roof would leak a little bit, making brown splotches on the white tiles as they dried). In the winter with the cold and windows shut, you could smell the old dampness a little better. A heavy wooden door with a pane of glass chest-level to an adult separated it from the living room. During winter it was kept shut tight and often a little sewn stuffed draft catcher lazed about on the floor to try and keep some of the chill from wandering into the rest of the house downstairs. A few days before Christmas however, my grandfather would open the door wide up–shiver and say, Brrrr, s’cold in here, don a shirt, a vest, a sweater and trudge on out to crank the little electric heater. A long faded yellow register that whenever it was turned on added more to the scents of pine, the ethereal crispness of winter cold– it was the smell of long unused heater. The best way to describe it is warmed up metal and too-hot baking dust. It faded an hour or two after the porch finally warmed up. I was always cautioned as well as everyone else not to touch or have anything touch the heater however, lest it melt.
The tree was always real. Probably not the most environmentally conscious thing ever but we lived in a place where everywhere you looked were trees. One pine a year when hundreds of saplings grew didn’t seem as horrible then. We had to empty the gutters in the fall because of that tree, but it was worth it. One year we installed a new one with a gutter installation Dallas company, which helped that problem afterwards.
Every year my grandfather (usually mildly tipsy to latter years, bunk drunk on watered down vodka–always hysterical when it came to his latter choices) would arm himself with a sharp axe. Miraculously he didn’t remove something important from himself with (like, you know. His head. Or an arm or a leg) and head out back to the line of tightly growing trees in our backyard.
When I was younger, usually my grandfather was relatively well at hiding how three-sheets-to-the-wind he was and still able to make some surprisingly good tree choices. He’d spend hours out in the cold bundled up as much as possible to pick the perfect tree. He always thought his choices were fantastic–and honestly I never understood why my grandmother would always roll her eyes and sigh Oh Cecil, whenever he brought the tree back. Because they were magnificent things to me, these Grandfather-picked trees. They were fat and huge with sprawling pine branches thick with the deepest green. The moment he dragged that tree inside god, Cecil! You are getting needles everywhe–it won’t fit through the do–Yes it will–no it won’t!–it will gawd damn it, jeeeezus christ, git outta my way–I just swept in the kitchen floor–Mooove I said!–and it hit the warm air, it made the entire house smell like it: pungent and knife-like and everything about the smell of a pine tree just hollars Christmas! and Winter! and Snow!
I always thought it was somewhat special, that smell of pine tree. It meant warm and clean and safe and sometimes, when I was very little and always sick with some sort of cold or yuck settled deep in my lungs–made me breathe easier. This perfect tree was always placed in the spot of honor to the far right corner. They would always loom tremendously tall to me. I suspect it was made even more so especially because I was not very tall at all when I was little. My grandmother would decorate it with things my mother and her sister made when they were girls, with things she made for the tree when she was younger and with things from her family and my grandfather’s family when they were little. Eventually it was even decorated with the horrific, often squished and semi-crumpled red and green construction paper chains, popcorn garland and other sloppily glittered monstrosities I would make in school.
She’d spend hours winding fat garlands of gold and silver tinsel over old fashioned mini-lights of green, red, yellow, and blue (with murmured concerns of fire hazards and never leaving them on all night until Christmas eve proper. For Santa. Of course). She watered it daily with a mix of plain old well water from the tap and aspirin to keep it healthy looking and shedding less pine needle if possible. Even in the later years when my grandfather brought home increasingly horrible looking trees…Scraggly things with great holes of missing branches and little to no pine needles left on them, she could always use her magic to transform it. Even the years she could no longer reach well enough to decorate it properly, her magic simply transferred to my mother, my aunt and myself as we helped.
I would spend hours lying under that tree the night before Christmas. My mum, my Aunt and her current boyfriend(s), my father, my grandfather would often gather in the kitchen to have tea, hot chocolate and coffee. The smell of that and the cookies my Nan had been baking would fill the air, mixing with the pine and the porch. The lights in the porch would be off, but every window in it–all ten of them–would have the orange yellow of a plug in candle glowing brightly. The tree would twinkle its semi-rainbow of color down to me through its branches, hitting the garland and sparkled ornaments, becoming something otherworldly. It bewitched me into imagining for hours. Grand stories of fantastical beings living in world-sized trees bedecked in gold and silver. Or I would let my eyes, as I said when I was little ‘go soft’ (unfocused) until the tree above me became a kaleidoscope of bright dots, like the dust and glitter from a fairies wing. I listened to my mother and my aunt giggle in the background like sisters might when they are young, my father grump and snarl reluctantly about Christmas and how much he hated it–as he ate my Nan’s cookies, drank her coffee, made loud jokes and eventually ended up laughing too with my grandmother joining in. Alternatively my grandmother would sigh dramatically at her husband and children too. I heard my grandfather humming happily Silver Bells, because inside he was just a big little boy who adored Christmas more than he would ever let on…And I would touch each ornament I could reach as if they were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It didn’t matter that I saw them every year. That they hung on the tree once a month every holiday season without fail for the decades I spent Christmas there–on Christmas eve they were new again. They were enchanting little creatures that sucked in all the different lights and sent them all out to bounce across every reflective surface on the tree, much like giggling children scatter on a school yard.
All around the tree a small river of presents gleaming heavily with stick-on giant bows and ribbons my grandmother curled with her secret-scissor technique fired my imagination. I wondered what gifts lay within, what secrets they held, what delight I would find in the morning. Pointedly when I was younger, none of the gifts were signed by Santa. Those were added later when little blond headed terrors were sleeping in bed.
Christmas day dawned bright and exciting. Everyone would gather in the porch, finding themselves a seat and blearily creak their eyes open after a hurried breakfast (because I was up at six am with wake up wake up wake up lets go Santa’s been here the gifts are ready let’s go let’s go come on can I open them now is it time can I now now hey now gifts? Christmas ! CHRISTMAS YAY!) for whatever reason, glue themselves to their coffee cups and begin discussing who got to go first. When I was younger they always wanted me to open mine first.
When I was small I mistakenly thought that Christmas was all about Christmas day. About the gifts. About waiting all year for that majestic morning I could tear into green and red, blue and white shiny paper to reveal whatever material thing I had been given that year.
I was so young and so foolish to make it all about the gifts.
It was always about the magic of family, of my grandmother’s tree. Of my grandfather’s drunken tree-picking and Nan’s cookies. Of my mother and my aunt giggling their fool heads off like little girls again while my father made wildly inappropriate jokes my grandmother laughed at. It was about me lying under the tree while listening to my grandfather hum Silver bells and smelling peppermint , pine and the coffee my parents drank. It was about love, family, childhood and dreaming. But it was never about the gifts.
Now I am thirty two and I have grown up enough to understand that these Christmases, these family moments are gone forever. These memories are the things while I, my grandmother, my Aunt and my mother also must cherish dearly because they cannot happen ever again. My grandfather has passed, my grandmother in a wheelchair and barely able to move on her own in a home. My mother and my father are far away in Calgary, celebrating a worrisome Christmas due to their health and financially, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, my husband’s sister and her boyfriend and I and Shawn will be having a sparse Christmas also–so these flickers of the past, these slide-shows I hold in my mind are all that remains of those christmases.
This is the first year however I have ever had my own place to have my own Christmas in and while I don’t have a lot of people (anyone yet) coming to my home to celebrate this holiday with me, I am determined to make more memories. More slide-shows to look back on.
I have put up my tree and hope my grandmother would approve. I am thirty-two years old, and every few days I still get down on the floor and scoot till my head is under the tree. I laid on my back and looked up into the branches. My tree isn’t a real tree, but, the garland is silver and gold and red. The ornaments have all been given to me by my grandmother-in-law (who insists I call her Grandma) who either handmade all of them, or they have all been given to her–and I often touch the ones within reach fondly. They all carry a memory for her, and hopefully, will carry Christmas memories for me, too. I hear distantly the sounds from my childhood holidays and now I hear the things from my new family. The jingle of bells on my cats, Shawn playing games or laughing, my birds tweeting and singing. Someday it will be my husband’s family and hopefully you laughing and drinking coffee in my kitchen too. I remember my father-in-laws comments, my mother-in-laws good nature, my husband Shawn’s loud laughter and good-natured jabs at family. I remember the taste of homemade eggnog I made for them last year and hope to make for them this year.
I will never have the Christmas with my family I used to when I was a child. This realization and understanding I think, is also just part of the inevitable: growing up and growing old. It is sad and yet something which I think needs to happen–so that we can make new memories. So that we can make new holiday snap-shots in our hearts.
I’ve learned now not to take Christmas for granted–not to take any holiday with my family for granted. Even if I don’t feel very much in the holiday spirit, if I am tired, if I’ve been arguing or had an argument with someone–I don’t let that stand in my way, because I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to make these memories again. I don’t let the consumerism or the advertisements; the grumpy faces in stores, the rude ladies elbowing me out of the way for that last chance sale ruin this for me. Because I haven’t forgotten something very important that they have: it was never about the presents of the money. It was, and always will be, about family.
Now I have the chance at making a new set of memories each year until I too, am too old to lift my arms to reach the tree.
“This! This kitchen thing you do. There were EIGHT THOUSAND bowls in the sink and seventeen knives. What do you need EIGHT THOUSAND bowls for!”
“Really? Really. Eight thousand? Whatever, Mister Flour ALL OVER the sink and the counter and some on the walls and ooooon the flooooors and socks by his desk and glasses on the desk and never cleans the surface of the–”
“That has nothing to do with the fact–”
“–cabinets or the cabinet doors or the fingerprints on the refrigerator or sweep and mop the floors or vacuum or do the wash or–”
“…that you can’t seem to cook one single meal without–”
“YES. AND SEVENTEEN KNIVES AS WELL, I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU’D MAKE TO NEED THAT MANY KNIVES!”
“WE DON’T EVEN OWN EIGHT THOUSAND BOWLS. THAT’S A LIE. YOUR FACE IS FULL OF LIES RIGHT THERE! BESIDES, WAS THE MEAL BAD?”
“I DON’T…well, of course not. Nothing you’ve cooked in years has ever been bad.”
Smugly, “Then you’ve nothing to complain about.”
“EIGHT THOUSAND BOWLS!”
Three hours and episodes of Supernatural later, I leaned over and quite assertively stated that we do not own eight thousand bowls, thus, starting the entire argument all over again. Which neither of us were very heated about and both of us ended up laughing at one another profusely.
I may be the oddest woman on the earth, but its these small things that let me know I’m also the luckiest.
(To be alive. AND loved. That too. Yes.)