My younger brother and I often laugh at the fact that we were indeed raised in a barn. Or what used to be a chicken shed at the edge of an orange grove and next to the railroad tracks. No brag. Just fact.
You see, in the late 1940s, my grandparents purchased the remnants of the Valencia Dale Ranch on East North Street in Anaheim, California. The ranch included a few orange trees, a rundown farmhouse, and a large, albeit even more rundown chicken shed. My Irish grandmother always noted, even when viewing the most derelict and dilapidated of buildings, “Well, it’s got possibilities.” And she was stubborn enough to set about proving her point.
When I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Corps Reserves for the little extra monthly income it provided. Little did he know that a few months later, war would break out in Korea. He was called up to serve for a year, until the regulars arrived. In preparation for that year of separation, my mom and I moved into a recently finished little room beside the barn, just across the driveway from my grandparents’ farmhouse.
A year later, when my dad came home, my grandparents offered my parents what they could–that barn. And over the next decade, that sad shed became a warm and cozy home for me and my little brother, born nine months after Daddy’s return.
Both my parents and grandparents exhibited resourcefulness and inventiveness, converting what they had into what they wanted.
So, no. I don’t consider being raised in a barn an insult.
This column for the Nevada Appeal was one of my first. It was published on December 1, 1999, before they started archiving the paper online. Some of the people mentioned here have passed away, the rest have merely grown older. I’m closing in on 70 myself. Our family’s video tapes are now on DVD and it’s not December 1st. But still, my little wish for you is the same.
Well, it’s started—that temporary insanity known as “the holidays.” And like most people, I go a little nuts, a little overboard. I make lists in my planner, on my refrigerator, and while lying awake at three in the morning. Trying to get all the details right for a perfect holiday sure can take the edge off all the fun.
I keep at it because of the misguided notion that by some act of organization or will I can create a perfect Christmas. Let me tell you, those perfect Christmases don’t exist anywhere but at Martha Stewart’s house and in our dreams.
Come to think of it, even at the first Christmas—when God himself was in charge of arrangements—folks had to sleep in a barn. And the gifts didn’t arrive until January 6.
And those memorable Christmases of our childhood? I’m not convinced that they were perfect either. I think they exist as a composite, like “Christmas’s Greatest Hits” in our memory. A great meal. Snow on Christmas morning. The biggest tree. The best surprise. Everyone together. Laughing ‘til your face hurts. All those things didn’t happen in one year, and yet we can be easily overwhelmed by our efforts to recreate the fantasy.
So this year I’m giving myself a gift that I’ll share with you.
I’m making time for a few little celebrations, a few rituals that speak to the magic of a Christmas presence and rekindle my spirit. In addition to the shopping and cooking and decorating, I’ve made myself a special to-do list.
Here are 10 things I can do to ensure the last Christmas of the century is a good one.
1. Load the CD changer with an eclectic mix of my favorite Christmas music: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Mannheim Steamroller, John Denver, Eartha Kitt, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Muppets. Turn up the volume. Repeat.
2. Drink eggnog. After all, it is loaded with calcium.
3. Pull out the familiar–but-tacky felt and Velcro Advent calendar. The Santa made from a Pringles can. The lace-and-ribbon-bedecked canning lid encircling the photograph of a little girl who used to live here. Each of these small treasures has a story attached and this yearly ritual of unpacking allows for a retelling and a reminder of how precious each moment is.
4. Look through photo albums and watch old home movies. My husband’s family watches the silent 8mm home movies form the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Even though they’ve been converted to video-tape now, there is still no sound. We have to add it ourselves, like Mystery Science Theater. The unwritten script and oft-repeated jokes still cause tears of laughter to run down our faces as we watch five children with goofy hair and flannel pajamas open year after year of presents. Some of those kids are grandparents now.
5. Call my parents and my brother several times, not just on Christmas Day. If we can’t be together, at least we can keep in touch.
6. Play cards or Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit and make at least one batch of cookies or peanut brittle or chicken tacos with everyone in the kitchen. And laugh.
7. Share what I have with others.
8. Watch two movies—“White Christmas” and “Meet Me in St. Louis”—with a bowl of popcorn and a box of Kleenex.
9. Go to church on Christmas Eve. Sing the songs, light the candles, remember a birthday.
10. Read Christmas stories to a child or to myself. My favorites are The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, A Wish for Wings that Work by Berkeley Breathed, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston, and Santa’s Book of Names by David McPhail. These are good for all ages. Berkeley Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling and Patricia Polacco’s Welcome Comfort are perfect for the slightly older, more skeptical set who may have begun to disbelieve. “Red Ranger” comes complete with photographic evidence of a “guaranteed true” Christmas miracle.
As a child, the boundaries between my imagination and reality were always a bit blurry. I’m sure I heard sleigh bells on the roof even when my age went in to double digits. I’m nearly 50 now and I still believe.
I believe in the power of faith. I believe in the capacity of the human heart. I believe in a Christmas presence.
I believe I’ll hit the repeat button the CD changer and pour that cup of eggnog.
At least I can check two things off my list today. Just eight to go and it’s only December 1. I’ve got plenty of time.
We’ve been in our new house for a month now and we’re still unpacking the mountain of boxes filled with our accumulated material wealth. The good news is that garage no longer looks like that warehouse at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. Two cars fit in the three-car garage. My husband even has the beginnings of a small workshop out there. Even so, there is much to do. I’m still on the injured list, the holidays are upon us, and the world seems to be in a constant state of grief, anger, violence and fear-fueled hate. What’s a girl to do?
Then last week this appeared in my Facebook feed: Fifteen Things for When the World is Shitty and Terrifying. Reading it made me feel a bit better. There are things I can do in my own little corner of the planet.
You may remember that before we put our old house on the market, we filled a couple of dumpsters, held a garage sale, and made multiple donations to a local thrift shop. You’d think we were done shedding stuff. Not quite. Many of the things I saved and packed up last summer now have me saying, “Meh,” when I open the box. Extra linens, towels, and surplus kitchen items. All still usable. Still pretty clean even. Things I simply don’t need.
Fortunately, I discovered a Catholic Charities/St. Vincent’s (Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada) donation drop-off just a few blocks away. When they sell my usable items at one of their thrift shops, the profits help purchase food that they give to those in need–without regard to faith, race, or circumstance. In Reno alone, they feed an average of 500 meals each day to hungry men, women, and children.
So while I may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the chaos that exists in my home and in the world, I can do something. I may not have a lot of money to share, but I do have an overabundance of stuff. Giving it away declutters both my house and my heart.
We can all seek out helpers in our communities and join them. Maybe, by adding our own goodness back into the world, we can help it heal. It certainly can’t hurt.
Now that the house looks like it might actually be sold– and without any contingencies–the next round of decisions are keeping me up at night. That and the iced-coffee yesterday afternoon. And trying to finish The Martian before the movie comes out. It’s always something.
Anyway, I’ve been stalking houses on the Internet for months. I’ve walked and driven through neighborhoods. I crossed anything with two stories off my list as well as those out of my price range. I’ve been to open houses. I’ve probably seen hundreds of houses that simply won’t work for us.
The apartment we are in now is 1250 square feet, with two bedrooms and two baths, a great room, a laundry room and a single garage. Not bad for an apartment, but not for the long term. I find myself needing one more “away” space. There is neither space for our hobbies nor the little fix-it projects my husband likes. Places for sewing, scrapbooking, model trains, DIY-ing, and writing all go into figuring out just how big the next house should be. How many bedrooms and bathrooms? How many square feet? How much garage space? Is there space to park the motorhome?
We’re (only) in our sixties. This should be prime hobby-enjoying time. And even after 42 years of marriage, we are two different people with very different interests. We’ll need enough space to accommodate those activities. And enough personal space to avoid divorce.
The 3000 square feet of our old house—with its three levels and huge sloping lot– was just too big. This apartment is too small. So maybe something just under 2000 will be the sweet spot.
Stay tuned. I have a hunch that the Goldilocks of houses is just around the corner. Literally.
In our twenties we moved from our home near the ocean in Southern California to Carson City, a lovely town at the base of the Sierra Nevada. We were 500 miles from our friends and families, including our siblings and our parents. We knew no one. Our slates had been wiped clean of commitments and responsibilities, other than those required of new parents.
In the nearly forty years since, we made friends, raised two wonderful daughters, built a house, our careers, our lives. Together, we constructed a web of routines and relationships that supported us and bound us to a place. So this summer’s move to Reno, even though it’s less than an hour away, has disrupted things in somewhat surprising ways. The move once again wiped my slate clean, as if a zephyr had swept through and blown away everything we didn’t hold tight. Each other, our family, a few friends, a comfortable bed with those pricey, high-thread-count linens, and regular appointments with my hairdresser. You know, critical stuff.
We keep our two reasons for this move in mind: downsizing our home into something more manageable as we age and being close to our daughter. Okay granddaughter, but you understand. Still, I’ve had to let go of some things I enjoyed. Like the two-decades-long habit of weekly coffee with my pals. Or weekly walks with a friend on the trails around Carson. And leading Weight Watcher meetings and several volunteer gigs. But by giving up those things, I have time for others. As I did when I retired eight years ago, I’m rethinking priorities. I’ll try to only add back in the most important things. That’s the challenge. That’s the hope.
Here’s a partial list: Volunteer at my granddaughter’s school and have regular sleepovers with said granddaughter. Weekly family dinners and long walks most mornings. More reading. More writing. Coffee with friends now and then.
You know what? I can actually see daylight in my schedule. Breathing space. Elbow room. Except this Wednesday, of course, when I’ll drive down to Carson for coffee with my friends, have my hair done, go to yoga, and be back in Reno in time to pick up granddaughter from school. Yes, my life is still full, but only of the best possible stuff.
Husband: You know the best part of living up here? You don’t run into people you know at the store.
Me: You know the worst part? You never run into people you know at the store.
For nearly forty years, we lived in a relatively small town. We both had careers, but I also volunteered with the Girl Scouts, PTA and Food for Thought. I taught school. I attended classes at the community center and the community college, went to Weight Watchers, and wrote for the local newspaper. People know me. A trip to the farmer’s market or the doctor would frequently mean I’d run into someone I know. For better or worse. I’m a social person (ask anyone), but for twenty years I avoided one supermarket because it was in the same neighborhood as the school at which I taught. A quick stop turned into a parent conference or a reunion as I tried to discreetly choose a hemorrhoid remedy. Or something for feminine itch. Or a bottle of gin.
I rarely went farther than my mailbox without my hair done and make-up on. The law of perversity prevailed: The worse I looked, the more likely it was that I would run into someone important. So I always dressed with at least a thought about who I’d run into. My boss? The PTA president ? A school board member?
Now that we live forty miles away in a large city, I have yet to run into an acquaintance at the market. Not one. The people here—except for my family–have no idea who I am. I find it freeing in a way. I can reinvent myself because no one has any expectations. I used to think I did my make-up for me, because I hated seeing that pale, tired-looking face in the mirror. Now, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps it is also the law of diminishing returns. The effort of putting on make-up—and then taking it off—every day doesn’t give me the pay-off I hope to see. Is just being clean and dressed enough now?
In fact, today maybe I’ll just wear a hat, sunglasses and a smile and call it good. Maybe. I’ll see what the old lady in the mirror says.
Moving anywhere after twenty-five years requires some adjustment. We are, after all, creatures of habit. We expect our coffee cup, the bathroom, the grocery store to be in the same place, even if we aren’t. But we’ve traveled enough to adapt to and even enjoy new surroundings. So that’s what I’m trying to so here, even if I can’t seem to hold the big-picture geography in my head–you know, my place in space–without looking out a window.
Seriously, this apartment complex has so many amenities (pool, gym, tennis court), I can easily think of it as a vacation rental, like the condos we’ve rented in Hawaii. That helps. And like being on vacation, I’m learning where all the shops are, including four good markets, two drugstores, and many restaurants, all less than ten minutes away.
Another point that makes this feel like a vacation is that I’m living with a pared down number of possessions. Fewer clothes and shoes. Fewer cooking utensils. Simply less stuff. And you know what? I’m fine. I keep a list handy of things to pick up the next time we’re at the house, but it’s getting shorter, not longer.
Less maintenance too. Smaller house to clean. Fewer bathrooms. No lawns to mow. No garden to weed. See? Vacation!
More good news is that after a week on “vacation,” I’ve had a couple of good night’s sleep in this new space and have set about establishing some familiar habits in my new environment. I’ve even used the gym here. And yesterday I went to the movies with my daughter and her family. For a decade we’ve only been together on vacation. The vacation mindset is once again reinforced.
Now, if I could only get the cabana boy to bring me a tall, frosty drink at poolside.