The Easiest Holiday Ever

I spent the week before Christmas bracing for impact. My body, my skin, my lifestyle, my hair color, my laugh are laid out on holidays beside the turkey, the wine, the dessert and coffee. And every comment seems to cut so close; I spend the next months recovering, confidence rebounding when I’m alone again.

But this year – not so. The comments emerge and they die without setting off the powder keg of my insecurities. I’m in disbelief – something will happen, something will be said that I haven’t thought of yet.

Since we are not at home, nothing is familiar. Wandering the tropical landscape, I think we’ve forgotten the holiday.

I ask my father about his favorite Christmas song, and he says “the Mariah Carey one.” Which interests me like a piece of trivia. And other innocuous questions follow. My family and I, like curious strangers.

But something must happen, I think. The sense of foreboding prevents me from relaxing into this limbo of polite family relations.

But maybe this is the new normal. Maybe we’ll be polite, forever skating across each other’s surfaces, with our ties deepening through years rather than moments. I think I would prefer the weight of history to the energy of conflict. A family that is even as a table. I could lay there, comfortably.



After the trees drop their leaves, and we drift back into our houses, the space heater comes out. It is Japanese, and from the ’80s.

Heralding the winter, this warm angel fills the house with an electric churning sound. It bares its grated face to the living room. The flame trapped inside it rises and falls like a licking tongue.

At four or five I would lay down in front of it. Close to the noise and warmth, I felt the mechanical curiosity that Victorians had for steam engines – an awe of electric lights and of the science of assembly.

About this time, my mother and I made croissants, not realizing it takes a full 24-hours. We got impatient, microwaved the butter (a horrible mistake) and mixed it in with all of the other ingredients. We made buttery rocks. And at the end, we both confessed to being entirely nonplussed as to why our failure to follow the recipe led us astray. Everything was measured correctly, anyways.

After one or two attempts to eat what we made, I took the rest of our creations outside to the backyard, and a stretch of forest beyond. I was feeding the animals, my mother said. I took care in arranging the pastries, thinking about where the birds or foxes might find them.

Christmas came and went and towards the beginning of February, when the snow melted and re-froze, my mother decided to make gingerbread. Spices and molasses, butter and flour became brown sheets.

When she was finished my mother brought out cookie cutters of cupids and angels. “These cookies are for your father for Valentine’s Day,” Mom said. “Ok,” I said. And we cut cupids out of the brown sheets, and my mom cut small circles in their heads. We strung red ribbons through their heads and hung a chain of cookies from the ceiling. A few times we had to reinforce the tape sticking the ribbon to the ceiling.

She made so many cookies we had to put them in the Tupperware with the tan lids – the big ones used for holidays.

When my Dad came that weekend, he laughed at the string of cookies. “What’s this?” he asked. “Mom made them,” I said. “They’re cookies. They’re for you!”

“Why did you make gingerbread?” he asked Mom. She showed him the recipe book, with the photographs – “Yes, but why gingerbread?” he continued, “Have I ever told you that I like gingerbread?”

“I like gingerbread,” I said.

My Dad grabbed three cookies and moved to the couch. He had at least one cupid and at least one angel – a good variety.  He stopped mid-mouthful. “Elch,” he said. “These are horrible! They taste like cardboard. Just get rid of them now.”

Mom looked at me. “But we had some earlier…” “Yes Daddy,” I said, “I had milk too.”

“You crazy?” he said. “I bet even the birds wouldn’t eat these things. They’ll be in the backyard for ages.” I thought of our angels all over the snow. It made me sad.

A few days later Mom told me to take the cookies out to the backyard. Dad wouldn’t eat them and sometimes on the phone he would say things like, “Fucking Martha Stewart – what man wants to come home to a chain of cardboard angels!” The people on the other end would laugh, usually.

I put our angels on the snow. For the first time I thought about how dark we would all look against the clouds of heaven. I was pinkish, but everyone is tan compared with white.

It did not make me happy to think about the animals, but I made sure the angels were faced up and not touching one another, in case it was a sin to do otherwise.


My cousin posted a picture of my mom at the holidays. In the picture, Mom stares out the window, past the porch of our childhood home, into the woods.

Mom’s hair is grey and sun blonde now. Without resting, she rests her chin on her hand. Her eyes squint as if she’s staring into a floodlight, or as if she is in pain.

Maybe we, my brother, my sister and I, are the sources of her pain. Maybe we stare her down from memory. Or maybe it’s from some deeper source: from the rise of her expectations, from their friction with each sight and sound – each the evidence of the world’s violation.

Her face is thin and tired beneath the tan. Her expression is without demand. When she yelled or tried to implement rules, she would fail by breaking them herself. And she only tried when she was angry, when the world disagreed and she felt it.

And she was forgetful. We would come home to locked doors and snow, more than once climbing in through the bathroom window. We were blamed for the snow on the bathroom floor and for the heat bill.

Perfume in the stale, old-food smell of the minivan and the warmth from the dashboard fans in winter. She drove me to ballet or hiphop on Saturday mornings. I see her wide eyes in the rearview mirror, her lips smacking, applying an umber shade of lipstick. Her image is infused and I will not forget it.


Dad’s thoughts

He lets them pool around rocks. But like moss or grass, the thoughts grow roots and don’t flow. When I call, he circles back in on himself, in reverberating circles.

“…she complains I don’t call or take care of her. But I’m there every weekend, I put in the air conditioners…”

“…these lawyers are just the worst. Now they’re asking about her green card. It’s like, she has a green card, that’s not even the lawsuit…”

“Yeah, I’m heading down now. Sure, I’m stopping at grandma’s. Boy, she loves you…to put in the air conditioners…”

Tidal, seasonal – the familiar march to heart and back again. He is sorry he is unrecognized. He is sorry he is subject. He is sorry he is superior.

It is through love that sometimes I am sorry I called. Like I stepped on charybdis when I aimed for carpet or for the warm hard wood my father favors, and that covers the floors at home.

Especially when thinks of my mother, when he tells my childhood as a tragedy. For a summer – I lost a summer- to pinning up his ideas, translating partial child-memories into arrows or lines in the missives he told, which I began believing.

When I gave up and quit writing for law I broke the images and ideals he gave me. He did not know I left New York after attempting suicide.

I crave understanding. I imagine giving him the news, how he might brush the hair from my temples to say, “oh…my writer, my thin blanket daughter…” How a pause might come…

Families in Public

Are anxiety-provoking. Not because of the inherent chaos – the toddler that loses a shoe that’s run over by a backing-up Ford Explorer, or the carseat that fails to buckle properly while the grocery cart rolls to a halt in the middle of the parking lot – but because of how absent such events are from grown-up memory.

Homes are degrees of broken. Breaking gradually, relationships might stall or stop as new families erupt and generate a gravity-like pull to the center, the nucleus. Or, as in my case, scarring fireworks might clip off supposedly-unconditional bonds.

Breakfasting this morning with a girl I mentor, she told me how upset she is when she hears her friends or her boyfriend conversing easily with parents and relatives. I told her I relate. Kind questions about my family and how well they are doing can trigger envy, resentment, rage, sadness and self-hatred in me.

I don’t remember the warm parts of the chaos of childhood, at least not accurately. Subsequent events overshadow them.

I think of talks with my mother in the car. How we sat together, sometimes unspeaking, with sun flashing between the trees and remnants of snow on the ground. Of how she would put out her arm to shield me from sudden stops when I sat in the passenger seat.

But the undercurrent violence wins. “I will not see you again.” “I will not want to.” Images in my memory bear these lines like watermarks.

Most often, I think of how my mother once left my younger brother in a department store. Of how she swore as she turned the car around. And the memories don’t make me want to look back.

Tree Falls

IMG_2051Trees are blocking our driveway at home. It’s been so warm; they are probable casualties of lightning and rain, the same furious storms that lash the lake with lightning in summer.

I’m in a desert miles away, but my father texted me six pictures of our blocked driveway, with the unhelpful caption, ‘driveway blocked by trees.’ I don’t need the images to understand the problem and I don’t know why, when I am so far away, it is important for me to know about trees falling at home.

When my father sends me texts like this, my frustration softens when I realize that this will be his old age. Mundane images and snippets of life might be thrust at me.

I imagine my father’s mechanical approach to the trees. He will measure them or use rope to hitch them to the car. He will drag those trees back to the little forest in our yard. He will call me, impressed with their weight, and eager to share the facts of how trees are moved, in case I have to move them someday.

It was the same when I was younger. He would explain how to build a trailer and show me the progress he’d made. I would stand outside and listen to the wind and watch his eyes, his excitement at knowing what to do. I would feel the damp in the air, the ground sinking into the shape of my footprints. Sometimes I’d watch the light fade and grow and fade, or the sky darken.

I am not surprised by the land. So, a tree falls.

Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.