A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

A Military Mother, and Christmas Day in Afghanistan

By Mary O’Brien


Not everyone considers a promotion in the military cause for celebration—it often comes with an inevitable relocation. After seven moves, my 13-year-old daughter knows all the signs leading up to moving. She brings it up every chance she can. What are your options? Where will they send you? When will we know? If Dad retires, can we stay here in Maryland? If you move somewhere boring, like Texas, I don’t want to leave. I like our new house, my school, my basketball team. I’ll only move if you go somewhere cool, like Europe, Japan or Korea.

This go around, I get the news shortly before Christmas, but we decide to wait until mid-January to tell the kids. We choose the sunporch, the most cheerful place in the house we bought seven months earlier, when I saw retirement on the horizon. We used to go to a favorite pizza place to break this kind of news but can’t anymore because both kids learned that pizza restaurants mean family discussions regarding new assignments. The last two family discussions broke the news that my husband and I were being sent in different directions. We’ve been stationed apart ten of the last fifteen years.

I tell my daughter she was right—I’ll have a new job in the spring. Before I can finish, she asks “Is it overseas?” I pause a moment, not expecting her to ask about the overseas options, and say yes. Bursting into tears, she tells me, “I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t want to move.” I try to talk over her sobbing, “You aren’t going—I’m going to Afghanistan and you’re all staying here.” Her crying stops immediately. Embarrassed, she admits being relieved, but immediately feels guilty for being happy that I’m going to a war zone. They all know how deployments work. My husband spent a year in Helmand while the rest of us were stationed in the United Kingdom, meeting him in Germany to ski on his two week mid-tour leave.

Once we break the news, both kids promptly go back to their own worlds; to them, I suppose, five months until my departure seems a lifetime away. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of concern behind their denial. After I make white chicken chili, a particularly favorite meal, my son asks my husband “Do you know where mom keeps her recipes?” Which reminds me, I have to share the kids’ practice schedules and game locations with my husband.

One morning in May shortly before my deployment, I laugh at my son’s comment about only being able to picture me sitting behind a computer when I announce I’m going to the shooting range to requalify on the 9mm. He can’t imagine me carrying a weapon, even if it’s just the small handgun that officers carry. “Contrary to popular belief around here, the Air Force is a branch of the military,” I respond. Soon after, I add my departing flight information to our family Google calendar and note the possible conflict with my son’s lacrosse game. “I can do both,” I tell him, hoping I can keep my promise. We drive to the airport in my minivan after his game and I feel a little guilty standing in the long line with my family. Other deployers who don’t live in Maryland already said goodbye to their families days ago and won’t get any more hugs tonight. My husband keeps the mood light and they all manage big smiles for the last photo at the airport—the kids on either side of me in my scratchy Army multicams.

In Afghanistan, tears creep out of the corners of my eyes every Sunday in the dusty base chapel, the only time I allow myself to admit just how much I miss my family. I’m the senior military woman in Kabul, and possibly all of Afghanistan—showing weakness is not in my job description. I follow the guidance I’ve given to many new military mothers I’ve mentored over my career. Limit the photos on your desk—a family portrait and one individual shot of each child. Too many cutesy photos and the men (and some women) won’t take you seriously. My husband and I are both in uniform in my carefully chosen family photo. My way of saying our whole family is “all in.”

The days turn to weeks, weeks to months. I try unsuccessfully to set up predictable times to call home. The 9 ½ hour time difference, my long hours on duty and the kids’ busy after-school schedules make it impossible. High school basketball tryouts are underway so I rummage through the stack of greeting cards I picked out before coming to Kabul. “You won’t be able to get anything good over there,” a friend told me. Taking her advice, I spent an hour in the Hallmark store picking out a “Congratulations” card, then decided I didn’t want to risk jinxing my daughter, so added a “Don’t Give Up” encouragement card. Remembering her sprained ankle from 8th grade, I threw in a “Get Well Soon” card for good measure. She makes varsity; she’s elated, and I promptly mail the “Congratulations” card with its handwritten “FREE MAIL” where the stamp normally goes. Knowing by then that the card will take at least three weeks to arrive, I use the Internet to send flowers overnight, too.

Surprise and disappointment set in when I realize our FaceTime calls are too hard for my son. He’s never been able to say good-bye. I ask my husband to stop coaxing him into the room when I call. I’ll wait until he asks to talk to me, which isn’t often. I’m thrilled by the rare text from him—”hi mom I lost that molar.” I accidentally discover that he’ll talk to me longer if I catch him home alone when my husband drives my daughter to basketball practice. I try to synchronize my work schedule and the time difference to take advantage of these moments. When my boss tasks me to attend multiple long-winded PowerPoint briefings about the possible reduction of troops in Afghanistan, I try unsuccessfully to hide my grumpiness as I see the rare opportunities to talk to my son slipping away.

My favorite aunt vows to make this Christmas special, but privately shares with me that my son has convinced himself that I am going to surprise everyone by coming home for Christmas unannounced, just like all those military reunion stories on Facebook and YouTube. I’d like to say that I despise everyone who has ever had anything to do with these videos, but actually I’m also envious.

On Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to hear my son play Christmas carols on his saxophone for all my relatives. It’s still Christmas Eve in Maine. Everyone can see me on the iPad placed on a chair in the center of the room and I’m mildly embarrassed that I’m still in my pajamas with messy hair and puffy eyes. My son opens with “Blue Christmas” in my honor and my heart breaks all over again. They sing along to “Deck the Halls” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He’s sounds really good and I’m surprised by the noticeable improvement in only six months of middle school concert band. “I take requests,” he boasts proudly. I’m amazed at this new confidence—what else will happen this year—and I request “Silent Night.” I hide a few tears as he plays it perfectly.

Mary O’Brien has more than 26 years of Air Force service and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from June 2014 to May 2015. She is currently stationed in Maryland with her husband—a retired Marine, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. She hasn’t missed a basketball game this season.

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

The Christmas Birthday Conundrum

By Barbara Brockway

After the initial joy of finding out I was expecting my first baby, a dark thought crossed my mind. This was in addition to all the concerns first-time parents have; will my baby be healthy, will I make a good mom, will I survive labor?

“I’m worried about the baby’s birthday being so close to Christmas,” I said to my husband, Matt. The December 19th due date was determined after an early sonogram, and declared to be extremely accurate by our doctor.

“Honey, I know how you feel about your birthday being right after the holidays,” Matt said, wrapping me up in a hug. “We’ll do things differently than your parents.”

“We have to always make a big deal out of the baby’s birthday, to not let it be overshadowed by Christmas” I said, thinking about a young me feeling hurt that my special day was treated as an afterthought.

“I promise,” Matt said, smiling a goofy expectant-father smile.

I secretly vowed to hold him to that, more importantly, to hold myself to that.

I had first hand knowledge of the disappointment that comes with having a birthday so close to the holidays. Raised in a small, midwestern town with no diversity, Christmas was my end-all, be-all of holidays, followed by runner-up New Year’s Eve. My birthday, coming on January 2nd, was at the tail end of this bacchanalia. After all the rich food, expense, and parties of the holiday season, who wanted to celebrate a birthday–my birthday?

As a kid, my presents were always wrapped in leftover Christmas paper, my birthday cake eaten begrudgingly by my parents on what should have been the second day of their New Year’s resolutions. My friends were no better. Amidst the excitement of returning to school after the long break and exchanging stories about what Santa had brought, they rarely remembered to wish me happy birthday. What should have been my special day was celebrated as a half-hearted afterthought or forgotten altogether.  

I pledged to do things differently for my child.

The weeks leading up to my due date flew by, filled with an ambitious home remodel, gearing up to turn over my job to a co-worker, and frenetic nesting. I stopped working on December 18th and picked my mom up from the airport on my due date.

“Any signs this baby is coming?” she asked as she happily clutched my big belly.

“The doctor says it could be anytime,” I replied. I unfurled a big list from my purse.

“In the meantime, let’s do some last minute shopping,” I said.

I dragged my mom around Atlanta the next few days, running Christmas errands and buying last minute things for the baby’s room. I delighted when someone asked me when I was due.

“Last Tuesday,” I’d say with a big grin. My mom and I loved the shocked responses. Inside, my worry grew. Each passing day meant future birthdays would be that much closer to the “big” day.

I took to walking around our neighborhood for hours, as walking was supposed to induce labor. Not one contraction. I ate spicy foods. Nada. On December 22nd the three of us walked up and down Stone Mountain. The baby didn’t budge. On December 23rd, Matt and I dined at Indigo, requesting the locally famous “labor table.” I kept the fingers of my left hand crossed all during dessert. I woke up the next morning feeling no different.

With each passing day I worried not only about the baby’s birthday being one day closer to Christmas, but about the health of my overdue child. The doctor started to talk about inducing labor.

On Christmas Eve, the three of us went to see the Live Nativity at East Rock Springs Presbyterian. Matt grabbed my gloved hand and held it in both of his. “You know, honey, at this point, I’m almost hoping the baby is born on Christmas,” he whispered.

My heart swelled as the tinny first notes of “Silent Night” strained through the outdoor speakers. “Me, too,” I confessed. “If it’s this close anyway, it might be better if it’s actually on the same day.”

We stared into each other’s eyes, grinning like two fools who didn’t know what was about to hit them.

At about 3am on Christmas morning, I woke with a start. Was that a contraction? I waited a few minutes. It was definitely a contraction. My heart pounding, I woke Matt.

He flipped on the light and started timing them. At about 6am, we took a two-hour walk around the neighborhood, reveling in the perfect quiet that is Christmas morning. I spent the day alternating rest with walking, squeezing in Christmas dinner, present opening and It’s A Wonderful Life.

At about 10pm we headed for Northside Hospital. Sweet baby Nicholas was born at 2am on December 26th, missing Christmas by two hours. And no, he’s not named after that Nicholas. My husband is Italian; it’s practically a requirement that every Padula family has a Nick.

Was I disappointed that our baby was born the day after Christmas? In retrospect it seems so silly. Once I locked eyes with my trusting, precious little soul all else seemed insignificant. I understood the meaning of unconditional love, and, as a faithful person, felt closer to God. I understood the fuller meaning of Christmas for the first time in my life.

Have Matt and I kept our promise of always making a big deal out of Nick’s birthday? We’ve tried to, although as the years have ticked on, we might be slipping a bit. Last year, we gave him the dreaded combined birthday and Christmas gift, an expensive GoPro camera that seemed too extravagant to be given for just one special day. Did Nick think he’d been ripped off? I’d like to think not, but I can’t really be sure.

One thing I am sure of is that my perspective on having a holiday birthday has changed. Gifts and celebrations aren’t meaningful, no matter what time of year, unless you’re spending them with loved ones. My favorite birthday memories now revolve around special times: ice skating, playing board games, or just watching a movie. No need for cake or decorations, just togetherness. Maybe keeping the focus on that should have been my objective for my son, instead of trying to create space and distinction between the two events.

As for me, If I’m ever asked about a favorite Christmas, how could I say anything but the day I spent laboring with my firstborn, and how could I say my favorite present was anything but my son?

Not a cherished family tradition or a perfectly wrapped gift, my favorite Christmas memory involves sweat, panting, excruciating pain, and, of course, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Barbara Brockway’s work has appeared in The Maine Review, The Southern Tablet, Torrid Literature Journal, and elsewhere. She’s received writing awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, and the Atlanta Writers Club. Read more on her website: barbarabrockway.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

What Good Moms Do

What Good Moms Do

Decorating The Christmas Tree - Family Pose

By Marie Anderson

Griff and Gannon tiptoed to the sparkling Christmas tree in their dad’s family room. Behind the tree, early morning darkness pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The boys crouched in front of the tree. Ganny reached for the largest present. It was wrapped in a pattern of Santa heads. Across the heads, someone had printed in black ink: To Griffin and Gannon, Love from Dad, Francesca, and Baby Guinevere.

“You can’t open it yet,” Griff said. He shivered. The size and shape of the present reminded him of his sister’s coffin. She’d been born too early, on Christmas Day five years ago. Ganny, of course, wouldn’t remember. He’d only been two years old.

Ganny frowned. “One present for us? Where’s the stuff from Santa?”Griff shrugged. Ten years old, he knew Santa was fake. But Ganny was only seven. Their dad should’ve put Santa gifts under the tree. He wondered if their dad was even home. He’d left for work right after their mother had dropped them off early yesterday morning, and he’d still been gone when they went to bed last night.

Behind them, the floor creaked. Ganny froze. “Santa! Is it Santa? I can’t look!”

The boys turned around. But it wasn’t Santa who filled the doorway to the family room.

“You’re up early,” Francesca said.

Their stepmother shuffled into the room. Her green eyes bulged out at them over a cup the size of a softball. A big white bow, lumpy as cauliflower, sprouted from her dirt-black hair.

Griff hated cauliflower.

“Good morning,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Griffin.” Francesca looked at Ganny. “Merry Christmas, Gannon.”

“Back at ya,” Ganny said.

Griff bit his tongue – a trick his mother had taught him – so he wouldn’t laugh.

Francesca shook her head and sighed.

Griff watched her waddle to the rocking chair. She still looked fat, he thought, even though her baby had been born a long time ago, right after Halloween. He watched her sink heavily into the rocker and slurp from her cup.

Ganny laughed. “You got spit up all over your mouth!”

Griff bit his tongue again. The foam from her drink coated her fat lips, and it did look like spit up.

He let himself smile.

“Shush,” Francesca said as Ganny continued to laugh. “You’ll wake your sister. And your dad.” She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her robe and looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel.

“Thirty more minutes, and then it will be OK to wake Guinevere. Schedules are very important to babies. Not even Christmas should interfere. Your sister needs her sleep. Your dad, too.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, too quietly for Francesca to hear.

“Mmm,” Francesca said, rocking and sipping. This cappuccino is blissful, just blissful. You know, boys, it was my mommy who sent me the cappuccino machine for Christmas this year. She can’t wait to meet your baby sister.”

“You’re too old to say mommy,” Ganny said.

Francesca’s face turned red.

“Ganny!” Griff pinched his brother’s arm. They’d promised their mother that they’d be polite while they stayed at their dad’s. “She’s not too old at all!” Then, before he could stop himself, he blurted what he’d heard their mother say. “She’s closer in age to me than she is to Dad!”

The red on Francesca’s face spilled to her neck.

“Is your mommy coming today?” Griff asked. Asking questions, he knew, was a good way to distract grownups from getting mad.

“No! She’s not!” Francesca’s thick black eyebrows plunged practically to her nose. “And I said mommy because you boys are still at the mommy age. I was using a kid word because I’m talking to kids!”

She sipped her drink. Her face returned to its normal milky color. Goose bumps pricked Griff’s arms. He didn’t think she would yell again, but with grownups, it was hard to know. At least since his parents’ divorce, the yelling had mostly stopped.

And he didn’t really mind Francesca so much. He’d hated That Other One, the one his dad had almost married before Francesca. That One had been prettier than Francesca, but she’d almost killed Ganny. Ganny had been rushed to the hospital after eating the white powder he’d found in her purse.

“The little shit shouldn’t have been digging in my purse!” That One had yelled.

“You don’t bring your little shit into my house when my boys are here!” their dad had yelled back.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “volunteers with Global Samaritans, and she spends Christmas with poor families. She’s been so busy helping the poor families in Guatemala that she hasn’t had a chance to meet your sister yet.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, a little louder this time.

“Stop punching buttons, you idiot,” Griff whispered.

Francesca sighed. “However, when I was your age, boys, my mother always spent Christmas with me. Because that’s what good moms do.”

Griff had nothing to say to that. Even Ganny stayed silent. A few days ago, their parents had argued about their mom working again on Christmas. Griff had listened on the extension. It had something to do with Grace. His dad had said the f-word, and his mom had cried.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “helped me make most of those ornaments on the tree. When your sister’s older, I’ll teach her how to make ornaments like my mother taught me. And that window?” She pointed to a stained glass window over the couch. “My mother and I worked on that together when I was about your age, Griffin. We won first prize for it at our club’s art fair. Your dad had it installed last month. It’s what I wanted for Christmas, having it put up in our family room. I like looking at it when I rock your sister.”

“It’s very nice, Griff said, though he hadn’t noticed the stained glass window until now.

“Where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca stopped rocking. She cleared her throat. “You’re going to love what’s in that big present under the tree. It came all the way from Italy! I looked through a lot of catalogs and on-line sites before I found the perfect gift for you boys.”

“But where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca looked at Griff. “Your dad said you boys knew.”

Griff bit his lip. He was in fourth grade. Of course, he knew.

“Knew what?” Ganny asked.

Francesca coughed. “Well.” She looked at Griff. Red splotched her cheeks like a rash.

“Santa’s bringing stuff to our real house,” Griff said. “Not here, because that wouldn’t be fair to kids who only have one house.”

“That’s right!” Francesca smiled at Griff.

He looked away without smiling back.

“I wanna’ go home now!” Ganny shouted.

Francesca flinched and shushed.

“Mom’s not even home, you idiot,” Griff said. “She’s working a double shift at the hospital, remember?”

“You’re the idiot!” Ganny yelled.

“Boys! Stop!” Francesca pressed her hands over her palpitating heart. “No name calling! Doesn’t your mother teach you better?”

She rubbed her left eye to calm the eyelid’s twitching. Off saving the world, their mother was, big shot emergency room doctor, too busy to take care of business in her own backyard. Foisting her kids on Francesca, a new mother with a borderline colicky baby. Lily had sent nothing when Guinevere was born, not even a card. Nothing to acknowledge that her sons now had a sister. Of course it was sad that Lily’s own daughter had been born too early. But really, Lily had pushed for a third child for the wrong reason: to try to heal an ailing marriage, is how Gary had once explained it to Francesca.

Francesca knew how dumb that was. Francesca hadn’t been enough to save her parents’ marriage. They’d divorced when she was two years old.

Francesca still had the note – in her jewelry box – that her mother had tucked into the gift she’d given Francesca for her 16th birthday: Pregnancy may land a man, but a child won’t keep him. The gift was a box of birth control pills.

It was a hard truth Francesca would impart to her own daughter when the time came. Good mothers told hard truths. And a good mother would have sent a gift for her sons’ new baby sister. Francesca’s mother had sent a $500 gift card from Nordstrom. It was in Francesca’s jewelry box. She and her mother would shop Nordstrom together for baby clothes. Her mother had promised a visit in spring.

Francesca felt tears prick her eyes. Spring was so far away. She felt a surge of sympathy for her stepsons. Of course they wanted their mom.

“I wanna go home now!” Ganny yelled. He scrambled behind the tree.

“Get him out from there!” Francesca cried. The sympathy she’d been feeling exploded into irritation. “He’ll tip the tree!”

Francesca gasped as Griff went after his brother. “Boys! Careful!”

Gary padded into the room, yawning and rubbing his bald head.

“Hey, what’s all this splendid commotion?” he asked, just as the tree began to shudder. He rushed to steady it, and the boys tumbled out.

“Merry Christmas, boys!” Gary shouted.

“Shush!” Griff and Francesca warned simultaneously.

“Yeah, shush up, Dad!” Ganny shrieked.

From upstairs, baby’s cries exploded.

“Oh!” Francesca shivered. Tears welled.

Gary patted her shoulder. “Aw, Kitten,” he said. “I’ll go do the diaper and bottle business. You just relax. Get yourself another coffee.”

Francesca looked at the clock on the mantel. “OK, but she’s not due for a bottle for another fifteen minutes. So could you just change her? And be sure to use the cloth diapers, OK?”

She looked at the boys. Gannon’s nose was dripping, and his eyes were wet.

“Wipe your nose, Gannon,” she said.

He ignored her, and looked at Gary. “Can I help you, Daddy?”

“No!” Francesca said. “Just stay put, boys.”

“Wipe your nose, sport,” Gary said. “Stay put, OK?”

“Please,” Francesca said to the boys. “Wait. Until. We’re. All. Ready.”

By the time everyone was ready, the tree, though still lit, no longer sparkled. Sunlight blazed through the windows behind the tree, spotlighting dust motes which swirled like nervous bugs in the beams of light. The tree no longer looked magical, Francesca thought. Just desperate, like an old woman wearing too much makeup. Like she found herself looking every time she glanced in a mirror.

She felt worn out. Old. She was old. A quarter of a century.

Something icy filled her throat. Guinevere’s little body, blessedly still for the moment, warmed her lap, but every other part of Francesca felt cold. She shivered. Was she getting sick?

“Smile, Kitten!” Gary was pointing the camera at her. She smiled.

Ganny pulled the big package from under the tree.

“It’s heavy!” he exclaimed.

Griff tried to lift it. It was heavy! Excitement tickled his stomach.

The boys tore off the ribbons and wrapping.

They stared at the present: a black suitcase on wheels.

“Wipe off those frowns, guys, and open it up,” Gary said. “I’m sure you’ll love whatever’s inside.”

They unzipped the case, flipped back the top. Inside were two rows of shiny balls, red ones and blue ones, each about the size of a baseball, and one smaller white ball. The letters GGG were painted on each colored ball. Their last name was painted on the white ball.

Ganny tried to lift the hard clear plastic which covered the balls, but thick staples held it fast. “What the heck?” he said. The boys looked at their dad, who was scratching his head.

“It’s a bocce ball set,” Francesca said. “The three Gs on the colored balls are for Griffin, Gannon, and Guinevere. The small white ball is called the pallino.”

“Thank you,” Griff said. “It’s very nice.” He thought of Grace, his real baby sister. Even though she was dead, he decided the third G would be for Grace.

“Dad, can you get the plastic off?” Ganny asked.

“Oh, Gary,” Francesca said. “I think we should leave that for when they get back to their own home. I’d hate for any of the balls to get misplaced here.”

“But we got nothing to play with now!” Ganny shrieked.

“Well,” Gary said. “Maybe we can—.”

“Boys,” Francesca interrupted. “This is an authentic set. Hand-polished in Italy. The balls are solid cherry, so they’re not to be left out when you’re not using them. You’ll have fun playing with it in your yard this summer. Gary, maybe you can suggest to Lily that she get a little bocce court put in for them.”

“I wanna’ play with it now!” Ganny whined.

Francesca shook her head. “It’s an outside game. And you don’t know the rules yet.”

“Dad!” Ganny cried. “So what are we gonna’ do now?”

Gary shrugged. “It’s an outside game, sport.”

“And we gotta’ get ready for church anyway,” Griff said.

Francesca smiled at Griff. He looked away without smiling back.

After church, Francesca served dinner. Miraculously, Guinevere slept. The boys pushed their eggplant lasagna around on their plates and ignored the peas.

“I want tacos,” Ganny said.

Francesca frowned. “Well, in this house, we don’t eat anything with eyes.”

“Well, these peas look like your eyes.” Ganny shoved a spoonful into his mouth. “Gross!” He spat the peas back on his plate.

Griff felt his stomach twist. He watched Francesca’s hands clench into fists on either side of her plate. She looked at his dad.

“Gannon!” His dad shook his head. “That was rude, sport. Apologize to your stepmother.”

Griff could tell Ganny was biting his tongue. Please don’t stick it out, he thought.

“Sorry,” Ganny mumbled. He coughed. “Stepmother.”

Francesca’s mouth trembled.

Griff shoved a chunk of the eggplant lasagna into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it. “Tastes great!” he exclaimed.

Francesca’s wet eyes landed on him. A smile dented her face.

He looked down at his plate.

For a moment, no one spoke.

“I’ve got rounds to make pretty soon,” their dad said. “And the surgical res asked if I could cover for him because of some family emergency.”

Francesca sighed. “I should probably nap while Guinevere is down.” Again her wet green eyes landed on Griff.

“We can just watch TV ’til Mom comes to get us,” Griff said.

After their dad left for the hospital, Griff packed his and Ganny’s duffel bags and put them by the front door. Francesca wheeled the bocce set next to their bags.

“OK, guys. The TV is all yours. Just keep the door to the family room closed, so then the TV won’t wake your sister, but keep the sound low, OK?”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered.

Francesca handed a cell phone to Griff. Your dad asked your mom to call when she gets here. I don’t want her ringing the doorbell and waking me or your sister.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny said loudly, but Francesca had already left the room.

They watched a Sponge Bob cartoon for a while. They sat on the floor close to the TV. At home, they each had a bean bag chair for watching TV. Their dad had promised he’d have bean bag chairs for them here, too. But there were no bean bag chairs.

“I’m bored,” Ganny said. He went to the front door and wheeled the bocce set back into the family room. He took a fork from the dining room hutch and used it to pry off the staples, bending one of the prongs.

Griff slid the ruined fork under the couch.

For a while, they rolled the balls around the room.

“This is boring,” Ganny said.

They began pitching balls to each other.

A red ball slammed into photos on top of the piano. Wedding photos toppled into baby photos. A wild pitch just missed the TV screen.

Ganny raced to field a high pop up. He crashed into an end table. A lamp fell.

Griff zoomed for a line drive. He tripped over the rocking chair and fell into the tree. The tree shuddered and tipped. Ornaments fell. They propped the tree against the glass wall.

Griff jumped on the couch to catch a high fly ball just as the cell phone in his pocket rang. Distracted, he missed the ball. It slammed into the stained glass window over the couch. He heard a crack.

“Hi Mom,” Griff said into the phone. “We’re ready. We just have to pick up some stuff. We’ll be right out.”

The door to the family room banged open. Francesca’s eyes swept over the room. They froze on the stained glass window behind Griff’s head. “You cracked it?” Her voice shook.

Ganny ran and squeezed himself into the little space between the propped tree and the glass wall. Griff looked at the stained glass window. The crack was thin and curved like a spider’s leg. He jumped off the couch. “We’re sorry!” he said. “We’ll pick everything up.” His muscles tensed, waiting for Francesca to explode.

For a moment, all Griff could hear was his own breath and the clock ticking on the fireplace mantel.

Then, her mouth opened. But all that came out was a whisper. “My mom and I won first prize for that window.”

She hunched her shoulders and began lifting photos off the floor.

Ganny emerged from behind the tree. The brothers looked at each other. They began working in silence, righting the lamp, pillows, returning bocce balls to the case.

When Francesca tried to right the tree, the boys helped. The three of them managed to restore it back to its upright position.

Ganny stepped on an ornament on the floor, crunching it underfoot.

From Francesca came a soft sound, like a kitten’s mewl.

Outside a car horn blared.

“That’s Mom!” Griff exclaimed. “She’ll wake the baby!”

And sure enough, Guinevere began to shriek.

Francesca shuddered. She flung back her head, gripped her hair between both hands, and howled.

Griff stumbled back. Ganny covered his ears. “Stop stop stop!” he cried.

The baby’s shrieks burned through the room. Francesca screamed, “Shut up, Guinevere! Just! Shut! Up!”

She collapsed into the rocking chair. Tears spilled. “I can’t do this. I’m so tired. So cold.” She bowed her head and began to rock, violently, back and forth.

Guinevere continued to cry, piercing, shuddering sobs.

Griff whispered to Ganny and left the room, closing the door behind him.

The baby continued to cry. Francesca closed her eyes and covered her ears.

After a while, Francesca realized the baby’s cries were easing. Suddenly, as though someone had turned off a radio, the cries stopped.

Francesca opened her eyes. She watched Gannon. He was picking ornaments off the floor and putting them back on the tree. He wasn’t doing it right. He was adding too many ornaments to the same low branches.


He looked at the tree. “I didn’t mean those peas looked like your eyes. They just look like eyes is what I meant. Anyone’s eyes. Should I get you blanket?”


“Are you still cold? Should I get you a blanket?”

The door to the family room opened. Griff stood in the doorway. His mother, Lily, stood behind him. She was cradling Guinevere like a football in one arm, and propping a bottle in the baby’s mouth with her other hand. On Guinevere’s head was knitted pink hat Francesca didn’t recognize. Francesca had knitted most of Guinevere’s hats, sweaters and socks too.

“She’s beautiful,” Lily said. “And what a marvelous set of lungs!” She stepped into the room.

Francesca stared at the hat. Nothing went on her daughter that Francesca didn’t first wash.

“Griff told me they’d made a mess in here,” Lily said. “And cracked your beautiful window. I’ll get it fixed. Anyway, I thought the least I could do now was get Guinevere changed and fed for you. I found bottles in your fridge. I warmed one.”

“She wasn’t due for a bottle yet,” Francesca said. “I’m trying to keep her on a schedule.”

Lily nodded. She eased the bottle from Guinevere’s mouth and handed it to Griff.

“She drank it all!” Griff exclaimed.

Lily lifted Guinevere to her shoulder and patted her back. A loud burp from the baby made the boys laugh. Despite her anger, Francesca smiled. Then she frowned. “That hat? Where’d it come from?”

Lily stepped closer. “I didn’t know if it would fit. But it fits perfectly. I knitted it . . .a while ago.”

Francesca felt dizzy. Had Lily knit the hat for her own baby girl?  A sudden insight, sharp and painful, clicked inside her: Guinevere only existed because Grace did not.

“The hat, I’d thought I’d never finish it. There are heart shapes knit into the hat, and you had to follow the pattern perfectly to make the hearts. I kept making mistakes and had to start over.”

“In knitting, there’s no such thing as mistakes,” Francesca heard herself say. “That’s what my mother always said when I’d drop a stitch or purl when I should have knitted. A mistake, she’d say, is just the way a knitter personalizes her work.”

Lily nodded. “That’s a good philosophy. I wish I’d applied it to my own parenting when Griff was born. I was so by the book with him, I was driving myself crazy. Then when Ganny came along, I was too tired and overwhelmed to even remember schedules and rules.”

Francesca felt blood heat her face. What was Lily implying? That Francesca was too by the book?

“But,” Lily continued, “I’ve got a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. So maybe I reaped what I sowed.”

Francesca looked at the boys who were now sitting on the floor near the TV. The rule follower. The rule breaker. Which one would her daughter be? Which one was ultimately better to be? Which one would Grace have been?

Lily lowered her face to the baby nestled in her arms. She breathed deeply. “I’d forgotten how good a baby smells.”

Francesca stood. The rocker nudged her knees, pushing her a step toward Lily. Lily looked tired. Purple stained the pouches under her eyes. Her brown hair looked dusty. But Guinevere, nestled against Lily, was gloriously quiet, content.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Francesca heard herself ask Lily. “Maybe some cappuccino?”

While Lily rocked the baby, Francesca made cappuccino. She popped a big bowl of popcorn. She led the boys to the basement and let them bring up the two bean bag chairs Gary had bought without even asking her first.

The boys sat in the bean bag chairs and watched Nickelodeon, the sound low, the popcorn between them on the floor.

Francesca lay under a comforter on the couch. From half-opened eyes, she watched Lily rock Guinevere. She watched Lily’s fingers trace the heart shapes on Guinevere’s hat. The hat was adorable. Maybe she’d ask Lily for the pattern.

Francesca felt her stomach tighten. Was it Grace’s hat? Had Grace ever worn it? Oh! The three Gs on the bocce balls. What an idiot she was. An insensitive idiot. Well, she would tell the boys that the third G was for both their sisters.

She looked at the boys cradled in the bean bag chairs. The chairs clashed with the décor, but Francesca had to admit that with the boys sitting in them, the chairs somehow looked right.

Griff suddenly turned and looked at her. She smiled, and when, this time, shockingly, he actually smiled back, she felt something bright and fierce sweep through her, swift, soft bristles scrubbing her clean.

Was it gladness? Grace?

The evening pressed darker and darker against the windows behind the tree. The lights on the tree began to pop out. Brighter and brighter they glowed, so that, even after Francesca closed her eyes, she could feel their heat warming her skin.

Marie Anderson is a mother of three in La Grange, IL. During the school year, she helps supervise (and “entertain”) 500 grade school children during their lunch recess. She is the founder/facilitator of her local library’s writing group, now in its 7th robust year. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications.



Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Post Thanksgiving

Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.


I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just me. Some people are bringing things to share, but I bare the bulk the day’s work. My family is far away. Even two of my children, 15-year old twins, are two countries away at boarding school and won’t come home until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

So the house will fill with the smell of roasting turkey and my husband, my youngest daughter, and I will be the only family members to enjoy it and I will feel sad.

But that won’t happen until Thursday morning. There won’t be any parades to watch on television, no snow will fall. It will probably be 95 degrees.

Today, I’m writing out the menu and I’m stumped.

This year I did manage to scrounge up a turkey. Sometimes they are for sale at the nicest grocery store in town. They tend to cost about $30.00 a kilo. And they’re small. But they’re turkey.

What I’m stumped on is the stuffing.

Problem 1 is that we are inviting local friends, Muslims, and so I can’t have any pork products in the stuffing. My favorite recipe calls for sausage.

Problem 2 is that most recipes call for items I don’t have and can’t find. Mushrooms, cranberries, apricots, Granny Smith apples, celery, fresh sage leaves, sourdough bread.

How many things can I substitute in a recipe and still call it stuffing?

There won’t be any cranberries or sauce, which is fine. I don’t like either.

There won’t be a traditional bean casserole. There will be beans but they won’t be fresh and there won’t be cream of mushroom soup and there won’t be crunchy bread topping and there won’t be fried onions. Oh wait – there will be. They will just all be made from scratch (except the beans, they will come from a can or a freezer bag if the grocery store has them in stock).

Everything will be made from scratch, from pie crusts to the bread that will eventually go in the stuffing to the buns I will shape into moon-like crescents drenched in butter. I brought canned pumpkin from the US so we will have pumpkin cheesecake. Someone gave me a spare can she had brought from the US and so we will also have pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.

I will be making most of this. I may or may not cry while I make it.

I’m thankful my children are at this school two countries away. I’m thankful my husband and I have the privilege of living and working here. I’m thankful we have a turkey and all this incredible food. I’m thankful we have local friends and other American friends to celebrate the day with.

But I’m also sad. So, incredibly sad. I miss my family. I miss snow. I miss my in-laws and watching my nieces and nephews dive into Thanksgiving feasts together and cleaning up afterwards with sisters and sisters-in-law and listening to people talk about hunting season or sledding misadventures.

This Thanksgiving, the one with the pork-free, halal stuffing and the jury-rigged dishes and the sweat dripping down my back, isn’t the one I grew up with. It feels forced, faked. But if we didn’t celebrate it, I would be even more sad because I would have missed it. And therein lies my choice. Sad, or more sad? I choose sad but I don’t like the choice.

Holidays abroad are lonely. So we fill the day with lots of people and multiple pots on the stove and a constant flow of dishes to wash and we use the busyness to mask the sorrow. We use the frenzied effort to create something from nothing to hide the questions. Have we made the right choice? Is this really what I wanted when we moved away? Is this really what I still want for my family, after thirteen years abroad?

  *   *   *

Now it is Thanksgiving Day and people start to arrive. Americans who have lived in Djibouti for a year, Djiboutians who have always lived here. They come carrying mashed potatoes and bottles of Coke. The Djiboutians don’t know the word for turkey but they devour it. We’ll talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving, the convoluted history of it. We’ll ask each other what we are thankful for and my answer will be: This.

I’m thankful for this table, filled to overflowing with people who have welcomed us and who laugh with us and who don’t laugh at me when I cry while carving the turkey because my grandpa is supposed to carve the turkey but my grandpa has been gone for years now. I’m thankful that we can be thankful here, far from home, and that we are making this a home. I’m even thankful that I am sad because the sadness means I love people and it means I have people who love me, who miss me, who are thankful for me and thinking of me even when I’m not there.

The sadness that comes with celebrating holidays abroad really isn’t that different from the sadness that comes with any kind of celebrating. The reason love terrifies us is because it is so intimately intertwined with pain. The reason gratitude makes us cry is because it hurts. It hurts to be thankful for people who aren’t present. It hurts to be thankful that when I’m lonely, my local friends love me well. Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.

Holidays keep coming and our families age. Grandpa isn’t here anymore to carve the turkey, grandma isn’t here anymore to make Bohemian Kolaches. We have been bumped up on the generational scale. We have long ago graduated from the Kids Table at holiday dinners to the Adults Table, though we secretly believe we still belong at the Kids Table. But even our kids are barely at the Kids Table anymore. Even if my family still lived in Minnesota my kids wouldn’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because they are teenagers and they sleep in too late. If we raced in a Turkey Trot 5k, they would beat me now.

No matter. Let the years roll on, we will keep holding to some traditions, like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special and reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and they are hilarious and no one watching from the outside understands why we are laughing so hard. We have performed these traditions for so long that the only reason we love them is because we love them together. We will still invite our local friends to our celebrations and feel awed by the waves of tender thanks that roll over us throughout the day.

And now we are in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be so many more meaningful and ridiculous traditions, more laughter and tears, more loneliness, more local friends filling in the empty spaces of our lives and hearts, more signs of time passing. And we will be thankful.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.



Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

Light Sabers and Tears in Aisle 8

By Allison Slater Tate


I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn.


I cried in the Star Wars aisle of Toys ‘R’ Us at 10 a.m. this morning.

In a rare show of industry, I was trying to knock out the majority of my Christmas shopping in just one (painfully expensive) trip. With my four children all safely ensconced at their respective schools from middle down to preschool, I took my sweet time pushing my cart through the giant toy mecca, pausing at each aisle, carefully picking out candy canes and wands for stockings.

It felt indulgent and strange to actually give myself the permission to shop leisurely instead of bum-rushing my way through an online order—or, more likely, five online orders. I enjoyed picking up the toys and reading the boxes the way I obsessively did when I was a child; though I find the whole “unboxing” phenomenon on YouTube a little jarring, I understand why my 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching others open and play with toys so much, since it reminds me of how I was riveted to the Saturday morning commercials at her age.

I had made it through most of the store, and my cart was piled high with things for my youngest, who is my only girl—Calico Critters and Beanie Boos, Breyer horses and Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Paw Patrol figures and a Play-Doh kitchen I know she will squeal over—when I found myself in the Star Wars aisle. I was suddenly staring at a pile of lightsabers, red and green and blue.

Like a blurry video in fast forward, years flashed through my mind: all the other Decembers when I had walked through these same aisles, picking up Little People farms and Hexbugs, Hot Wheels tracks and Razor scooters. I remembered running my hands over heavy plastic playhouses, debating between massive Lego sets, searching for Thomas trains we didn’t yet own. I thought about 12 years of Christmas mornings, oranges in stockings, tiny, sticky candy cane fingers, nights of driving around neighborhoods with the radio station set to the Christmas music channel, the kids in their pajamas staring out the windows and admiring our neighbors’ handiwork. They were always ready to go home before I was.

And that’s when, for a few minutes, I just leaned against my shopping cart and let myself cry, right in the middle of Toys ‘R’ Us, amidst the Yodas and the Ewok dolls—not an ugly cry, not heaving sobs, but just a few tears—as I realized that those days, when I had little people constantly underfoot and Santa was definitely real in my house, are over. My oldest boys have grown out of toy stores altogether now. They’re not even that interested in the video games sold there; they now look to download more sophisticated computer games straight from the source. My 8-year-old, whether because of his personality, because he is a third boy and jaded by the knowledge he’s acquired through his brothers, or because 8-year-old boys are now somewhat more savvy and less into toys than they were in generations past, barely plays with traditional toys at all. And after a recent brutal grilling by the third grader, I am pretty sure the 3-year-old is the only one left who truly believes in Santa Claus.

So I cried, because I miss those little boys who so carefully placed the plate of cookies and glass of milk by our fireplace chimney and brought home sacks of be-glittered handprint ornaments from preschool and kindergarten. But in truth, I cried more because I miss those days that I used to just survive, and then only barely. I miss when my days were just chaotic blurs, ping-ponging through naps and playgroup meet-ups and hurtling toward bedtime every night. I miss them because now, through the magnifying glass of hindsight and the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, they seem so much simpler, even in their tedium.

My days have a different timbre now. No one wears diapers, no one drinks from sippy cups with a bazillion parts to clean. There are no naptimes to work around. Instead, there is homework and practices and school. My little girl still keeps me with one foot partly in the world of the toddler; she is my excuse for knowing what’s popular on Disney Junior, my reason for collecting picture books and acorns from the yard. But things have changed.

I am mourning the Christmas tasks I had just a few years ago. I am missing the little boys who believed in reindeer food on the front lawn. But even more, I mourn their mother—the younger version of me, who was able to immerse myself in the physical labor and emotional chaos of young motherhood, whose parents were still strong and hearty and not yet concerned with the trickiness of retirement and aging, who didn’t worry about puberty and high school transcripts. I miss the version of me who could spend naptimes baking dozens of Christmas cookies and whose biggest worry was making it to the preschool Christmas concert on time.

One of my friends often quotes George Bernard Shaw: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.” As my children grow up and out of the routines and rites of childhood, I learn with them. I learn what each new stage means for them and for me as a parent, what the view from here now looks like and feels like. Yes, at first, it feels like I have lost something. I miss something. I mourn something. But even as I wipe a few tears off my cheeks, I know that this Christmas, when we are all piled around the tree again in our pajamas and bare feet—the bigger kids with smaller, fewer, and yet more expensive packages, the youngest with a plethora of tiny treasures to delight a preschooler’s big eyes—I won’t miss anything. Everything will be there, in new shapes and sizes: all the pieces of my heart.

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and a mother of four children ages 13 to 3. In addition to Brain, Child, her work can be found at her eponymous websiteToday Parents, Scary Mommy, the Washington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the Huffington Post, among others. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

The Anxiety Express

The Anxiety Express

WO Anxiety Express ARTBy Jennifer Magnuson

I am an anxious mother. Whether it was born from choosing to have five children or brews organically in my slightly imbalanced brain, I am at times unable to turn off the switch that prevents rational concern from erupting into full-blown panic. I firmly hold truck with the theory that once parents are entrenched in the teen years, a prescription for Xanax should automatically be doled out at the next check-up, much like the AARP cards that arrive in the mail when you are still in your forties, thank-you-very-much.

This holiday season my husband and I decided to travel with our three youngest kids to a small town in Oregon to ride The Polar Express. The prospect of riding an actual train to the North Pole has propelled our five and eight year-old boys into paroxysms of glee.

On the drive to the station, our twelve-year-old, whom we had hoped held one more season of Santa-driven spirit, sulks in the back row of the car, escaping as best he can through earbuds delivering steady zaps and whirs of skrillex music to drown out the uncool chattering of his little brothers. With two older teenagers under our belts, we should have known better. The first year of middle school brings a special brand of pained self-awareness; his only words uttered during the two hour drive are, “Do not tag me on Instagram.”

Still, we are fools this time of year, going through the motions with the optimistic amnesia of parents who forget that each December 26 heralds vows of escaping to Hawaii next year, we really mean it this time.

Our drive through the Columbia River Gorge is punctuated with rabidly excited squeaks and inquiries of are we there yet along with an occasional sigh, exaggerated in its loudness so that we might know the angst carried with each exhalation. It isn’t until the torrential rains pick up, the kind that whip a large SUV around bendy turns, that I regret not packing any anti-anxiety meds. We white-knuckle our way through sheets of rain into the town of Hood River, where our family time is to begin. My breath is shallow at this point.

With an hour to kill before boarding, my husband Bob wisely suggests we cool our heels at a nearby pizza joint so the kids can get something to eat, and I, a glass of wine. The man is keenly attuned to my anxiety levels — if only out of self-preservation. At the mention of wine, my breathing slows.

The pizza parlor is packed with locals and visiting families; children in pajamas and Santa caps spill from booths while beleaguered-looking parents stare into their phones. The air crackles with frenetic energy, and my younger boys happily join their brethren. They race to the back of the restaurant, loud with the trills and clangs of coins being plunked into video games and glass-encased claws for a chance to win a piece of plastic that will be promptly thrown away even though it cost eleven dollars in quarters to win. It smells like pepperoni and stale socks. I tell Bob to hustle with my wine.

Despite the warm zinfandel, my tension levels are rising. It is now evident to me that everyone in this restaurant is conspiring to tap into my biggest phobias to see if I will fall off the edge before we even get to the station. To my right, a toddler is licking pizza sauce from a tabletop. I shudder, down the rest of my wine, and avert my gaze. A young girl is army-crawling underneath a booth; I force a smile and imagine the floors are extra clean. A small boy runs past our table, bouncing a trachea-sized rubber ball. I mentally brush up on my Heimlich techniques and tell the kids to finish eating their pizza (but take small bites and chew slowly, please).

Finally, the moment arrives and we are seated in the train car. My shoulders relax slightly as I listen to my boys exclaim, “It looks exactly like the real Polar Express!” They are quite literally bouncing in their seats, clutching their golden ticket as they wait for the conductor to punch their initials, just like the movie!

The train jolts to a start, and my heart rate climbs. A tinny announcement comes on, welcoming us to the Polaaaaaar Express! My youngest claps his hands. The oldest has reinserted his earbuds. As the train car rocks gently from side to side I ask my husband if this is normal. I am used to the smooth rides of city metros or the speed trains from our experiences living overseas. He shrugs, “Sure.”

I wipe the thick condensation off my window and look out to see that the Hood River, which feeds into the Columbia, is white-capped and swollen. The water is so high it is swirling past trees and from my perch looks to be nearly level with the train tracks. I regret not having a second glass of wine.

Teenagers in old-timey waiter costumes walk down the aisles unsteady while dispensing watery cocoa and little brown cookies. I notice with satisfaction that they are at least wearing gloves. We are definitely rocking back and forth, and I try to subtly find the emergency exits. My husband, of course, notices and places his hand on my leg. Christmas music plays, and the train car erupts in a discordant version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

I hear what is obviously an axel breaking. Everyone is oblivious to our imminent doom and continues singing. Then, the train stops, and my heart with it. “Uh oh!” says the announcer. “Looks like we will have to stop the train…” So this is how I will die. Somewhere in the Hood River Valley, trapped in a train car. Our teenagers will be orphaned and brotherless, and probably forget to erect a memorial in my honor. “Our conductor needs to scare some caribou off the tracks.” At this, my boys gasp again and sputter, “This happened in the movie!”

Of course. I knew that. I have seen The Polar Express seventy-four times. I may have to remind my doctor to adjust my milligram dosage when we get home, because even though I may know this, my nerves are now drawn tighter than Snookie’s cornrows on a Mexican vacation.

Another costumed waiter comes by to pick up the trash, and she taps my youngest on the nose with her finger, making a little boop! sound as she does it twice more. My oldest son can also read me like a set of Minecraft cheat codes and picks up on my annoyance. “It’s okay, mom,” he says. “She’s doing that to all the kids, not just Henry.”

All the kids? I mentally tally the possible number of head colds on the train and try and lower my shoulders while practicing a yoga breath.

The car fills with noise; Santa is finally here. When he gets to our seats, he sits down next to my youngest, who is so awestruck he simply looks up at Santa and mumbles, “Ninjago” when asked what he wants for Christmas. My son’s wide-eyed expression, coupled with his fresh crew-cut is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Santa makes his way through the train car and I look at my oldest, who is busy on his phone. I lean a little closer and see that he has snapped a picture of Henry gazing up at Santa with adoration. It is the perfect picture. I try and act cool when I see that he is posting it to his Instagram. My heart swells; I’m okay now. I’ve got this.

Next year, Hawaii for sure.

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

By Rachel Pieh Jones

santa's goats1

Stories of Christmases past get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.


Christmas in Djibouti came with swirling dust storms, mosquitoes, the Islamic call to prayer, and 90-degree temperatures. It felt almost cold after the 120-degrees of summer. It was 2004, our first Christmas in Djibouti, second in Africa. We had a one-foot high Christmas tree to share with another American family and a handful of miniature ornaments. Near the tree were small packages wrapped in birthday wrapping paper or colorful t-shirts, doubling as paper for the day. White athletic socks hung along the air conditioner like stockings over the fireplace.

Our kids, four-and-a-half years old, made popcorn strings and paper chains from computer paper that they colored with green and red crayons. My husband is a master snowflake cutter and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. We had one CD of Christmas music and one borrowed Christmas movie, Elf. We did not have fast enough Internet to watch something online or to listen to music or purchase new music from iTunes. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. That first year in Djibouti, the best Christmas item belonged to our American friends. A Santa Claus costume.

After lunch on Christmas day the other dad disappeared. None of the kids noticed, they were too busy playing with the snowflakes and paper chains. And then! A faint jingle, a deep laugh, a knock on the door.

The door opened and in walked Santa Claus, jingling as he walked. He carried a plastic bag from the Nougaprix grocery store filled with pastel-colored candy coated almonds and lollipops.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “why are you wearing my daddy’s shoes?”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. In future years, Santa visited Djibouti barefoot. He tried to pat her on the head and she screamed and ran to hide behind her mom.

Santa sat in the living room in a plastic chair and pulled out his grocery sack.

“Ho-ho-ho,” he said and passed out candy.

My husband Tom stood at the window and looked down into the neighbor’s backyard. Three goats had been slaughtered that morning and brown and white hides now stretched over the barbed wire fence, drying.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “you sound like my dad.” She started to cry, confused and frightened. Her infant brother was already wailing.

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. Her mother suggested it was time for Santa to leave. As Santa stood to go, Tom tried to distract the kids and called them to the window.

“Look,” he said, “Reindeer.” He pointed to the goatskins.

“Santa’s reindeer got skinned!” my son shouted. Henry turned away from the window just as Santa opened the door. “Santa, wait,” he called. “Wait! Your reindeer! Someone killed them.”

Screams from the baby and the little girl echoed down the hallway and Santa couldn’t hear Henry. Henry shouted louder, desperate to let Santa know what had happened to his poor reindeer but Santa stepped outside and closed the door, oblivious.

“Oh no, Santa.” Henry started to cry. He ran to the window to get another look. “How is he going to get home?”

“You told them Santa’s reindeer got skinned?” I said to Tom.

He shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking, I guess.” He grew up on a farm and no one in his family would have been upset over skinned reindeer.

Three of the four kids were still crying when the other dad slipped back into the house. “What happened?” he asked.

We told him the story of Santa and the Skinned Goats. By the time we finished, the kids had wandered off to play and the adults were almost in tears from laughter.

*   *   *

We slowly did what Americans do, accumulated stuff. We gathered more Christmas memorabilia. Stores in Djibouti began carrying Christmas candies, decorations, and wrapping paper. Our holiday celebration started to look ever-so-slightly like the ones I had grown up with in Minnesota, including strings of lights and candy canes and Christmas music and patterned Christmas stockings, which continue to be hung over the air conditioner with care. And stories, that part of Christmas that doesn’t need to be packed up and stored away, the part we actually want to accumulate. Stories of Christmases past that get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.

I could forgo all the decorations, all the Christmas-themed foods and songs and movies. No snow, no holiday parades, no white elephant gift exchanges. They all fade away into the background of my pre-expatriate life. Even the decorations we do have, all the physical items we cherish, might one day be lost or stolen or destroyed or left behind. We’ve evacuated before and we know that when you have two hours to pack and are allowed a single suitcase, the Christmas tree isn’t a priority. But the stories are.

Holidays are story times, story-bearers. We sit around the holiday dinner table and tell stories about Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, July Fourths past. The year we went to the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest on the planet, where the salt was so pure white we pretended it was snow and tried to feel cold. The year we were in Minnesota, once in a decade, and Henry went hunting for the first time in his life and brought down two geese with a single bullet and we ate one for Thanksgiving dinner. The Disney World family reunion Christmas when we sang our personalized version of the 12 Djibouti Days of Christmas. The whale sharks that we swim with every year the day after Christmas, when we camp at Arta Plage under the wide starry sky.

Each year we live a new story and we add it to the pile of stories we can tell about the holidays and these stories become the links in our chain. The chain tethers us to one another, across borders and time zones and nations, across history. This is our story. This is who we are. This is how the Jones family rolls. Because we share this past, we share a sense of belonging.

The story of Santa and the Skinned Goats is retold every Christmas and every Christmas we are freshly shocked that Dad let Henry think the goats were reindeer. Every year we laugh at Henry’s earnest and useless appeal to Santa to listen. Every year we laugh about the crying kids. And every year something new happens that we add to our repertoire of story links that tell us we belong right here, in this expatriate family. Merry Christmas, joyeux noel, eid wanaagsan.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

By Kris Woll

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 3.25.12 PM

If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season.


I hate him.

Ok, those are strong words.

But I don’t like him very much.

Or maybe we are just not a good fit for each other.

And also he’s not currently on a shelf, as you can see.

I hate him because we have to move him around every night. Because we have to prove that he left while we slept, that he headed up to Santa to report on our day’s behavior. He’s added one more thing to my never-completed to do list—a list that only grows longer over the holidays—and frankly the whole arrangement is a little creepy.

Somehow, when I was a kid, Santa knew what we were up to without sending a spy. Probably because my mom called him from the kitchen each year in early December to give him an update while my sister and I sat on the couch crafting our wish lists from the back of the JCPenney Christmas catalog. I was always impressed by her direct line to North Pole and didn’t doubt that she would have his phone number. My mom had pull. And she didn’t need to shift a single decoration to drive home the point: Santa was watching, knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake. It’s so like us modern parents to make everything more complicated. Isn’t it enough to put up a tree and hang a few stockings and make a few cookies and DVR Charlie Brown so the kids have something to watch while we fold the laundry?

There are already many things I do not do well. Ironing, for example. And making homemade cut-out cookies. And flossing with a regularity expected by my hygienist. And other things I don’t want to admit to you because we don’t know each other well and I want you to like me. Why add a sort of scary, stiff doll to the list?

Why? Because my kids—my 7-year-old and my 3-year-old—expect it. Because it seemed cute the first year and now, as the first stack of unsolicited holiday catalogs from retailers I never buy from arrive in our mailbox, the kids ask for him. And keep asking—even when I try to distract them with chocolate-filled Advent calendars (a tradition from my husband’s family)—and start sharing stories about the elves on their friends’ shelves.

Today, as I paid for my haircut, the nice cashier even asked me about him. Did you get your Elf on the Shelf out yet? She asked as if it’s a real thing that everyone, everywhere does this time of year, like sending cards or overeating.

I started this thing and now I can’t find my way out.

If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season. When pressed, I’d come up with some story about how he broke, or could just relay reports to Santa through thought. These ideas seem no less plausible than the “real” story.

But it is not left up to me, and so the elf will move tonight just like he did last night and just like his companion book says he will continue to do right up to Christmas Eve, because while I’m falling asleep at 8:00 p.m. next to the kids or writing a blog post to complain about the elf’s existence, my husband will plop him on top of the stereo or in a planter or on top of the unread magazines. And in the morning the kids will be excited to find the elf in his new place, and though I’ll smile and say “Cool!” while I turn on a Rat Pack Christmas album and water the tree, I’ll feel sort of bad about both complaining and not taking a more active role in this new and oppressive tradition.

Which just makes me hate that elf even more.


Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at kriswollwriting.com.


A Broken Ornament

A Broken Ornament

ART Broken Christmas OrnamentBy Ginny Auer

“I don’t want to go to Nan and Pop’s for Christmas,” Tess said as I sat at the computer making plane reservations. She said it with conviction, her arms crossed and her eyes peering directly into mine.

I tried to put my arm around my daughter to bring her closer. Tess pulled away and plopped down on a chair out of my reach. “I don’t want us to be alone on Christmas day,” I whispered.

“We won’t be alone!” Tess snapped. “You and I will be together! Paul can come too.”

“Paul will be with his family.” Paul was my husband Troy’s best friend and Tess’s godfather. This would be our first Christmas without Troy, who had died of appendix cancer eight months earlier. Four months after Troy died I had had hip surgery. Only 45, I felt 85. I knew I was completely incapable of managing the holiday alone.

Tess ran to her room crying. I followed and sat on the bed beside her. I stroked her hair; she jerked away.

“How about a compromise?”

“What’s a compromise?” Tess said looking up at me from underneath her bangs, her eyes wet.

“We’ll have two Christmases. We can have our regular gingerbread party and winter party at the Science museum and then open presents from Dad’s side of the family before we get on the plane to go to Nan and Pop’s house. Dealio?”

“Dealio,” Tess said quietly. “But I still don’t want to go,” she called as I walked out of the room. Only seven, Tess always had the last word.

The first week of December, Tess and I drove our 12-year-old orange Ford Explorer Sport up the winding road to the Christmas tree farm we always went to. I heard Troy’s voice in my head. “You’re a great mom. You can do this.” I argued with him. “I know I CAN, but I don’t want to! Not without you.” His voice was soothing as he answered, “I know you don’t want to, but Tess needs you. Be there for her.”

High school boys wearing torn jeans and flannel shirts rode around the property on ATVs. A young woman in stylish jeans and impeccable make-up strapped two small children into the back seat of a Suburban while her husband paid.

“Honey, get me a hot chocolate?” she called to him.

“I found one!” Tess danced around a 15-foot Noble Fir. “This is the one we’re getting! This is the one we’re getting!”

“Seriously Tess?” I rolled my eyes at her. “Where do you think we are going to put a tree that big?”

“We’ll just cut the top off,” she said.

We walked through the muddy ruts made by the ATVs. I found a blue spruce tree that was just the right height with a nice shape and good spacing for ornaments. “How about this one?”

“Oooo, no!” She said. “I don’t like that one. It’s ugly!”

We spent another hour tromping through every row of trees on the 10-acre lot, only to go back to the first row. We settled on a 6-foot noble fir. Tess was happy because it wasn’t too “bushy.” Even though I didn’t like it, I was ready to compromise. Troy always cut the tree down himself. Last year Tess “helped.” Now here I was, waving to a strapping teen with acne and blond shaggy hair. He cut the tree down, wrestled it onto the back of the ATV and said he would meet us at the car.

When we got home, I untied the tree and dragged it inside. The pine needles clung to my clothes and made my arms itch. My insides felt like Jell-O as I thought of spiders crawling out of the tree and onto my neck as I lugged it inside. “Damn it, Troy,” I screamed silently. “I need you.”

While Tess settled herself on the couch with cookies and a book, I unearthed the tubs of holiday ornaments in the storage shed. I brought the box full of tinsel, garlands and stockings over to Tess so she could go through it while I looked through the ornaments in the dining room.

I unwrapped a red glass ball with a Santa Claus on one side and 1991 on the other. And then I couldn’t breathe. Troy and I had bought it to commemorate our first Christmas together. Next I found the dozens of purple glass ornaments Troy and I had bought when we first moved to Oregon. We felt so hip back then, decorating an old aluminum tree we got from my parents with purple balls and purple garland.

Troy always sat back and told me where ornaments were needed while I hung them on the tree. We were a team. He had the long view and I was up close. I heard Tess laughing in the other room as she wound herself up in garland dancing to Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You. I pulled out the construction paper ornament Tess had made in kindergarten and took it to show to her. She followed me back into the dining room.

“Where’s the tree topper? I want to put the tree topper on like Dad and I used to do.”

The tree topper: a simple glass ornament with a red ball shape at the bottom and a silver spire at the top. It probably cost all of $5, but each year Troy would pick Tess up in his arms, hold her up to the top of the tree and help her put the topper on. Afterward, he would give her a big hug and a kiss. I would always take a picture of them putting this finishing touch on the tree.

But in my haste to clean up during Troy’s last Christmas, I had not paid attention to how I had packed it away. I could already see the damage. The tree topper was crushed to pieces. My heart sunk into my stomach. I pushed back tears.

Before I could gather my thoughts, Tess bounded over to me. “Look what I fou…” Then she saw the tree topper and stopped in her tracks. She looked at me with a hurt I hadn’t seen in her eyes since I had told her of Troy’s death. We hugged each other and tears streamed down both our faces.

Tess ran to her room and huddled in the corner of the bed clutching her favorite stuffed dog. I stood in the dining room stunned, berating myself for having been so careless. Troy would’ve taken the time to pack the ornaments carefully. But Troy had been dying of appendix cancer. I was undone.

Maybe Paul could do something. I pulled out a sheet of construction paper from Tess’s art cabinet and lay out the pieces of the broken tree topper. The spire and the bottom round half were fairly intact. It was the middle of the ball that was in shattered bits.

I took a picture with my phone and sent it to Paul.

Paul makes props for a prominent regional theater company and can fix almost anything. He texted me back that he would be off work in an hour.

That hour seemed interminable. Finally Paul, 5′ 5″ tall, with a round face, short hair, and wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the middle of winter, arrived with a ball from the prop shop. He had painted it red to match the color of the original ornament. He held it out to Tess.

“I don’t like the red,” she said.

“We can change the color. I just painted it red because that’s the color it was.”

“I don’t want it to be any color,” Tess retorted.

“Go get the container of gesso in your dad’s studio and we can put that on the ball instead,” Paul said. Troy used gesso to prepare and prime his paintings, and Tess and Paul would use it to glue the pieces from the broken ornament onto the new ball.

Paul set Tess to work painting gesso onto the ball. I watched as they huddled together at the kitchen table, a team. Tess was laughing as she painted.

“Put that piece there!” Tess ordered Paul. “And that one needs to go there!” She looked so confident. She knew exactly where each piece should go. They worked together for nearly an hour painting and gluing. Finally it was done. The topper had been recreated. The silver spire, still intact, was glued to the top with all of the red broken bits glued like a mosaic to a white ball in the center.

It wasn’t the same, but it was differently beautiful.

“Mom,” Tess surveyed her work. “This is a good compromise.”

My daughter spent the next afternoon making a paper angel to sit on top of the spire of the tree topper. That night, I lifted her up to the top of the Christmas tree so she could put the angel on the tree topper. I felt Troy’s presence in the room. He was smiling at me. Paul snapped a photo of just the two of us.

Ginny Auer is a widow and a mother. Following her husband’s death in 2012, she founded livehuge.org, an inspirational website designed to celebrate every day. She is also in the process of writing a memoir.

Photo: © Emilia Stasiak | Dreamstime.com

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

The December holidays are no doubt a time for gift giving, but how much is too much? Jennifer Collins thinks our children are overindulged: the focus of Christmas should be on experiences and helping others. Kristina Cerise is trying to walk a middle ground between buying her children things they need and also things they want. Ellen Painter Dollar believes bestowing her children with generous presents at Christmas is a reflection of the holiday’s true meaning.


By Jennifer Collins

HolidayDebateYESIt has always been a priority to make Christmas just as wonderful and magical for my own children as it was for me. To make lots of memories and to spoil them a bit, too. But six years ago my husband and I decided to chase a job and move from Georgia to Maine, far away from our families. We were faced with the unique opportunity of creating our own holiday traditions anew.

In the beginning, our families overwhelmed us with gifts, because they weren’t there. They wanted the kids to know they were loved and thought of across the miles. I also overcompensated with things because I wanted the kids to have a good Christmas—to make up somehow for the distance away from their relatives.

But recently my husband and I have decided to scale back the focus on gifts. We notice the bins of toys the kids neglect, the puzzles that are never put together, the dolls that aren’t played with. Our kids have more than they need. More than they want. They really don’t even know what to write on their Christmas Lists this year.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my children if they could remember what gifts they received last Christmas. They could only name one or two. What did they remember most about our family Christmas traditions? My daughter said she loved going to the nursing home and singing to the residents. My son’s memories were about making holiday-themed cookies and wearing Christmas pajamas while reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bed on Christmas Eve. And of course they remembered the shenanigans of our elf “Cole” that stays with us from Thanksgiving to Christmas and reports their actions to Santa each night.

My children remember more about the gifts they’ve given others than the presents they received themselves—such as the customized pencil-and-crayon vase my daughter gave her first grade teacher and the glittery handprint ornament my son made for our tree. They’ve picked out special toys for children their age from the Angel Tree and have dropped coins into the Salvation Army’s red kettle. My children seem to understand intuitively that the true joy of Christmas is connected to the thoughtful and careful process of giving.

This year we are doing Christmas differently. We will give our children fewer things and yet enrich their lives with more of the holiday experiences they remember so well from the past. They will be receiving a few handcrafted gifts from us and some items that they have on their lists— a sword, Legos and pajamas for our four-year-old; craft supplies and books for our eight-year-old. But they won’t be receiving any of the extra “fillers” that always seem to creep in. Our kids seldom have lists that are miles long. We are the ones that over-do it each year. We are the contributors to their overflowing, neglected toy bins.

This Christmas we are also going to spend more time serving others and looking for ways to help out in our community. We will sing Christmas carols in the nursing home again. We will make a pet food donation to the local animal shelter. My daughter also wants to bake cookies for the local police and fire departments. We have one project for each weekend of the month leading up to Christmas. Our new tradition.

Yes, our kids enjoy Santa and stockings, and all the typical holiday fun. But ultimately, for us, Christmas is a religious holiday. And I am thankful that we have put the tradition of giving—not receiving—back at its core.

Jennifer Collins is a mom with a day job and she likes to write about her victories and messes along the way. She is living an adventurous life as a Georgia transplant learning to thrive in Maine. Jennifer’s writing has been featured on BlogHer, iVillage Australia, Daddy Doin’ Work, and Mamapedia. She blogs at www.gracefulmess.me.


A Little Bit!

By Kristina Cerise

holidaycookiesMy Facebook feed is more divided during the holidays than during elections. On one side are those counting down the shopping weeks, days and hours until children charge expectantly into living rooms looking for parcels and cookie crumbs. On the other side are those who post links to simplicity challenges, bemoan outrageous holiday spending, and champion giving experiences instead of things.

The division isn’t only on my screen, it’s also in my bed. My husband’s holiday compass points to a different North than mine.

I come from a tradition of simple holidays. Exchanging practical gifts was what my family did. It exemplified our values. It showed we were too sophisticated to fall for marketing. It proved we didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses (or Bakers, in our case). The socks and underwear in our stockings were evidence that we were above it all.

Now, I see that we were just poor. And proud. But I also see the joy in the intimacy of those holidays. I remember selecting and distributing one present at a time from underneath the tree. I remember the slow reveal. The expression of gratitude. The passing around of the gift for admiration. The hug for the giver.

Despite having the means to give more extravagantly now, my siblings and I still choose to keep our gifts to each other simple. We exchange consumable gifts for each family to share: a jar of home-canned jam, a bag of special caramels. Some years even that feels like too much and, in the midst of the holiday madness, we call each other to say, “Wanna skip it this year and just know we still love each other?”

That would never fly with my in-laws or the sweet man who gifted me his last name.

My husband’s family distributes gift lists on Excel spreadsheets. They consider GPSs appropriate stocking stuffers. My in-laws start delivering gifts well before Christmas to try to disguise the fact that they won’t fit in a single car load.

The first time I witnessed the madness I felt physically ill and mentally confused. Their approach to Christmas was so different from anything I’d experienced that I couldn’t even recognize the holiday. I had thought I wanted to leave my own family and all its quirks behind, but that first shared Christmas made me long for second-hand gifts from Grandma’s garage wrapped in Sunday comics.

In the beginning years of our marriage, I raged against the consumerism. I touted the merits of jam giving. I fought the excess. But the joy from my husband and in-laws was greater than my judgment and I lost the battle and then the war. Admittedly, the Le Creuset stockpot helped ease the pain of defeat.

My childhood taught me that presents can either meet a need or satisfy a want and I want my kids to learn to be grateful for both types of gifts. So, I still give practical things: underwear, socks, math workbooks.

My husband’s family taught me the joy of receiving something you want but don’t actually need. Something frivolous. Something fun. So, I put practicality on the back burner and buy my kids some of the ridiculous things they ask for: more Pokémon cards, a platypus puppet. After all, I remember wanting a neon pink horse with a purple tail and glitter shapes on its haunches.

For me, the jar of jam approach to gift giving feels too small. But the Excel spreadsheet method feels too big. I am Goldilocks, still looking for the “just right” holiday experience.

Some people suggest that metrics such as a dollar limit or a maximum number of gifts can be used to ensure the right balance. For me, though, it is about ratios.

I want a holiday with more gratitude than greed.

I want a holiday with more wonder than wastefulness.

This is my tenth year of working with my husband to define “just right” for this family we’ve created by merging genes from two ends of the gift-giving spectrum. And each year I think we get a little bit closer.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly (www.definingmotherhood.wordpress.com) and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 



By Ellen Painter Dollar

unnamed-12Every year, my kids declare that gifts are their favorite part of Christmas. Does this make me worry that I’m raising materialistic children ignorant of the holiday’s “true meaning”? Not really. When I was their age, the thrill of a pile of wrapped presents under a twinkling tree was my favorite thing about Christmas too. I still feel that thrill, although now it’s less about what’s under the tree (mostly trinkets that my kids buy at the school craft fair) and more about anticipating them opening the gifts I have painstakingly chosen.

There’s no doubt our American Christmas is too commercial; I finish most of my shopping by Thanksgiving to avoid December’s hectic mall crush and focus on the home-centered activities I enjoy more. But as a Christian, I also believe that gift giving can be a meaningful reflection of God’s extravagant love and generosity, which is the holiday’s true meaning for us. While we’ve pared down gift giving among the adults in our family, we still joyfully present each child with a generous pile of gifts.

In addition to practical presents—pajamas, hats and gloves, lip balm, books, jeans, art supplies—I get each child one “big” gift, not necessarily expensive (though it might be), not necessarily physically large (though it might be), but something that, in their eyes, will be magnificent. These gifts are meant not only to fulfill a desire, but also to affirm who each of my children are and who they are becoming.

For example, two years ago, we gave our then 13-year-old daughter, who loves the outdoors and is unable to do most sports because of a physical disability, a real archery set. (What gratification I felt when I saw this email from her best friend: “YOU GOT A REAL BOW AND ARROWS FOR CHRISTMAS?!!” Yes indeed, she did.) My other daughter, a born caregiver, got a bed for her favorite doll. She placed it under a sunny bedroom window, where she lovingly tucked her doll in every night for months. My son, a nontraditional boy who gravitates toward sparkle and dolls and the color pink, received a Barbie dream house that I assembled ahead of time, so it would be ready for immediate play.

The happiness inspired by material gifts is fleeting, but it is also genuine. I hope that my kids’ happiness with their holiday presents goes beyond momentary captivation with something shiny and new, to a sense of belonging, an unnamed gratitude for parents who know them well enough to get them a just-right gift.

At their best, this is the function that gifts—even frivolous ones—can serve in our consumer culture. Thoughtfully chosen gifts reinforce the deep satisfaction of being loved by someone who knows what you need, what will make you happy. One Mother’s Day, I desperately needed something beautiful and unnecessary to lift me from an exhausted postpartum funk; my husband splurged on a watch that was far more than a time-keeping tool. The material illuminates the immaterial; a well-chosen gift can be a tangible reminder of intangible realities, such as love and grace.

Parental love is usually expressed in the mess of everyday life—school lunches made, dinners served, shoes tied, arguments refereed. Christmas giving invites me to take a step back from the daily muddle, to ponder my children’s talents, passions, and struggles, and what gift might offer the encouragement, inspiration, comfort, or distraction they need. I go to all of this trouble with Christmas gifts for the same reason I go to the trouble with the necessary, routine stuff—to show my children that I see them, know them, and love them just as they are, and am committed to helping them grow and thrive.

When my children thank me for their presents, I hope that somewhere in their gratitude, even if they might not recognize it, is thanks for all of the less shiny but oh-so-necessary daily gifts I give them. This season’s excesses need not be distractions from the essential meaning and joy of Christmas. Rather, they can kindle within all of us a renewed gratitude for the less extravagant, more fundamental gifts—food, relationships, warmth, beauty—that sustain us every day.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel. 

The Search for God at Radio City

The Search for God at Radio City

By Daisy Alpert Florin


I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? 


We were in New York to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and my nine-year-old daughter was confused.

“Why are we going to a Christmas show when we’re not Christian?” Ellie asked me, twirling her penguin earring with two fingers.

I gripped her hand tightly as we made our way through the busy midtown streets. “It doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not,” I told her. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”

Before the show, we walked over to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Sam, Ellie’s older brother, was blunt: “Why are we here? We’re Jewish.” Later, her 5-year-old brother Oliver declined an invitation to sit on Santa’s lap at a pre-show luncheon. “We celebrate Hanukkah, remember?” he said, loud enough for our whole table to hear.

The show itself was pure Christmas kitsch: high-kicking Rockettes, dancing Santas and speeches about believing in the magic of Christmas. It was the visual equivalent of eating a bag of gummy bears, and I loved it.

On the ride home, I asked Ellie what she thought of the show.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I just don’t like how people make such a big deal about Christmas. There’s no show like that about Hanukkah. I mean, the only show I’ve ever been to that had anything to do with Hanukkah was at camp. It’s not fair.”

“That’s because Christian people dominate,” Sam said from the back seat. “If they made a show like that about Hanukkah, it would be a waste of money because no one would go.”

Ellie looked out the window, a pensive frown on her face. I sensed she was grappling with issues of identity that had been brought up by the winter holidays because just the week before she had been upset after visiting the school book fair.

“Did you know there were twelve books about Christmas and only four about Hanukkah?” she told me when she came home. Her eyes were bright behind her blue glasses.

I told her that Hanukkah is probably the only Jewish holiday the book fair would have any books about and that was most likely because of its chronological connection to Christmas. (This kind of nod to religious equality always annoyed me. I felt the same way when the school orchestra felt the need to play a Hanukkah song at its winter concert, and it was always the Dreidel song. “Thousands of years of history reduced to the Dreidel song,” I would gripe.) Plus, I said, in light of how many Jewish kids went to her public school, I thought four books was a lot.

“It shouldn’t matter how many people there are,” she said. “There are more girls than boys in the world but that doesn’t mean girls are treated any better than boys.”

I could tell she considered this an injustice, and who was I to tell her it wasn’t? If this was her nine-year-old version of identity politics, more power to her.

But it got me thinking about what it meant to raise Jewish children, especially at Christmas. Ellie’s nascent sense of persecution was not something I could relate to because I had grown up celebrating Christmas. I was raised by a Jewish father and a Swedish mother but was not really part of either culture; we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays or speak Swedish. Neither of my parents was religious, so our version of Christmas included a tree, gingerbread house and stockings, not Jesus or the Virgin Mary. (Easter was much the same: no resurrection, just jelly beans.) My husband, Ken, had grown up in an observant Jewish family and when we got married, I converted to Judaism and stopped formally celebrating Christmas.

Ken and I wanted our children to feel connected to religion in a way neither of us had growing up. We wanted being Jewish to mean something to them so, from an early age, we encouraged them to self-identify as Jews and sent them to Hebrew school, Jewish preschool and Jewish camps. I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? That was something I hadn’t considered.

When the kids were younger, they had asked lots of questions about Christmas, wondering why Santa Claus didn’t come to their house and why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree. What made it more confusing was learning that I had celebrated Christmas as a child. “You mean, you get to choose?” Sam asked me once.

I didn’t always know the best way to answer these questions because, to be honest, I was also grappling with what it meant to give up the traditions of my childhood. I had no model for celebrating Hanukkah so for a few years, I kind of winged it. But with time, I thought we had created Hanukkah traditions that were meaningful and joyous, while keeping the holiday in perspective. I never tried to make Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas” because such comparisons felt phony to me. I wanted just being Jewish to be enough for them, and for me.

Now that the kids are older, they have accepted that we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a better understanding of their identities as Jews. But it seems that with that process has come a kind of hardening toward Christmas. Instead of viewing it with wonder, they see it as something they have to resist. If Ellie sees Christmas as an aggressive force that could lay bare her identity as an outsider, I could understand how watching the Christmas Spectacular—and her Jewish mother smiling and clapping along—could be destabilizing.

That feeling I could relate to. As a child, I had often been confused by my dual identity. I wasn’t really Christian or Jewish but somewhere—or perhaps nowhere—in between. I had wanted something different for my children which was why I had chosen to give them a strong religious identity, at least to start out with. But while I was able to embrace the parts of Christmas that weren’t religious, like Santa and the Rockettes, Ellie found this difficult because she was still understanding what it meant to be part of a religious minority. Maybe one day she would be able to enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but today was not that day.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at www.daisyflorin.com.

Photo credit: nydailynews.com

When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa

When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa


When the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.


Unpacking the Christmas decorations, I pulled out the small crocheted “I BELIEVE IN SANTA” pillow that Liddy loves so much and handed it to her. I watched closely as she walked around the house with it – she finds a new spot for it every year – and felt relief when she ultimately placed it in the entryway, smiling to herself a little grimly. At least, I thought, She didn’t refuse to put it up.

When my kids were tiny I was on the fence about how to handle the Santa story. It’s true that I spent my own early years as a firm believer and had many magical Christmases as a result. But as an adult, a little bit of cynicism crept in. We were lying to our kids, and to what end? On top of that, in our community, we’re surrounded by families with different traditions. Should kids who weren’t waking up to a bounty of gifts under a glittery evergreen be expected to play along?

But I came around to the Santa idea, in part, because of some convenient research I came across tying this kind of believing to the development of abstract but essential emotions like love and empathy. And once I saw Brennan and Liddy respond with such joy to the idea of Santa, I embraced it. I held back only a little: I never pretended a costumed red crusader was the real deal. I didn’t put out milk and cookies. And when challenged I fell back on vague non-answers like, “If you believe, he’ll come.”

Then, when the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.

I was reading aloud to them from Superfudge when we came to the part where Peter admonishes his parents for letting Fudge continue to believe, and Peter’s mom admits that “sooner or later, he’ll have to learn that Santa is just an idea.” The words came out of my mouth so fast that I didn’t have time to auto-correct, and then I had two stunned kids to answer to. I first stammered out a weak explanation that involved Ms. Blume trying to include families who didn’t celebrate Christmas.

“Or maybe she doesn’t believe in Santa,” I said then, ridiculously. “But I do.”

So I was already wondering if that Christmas would be our last in the I-believe camp when we spent Thanksgiving with my family. Afterward, my sister called me with a confession: “I’m afraid Jake might have told Brennan there’s no Santa,” she said.

“Oh well,” I shrugged it off. “I think we were already headed in that direction.”

And that’s where things stood when I overheard Brennan tell two brothers in the neighborhood, “Guess what? Santa’s not real.” I ordered Brennan into his bedroom, furious: “You might be too old to believe in Santa, Brennan,” I said. “But it’s not fair for you to ruin it for other kids.”

Brennan’s eyes grew wide, then teary. “There’s really no Santa?” he said. “I was just pranking them! I was about to tell them I was only joking.” He looked about as sick as I felt.

I told my sister that Jake hadn’t ruined Santa for Brennan. I had. And I tried to give Brennan the speech I’d read about, where you say now it’s his turn to be his little sister’s Santa. As if there’s fun to be had watching your sister open gifts delivered by flying reindeer as you sit with your pile ordered from Amazon Prime by lame moms and dads.

And then there was the question of Liddy.

She was relentless. “Tell me,” she implored, over and over again. I’d start to say, “If you believe -” and she’d say, “Tell me the truth!”

So eventually I did. And she cried,

“But you asked me to tell you the truth,” I said.

“Well now you ruined it!” she answered, weeping.

We spent that Christmas at my mother’s an eight-hour drive away. I’d sent all gifts ahead of time and my mom and I stayed up late wrapping them and arranging them under her tree. In the morning, when Liddy opened a life-sized golden retriever that would require a seat of its own on the ride home, my husband asked, “Where did that come from?” with a perceptible note of distress.

“I have no idea,” I said, trying to shirk the blame.

Liddy overheard and it was all the encouragement she needed. “I know who it came from,” she said. She hugged what would become one of her all-time favorite Santa gifts and her eyes flashed in a challenge to me, Judy Blume and anyone else trying to dampen her Christmas spirit. “You might not believe. But I still do.”


Photo by Megan Dempsey

My Bunny Slippers

My Bunny Slippers

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

BUNNYSLIPPERSThere are days, I tell you, many, many days, when all I want to do is come home and put on my bunny slippers.

Now, if you were to ask my teenaged daughter, she’d tell you that they aren’t my bunny slippers at all. They’re hers, poached from under the Christmas tree one year we can’t quite remember, a year in which “her” ornament (yes, we do that thing where each member of the family gets an ornament to represent that year’s passion) was a NASA astronaut in full moon landing gear.  They’re hers, except that she never wears slippers.  I mean, maybe she would, but she never has hard days that must end in slipper heaven.  OK, she has hard days.  But bunny slippers just don’t do it for her.  Not that I’ve ever given her a chance to find out.

Because the bunny slippers—they’re mine.  And as a lawyer, I know that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

I’m a cliché, I think, because I’m that forty-something working mother of two who presses snooze instead of hitting the gym, eats lunch in front of her computer, and constantly rummages through the laundry room to find clean socks.  Sometimes, the socks are even my own.  Sometimes, small tween socks or giant husband socks will work.

But nothing does the job like bunny slippers.  After three or four years, one bunny has no tail.  The other bunny has a hole where his nose once sniffed.  Neither bunny is particularly white where the white parts should be or pink where the pink parts should be.

Yes, both bunnies are perfectly molded to my feet, padded in just the right spots when I scrunch up my toes.

They sit patiently on the coffee table, propped up while I type on the computer on the couch.  They walk out to the driveway to find the permission slip that got left on the floor of the backseat or the dog’s leash that got dumped in front of the garage.  They narrowly avoid the spitting spaghetti sauce that drops from the stove burner all the way to the floor.

They nuzzle.  They cuddle.  They hug.

Now, naturally, my bunny slippers (not my daughter’s, mine) come with a large helping of grief.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Well, you try opening the door to the UPS delivery man wearing a business suit and bunny slippers.  You dress up in jeans and bunny slippers to welcome in the mortgage broker who’s there to work on your refi.  You drive the kids to French horn practice in yoga pants, a day-old sweatshirt, and  . . .  bunny slippers.

You try being a mom to two teenagers who are embarrassed when you let your hair go au natural, for goodness sake.  Then tell me how much you hear about humiliation, and boys who will never look at them, and moms who should get a life.

And moms who should just put on some shoes, IMHO (in my humble opinion).  That’s teen speak for “as the whole world except my totally embarrassing mom knows.” And lose the bunny slippers.

So why the aggravation? Why make the traumatic memories for my teens?  Why take the daily ridicule?

Because the bunny slippers have oddly (OK, I know how weird this is going to sound) become a part of our daily life, our family, even.

Because if the kids get all worked up about my bunny slippers, the bunny slippers become the source of teenage angst, and the AP World History test sort of loses its power.

Because if my husband needs a reminder that I need some TLC, all I have to do is lift up one bunny-shod foot and look at him meaningfully.  (Yes, bunny slippers can be sexy.  Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)

Because when students and editors and deans and husbands and teens and dachshunds and goldfish have each wanted something from me today—something different, mind you, something that has sent me in seven different directions—the bunny slippers ask for nothing.  Nothing except that B1 belongs on the left foot, and B2 fits on the right.

Nothing except that I attach myself to them firmly and acknowledge the better-than-fabulous way they make me feel.

Speaking of feelings, and speaking of fabulous  . . .

Yesterday, while I worked on the couch and propped my bunny feet on the coffee table, right next to my third or fourth cup of the day, my husband and daughters hit the post-holiday sales at the mall.  I looked around the quiet house, tucked my toes in tight, and sighed with a mother’s delight.

Yep, just me and my bunny slippers.  The way it should be.

The door opened.  The teens came in shrieking.  The husband followed, hollering that I just wouldn’t believe their shopping success.

An Abercrombie shirt on clearance?  I asked.  A sale at the Pandora store?  Two for one day at Auntie Anne’s?

Nope.  Whatever it was was wrapped in tissue paper.

“Be careful!” the younger one shouted.  “Don’t let it fall!” the older one warned.

More giggles.  “Come on, Mom, unwrap it!”

I was pretty sure this was some kind of bad joke.  And I was going to be the laughingstock.

Sometimes, it’s just beyond awesome to be wrong.

Peeking out of the tissue was a pink spot.

I looked at the girls and started to smile.  “Is it . . .”

“Yes!” they shouted.   The big one fell over the little one to pull the tissue off.

There.  In my hand.  Made of glass.  White, with pink whiskers and, yes, two tiny pink noses.

This year, my ornament was my very own pair of bunny slippers.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is a freelance writer and law professor.  She writes for outlets like Redbook, AARP, Huffington Post, Slate, and the New York Times’ Motherlode.  She is the mother of two teen girls.

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What We Share

What We Share

By Kris Woll

holiday2Like many families, my family keeps several Christmas Eve traditions.  There is the array of treats, brought by each of us to share, with a few new recipes appearing annually amidst certain staples – Mom’s meatballs in a little crockpot, almond bark pretzels in a holiday tin.  There are the Christmas carols sung – off key, off tempo – first around the piano and then, after bundling up in hats and mittens and boots and coats, in the yards of kind neighbors, neighbors who actually open their doors in that frigid air to listen to us croon.  They always clap when we finish, and I understand why.

And there is one other, a tradition kept year after year, season after season, a staple of our holiday fest, something that lasts longer than anything else we share in the glow of that one holiday night …


You know the tradition, right?  The exchange of germs.  The sharing of bugs.  The passing of the virus.  There were at least three years in recent memory shut down early due to stomach flu, and one particularly uncomfortable yule featuring lice.  Other ailments – sore throats, sinus infections, standard-issue colds – have made an also made an appearance in Christmas’s past.

Such a tradition is unavoidable, really.  We are a collection of people living our ordinary, non-holiday lives in varied germ pools.  We are toddlers and teenagers and college kids and teachers and parents; some among us (I’m not naming names, but you know who you are) don’t even wear tights with our Christmas dress even though the night’s temperature starts with a minus sign.  We travel through airports and stop at grimy convenience stores on our way to that evening’s gathering, and then hug and sing and dish up some meatballs off the spoon that some young person, just a bit earlier, decided to lick.


Suffering through the season’s bug, whatever it might be, is never very merry.  For the inflicted, festivities come to a crashing halt as the first symptoms appear.  The music stops, the lights dim, and goodies are packed away; there is extra praying (O God, I hope I make it …) and some promises for reform (I will never eat another meatball…) followed by a whole lot of silent nighttime suffering behind closed doors.

(At least we are all cozy and warm in the new flannel PJ’s Mom and Dad gave us.  The whole family, young and old, sick and well, resting in matching plaids.)

And then, as the flu and the holiday passes, the story forms, the story that will be retold at the next Christmas gathering, after the spinach dip — new this year — and the meatballs, that old staple, are set out on the table and before we start singing indoors or out.  We laugh about plagues past.  It is our own sort of holiday cheer.

Which sort of makes me scratch my head when I think about it, because it seems that the closeness of my family – maybe of any family – probably has more to do with making it through the stuff that goes wrong — through the long nights, through whatever might come up — as it does with sharing the stuff that goes right.  A good thing to keep in mind during and after the holidays, and through most of the year, I guess.

Of course, I could also be scratching my head because I remember that year with the lice.  No more sharing Santa hats at our family festivities!  Now we all bring our own.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Read more by Kris at kriswollwriting.wordpress.com.

Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

Holiday Traditions and the Escape Clause

IMG_0060It’s pretty. It’s so pretty, the snow and the pink sunsets that begin as peachy blushes and then go full on rose. It’s lovely, the thought of time and hanging out and what, puzzles or board games or movies? It’s … vacation.

And I am, as is often the case, stressed about who’s coming and preparations and I don’t feel relaxed or cozy. I don’t feel “in the moment” other than the moment that is hand-gripped-tight-to-my-to-do list. I’ve added people and I want to make the stockings right and I put together calendars for the grandparents and godparents and it’s a good day of work to find and choose and order those photos and, and, and. The preparations rarely get simpler.

I wonder if I’m alone in this. There’s a way that I imagined more “quality time” and instead I feel often I plow through time (it’s dense; it’s like snow—to be cleared often not walked through when the walk through part is the most fun). I feel it maybe most around these holidays (and in summer). It might be a freelance thing (I was away three days this summer—and had an interview to do and write up during that brief window). It might be something else, like my comfort in routine. Busy as I am—I get the gifts, make the meals, entertain the people, go to the parties and performances and before that bring the teachers gifts and go to those performances and such, I feel adrift. Plus, I’m tired. All that’s required to have us “off” and in “holiday mode” is certainly not relaxing.

Tradition seems to require gifts. It requires big meals and big gatherings. My dream for one of these December breaks is not to uphold tradition, but to go to Florida. All of us could go, my peeps, and just … hang out. Or, as I said to my dear hubby during our long, late night drive to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, maybe one year he and I could each could take turns: he’d do a holiday and I’d do another holiday and I’d take one off from family duty (picture me in my house on Thanksgiving furiously throwing things away; picture me walking on a beach on Christmas morning; I think it looks nice).

This isn’t and is about love, my wish to take a break. I love this family. I love them more than my desire to upend tradition, I guess. They love the traditions we’ve accumulated (the eleven year-old: “Even if Grandma’s not coming this year, can we have bacon?”). Traditions are their own routines; they are their own memory nuggets and they are powerful lures. I play the same music every year on Christmas Eve, a compilation of local artists doing holiday-inspired songs that went out of print for years (and just got reissued). I find the stockings. I really enjoy the kids’ excitement and the house full of people and food and all that wrapping paper. I love that we can make our house a place that is warm and happy and loud and welcoming. I guess I choose tradition after all. Still, Florida… There’s circularity to my escape dream that does not lead me to escape. Like one of those chutes you get to during the Chutes and Ladders game, the long one during a round you inevitably get it five times, I do end up with my cheery-as-I-can-muster face by Christmas.

Anyway, this is now, the time when there are smalls and larges and everyone lives here. It’s not forever. We lost my father-in-law, the original Christmas lover, and the Christmases directly after he died were hard and sad (so was the one before he died). I still see most vividly his rapt face and gleaming eyes, his robe wrapped round him, ready to open presents. His love for the holiday made me love it. And the kids love it the way they love it and so I choose to tolerate it and try to love it, too. I hope that one day, if they don’t want to hang onto traditions, I’ll let them go. Because someone someday is bound to lobby that we all find a beach over the winter holidays, right?

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Anchors Aweigh

Anchors Aweigh

Kristina Wright

Next in our What is Family? blog series. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

Anchors AweighAfter a whirlwind courtship and less than three weeks spent together, I married a Navy man eight short months after I met him. In twenty-three years, we have been apart for every major holiday at least once. We have missed so many wedding anniversaries that it was a novelty to spend our anniversary together. (In fact, our wedding had to be rescheduled three times to accommodate his ship’s schedule.) But we were lucky. For nineteen years, we only missed one Christmas—our second Christmas together, when he was deployed through mid-January. That year we celebrated Christmas on January 17 when he returned, because that’s what military families do—celebrate holidays when you can, as best you can.

For nineteen years, it was just the two of us. The oddball childless military couple, a team of two. I was alone for much of that time thanks to deployments and training and duty days. I’ve always been a loner, but it takes a strong personality to embrace it, year after year, in the unpredictable way of military life. The old saying that a ship’s schedule is written in liquid Jell-O is not far from the truth—I learned to use pencil in my date book. I learned to have a Plan B for anything I wanted to do. I learned that tickets bought six months in advance didn’t mean we would be going together if his schedule happened to change at the last minute.

For nineteen years, I got used to the unpredictable rhythm and flow of Navy life. I enjoyed short duty, I made the most of sea duty, I cobbled together a life of my own, friendships that sustained me, work that fulfilled me and nurtured a love for the man of my dreams across thousands of miles and through thousands of letters and emails and phone calls. And then … we had a baby. At the end of our second decade of marriage, we had our first son. Suddenly, holidays and special events took on new meaning, made all the more bittersweet when my husband was in the middle of an eight-month deployment when the baby was due. He came home, I ended up with a Cesarean section and, eighteen days later, I was alone again. Alone with a baby. And it was baby’s first Christmas.

That year, my first child’s first Christmas was celebrated on December 21, complete with a big meal for two and a sleepy baby cradled in my arms at the dinner table. The next day, my husband packed up the Christmas decorations to spare me all the extra work (I’d hauled the tree out of the attic myself, at nine months pregnant), and the day after that, he packed up his travel bag and caught a plane back to Dubai for another five months. The pictures of baby’s first Christmas reflect a not-quite-three-week old infant and two very tired parents. I suppose the day will come when I might actually forget my husband wasn’t there on the actual day, or that New Year’s. Or even my first Mother’s Day.

Missing holidays as a couple was sad for me when we first married, but the birth of children gave those special events a different kind of spin. There is only one first Christmas, one first Mother’s Day. After twenty-three years of marriage, we are forty-something year old parents of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, and suddenly I can’t bear the thought of him being gone for another holiday. It’s not that I’m less independent than I was before or that I place some greater significance on the holidays than I did before kids. But these early years of childhood are so fleeting, every endearing (or infuriating) moment seems to be a one-of-a-kind experience, and I loathe the idea of my husband missing a holiday or birthday or special event.

After two decades alone together, our family grew from two to four. The house is louder and more crowded; my time is no longer my own even when my husband is gone. And my husband, father of two sons who sings, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” as a bedtime song and likely has seawater in his veins, is now my partner in parenthood who I have to share more often than I would like, with both the Navy and our children. We are a military family, to be sure, but we are a very non-traditional military family, middle-aged parents and rambunctious little boys. My husband’s naval career will be wrapping up in the next couple of years and my hope is that we will be middle-aged stay at home parents together, with a nearly thirty year military pension and my writing income and income from whatever other part-time jobs we get to sustain us. I keep thinking what a unique and lucky experience that would be—how many couples get to stay home with their children full-time, never missing an experience or holiday or event?

The Navy has been good to us and our boys will grow up hearing about their father’s many sea adventures and the five months I took care of an infant by myself, despite never having changed a diaper, and still found time to write. But after the Navy … well, that will be a different kind of adventure all together.

Kristina Wright (kristinawright.com) is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press. 

Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon

The “S” Word

The “S” Word

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

For years I dreaded the big talk about the “S” word.

Not sex, no siree. Santa. I feared the awful consequences of confessing to my children that I had fabricated a gigantic lie, assisted by almost every other adult in the world, and fed it to them repeatedly over their most impressionable years.

It all started innocently enough. I grew up in a Christmas-loving family. My father is a minister, so the holiday always began with the four Sundays in Advent and gathered momentum through that dark first month of winter until it reached the climax of a candlelit service on Christmas Eve, at the end of which we’d sing “Joy to the World” and push open the double wooden church doors to the magical night. It was always one of my favorite moments of the year.

Truthfully, my father is also a sucker for Christmas in all its mercantile excess. He begins playing Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums on Thanksgiving Day, and he actually enjoys going to the mall and being bandied about in a crowd of frantic shoppers. Every year when we were kids, we decorated an eight-foot tree full of chatchkas. My mother wove red and green string around the newel post and through the spindles of the stairway banister. She then hung the more than 100 cards we had received as if they were colorful clothes on a line. On Christmas morning, my father made my younger brothers and me wait interminably at the top of those stairs while he set up his movie lights for the same shot, year after year, of us running down in our pajamas to see what Santa had brought. We never spent a lot of money on Christmas, but it was undoubtedly the biggest celebration of the year. So it was only logical that I would want the same for my own children.

My daughters were born in Denver, far from my East Coast hometown. Our ranch house didn’t have a grand staircase to run down, and we didn’t have a bay window for an eight-foot tree. We didn’t even have a fireplace, but Santa found us just the same. It was quite a few years before it occurred to me that I might have Christmased myself into a tight corner. As my daughter Ellie turned seven, I thought of the summer day when, at that same age, I’d visited my father in his study and he’d taken me on his lap and told me the truth—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all at once. I’d cried. Even as an adult, I’d never understood why he’d felt compelled to tell me at so young an age. Until I had a seven-year-old of my own.

Seven-year-olds get jokes. They can tell you obscure facts, like the difference between magma and lava that maybe you knew when you were seven but sure as heck don’t remember now. They understand injustice and feel compassion, though they don’t always exercise it with their siblings. They are fully developed people with their own opinions and their own personalities who just need a lot more life experience in order to successfully navigate the world. To dupe such a person with a story no self-respecting thinker would believe had begun to seem downright deceitful. But I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Not when Ellie was seven. Instead, I did what many mothers of my generation do in a time of crisis: research.

I began an informal survey into how people had found out the truth about Santa Claus and whether it had permanently scarred them. I asked the college freshmen whom I teach. Some of them smiled and shrugged. One girl said she was fourteen before she found out. One got a faraway look and said, “Yeah. That was pretty shocking.” I thought I might be sick.

Then my childhood friend Dan came to visit. He has three kids, and seven years more parenting experience than I have. So, I asked him, how did breaking the news about Santa Claus go in his house? “We never really started the Santa thing,” he said. “The presents always came from us.” If only I’d had such foresight.

I persisted and asked how he’d found out about Santa Claus. He and his younger brother, when they were six and eight, wondered how Santa Claus fit through the pipe of their wood stove. Budding scientists, they devised a test. They set a trip wire inside the stove. But Dan is also a philosopher, always considering the cosmic consequences of human action, so he told his mother. She, of course, tripped the wire. And, for extra effect, left a single black boot stuck in the stove. This was her fatal error, for Dan’s brother recognized the boot from their basement. As he told me this story, Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I think he was pretty angry with Mom for a while after that,” he said.

Concurrent with my anecdotal research, I got online and read up on the real Santa Claus. I learned that he was Saint Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He is remembered for his many acts of generosity and kindness, particularly toward children, but the story that seems to have begun the Santa Claus myth is about a poor family with three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry for them. As each daughter came of age, Nicholas put enough gold for her dowry into a sack and secretly tossed it through her window at night, securing her future. I thought about how to tell this story to Ellie and bought two beautifully illustrated books to help me. I thought about telling her that Santa Claus lives on in all our hearts, yada, yada, except I knew that eight-year-olds—because by now she was eight—have a healthy skepticism of sentimental metaphors.

That Christmas, Ellie was missing both her front teeth. Aside from the obvious song sung that season, I was terrified of the domino effect. If she found out about the Tooth Fairy, well, it was all over with. I thought she was on to us when she decided not to leave one of her teeth for pickup. But on Christmas Eve, she was heartbreakingly worried about getting to bed on time so as not to discourage jolly old Saint Nick from showing up.

It was easy to ignore the whole thing through the rest of the winter, and into the spring and summer. In the fall, Ellie turned nine, and then it was Christmas again. Surely she must have heard about Santa at school by now. I resolved to tell her the truth if she asked. One morning I asked her younger sister Meggie if she was going to be brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap this year, then offhandedly said to Ellie, “Do you still care about visiting Santa?” My hopes that she would casually shrug her shoulders in that too-cool preteen way were dashed when she smiled shyly and ducked her head and said, “Yeah.” And she did. She sat right up there on his lap with the biggest darned smile full of adult teeth.

I continued conducting my totally unscientific survey while my beautifully illustrated books about Santa Claus moldered in the attic. My cousin Linda, at the age of 37, reported she still believed in Santa. “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” she asked. “Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” She had recently become a mother herself and had not yet had the illusion-dashing experience of actually placing the gifts from Santa Claus under the tree herself, so I made a mental note to check back later and see how her faith was holding up.

Then, the following spring, Meggie lost her first tooth, and I had a moment of brilliance. We all helped her tuck the tooth under her pillow. When she was asleep, I crept into Ellie’s room and whispered conspiratorially, “You know the Tooth Fairy is pretend, right?” It was dark, and I couldn’t see whether this was news or not. “Come on,” I said. “You can be the Tooth Fairy tonight.” Together we sneaked into Meggie’s room, and Ellie, frightened and proud, slid the tooth out and the money in. Now, I thought, there’s a long summer for this information to stew. If there’s no Tooth Fairy, then there’s no . . .

Towards the end of the summer, we had the beginning of the other “S” talk. Some of the fifth-grade girls were starting to look pretty womanly, and I figured they were going to be shown some thirty-year-old movie with cartoon birds and bees flying around in it. This conversation went fine, but on Saint Nicholas, we hadn’t made much progress.

Ellie turned ten, and Christmas approached again. I was determined to tell her this time, but my calm friend Maureen, mother of four, talked me down. “They’ll figure it out themselves,” she assured me. (She had found out by snooping in the attic as a kid.) I trust Maureen’s judgment, so I let the holiday pass. Again.

What finally did it was the baby stoplight. Ellie and I were spring cleaning. It was the kind of cleaning where you pull out every dusty little scrap of construction paper and abandoned birthday party favor from under the bed and behind the bookcases. On Ellie’s closet floor, I found the baby stoplight.

The December Ellie was three, when we still lived in Denver and hadn’t yet returned East, she told us all she wanted for Christmas was a baby stoplight. At first we thought this was novel and cute, but over the course of several weeks, her answer to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” never varied. All she really wanted was a baby stoplight. We asked every probing question imaginable to figure out what she had in mind. Was it for her baby dolls, or a real baby? Or was it just a “little” stoplight? Was there one at daycare? Ellie responded with unconcerned silence. Santa would know what she meant.

I was eight months pregnant and in no shape to be taking on secret craft projects on the guest room floor, but finally I resigned myself to the situation and got to work. I poked a dowel up the center of a cylindrical oatmeal container and housed it in a slightly larger box with three holes cut in it. After studying local traffic lights, I even fashioned Dixie cups into little sun shades to glue over the holes in my box. I painted the whole thing black, and on the oatmeal canister, I glued circles in red, yellow, and green at different points so Ellie could turn the dowel to make any one of the colors appear in the correct window. On Christmas morning, there it was, the homemade baby stoplight under the Christmas tree.

“Is that what you meant?” we asked. She nodded her head and turned the dowel knob. Damn, that Santa Claus sure was smart.

Now the baby stoplight had been excavated from the darkest corner of Ellie’s closet. She was ten years old, and I’m not even sure she still knew what it was, but it had made the cross-country journey and survived all this time, though quite a bit worse for the wear. I was moved by the sight of it. I sat on the rug and turned the wobbly dowel.

“I want to tell you the story about this,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. But it might bum you out.” I was in it now. Then I whispered, “Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”

She smiled at me. “I know.”

The kids at school had said stuff, of course. And then there was the website from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (www.NoradSanta.org, for those still mired in the Santa predicament) that tracks Santa’s journey around the world every Christmas Eve. As Ellie pointed out, it’s computer animated.

No need to bring out the books, the “Santa was once a real person” stories. She had grown into the knowledge of the myth herself. I wondered whether later she would have a private moment of sad surprise, but if she did, she didn’t show it. She’d already stepped over the threshold into a world in which she knew a thing or two about politics, race, religion, history, and human cruelties and frailties. I was proud of my growing-up kid, who had sat up late on election night to watch the returns and color in a map, just as I had with my dad in 1976. I was proud of the research she’d been doing on pollution and her insistence that our family be more conscious of its environmental impact. I was proud of the conversations she’d had with friends about differences and getting along and of the questions she was asking the world. She knew it was time to leave pretend Santa behind where he belongs, in the world of “little kids.”

But then I got to thinking about something else that had happened during that baby stoplight Christmas in Denver. And I realized that for the past four years I’d been so worried about the falsehood that I’d lost touch with the truth.

Eight months pregnant with Meggie that Christmas, I’d felt a brand new kinship with Mary of Nazareth, who rode pregnant on the back of a donkey across the desert to Bethlehem, while I wasn’t even willing to get on an airplane. I’d sat in church on Christmas Eve singing those deeply familiar carols as my baby rolled inside me. (That line in “Silent Night”? About “how silently the wondrous gift is given”? A guy wrote that.) The memory from that Christmas which stood out most was of the little party that Ellie’s daycare provider threw. All the children and their parents gathered in her finished basement, and then Santa Claus came ho-ho-ing down the stairs. Oh, the astonished looks on the kids’ faces! In his big sack (usually a black garbage bag) he had something special for each of them. On his way out the door that year, Santa saw me standing there—I was hard to miss—and he reached out his white-gloved hand and touched my giant belly. “Good luck, Mama, with your baby,” he said. In that moment all my adult information fell away, and I felt an incredible surge of happiness as I basked in the fact: Santa Claus had blessed my baby.

Chalk it up to hormones or some powerful psychological hangover from childhood, but for me, that moment was enchanted, as real as the moment when, at five years old, I ran into the living room in the glare of my father’s movie lights to see the baby doll I’d dreamed of waiting under the tree. This is a truth I cannot explain to Ellie, or even to myself. It speaks to the power of storytelling and shared secrets and our ability to inhabit places beyond the purported limits of our world. Being a kid is like that, and who better than Santa to help us remember, even as adults, how to get there? Maybe my cousin Linda, the believer, was on to something. Maybe once in a while, if we let him, Saint Nicholas can still toss a gift through our grownup windows.

About the Author: Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s debut novel, A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was named one of the best fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews. The recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Kathy at http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.


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