Revenge of the Eccentric Aunt

I finally got my Christmas tree disassembled and boxed; ornaments wrapped in excess tissue paper and nestled safely in their festively decorated tin. My cough, which has been with me for almost three weeks, is, at long last, on its way out.

I’m resuming my normal working life, scheduling car maintenance appointments and putting my 2018 resolutions in writing. Yes, I’ve been a bit reflective.

I hosted a Christmas Eve family gathering at my place. My older sister doesn’t bother with a tree, and my niece, visiting with her husband from South Carolina, welcomed the thought of making my place a first stop for dinner and a gift exchange before heading off for cookies and a visit from Santa with the Irish Catholic side of her family.

I was eager to turn the tables on her, on her experiences of gift exchanges when she was a child. What a haul she would make!

Before her sister Emma showed up (almost 11 years after her arrival), Liz was the only child in our family. Her mother, being raised in a Jewish home, romanticized about the Christmas holiday. She loved to decorate a tree and had a slew of favorite Silver Palate cookbook cookie recipes.

My sister would throw her Gidget Goes Goyish party the Saturday before Christmas, complete with heavily spiked mulled wine, and she hosted a casual Christmas Eve dinner and gift-exchange before heading off to husband’s Uncle Leo’s house for a major gathering of the clan.

My mother would wrap Liz’s presents in Hanukkah blue wrapping paper, and my eldest sister Barb might include a song about lighting a menorah when she performed her traditional short set at the family piano, but make no mistake, the highlight of the evening was Christmas presents.

For a few years, it was fun to watch Liz tear into the colorful wrapping paper then it got to be a bit of a drag for me. Witnessing her natural childhood exuberance morph into almost a sense of entitlement gnawed at me. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t like the holiday focus on material things or because I never felt like the center of attention in my family and was simply jealous, but I didn’t enjoy the ritual.

So, I started a Christmas tradition of messing with Liz’s Christmas present experience.   When she was nine or so, I brought over a large wrapped box and put it under the tree. When it came time to unwrap her presents, she was eager to start on the mystery box.

After, taking off the bow carefully, and ripping off the paper less carefully, upon opening the box, she discovered a smaller wrapped box inside. Like Russian Matryoshka (nesting) dolls, that box contained another wrapped box, and that box another wrapped box, an on and on. I seem to recall she had to unwrap nine boxes (one for each year of age) before she actually got to a small gift of hair barrettes.

She rolled her eyes at me. A lot of hype for very little pay-off. She was not a happy camper.

The next year, I brought 10 small boxes, each wrapped individually, but the presents they contained were very unglamorous. I brought things like socks, a can of soup, and bar of soap. My gesture was a metaphorical way to say Be careful what you ask for…. She got lots of presents…but none were very impressive.

The next year, I bought her some sort of educational software package. Under the tree, I placed sealed clues on where she could find it. (I didn’t put a box under the tree.) She didn’t like this either.

She didn’t want to play a game to get her Christmas booty. She actually got bored and gave up looking until one of the boys from next door came over and thought the game was fun and helped Liz solve the mystery of her present’s location (hidden in the basement dryer).

Now that I was hosting Christmas Eve, I had the chance to turn the tables on her. I bought presents for myself and saved small gifts from friends, which I placed under my tree, so I could open lots of gifts in the company of my family.

It took longer for me to unwrap my gifts than it took anyone else.

Liz poured herself another glass of wine and smiled. Watching me in my child-like. flawed adult glee, she remarked…

Remember when you gave me a box within a box within a box? I was really mad at you……That was pretty funny.

Being forgiven by the adult version of the child who swore she would never forgive you is no small thing.


Fashionably (and Seasonably) Ugly

One day during the week, I took a break from work to make some tea. I mindlessly turned on the TV.

I saw Kelly and Ryan or some other pair of daytime talk show hosts depart from their attractive and well-put together looks to greet studio and TV land audiences wearing bulky, sparkly and tassel adorned sweaters featuring Santas and reindeer and decked out conifers.

Ahhhh. Ugly Christmas Sweaters.

When did this fashion become so chic?

I remember Colin Firth, in the first Bridget Jones movie, adorably awkward, wearing a ridiculous hand-knit pullover gifted to him by his mum. I don’t know if this was the start of the trend, but the situation really spoke to so many people.

What do you do with a gift of clothing that is ugly in the extreme yet given with so much love?

Do you wear it publicly and risk humiliation, or do you say thank you and hide the garment in a rarely opened drawer, taking it out only when needing to show the person who gave it to you your affection or when you want to re-gift the item?

The possibility that friends and neighbors would mistake you for having such bad taste is horrifying, right?

But, it’s natural to want to please someone you love, the person who chose the woven collection of yarn, sewn-on sequins and sewn-in sentiment.

And then, everyone started laughing about the phenomena. Misery loves company. It was a shared experience. Most of us received presents of clothes we couldn’t bear wearing, or would not wear anywhere we would see people we knew….and then, because it was a shared experience, it became fashionable.

The uglier the better.

We got a collective chuckle when we saw Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Roseanne Barr wore some doozies of Seasonal Ugly cardigans during the nine seasons of her sitcom.

When Ugly Christmas Sweater parties became the rage, those of us who suffered through years of receiving more tasteful gifts, had to excavate bins or shuffle through hangers at Good Will in order to find something suitably ugly — that fit.

As Ron Popeil, the pitch meister of gadgets would tease…..But wait. There’s more….

Now, ugly Christmas sweaters seem to be high fashion.

Nordstom’s offers a whole category of them. (Hopefully, they don’t waste good cashmere.) Amazon and specialty online merchants, like Tipsy Elves, offer extensive collections.

They might feature simple two-tone graphics depicting anything but subtle images, like reindeer fornicating, or they might picture St. Nick sharing a brew with Jesus, or they’ll announce something suitable for a soon to be banned sexist office party like Jingle My Bells

I think about the supposed origin of Christmas gifts. When the three wise men followed a star to a manger, to welcome and worship a prophesied infant king, bringing gold and incense and myrrh, their mission was very serious.

But LAUGHTER is holy, too.

Giving and receiving, wearing UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATERS remind us of our shared humanity, of our imperfections, of our self-consciousness, of our playfulness, of our love.

Wearable, washable laughter is no small thing.








Breast Fest

The hostess’s son referred to the event as BREAST FEST.

I don’t think the occasion is destined to become the Lollapalooza of intimate apparel parties, but the inaugural clothes swap and bra-fitting might become a yearly get together.

A few weeks ago, my friend Nicki confided that she wanted to clean out her closet. Actually, she said she wanted to get rid of wearables (scarves and jewelry counted, too) that she recognized no longer fit or items she was tired of. She wanted to see if any friends wanted these items before they made it to a donation bag.

She thought other friends might also have skirts or shawls that would fall into this category, things they’d like to gift to friends – and she knew a woman who was a certified bra-fitter (I don’t think this credential is a four-year degree) that she felt could be an added attraction.

She announced Saturday’s clothes swap and bra-fitting open house a few week’s ago. It was dedicated to finding treasures before someone else sent them to the trash and set up shop in her den.

Three metal, caster enabled racks, suitable for the back room at Macy’s, filled her den. The dining table where we’ve sloshed down bowls of chili while watching basketball or the Academy Awards on her projection screen TV served as a display area for a wide range of jewelry; some baubles still in the original, fancy boxes.

When I arrived (about 2:00), the other Nicki was modeling a thrift store find, a black evening dress, which looked like a million bucks on her. She decided to try it on for us after she had her fitting session with Joy in one of the upstairs bedrooms (a great name for a certified bra-fitter, missioned with making middle-aged women feel buoyant about their bodies).

I started looking through the racks, not expecting to find anything. I didn’t anticipate seeing anything in my size or my style….but I was surprised.

Between visiting with the other ladies, consuming plastic tumblers of punch, and waiting for my turn with Joy, I tried on several items. We all were well-occupied with the assortment, and tried things whenever the urge came over us. No one displayed false modesty.

I ended up filling a large Nordstrom’s shopping bag with a hand-made shirt and jacket, a fitted long-sleeve Danskin knock-off, a cotton summer top, a black linen dress (with pearls, I will feel so divinely preppie in it this spring), and a rust colored raw silk skirt.

Everything was FREE, which is always good.

It felt like a different shopping experience, too. I’m not used to going to the mall with an entourage. It was affirming to hear:

That fits you well or That’s a great color for you.

Even when people offered opinions that something someone was trying on didn’t work, there was no tone of being BRUTALLY HONEST in their voice. Everything said came out NICE HONEST.

When it was my turn to go see Joy, I was amazed by the huge selection in her box o’bras. This wasn’t like a F_ckerware or sexy lingerie party. It wasn’t about trying to cop an unnatural look of seductress. It was about finding a foundation that fits right and feels right, and makes your clothes look better.

I was a little relieved that the size I would look for at a department store sale was not far off from what Joy recommended. Her small suggestions on cup size, wear and how best to put one on made a big difference though.

I thought about unpleasant experiences buying bras or swimsuits when I was younger. Every teenage girl has probably encountered an aggressive sales clerk. Every girl remembers feeling mortified then resigned to being uncomfortable over this specific type of shopping they had to do regularly.

Bonding over finding a perfectly fitting bra was strange and unexpected. Everyone at BREAST FEST was a workingwoman past child-rearing age. Everyone wanted to look good but wanted to feel like herself.

We were tired of wanting to look like a Victoria Secret model. We bonded over the shared experience of our culture establishing an impossible image of what we SHOULD LOOK LIKE.

We were all willing to pay a little extra for feeling something really suited us as individuals.

Bonding with other women over our changing bodies and wanting to feel beautiful in the current shape we’re in is no small thing.

Shelter From the Storm

I have been making progress on rehabbing my arm and hand although recovery has been going slower than I hoped. I dislocated my right shoulder over six weeks ago.

I can now open flip top cans and turn handles on most water faucets. I can use my right hand well enough to log into my work computer (simultaneously pressing CONTROL-ALT-DELETE with one hand is pretty much impossible).

I still can’t change my bed linens myself, drive, or use cutlery.

Most improvements have happened after I started doing occupational and physical therapy. I decided to go twice a week for a while.

I walk about 1 mile to a nearby Athletico where Nancy B. sees me. Sometimes, the exercises I do make me feel like I’m in kindergarten (I will pound Silly Putty or attempt to hold a fistful of rice or marbles to retrain my grip). 

One day last week, shortly after I began to walk home after an appointment, it started raining. I was several blocks from the Athletico already but not even halfway home. At first, I thought it was just a summer rain and I could splash through it. Then I realized it would be a significant downpour.

I gazed down the street where I was walking and tried to identify trees or roofs overhanging porches, spots where I could stand for a few minutes and not feel the bullets of rain which were now increasing in size and intensity.

I saw a brown brick three-story building where the main doorway was nestled between two columns of apartments stacked on each side. It had only a small overhang, but it was out of the wind.

As the rain began to come down harder, I ran there, stepping up one short step and plastered my body as close to the door as possible.

I don’t know what compelled me to try, but I put my left hand around the knob and turned it. To my surprise, it wasn’t locked.

Conscious that I was intruding, but amazed at my good fortune, I stepped into the small square of hallway and got out of the rain.

I noticed discarded flyers for local pizza joints on the black and white tiled floor and looked at  the broken brass colored mailboxes on one wall. I think I smelled reefer coming from somewhere in the building. Definitely not an upscale residence.

I stared out the glass windows of the wooden door and watched the street and sidewalk quickly fill up with water. OMG, was I lucky!

I thought about Hurricane Harvey and the rain that had been falling on Houston without stop for days, with the expectation that more rainfall and flooding was still to come.

While trying to be extra quiet so as not to call attention to my presence, I almost cried. I thought about Texas flood victims and, since I was walking home from physical therapy, I thought about my injury.

I considered my good fortune, to find this dry spot for waiting the storm out, and I marveled at my own mind; how I was able to move between focused-thinking to a more wide-screen view of things, between reacting and planning.

When I fell in my kitchen six weeks ago, the first thing I did when I stood up was turn off the stove (which I was running to when I tripped). Then I reached for my cell phone and thought about who I could call. Which friends could drive me to the ER? Days and weeks later, I had to deal with my situation as long-term. This required a different way of thinking.

The day after my accident, I made arrangements for a neighbor to take care of my dog for a week. I created a small pool of friends who could drive me for treatments or to the store. I asked for help from people who could take out my garbage or help me shower. A few weeks later, I did research and made arrangements for physical therapy.

I know that my personal rehabbing will take a long time and understand that there’s no comparison to the loss and suffering experienced by flood refugees. Still, as I hear news reports on Harvey victims and as Floridians brace for Irma, I hope residents can take some comfort from the thoughts that filled my mind as I stared out the window of the mystery apartment building hallway I found myself in. I was reminded to:

  • Trust God; my subconscious and my intuition. I don’t know why I identified this building and turned the doorknob, but following these impulses kept me dry.
  • Feel connected and think of others. It’s easy to feel challenges and suffering are things that must be faced alone, but reaching out to others, with my needs or with my ability to help, made a difficult event a valuable part of my human experience.
  • Be patient. Be grateful for my good mind and its ability to react to what’s needed in the moment and to engage in long-term planning.

Being able to both navigate a long road to recovery and find immediate shelter from a storm is no small thing.