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.

 

With the Weatherman’s Cooperation

Ah, people in my neighborhood were all smiles when I took my dog India out for a walk this past Saturday.

The calendar told us we were into December, but the thermometer told a different story. The mercury was approaching sixty and the wind was manageable.

Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the good weather day to put up Christmas decorations on the exteriors of their houses.

Can’t expect it will be so nice in January when you want to take everything down, I’d joke as I walked past someone trying to untangle strings of lights or wrestle with oversized red, all-weather bows they were hoping to place against a cupola or attic window.

Here, in the Midwest, where we’re accustomed to the changeability and dynamic nature of the weather, we’d refer to this kind of day as one when the weatherman cooperated.  

Not that the TV or online messenger of atmospheric phenomena has much control in the matter, this kind of day is welcomed with special delight, a kind of gratitude, which is so palpable we want to have an actual person to thank.

It’s always great to enjoy sunshine or be able to make a Goldilocks-like pronouncement that the temperature, being not too hot and not too cold, is JUST RIGHT. Still, it feels like an act of grace when the outside conditions support what we have on the agenda for the day.

During June, brides, ready for their big walk down a garden path, pray for no rain. During the summer, people planning outdoor events, from family reunions to music festivals — even baseball teams – have to make contingency plans for rain-outs.

During the winter, we don’t plan so many outdoor events, and we rarely have to make contingency plans. But, the temperature or wind might create a rationale to postpone…and postpone…and postpone…something like decorating our houses for the holidays.

We might postpone things until we have NO CHOICE. Maybe we have to get something done by a certain date and we can’t just wait for the perfect conditions.

Seeing my neighbors out with their ladders and lights and fake icicles and reindeer kits on a sixty-degree day in December is a wonderful reminder to take advantage of any opportunity when it presents itself.

I loved looking at the houses on Eastwood. I saw fake snowflakes hanging from the awning of a front porch trim, over-sized white boxes tied up with colorful ribbons on another lawn, and a blow-up smiling Santa under brightly colored spheres, like antique ornaments, near the end of the block. Ho ho ho.

These little signs of the season would probably find their places before the holiday itself, but, because the weatherman cooperated, the process was easier for many.

Taking advantage of opportunities when they come up and appreciating something BECAUSE it has been made easier for you, 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.

Bending the Rules

One of my favorite fall traditions is an excursion to Pilsen to see the Day of the Dead exhibit (Dia de los Muertos) at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Lives are grieved for and remembered in special ways through the loving assembly of objects. I am always moved.

This year’s excursion was even more special because a friend was visiting from St. Paul and she was going to experience this unusual collection for the first time.

I wanted our day in Pilsen to be special. Named after the area in Czechoslovakia famous for Pilsner style beer, it’s been the first neighborhood of many immigrant groups as they settled in Chicago. Decades ago, it was home to Eastern Europeans. For quite a few years, Mexicans have been the dominant ethnic group.

Colorful murals adorn the sides of brick houses and corner stores. En route to gentrification, you can spot Starbucks stores next to taquerias. Parking pay boxes have to be fed along 18th Street and other major boulevards.

I did a little research before my friend’s visit. After wandering through the museum, I wanted to take her, and two other friends, to an authentic Mexican bakery for a slice of tres leches cake.

I went online and identified what seemed to be an awesome family run bakery. It was my intention to enjoy tea and split a couple pastries there.

The wonderful aromas of fresh bread, cinnamon, and anise curled up our nostrils as soon as we walked into Panaderia El Acambara. Sweet breads and coffee cakes occupied displays in the center of the store. Racks upon racks upon racks of buttery cookies and flaky empanadas filled the side walls.

I thought they also had tables for patrons to enjoy tea or coffee, but it was only a store.

I studied the selection on the wall. I decided to get a couple dulce de leche empanadas, crescent shaped mini pies filled with a sort of caramel crumble. To bring home, I told myself.

I also asked if there was a place nearby for coffee and tea.

Si. Si… I was directed to a hipster coffee shop that was just down the street, which was good because I had already popped for an hour of parking.

We walked in to find a couple of twenty somethings who had probably been there most of the day.   A thin, pale, aproned barista, waited for our order from behind the counter. He looked at us impatiently as serving us was delaying his scheduled trip to the doorstep for a smoke.

I had every intention of bringing my small white paper bag containing the two dulce de leche empanadas from Panaderia el Alcambaro home with me for a late night snack, but, I looked at the selection of bakeries in the case and had second thoughts.

There were a couple over-sized cookies and four croissants that seemed to predate the last appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. Not before my lifetime, but definitely too old to be healthy or enjoyable.

As I ordered herbal tea, I asked the barista if we could eat the pastries I just bought.

We don’t allow food from outside, he said matter-of-factly. I nodded and we sat down for tea and banter.

Pretty soon, knowing that dinner was several hours away and something scrumptious inside my little paper bag was begging to be shared, the four of us started to break off pieces of the sweet little pies and slipped them into our mouths. As chunks of the treat melted, we tried to keep silent, but our eyes shouted with delight.

Our indulgence was not lost on the barista. We couldn’t help ourselves… He saw — but he said nothing.

At first, we broke off pieces of the pastries while they were still in the white paper bag. Then we got bolder, laying the crescents on napkins in the middle of the table and continuing to break off bits leaving a puddle of crumbs.

Ah, each bite was the perfect blend of sweetness and butter.

The thought came up that it made no sense for him to enforce house rules more strictly as the four of us outnumbered the other customers and we all spent money on tea, but someone in his position might choose to be more hard-nosed about it.

My foursome enjoyed our visit to the café, even though we were uneasy, at first, about being called out. People’s actions often defy good sense.

Being under the authority of someone who is willing to bend the rules is no small thing.