Because we want Christmas again after two years of halfhearted attempts at gaiety. Because we are a little goofy. Because we always feel better when we are working together (although sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this). Those are just some of the reasons we decided to buy fresh pine garland and drape it on our front porch railing.
Chris is a methodical worker. When a job must be done, he sets about clearing his workspace, setting out the tools and other items he needs, and planning how best to accomplish the job. Mary is fond of the willy-nilly system, which involves planning . . . no, wait, first we’ve got to get all the lights out and plug them in . . . no, wait, we really should measure the railing . . . no, we don’t need to measure, because look at all that garland, we’ve got enough to drape it twice, so we should . . . which drives Chris a little nuts, but he copes as best he can.
We chose to use two sets of lights: one blue and one white. (The colored set had too much hot pink for Mary’s Christmas sensibilities and the white was too tasteful for the Hubbell’s casual ambiance.) That settled, we twisted the two sets together . . . outside . . . in 17 degrees . . . with a small dog whining under our feet because it was 17 degrees and we appeared to be creating a new and disturbing leash for him and we really should be inside, where it’s not 17 degrees. Then, we wound the lights around the garland, which we had trimmed to fit the porch railing (and which was 10 feet shorter than I had planned because when we attempted to drape it with a couple of little scallops, as we’ve seen on other homes, it bent itself at an awkward angle and looked unhappy). Thus, we had 29 feet of lights, and about 10 feet of garland . . . no one wants to do the math in 17 degrees, with a garland losing branches with every new twist, so we whipped it on as well as we could (I voiced my many misgivings about how very difficult it is to camouflage bright green wire in natural green pine boughs, how awful it looks when doubled, how it is going to look just terrible in the daylight—all while Chris patiently winds the wire around the garland and never once squints a steely eye in my direction).
We put it on the railing, with Chris wiring it in place, swearing a little because he based the size of his ties on the ones we had used for a fake garland on a wooden ledge at our old house, and they weren’t working well for fresh garland on a wrought iron railing. I left Chris to finish up and went inside to warm up. A few minutes later, I went back out to see how he was doing.
“You know what’s in my brain right now?” I asked him. He stopped sweeping pine needles and looked up at me.
“Ah, I hate to guess,” he answered diplomatically, sweeping again.
“The butter wouldn’t melt so I put it in the pie,” I said, in an English accent. It’s a lyric from the Beatles “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and over the years, it has come to one or the other of us in times of mild stress, like getting a week’s groceries on $30, or putting up Christmas lights after years of abstinence; it never fails to break the ice. Because we are goofy, we laughed hysterically. Because our front porch is going to be pretty and lit and smell like Christmas, we kissed. Because I can hear Chris in the family room, preparing for another little chore I mentioned earlier today, I know he forgives me. Those are all the reasons I will do some math this week; whatever the weather, I will be counting my blessings.
It is not even Thanksgiving yet, and the moral dilemma over whether to wish friends “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” has begun. It’s been an ongoing controversy for many years, dubbed “the war on Christmas,” few people know that it originated with the John Birch Society, back in 1959. In a flyer titled “There Goes Christmas”, the Society espoused the idea that a Communist plot to “take the Christ out of Christmas” was afoot, replacing traditional Christmas decorations with United Nation iconography in an effort to stamp out all religion and cede U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. (If this sounds sort of familiar, it continues as a popular conspiracy tenet within some groups.) In more recent years, conservative television and radio hosts, such as Bill O’Reilly, have taken up the cry (although they leave out the Birch Society theories and place the blame on secular humanists, atheists, and liberals).
I find it amusing that so many of my friends, huge fans of “Our Founding Fathers” have no idea that a real war on Christmas was waged by our own Puritan ancestors, when they outlawed Christmas celebrations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
The Puritans could find no biblical reason to celebrate Christ’s birth. The December birth date for Jesus wasn’t established until several centuries after his death (although many historians believe that Jesus was most likely born in September, and others believe it may have been March). Moreover, holiday celebration generally included drinking, feasting, and playing games—all activities the Puritans frowned on in their serious pursuit of pleasing God. Christmas was banned in the Boston area for 22 years, and didn’t really gain in popularity until the 1800s.
“Happy Holidays” can refer to over a dozen different celebrations observed by many countries and cultures, not the least of which are ones in the United States that fall in the few weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Eid al-Adha (Islamic New Year). Like it or not, we are a multicultural country (anyone remember taking great pride in America being a “melting pot”? Apparently, we’re not so proud of that, anymore. We’ve taken a dislike to all those foreigners and their odd customs, despite the fact that our grandparents and great-grandparents brought their own traditions with them.)
You can say “Merry Christmas”, you can shout “Happy Holidays”, you can send me cards that say “Season’s Greetings” or “Joyous Jule”, you can even write “Merry Xmas” on your holiday letter and it won’t bother me a bit (by the way, using “X” for Christ is not derogatory—it’s the Greek letter “Chi”—an abbreviation even Jesus would approve). How you greet me doesn’t tell me much about your religious beliefs, your ethics, or your morality. You’ll demonstrate all of that in how you behave in the 365 days after Christmas. So, enjoy your holiday season, and don’t worry so much about how others greet you; appreciate that they thought enough of you to extend their best wishes and offer them the same.
It’s happened once before, so I wasn’t entirely taken aback. I was watching television in the living room, thought I heard a little scuffling noise, and hit the “mute” button to listen more closely. A little more scraping, and then a plop. The plop got me to my feet because I knew exactly what was happening. A mouse had found its way into the ceiling fan and fell out onto the papers on my desk. Ok, I admit to being pretty horrified, although, as I said, it has happened before. I gingerly moved papers around on the desk, trying to get the culprit to move or squeak so I could smash it with a heavy book (it pains me to use great literature in such a fashion, but I didn’t have any other weapons handy). I found it, it moved, I smashed . . . again, and again, and again. The itty bitty, apparently immortal mouse took note of the dire situation and leaped from the desk to a better hiding place under the china hutch. I screamed, of course, in this whole process, but the quiet snoring from the bedroom told me that I was on my own in this battle. I considered my possibilities: I could take a broom handle and slide it around under the hutch until the mouse reappeared, whereupon I could try “booking” it to death again; I could search for the electronic fly swatter and try to zap the little creature (of course, a dead mouse under a heavy, full china hutch seemed like a dismal outcome), or I could just go to bed in the knowledge that our dachshund Clyde, who had caught a mouse the other day, would most likely find and dispatch it in the morning. It was 10:30 p.m. I was tired. With a little shiver of revulsion, I took option number three and went to bed.
I was just drifting off when I heard a ruckus. “Can you describe the ruckus, sir?” (That well-known line from “The Breakfast Club” popped to mind.) Well, yes, I can. It sounded exactly like a small wiener dog, having been awakened from a sound sleep, leaping out of his kennel and, with much scrabbling of claws on the carpet, cornering a mouse somewhere in the bedroom. I sat up, put my feet over the side of the bed and encountered warm fur, which made me gasp and recoil, reaching for the light. I realized right away that it was Clyde underfoot . . . well, his body, anyway; his head was jammed under the nightstand, his tail was beating a double-time tattoo on the wall. Clearly, the dog was in the middle of a mouse hunt. He pulled his head out long enough to look to me for support. “Sure, Clyde. Let’s get us a mousie.” I sighed and went for the broom.
On my knees, poking under the night stand with the broom seemed to have the desired effect, if I could judge by Clyde, who dove under the bed and made more scrabbling sounds. Chris rose up in bed at this point and looked at me blearily.
“Aw, did you fall down? Are you o.k.?” He asked.
I opened my mouth to answer and let out a scream as the mouse made a mad dash toward me. Now I had friend husband’s undivided and less groggy attention. I explained about the mouse as I tried to ply my broom behind the door. “Here, Clyde,” I said. “He’s right behind the door. See?” Clyde appeared to be having second thoughts about midnight mouse hunting; he peeked at me from behind the bed. The mouse, sensing the indecision, scooted under the dresser and Clyde leaped into action again, nose to the gap under the dresser, more tail-wagging and snuffling. Chris was offering advice from his cozy vantage point, but seemed reluctant to join the madness. I tried the brush end of the broom under the dresser, came away with some truly remarkable dust bunnies, but no mousie. Clyde seemed to give up at that point, and sat quietly by the bed while Chris got up to go to the bathroom. I climbed back into bed, hoping that Chris would think of some great plan or at least offer to take me to a motel for the night.
There was another scuffle out in the hallway, some incredibly gross crunching noises (you think you might know what a mouse skull in the mouth of a dog would sound like, but it turns out you really have no idea, and once heard, you can never unhear it). Chris called from the bathroom, “I think Clyde took care of it.” I peered down the hall, and yes, there was a tiny corpse just a few feet from the bedroom. The mighty hunter had retreated deep into his kennel, gazing out at me with wide, shining eyes. I knew that Chris would handle the interment, so I climbed back into bed. Minutes later, Chris joined me. We lay there quietly, trying to get into our sleep rhythm breathing again.
“Where did you put the body?” I asked.
“Tossed outside,” my sleepy husband answered. I hoped it would serve as a warning to other mice that want to move in. We were quiet again, for a long, long time, and then I couldn’t help myself.
“Was it merely dead, or most sincerely dead?” I asked.
“Most sincerely,” the coroner replied; then he rolled over and began snoring.
As Halloween approaches, beasties and ghoulies and other friends clamor for the story of “The Nightmare on Paperjack Drive”, the tale of our son, Ozzie’s, haunted house. I wrote a weekly column in our local paper in the late 1980s, and this story landed in my lap on a Monday night when I was under deadline, wracking my brain for ideas, and really annoyed because it was Halloween and I had to keep answering the door. As any reporter or columnist will tell you, it often happens that the best story is right under our noses, if we would only look down and notice. I was looking everywhere else for inspiration, while a true and delightful story played out in my basement . . . and to think I almost missed it by being a crankypants.
A few days before Halloween, Ozzie had approached me about having a “real-live haunted house” down in our basement. I wasn’t sure it would be much of an attraction in our bright basement of many windows and few finished walls, but I o.k.’d the project. I came home from work that Friday night to find him and his friend, Mike, industriously creating horrors our of a standard split-entry style basement. I gasped at the first horror: my good Chicago Cutlery carving knife embedded in a two-by-four and dripping with ketchup blood. I took a deep breath, assessed the safety (solidly in the wood—sigh, yes; high enough to be out of reach for little kids—yes) and decided to let it go on the grounds that I could replace the knife more easily than I could deny the kid his dream of a truly scary haunted house.
The boys had exhibited amazing ingenuity for two fourteen-year-olds on a limited budget ($4.99 for a spooky music CD). The lights and sound were connected to the breaker switch in the basement, so that the horror could begin with the flip of a switch. They had hung blankets up to wall off the walkway and block the streetlights shining through the windows, and had used an old mask and a wig stand for a decapitated head, lit in gory detail by a dim green light bulb. After passing this creepy part of the exhibit, they had arranged for a cymbal to crash to the floor behind the unsuspecting guests. I helped them create a spooky spider web out of some quilt batting and a genuine floating ghost on a pulley system that allowed it to fly at people. I didn’t think anyone would notice that the ghost was made from a piece of pale green fabric (the “ghost” on our front porch was wearing my one and only white sheet).
Ozzie made signs for the front door, advertising his free haunting, but early on, there were very few takers. The little kids and parents were out in force, and all the kids wanted was candy; just being out after dark was scary enough. Finally, a group of girls who knew Jason from school agreed to take the tour. Screams and giggles and Jason’s evil “boowahahaha” echoed through the house and out the front door, scaring a few little goblins and their parents right back down the driveway.
It wasn’t long, however, before word got out that there was a “real spooky house” on the corner of Paperjack and Bilmar, and I found myself playing doorman to an odd collection of creatures waiting in the hallway for the signal. Jason would shout “ready!”, the first strains (or groans) of music would begin, there would be a riot of screams and laughs, and then I would usher to same creatures out, while directing the new ones to wait on the stairs. Two other young ladies of Jason’s acquaintance enjoyed the haunting so much, they decided to stay and help him for a while, with a new attraction: grabbing feet as they passed by the pool table.
There was a long lull in the haunting business after that. I was writing at my desk at the top of the stairs, so that I could see any trick or treaters. I could hear the muffled giggles and planning in the basement, and I vaguely thought I should really go down and make sure that all new attractions stood up to my safety standards, but I had a column to write. I heard a car pull in the driveway and my little basement ghouls hurried up the stairs. They conducted a long, shouted discussion with the parent in the car, about whether the haunted house would be too scary for the children. Finally, the parent gave permission, and the guests were instructed to wait in the stairwell. I listened to the conversation, gathering that there were two boys and two girls all around age 9 or 10. “We’re men,” the boys kept assuring each other. “We can take it. We’re REAL men.”
The o.k. was shouted, and again the ghostly music floated up the stairs. I could hear the usual chorus of screams at the appropriate places, as well as the “spooking” screams of Jason’s two assistants. Then I heard a sound that I couldn’t immediately identify because I hadn’t heard it at any other time in the evening: sneakers hitting the floor at top speed. I got up to investigate and made it to the top of the stairs in time to see the “real men” making their escape, screaming into the night. Their companions, looking dainty and sweet in their princess costumes and tiaras were slowly ascending the stairs, just like, well, royalty. “Where’d they go?” one of them asked. I gestured to the door and they exited, laughing.
I had a good laugh with Jason and his crew and then sat down to write one of my all-time favorite columns.
It was at the end of a trip to an apple orchard. Chris had to pick apples for us, and I had to sit it out and worry about his back and his knees and the bees. I was tired and he was tired and we didn’t linger long after he came back with his harvest. As we walked to the car, I watched a motorcycle pass in the next parking aisle.
“It’s open,” Chris said, of the car door. I was watching the motorcyclist, a familiar head held just so. I leaned and ducked, trying to get a better look as it passed out of sight. “It’s open, Sweetie,” Chris said again. I opened the door, watching over the roof of the car for the motorcycle. It must have parked, I thought, and then I saw it come around the corner, headed to a parking spot two spaces away. I just stood and stared and Chris asked again if I was o.k., but I didn’t have a reasonable answer to the question, so I just stood and stared at the motorcyclist as he parked and got off and helped his companion alight, all the while unaware that the woman two spaces away couldn’t fill her eyes with enough of him because he looked, moved, seemed so much like her dead son that it was like having him back again . . . almost.
I watched him walk away. His companion turned and stared at me for a second, and I was afraid she would break the spell by saying something, so I turned away. I looked back as they moved through the crowd. He walked with more of a swagger than my son would have, but he was wearing heavy boots; he looked back at the motorcycle and our eyes met for the briefest of intervals. I just wanted to keep staring at the shape of his jaw, at the way he held his head, at any other similarity that offered a few more moments of the relief, comfort, and thrill I felt when I first glimpsed him. Chris, mystified, waited for me by the car. I was shaken, my voice wobbly, teary.
“That guy, did you see that guy with the motorcycle? He looked just like Ozzie.” Chris hadn’t seen him, hadn’t noticed the direction I was looking. “I should have told you to look,” I was immediately sorry. I had been afraid to break the spell, to bring reality to my few seconds of fantasy, afraid to hear “No, I don’t think he looks at all like him,” which, of course, Chris would never say. Thus, I had denied him the same eerie, sweet experience I had just had.
It’s happened before, that glimpse of my son in a stranger. A few weeks after he died, I followed a car for miles because the back of the driver’s head looked just like my Ozzie. Months later, I couldn’t tear my eyes from a young man who was waiting in line at a brat stand, one arm crossed to hold the elbow of the other, another familiar Ozzie stance. Psychic medium Theresa Caputo says that when a memory of a loved one is triggered like that, through a song, a photograph, a scene in a movie, or someone who resembles them, they are with us in that moment; letting us know that’s how close they are, just a thought, a memory, a sensation away. I can believe that. I can imagine Ozzie telling me “Get a load of this guy, Mom.” For future sightings, so that Chris doesn’t have to miss it, we developed the code word “doppelganger”, which is a German word for someone who looks like someone else (it can also mean a ghostly counterpart to a living person). Sunday afternoon, I saw Ozzie’s motorcyclist doppelganger–I wonder if he ever glimpses his musician counterpart . . .
I was spritzing on a bit of Yardley’s “English Lavender” cologne the other day when it occurred to me that my bottle of the fragrance is REALLY OLD. I thought back to when I bought it, 1973 or so, which means it’s around 40—apparently, even inexpensive cologne can last a long time. In that same time period I’ve been through at least five bottles of “White Shoulders”, a favorite since childhood, when my mom wore it only for very special occasions (I squander it almost daily), a brief stint with Georgio’s “Red” and the relatively recent “Lovely” by Sarah Jessica Parker. I’ve got a hankering to try the Jasmine fragrance Goldie Hawn was wearing on the Katie Couric show, which Katie commented on effusively, but Ms. Hawn was cadgey about the brand, saying only that she always wears jasmine.
Thinking of that old bottle of cologne reminded me of all the other old bottles of “pew-fume” (our baby name for Mom’s fragrances: “Tweed”, “Intimate”, and “White Shoulders”) I have stowed in odd places around the house. In a container under the bathroom sink, I found Jovan “Musk”, the essential oil lemongrass, and a nearly empty bottle of sandalwood oil (I’ll have to add that to my shopping list—I love that stuff!). In my jewelry box, I found a very old, ornately labeled, but empty, bottle of “Strawberry” essential oil, a newer bottle of “Strawberry Delight”, and, oh, there it is, good old reliable patchouli oil, the proven aphrodisiac of my generation!
I first captivated my husband, Chris, with the heady combination of patchouli and strawberry oil. Patchouli is one of those “you either LOVE it or HATE it” fragrances, and you know immediately when you wear it who’s in which corner. (As a production manager at the local newspaper, I nearly had to resort to a chair and bullwhip to get my employees back to their work stations when a man smelling of patchouli came into the office to place an ad. Those randy ladies followed the scent right through the building and then stood near him, sniffing and trying to appear busy! On the other hand, in my teen years, I had to put my patchouli oil on outside and then wash it off before I came home—my mother just HATED it.) It’s a sharp, aggressive, defiantly foreign scent (some say it smells like marijuana or hashish), but when coupled with a few drops of the sweet, fruity fragrance of strawberry oil, it sends out a soft, sensual purr. Chris said it was the sexiest fragrance I wore, because it always led to sex . . . however, we were in our twenties, and as I recall it, even when I wore no fragrance at all, we were headed to the bedroom at some point or another. Impetuous youth!
I’ve always loved to wear fragrance, whether it was my own “Apple Blossom” scent that came with a toy makeup kit when I was six, or the “Emeraude” I pilfered from my sister (that scent would never smell as lovely on me as it does on her—a boy in my high school English class told me it smelled like rotten lemons!!!). I’ve always been a fan of florals: “Muguet de Bois” (lily of the valley), “Straw Hat”, a fragrance of the 1960s that was only available in the spring and summer, “English Lavender”, and “Jean Nate” (another little theft from the same sister—with much better results!).
Except for the time I smelled like “rotten lemons”, I’ve worn fragrances lightly. My mother used to say “a little on the wrist, and a little behind your knee”—I added a little behind my ears because movie stars always seemed to be putting their perfume there—with wonderful results like having Cary Grant or Robert Redford nuzzle them. (My penchant for old movies has led to movie star crushes that span generations.) I have, over the years, encountered a few people who drenched themselves in their favorite fragrance, leaving the rest of us gasping wretches in their wake.
One of my most memorable bosses was a “pew-fume drencher”. We could predict her arrival in the office in two ways: her perfume always preceded her into the room and the decibel level went up at least 100 points. We never could concur on which was loudest or more bothersome, the Dior “Poison” or the nasal voice and raucous laugh; when she discovered “Giorgio” perfume, we had our answer. I found it oddly satisfying when wearing “Giorgio” was banned in several restaurants in Los Angeles. We often discussed whether there should be a single, dreadful location in hell for the boss who drenches in obnoxious perfume and then looms over your desk to loudly point out your inadequacies. I’m forthright, so I asked her once, how she applied her perfume (first referring to my mother’s advice, hoping she’d take a hint). “I spray a bunch in the air, and then I walk through it,” she answered. “Wow, that must get expensive,” I commented, to which she replied (and no hourly employee on the planet would convict me for the murderous thought that entered my head as she said it) “I can afford it.” Thus, I paraphrase Avon in my advice to all women and men who love a little fragrance in their lives “Whatever you wear . . . wear sparingly.”
We live at the end of a long, straight, boring stretch of country road on which the speed limit is 55 mph, which ends at a T-intersection. Over the years, cars have driven off the road and into our yard. Just weeks after we moved in, we were jarred awake by the sound of a school bus crashing through the yards and into a tree. No children were on the bus, and the bus driver (who had fallen asleep at the wheel) was only slightly hurt. We started petitioning the state and county highway departments back then, but nothing much was ever done. As a general rule, T-intersection problems are “solved” with rumble strips, which we and every neighbor within a half mile is firmly against, because of the noise.
Our solution, over the past eleven years, has been a 100 watt red light bulb facing the highway. It really has helped, and people stop us all the time to thank us for it (it’s visible on a foggy night and lets drivers who know the area just where they are); even the police approve. The light is on a timer, on at dusk, off at dawn, thus, the electrical cost is negligible, and really, who would put a price on the peace of mind it gives us? Friday evening, the light didn’t go on, and we assumed the bulb was burned out. When Chris went out to investigate, he discovered tracks in the snow leading from the road to the light . . . apparently someone had stolen the bulb.
I know that people who steal don’t give much thought to who they are stealing from and what effect it might have on them. I suppose the thinking is “I want it and I don’t care how I get it”, and they simply take the item and feel no guilt, empathy, or shame when they look at or use the item. For most of us, the guilt and shame would forever taint the item and certainly limit the pleasure we derived from having it, but we can’t count on thieves to do much thinking on those lines. We understand this, but even a theft this minor makes us feel vulnerable and violated. We wonder if we will now have to replace the light more often (the bulbs are around $5.00, and last around six months) as the perpetrators make a game of stealing it, we wonder if those same thieves would also break into our house, we wonder if now is the time to make a stronger case to the state for a solar-powered stop sign (retail cost: $600.00, cost for county to install: $10,000 and up—don’t get me started). We wonder if we drove around town some night, would we find our red bulb lighting someone else’s yard?
While Chris and I enjoy wondering about nature’s mysteries, whether we’ll have good weather when we need it, what it would be like to be independently wealthy, and how we could get that way . . . we are not enjoying the wondering that comes with crime, however minor.
I stand at the window and wave until the brake lights blink three times, and then I close the blinds. It has been our morning routine for over a year. At some point, I started watching him drive away on the highway and saw the brake lights blink again, still sending the signal, not knowing if I was receiving it. I count how many times he blinks: three, six, nine . . . sometimes twelve, before the taillights disappear into the darkness. In the early days, I saw the blinks, but thought he was just testing the brake lights. Then one day, he asked me if I noticed them.
“Sure,” I answered. “Checking the brakes?”
“Saying ‘I love you,’” he told me. Each blink a word, sometimes with bright and lasting emphasis on the last word.
That is the love story I live each day. That is the magnitude of my good luck. That is my great blessing. I have the privilege to be loved by a man who thinks in terms of signs and symbols, cryptic messages, and countless acts of kindness. To be loved at all is such a gift; to be loved by a man who lives to demonstrate how high, how deep, how wide is his feeling—that’s incomparable treasure. That the gift has been bestowed on a pragmatic, earth-bound creature like me is incongruous; I can match the love, but I fear I fail in the presentation. He creates signs. I make sandwiches.
However, for several months a few years back, I was the sign maker. I think it started when I made him a sandwich with grapes–here is a link to the blog about that:
The next day, after the grape controversy, I put a Post-It note on his sandwich that declared “This grape-free sandwich is brought to you by the wife who knows better!!!” After that, I kept thinking of funny things to put on notes in his sandwiches. I started drawing pictures of the cat, creating cartoons of events around the house, and adding silly captions. Chris, in his typical fashion of adoring everything his wife does, saved all of the notes. I’ll share a few here:
The mouse in question in that note makes his own memorable appearance in the blog “Dead Mouse Hunting”:
On Valentine’s Day, it will have been 33 years since Chris slipped a ring on my finger and asked me to marry him. I would have been totally shocked, but he’d been measuring the third finger on my left hand with pieces of paper and string for weeks; more signs and symbols. Nevertheless, having the man you love more than life itself place a shiny diamond ring on your hand is a thrill beyond the element of surprise. Years later, when you watch at the window for tail lights to blink a message, you realize that of all the choices you’ve made in life, saying “yes” to that question was one of the best.
My husband has always been my guide to the heavens. I can’t even count how many times we’ve gazed up at the skies and he has introduced me to a constellation, a star or planet. At times, we’ve watched natural phenomenon, such as the aurora borealis, other times, he’s spotted a satellite, and once, we saw the space shuttle shining in the last rays of the setting sun as it passed overhead. In December, he was my escort to the Geminids meteor shower.
It was 18 degrees outside. I figured it for a two layer bottom (long undies, polar fleece pants) and three layer top (sweatshirt, fleece-lined hoodie, down-filled jacket) kind of night. Chris set up chairs in the driveway for us, and we settled in for the show at about 8:45 p.m. Websites about the meteor shower had predicted that the best viewing time would be from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., with a peak at about 2 a.m. There was a time in my life when MY peak time was about 2 a.m., but nowadays, I peak at around 4 p.m., and am heading downhill by about 10.
Chris saw the first streak just minutes after we sat down. Now we had an idea of where to look in the sky, but really, with meteor showers, you just never know where to look, so you try to “keep big eyes” on as much of the sky as you can. This caused us to slouch down in our chairs, leaning our heads back as far as we could. I commented that we really should get lounge chairs for this activity, and Chris suggested that we head into town right away to find some. I didn’t want to leave the show before it had even started, so we just stuck with our uncomfortable positions and watched the sky. Soon, we had each spotted smaller streaks and one large, green glow worm that had caused us to gasp and grab for each other, asking “Did you SEE that?”
Throughout our viewing, we were a little bothered by lights. We live in a mostly dark rural neighborhood, but there are some bright yard lights across the street, and car headlights shone in our eyes as they passed. We talked about other places where we have watched the skies and wondered if we should try for a darker location with a bigger view of the sky. Finally, after a long lull between meteors, we decided to explore some other options. Chris packed our chairs into the truck and we headed off down the road. He had one place in mind and I had another—for better or worse, my location won the toss, and he drove there. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile, and had forgotten that there were streetlights even on that lonely stretch of road, not to mention no safe places to park. Chris drove on until we were completely enveloped in fog. It was like driving into a garage—one minute, we could see the road and the sky, and in an instant, it all disappeared into darkness.
On the theory that the fog had appeared so fast, it was just as likely to be in a limited area and we could simply drive out of it, Chris continued on . . . and on. It was slow going, and I was a little panicked. We passed a well-lit farmhouse and I wanted nothing more than to pull into that driveway and wait for clear skies, no matter if it took all night. Chris is calm and steady at the wheel in all situations, no matter how nerve-wracking his wife finds the conditions. I was rapidly becoming a basket case, convinced that we were poking along through a farmer’s field, but Chris assured me that we were on pavement, headed for home and in minutes, we would arrive there safe and sound. We were only about a mile from home, but the landscape in fog was completely foreign to me. Finally, we came to a stop sign, indicating that we’d reached the highway, and a little farther down that road, the fog disappeared. The entire drive had probably taken no more than a half hour, but I felt drained from the strain of worrying.
I have no explanation for it, but on a night when the Hubbells wanted to see a pretty spectacular meteor shower, the entire area was fogged in, except for a half-mile circle of clear sky directly over our house. I guess it turns out that Dorothy was right, there really IS no place like home!
I’m thinking of holiday travelers on this Sunday before Christmas. Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve and I hope every one of them has made it safely to their destination by then. If you have moved far away from your family, traveling home for the holidays can be a joy and a pain. Chris and I used to travel to his parents’ home in Duluth, Minnesota for Thanksgiving, but Christmas was often spent with my side of the family in the Twin Cities. . . . except for a few times, such as the remarkable, magical Christmas of 1983.
I’m not good at heeding the subtle signals that sometimes come from within, or the Universe, or God. If anything, I find interference with my plans a great annoyance. Once we made the decision to travel north, nothing was going to stop us; not the weather (minus 16 degrees in the blazing sun), not the broken spark plug wire the day we were leaving (which meant Chris had to make a hasty repair in an unheated garage), not the anxiety over our 1976 Buick LeSabre being able to make the 250-mile trip. We were going, dammit.
When we pulled into Gary-New Duluth, where Grandpa and Grandma P. lived, the wind chill was minus 65 degrees. Our Buick had performed beautifully on the trip (probably in part from a new spark plug wire and the good used tires we had recently bought). On Christmas Eve, it became the family transport, since most of the other cars wouldn’t start. We kept saying “who’d believe the oldest car in the family would be the only one that runs?”
Our son, Jason, was nine at the time, full of all the feisty energy of his age and his position (our only child). It was a great trip for him, with all those cousins he adored close at hand. He had been in charge of packing for the trip, and naturally, he had remembered his latest games and music and forgotten his pajamas. Grandpa P let him borrow a warm set of long underwear, which he modeled for us before bedtime. Jason and Grandpa P discussed household chores at length, when Grandpa P suggested Jason take out the garbage for him. “Well, it’s your garbage,” Jason told him. “Don’t you think that should be your job?” The discussion went on for days (although the garbage mysteriously went out each day). Grandpa P began calling Jason “the G-Man”, which Jason loved, because it sounded like a rapper’s name. The head-butting was affectionate, and the laughter genuine. Grandpa P was the only grandfather Jason would know, and it was great to see them enjoying the experience.
Christmas Eve was fun and chaotic, with family crowded into the tiny living room, paper and ribbon strewn everywhere, the oohs and ahhs over presents, and much, much laughter. Grandma P was in her glory, surrounded by family, opening gifts she had already peeked at, pressing her guests to try this or that treat she had made (she spent weeks baking, dipping, frying, and decorating Christmas goodies). Grandpa P joked with his grandkids, grinning over at his wife from time to time, delighting in how happy all the crazy hubbub made her. It was idyllic. It stays in my memory as one of the best Christmases ever.
Like I said, I’m not good at heeding the little signs we sometimes get, but I think that year, we followed what might have been a pre-ordained path. What I do know is that when Grandpa P died that March, we all agreed that we had been wise to get to Duluth for that last Christmas with him.
I realize that weather, flight schedules, car troubles, work schedules, and other obstacles may make it impossible for people to travel to their families over the holidays, but if you can, take the trouble, make the trip, overcome the obstacles. It is so much better to remember your loved ones with “glad I did” than “I wish I would have.”