Saturday, December 31, 2011

The In-Law Me

There are times when I sit here and look at a blank screen. I type words, whole paragraphs, and then I delete them.

I have words finally, maybe not whole sentences, but words. Again. For which I am thankful.

Because recently I lost the words. Not for long, but long enough.

I lost the words about the same time as I lost myself.

It happens about once a year, twice this year. I know it is going to happen because I do it to myself. I agree to hide parts of myself in order to keep the peace. I put away the taboo liquids. I turn off Mumford and Sons. I avoid conversations that might reveal my "bleeding heart liberal" beliefs. I don't agree with it but I love my husband enough to go along with his plan for how we relate to his family.

It's not hard to hide. They are not looking for the real me anyway. I am just an accessory. I just wish it didn't hurt so much.

Case in point - This is an actual conversation that took place in my kitchen while I was sitting just a few feet away.

My mother-in-law: "Have you been to this museum before?"
Husband: "No."
MIL: "But the boys have been there before?"
Husband: "Yes."
MIL: "How did the kids get there if you haven't gone before?" She asked in all sincerity.
Husband: staring dumbfounded at his mother because the obvious answer was sitting right there hearing the entire conversation.

I finally chimed in that I took them, that I spend a lot of time enriching the boys' lives. I wanted her to know that I am a good mom. That I am doing a good job of taking care of her grandsons. Her response, "How can I verify that? I don't live nearby."

Seriously? Anger swelled within. My thoughts sharp, silent retorts. She was questioning my veracity? My truthfulness. And that really burned within me because I am known for my honesty. Ask anyone who knows me.

Except with my in laws I am not honest. I don't lie but I am not my authentic self. I keep things hidden that would bother them. I am comfortable with my way of life but I know that some of the choices I make are in direct conflict with how they believe a good Christian should live. They have more black and white rules; I live in the grey afforded by grace.

They are old and set in their ways. I am not going to convince them that their social norms are not Biblical but cultural. Instead I avoid and defer. I live my life outside of their view.

This is how their family relates.

But it made my Christmas sad. I felt like we were on display, like we were playing parts not being our real selves with them watching. I was guarded. I am not at my best when I am guarded. I become defensive and petty.

I lose grace when I stop allowing myself grace.

And without grace, I am lost.

I write this not to condemn, though I was angry and hurt. I write this because it is a challenge for me to figure out how to be authentic amongst people I don't want to hurt but who won't accept me as I am. This is my struggle with family - how to be me in a room full of people making claims to who I should be.

Anyone else able to relate?

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Last Christmas

I thought I would use December to try a few Christmas stories. Some are true. Some are a figment of my imagination. Most fall in between, in that place that is fictional memoir. This one though is taken from the book I am writing.


It was early, the sun just beginning to peek over the mountains. The house was silent except for the quiet movements of Mia. She tiptoed down the hallway, her bags in one hand her shoes in the other. She reached the front door but before she opened it, she looked around the room one last time.

The tree was decorated now turning their sad, leftover tree, into something almost beautiful. Ornaments and white twinkling lights could do that, could turn something ugly and cast aside into something worthy of being the center piece of a room.

Two stockings hung from the mantle, one for her and one for her mom. They were bulkier now with Christmas presents hiding in the neck of the fabric. She had put a few trinkets she had picked up at the student store in her mom's along with some money. She could see that her mom had put something in her stocking but she could not bring herself to retrieve it. Not with her mom's words still swirling in her mind.

She turned her back on the room and opened the front door, hoping that the click of it closing behind her would not wake her mom. She was hoping to catch the morning bus back to school before her mom even knew she was gone. It was a cowardly choice, but practical. Telling her mom she was leaving would only induce another fight, another lashing of words.

She sat down on the front steps and put on her shoes tying the laces quickly. It was not a long walk to the bus stop thankfully. Just long enough for Mia to rehash the events of the night before. Things had been going so well. They had found their tree and her mom had been right. It was on sale. When they got home, they pulled out the old ornament box and trimmed the tree stopping often to reminisce. Each ornament bringing back memories; the clay hand print she had made in kindergarten, the Santa Claus stuck in a chimney they bought after watching Gremlins, the angel her grandmother had given her when she was a young girl. They drank hot chocolate and watched It's a Wonderful Life while they made Christmas cookies from sugar cookie dough they bought at the store. It was a perfect evening, movie made, until it was time for Mia to leave for church.

"Mom, I need to get going if I'm going to make it to the Christmas Eve service," Mia said. She went back to her room to run a brush through her hair and grab her jacket.

Her mom followed her down the hallway. "We aren't done yet?" Maggie said. "You can't leave now." The statement more of a demand.

"I'll be back soon. We can finish then." Mia could hear the pleading edge to her voice. She went to church every Christmas Eve so it was not a surprise. But her mom's reaction was. It shouldn't have been, her mom often swung with her words.

"The movie will be over by then." Maggie's voice calm and acidic.

"You can watch it without me," she offered. "I know how it ends. Or we can record it."

"That's not the point. You are supposed to spend Christmas with your family, with me."

"Why don't you come with me? We can go together and then come home and finish decorating the cookies together. They need time to cool down anyway." She tried to be hopeful, she tried to find a workable solution.

But Maggie wasn't interested in solutions, she was only interested in getting her own way.

"How dare you?" her mother accused. "You are such a brat. So selfish." Her words dripped with venom.

"What?" Mia was genuinely confused. What had she done? How had the conversation turned so quickly.

Her mother turned and walked toward the kitchen, though she continued to berate Mia with her words.



The kitchen cabinet opened. A glass filled with ice, vodka and a splash of diet coke.

"I'm stuck here all year because of you and you can't even spend one night with me."


Mia wanted to respond but the words kept coming only stopping for a moment as her mom took a sip of the drink she now carried around the living room. She listened to the first few but then she only heard the rest, her mind protecting her as best it could. She felt the fight drain from her body. She could never win, not if she stayed here. And so she put on her coat, found her mom's car keys on the counter and walked out the front door.

She was going to go to her childhood church tonight for Christmas. She was going to sit in a black chair near the back. She would listen to the words of the pastor who had baptized her as a child, who had served at her grandparent's funeral. She would sing Silent Night with the congregation at midnight. She would do these one last time, one last Christmas.

And now in the morning, she was going home.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

No Rope?

I thought I would use December to try a few Christmas stories. Some are true. Some are a figment of my imagination. Most fall in between, in that place that is fictional memoir.

Did I ever tell you about the time we forgot to bring rope to the Christmas tree farm? 

It is a favorite family story, at least for my family. I think it causes my husband anxiety. 

The story begins with a van load of kids and two parents driving about a mile from our house to a nearby Christmas tree farm. Living in Oregon you end up passing multiple tree farms on a quick trip to Costco. It seems that any farm land left has trees growing on it. Most of these trees are actually cut down at the end of November and sent south, where Californians pay a crazy amount for a real live noble fir. I will be one of those crazy Californians this year. 

Anyway, the family, including the six teenage foster kids that lived with us at the time were all walking through the muddy tree farm looking for the perfect tree. (There seems to be a theme to my Christmas tree stories.)

We looked at trees that looked perfect on one side but had a huge hole in the back. It always reminded me of a big civil war era hoop skirt tucked into a girl's pantaloons in the back. 

We looked at trees that were too tall or too short. Someone started grumbling, most likely my dad. Someone started whining, probably me but since this is my blog I'll blame my little brother. 

Finally the good enough tree was found and cut down. Again, there were people kneeling down on coats and a few choice phrases uttered as the handsaw got caught in the tree trunk. The wet needles flickering drops of water on everyone nearby as it is carried back to the car. 

We, and by we I mean the grown ups and my big brother, finally get the tree on top of the van ready to be tied down. 

But there is no rope. 

And here is where my memory gets foggy because I would assume that the tree farm had string. The fancy tree farm we took our kids to when we lived in Oregon had string. They also let you preselect your tree in September before the California trees were harvested. And then they cut the tree down for you on the day you preselected for pick up. Maybe our childhood tree farm was not that fancy. 

So we had the tree on top of the van but nothing to tie it down. And here is where my family becomes the Griswolds because the solution they found was to have my big brother lie on top of the tree, on top of van, holding on to the luggage rack, while my dad drove the van full of the rest of the family home. 

Seriously. We drove a mile or so with a Christmas tree and my brother on top of the van. 

We love this story. It is the essence of my family. Pragmatic and determined. Safety conscious...not so much. 

I think the image of one of our boys on top of the van may be why my husband does not like that story. 

Because truthfully, left  in the same situation, I might try it. Hockey Boy is pretty strong.

Update - (I posted this link on my Facebook page where my brother read it. He confirms the story except for me forgetting to mention the rain and cold. Longest mile of his life he wrote.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Empty Room

I thought I would use December to try a few Christmas stories. Some are true. Some are a figment of my imagination. Most fall in between, in that place that is fictional memoir.


The room looked so empty, sparse. Gone was the large tree covered in ornaments. There were no stockings hanging from the mantle. There was no mantle. The room was silent. No “It’s a Wonderful Life” playing on the tv. No tv.

Christmas was different this year. The trappings of the season stripped from them when they lost their home and moved into their minivan. Everything but the essentials donated to the Salvation Army because there was no room in the minivan for decorations.

Sara thought about her angel tree topper. She wondered where it sat this year. She tried to picture the family that would be eating off of her Christmas dishes tomorrow. She thought about the card holder that used to fill with friend’s pictures and beautiful gold trimmed Christmas cards. There were none this year. They had not had an address until yesterday.

But now they did.

Sara looked around the small living room of their one bedroom apartment and she was thankful. 

Thankful for the roof over their heads.

Thankful for the lock on the front door.

Thankful for the food waiting to be cooked the next day.

Thankful for the job she was starting after the new year.

Thankful for a place to have a room for the kids to sleep.

Thankful too that the kids were still too young to know what was happening, just happy to be with mommy and daddy.

She was so very thankful.

Mostly because this past year had shown her what mattered. It had freed her from the artifice of the holiday season and shown her Christmas - Christ’s story.

This year, the nativity was made by her oldest in Sunday school. A picture she had colored, the star sparkling with glitter.

This year, instead of getting presents, they had decided to give presents to Jesus. Signing up for blanket making with the mom’s group at church and serving Christmas Eve dinner at the shelter they had once called home.

The kids had understood. It is Jesus’ birthday after all.

Sara had enjoyed the quiet of the season, with no presents to buy and no cards to address. No parties to attend. She did miss the small moments she had once enjoyed. Decorating the Christmas tree together. The cookie exchange with the play group.

But they had new traditions now. Walking the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. Singing Christmas carols with the congregation. Making a birthday cake for baby Jesus.

Yes, as Sara looked around the empty living room, she was thankful.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree

I thought I would use December to try a few Christmas stories. Some are true. Some are a figment of my imagination. Most fall in between, in that place that is fictional memoir.


"You guys are going to get the Christmas tree this year."

At first the three kids thought their dad was joking. But he wasn't. They were sent off with a blank check, the 16 year old at the wheel. They were given one command. They must all agree on the tree. Majority could not rule. It had to be unanimous. And it could not be over 8 feet tall or it would not fit in the living room.

Kevin, the oldest, turned the music on loud as he drove. His little sister Jane in the seat next to him. She was talking, as always. His little brother Stewart, was in the back seat, kicking the seat in front of him. Kevin knew it would not be long before the bickering began.

The driveway to the tree farm was muddy. The constant rain of Oregon made for beautiful trees but horrible harvesting conditions. They parked near the other cars in the parking lot, pulled on their hoods and headed out into the rainy day. They had been visiting this same tree farms for years. Kevin grabbed one of the hand saws and Jane grabbed the long pole used to measure the trees.

Stewart ran ahead. "Let's go to the top of the hill," he said. He was full of energy, excited to be on an adventure with his big brother and sister. He was often left out of the big kid events, but not today. Today he was part of it all, even better, they had to listen to him. That's what Dad said. They all had to agree on one tree.

"No, Stewart let's look down here first." Jane's voice of reason rang out.

"But I want to go to the top. Dad said we had to all agree." Stewart was starting to whine.

Kevin spoke. He rarely spoke so when he did his siblings listened. "I am not going to the top and then having to drag a tree all the way back here. We are going to find one nearby and quickly."

And so that is what they attempted to do. Jane would point out a tree she liked, full and round, with a strong top branch for the angel their mother embroidered, with gold thread for the halo. Stewart would point toward another one farther away, the one with a brown patch in the back. Jane would try again, finding another perfect tree. Stewart declared it too bushy, the next one too skinny. Every time saying, ““Dad said we had to all agree.”

After thirty minutes of wading through the mud, toes growing cold and wet bangs hanging in their eyes, Kevin and Jane were done. It stopped being about getting the perfect tree. The mission now was to get Stewart to agree to any tree.

“That one looks good Stewart,” Jane said when Stewart found another tree he liked.
Kevin surveyed the hole on one side and the crooked top and agreed that it would work if they turned it around. He laid his jacket on the ground and then kneeled on it ready to cut the trunk in two.

“Wait,” Stewart shouted. “I changed my mind. I don’t like this one. Let’s go back to the first one.”

“You just said liked this one,” Jane accused.

“But it has a hole Kevin said. And we have to all agree Dad said.” Stewart unsure if Dad’s command was losing its authority.

Kevin’s voice boomed. “I am done. Pick a tree, any tree. But we are cutting one down and going home now.”

Jane and Stewart both looked at him, eyes wide. They adored their big brother. Secretly, they had both been enjoying the forced time together. But it appeared it had come to an end.

“I liked the one back at the front, the first one,” Jane offered shyly.

“So did I,” said Stewart.

“Fine. Let’s go find the first tree, again,” Kevin said.

The mud on their boots made the walk back take longer than they remembered. They had wandered quite a bit in their quest for the perfect tree.

And then there it was. Right before them, two rows back from the parking lot. The perfect 8 foot douglas fir. Not too bushy, not too skinny. It was just right.

“Perfect,” declared Jane.

“I like it,” said Stewart.

“Then let’s get it,” said Kevin as he laid his coat on the ground again preparing a place for him to kneel to cut the tree. He inspected the trunk and let out an expletive the kids were not supposed to say.

“What’s wrong?” Jane asked worried.

“It has two trunks.”

It wasn't until years later, when the kids were relating the story to disbelieving spouses that it finally dawned on them the true purpose of this adventure. If they were all at the tree farm together without their parents, then mom and dad were left all alone in the house.