Sunday, January 21, 2018

#4: facebook status for the year 2017.

Well, 2017 in the past, which was not the intention of the original prompt. The original prompt intended a projection of six years in the future. So, 2024 it is.

"President Obama's State of the Union address was #allthefeels - she is brilliant. So incredibly proud to be raising two girls in THIS America. #fourmoreyears #theygolowwegohigh"
January 21, 2024


Monday, January 15, 2018

#3: tell a complete stranger about a beloved family tradition.

I was always one of those people that didn't have a single negative thing to say about the holidays - which mostly stemmed from having next to nothing to complain about in the extended family arena. It's a rarity, I know, but I just though I was one of the lucky ones. Yes, there was the infuriatingly racist and chauvinistic Uncle that on the rare occasion he showed up to Christmas Eve I avoided like the plague (once my angsty teenage years had given up on talking sense into the man). But I genuinely thought that was pretty much the full extent of it. And while that is clearly not acceptable, in the grand scheme of family drama, it seemed relatively low key.

Lord, have mercy, was I wrong.

Christmas Eve. The best day of the year. I can't remember a time when I didn't feel this way. I started listening to Christmas music in August and didn't want to stop until February - all in build up and in celebration of one night. One, glorious, homemade chex-mix filled night. Back before climate change started robbing us of snowy Decembers and before the internet forced every UPS driver to work well into the evening on Christmas Eve, we'd wait for my dad to get home earlier than usual, pile into the car, and make a snowy trek across town to my grandparent’s house. The same house my mom had grown up in, that her sisters had grown up in. The house my grandfather helped to build. A house that smelled like fresh baked [insert absolutely anything delicious here] upon entry, and you did not leave without a piece of chocolate cake, some cookies, and likely more. We are talking almond banket to die for (or rather, live for, to be accurate).

littlemechristmaseveOn Christmas Eve, it was even better. We were rarely the first ones to arrive, and the kitchen was already bustling. You didn't make it past the threshold of the Lang house without hugs. So many big, strong (the kind where you genuinely are squeezing your happiness to see the person right into them), loving hugs. Crockpots were humming away, my mom's sisters were  concocting "christmas eve only" dishes (which I, to this day, have yet to acquire a taste for, and likely, at the rate we are going, never will). Some strange white dip in a big pumpernickel (or was it rye?) bread bowl... I think it likely had some roots in ranch, perhaps? And then, the unholiest of them all, the cream cheese and fake crab plate. I still don't understand that one (no matter how many imitation crab meat rangoons I scarf down on Thai-food nights).  My mom would always say how awful it made her feel to eat it and yet every year, there she was, with her cracker scooping it on and in. These were the great mysteries of life, as a child, you know.

There was alcohol flowing, certainly more than I realized as a small child. I'd mingle with my mom's sisters while my brothers (brother and cousin, but there was little distinction at the time) made a beeline for the basement to play ping-pong, and later pool, once my grandfather trusted them to not scuff the felt without adult supervision (which required an age older than anyone of us would likely care to admit). One year they even somehow managed to manipulate at least one adult into letting them bring their Super Nintendo over with them and hooked it up to a small TV in the spare bedroom that also held the piano (which is the other place you could usually find me on these nights - in my own little world trying to teach myself to play or just pretending I could, and making it up as I went along... no one was paying attention enough to make me stop playing the undoubtedly horrid melodies my finger were coming up with).

We never really ate a formal meal, although there was usually some point where the adults made a play at calling it "eating time" to (A) prolong the wait for present opening  and (B) force us kids to eat something (anything) more substantial than Christmas cookies and cake. They'd all been eating since we walked in the door though, let's be real.

UTTER delight
from a vacuum.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, if not days, of waiting, we would get to open our presents. In my immediate family you didn't get any (any) kind of presents unless it was your birthday or Christmas - and there was unmatched anticipation, as a result. Now, like most children, I thought toys were way, way better than clothes, and on Christmas Eve, it was about the former.

There were not a lot of grandchildren. Two of my mom's three sisters never had children, so there were just four of us, and one was so much older that by the time I have much memory of it all she was basically an adult, too. As the years went on, the adults stopped exchanging any gifts and just did the equivalent of a white elephant game, which I thought was the best entertainment of the night (even if I might not have fully grasped the humor of a giant summer sausage wrapped up in a box the first year).

Afterwards, we'd clean up the paper, play with our gifts a bit. Visit just a little bit longer, and begin to pack up all of the leftovers and barter our way out the door back into the snow. (No grandpa, I don't need another cookie. No, grandpa, I don't need an extra light, I can see my shoelaces just fine. Thank you, grandpa. I love you, grandpa.)

On the way home we'd stop by Christmas Card Lane (yes, that is something that actually exists in the quaint little city of Kalamazoo, Michigan and yes, the wifey and I just decided this year as we started our annual "date night" off with a drive down it that we are bringing that little gem of Christmas magic right to our little corner of the world in Denver). Dad would always drive too fast and we'd call the handful of houses without a card or light out front "fuddy duddys."

As time passed things changed. What felt like the biggest, hardest change at the time was my grandma's passing (from whom our little sweet pepper takes her name). My grandpa thought it would be just too much to have Christmas Eve at his house and we decided to move the festivities to my parent's house. It was a strange feeling, at first. But it's funny how things become normal... I never stopped missing the presence of my grandma in her element cooking and hosting away in that 1950s carpet-lined kitchen, but we were still all together. She was present in the traditions, the rules, and most of all in every single bite of food - it all came back to her.

After my mom battled her way through cancer and needed some new surroundings for the next chapter in her, and our, lives, we said good-bye to my childhood home that had become the unexpected host of Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve, along with all of our belongings and memories, moved to a new home. That first year we all piled into a very small first floor of "the farmhouse" and all the traditions piled in with us. Enough food to feed an army, drinks flowing, and laughter that still makes my heart happy to think about.

On the one hand, some might say this story is about to take a turn for the worse, with an unfortunate ending (or rather, temporary placeholder?). On the other, I can most certainly say with the utmost confidence and candidness that every Christmas Eve I have ever been a part of, this year's included, has not lacked food, drinks, laughter, and so much love. Things have changed, and if there was a way to bend the world to my will, I would not have written the story this way. Yet, here we are, and thankfully I'm surrounded by an amazing family that knows we have one single short life to live and life to love, so we better do a whole hell of a lot of both at every chance we get.

In 2014 my grandfather's dementia was getting worse, and worse. Based on what I saw while I spent countless hours and more than a handful of days with him in the months that followed, he was likely long past the day he should have been living alone. Late in the humid, Michigan summer that year my parents asked him to come live with them (not for the first time, to say the least), and he finally accepted. While anyone who got to spend time with him in those days knows it was, without a doubt, the absolute best thing for him given where his mental abilities were at by that point, chaos resulted. That rock-hard family I started this little story with? Not so, unfortunately.

Christmas Eve, 2013, was the last Christmas Eve I still considered my family "low drama" or anything close to normal. But those next few Christmas Eves with my grandpa living at our house? Just as love-filled (and food-filled) as ever. Did he warm up his coffee 100+ times a day? You're damn right. Did he scare the living daylights out of my children when he came up them and said "wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!" right in their face? Absolutely. Was it as great as ever? You bet.

I spent a lot of days and weeks at my parents in the years that followed. He was a different man than the guy I had spent the first 29(ish) years knowing, but he was still Homer somewhere deep inside, and you only got to see that if you spent time with him. Homer-style time, just sitting around, shootin' the breeze. I am eternally grateful for every one of those memories. I can't imagine him having passed on without the moments and conversations we had in those last three years (whether he remembered them or not). I remember sitting at the kitchen table that same Christmas, in 2014, finally pregnant with two little peppers in my belly, and talking about it with my then 91-year-old grandfather. "There's TWO?!" he'd say. Then, randomly at dinner another day he'd blurt out, "Twins, right? Twins in Colorado? Two girls? wow... I'll be." Yep, my 91-year-old grandpa was ALL about those sweet peppers.

That was when he still remembered some things. Not everything, by any stretch, but he could still latch on to the important stuff - like his future great-grandaughters and his granddaughter in law whom he absolutely adored (I mean, my wife is pretty amazing - but he was more loving and supportive than anyone, myself included, even expects of 91 year old man).

Grandpa Homer and spicy pepper
Christmas Eve 2016
The following year we spent over 10 weeks in Michigan, total. We saw his disease take over.

But his health? Impeccable! This (now 92-year-old) man would get down on the floor (all the way) and talk in some alien high pitched baby voice to the peppers, get them to hold his finger, etc. - and he would just nimbly pick himself right on up. No help needed. He had more core strength than many healthy thirty-somethings, to say the least. Man, did this man know how to love.

It was that summer it became clear he couldn't stay home alone for any stretch of time. My mom made more sacrifices, but never batted an eye. It's what you do, you know? Ironically, she was fighting tooth and nail to be able to make those sacrifices. If my children have one tenth of that unconditional love and commitment to me, that my mom had to her dad, I will be one incredibly lucky old woman ("good lord willin'", as my grandpa would say).

I'm not sure what was happening to our extended family through all of this. I suppose we're fortunate it happened before my girls were old enough to understand, so they didn't have to know and love people that would have eventually been ripped from their lives, but of course I wonder if it could have somehow never happened. I desperately wish my mom could not have to worry and wonder each and every day if her day is going to be turned upside down because someone, someone she still finds love in her heart for, is having a bad day.... The kindest way to explain it is a deeply tragic and heartbreaking illness, but sometimes I wonder if I have concocted some grandiose story only to convince myself that that much hate couldn't live inside someone I share a family tree with? It's something we all do, you know? Come up with a better, more swallowable version of what might be reality to convince ourselves it's not just simple human nature. I see it on CNN everyday.
Sweet pepper reading about
Dr. King today

"Hate doesn't drive out hate, only love can do that."  I jump down the throats of folks who say things like, "How could anyone be that hateful?" Being hateful and judgemental about someone else's hate isn not what is going to eliminate that hate (thanks, Dr. King). It will not move us forward, and I'm toeing that line, as it is what I genuinely believe. I was witness to too many illogical and often grotesque, if not obscene, interactions for me to pretend it all never happened, but it's far too disturbing to amount to something as simple and ignorant as hate.

“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” Dr. King, those are high aspirations to live up to with our very president spewing hate at every chance. Mighty high.

Alas, you are a stranger. And, this? This is a rabbit hole and certainly unworthy of being explored furthered in a story about the most magical of family traditions in our family (although for the sake of my soul and my need to process and find my voice, to be re-opened another time, another day). As is clear by now, our beloved Christmas Eve tradition was never the same - different, and unfortunately so, but not any less than. Many of the magical staples I remember fondly are still true, and you can sure as hell bet we are thriving - hugs abound, plentiful food (although no love lost on the bucket of white dip and crab plate), and laughter in every room - perhaps now more than ever with all the little ones running up and down the halls of my parent's house... a house I once wondered if I'd ever consider home, but holiday traditions like recent Christmas Eves have certainly made it no less a home than any other.

Love, and only love, makes a family. It's what made, and continues to make, Christmas Eve a cherished night and a beloved family tradition every single year of my life, past, present, and future.

My high school graduation
This past Christmas Eve was the first without my grandfather, and his absence was felt at every turn. But good men and good women build great families, and great families carry on traditions. Martha Ellen and Homer Cecil will live on forever in our traditions, and better yet, in our love for each other. My girls may never have met their grandma Martha, but they know her love, as they know grandpa Homer's, and will share that love with the world.

That is the power of traditions, and the magic of love.