A Little #Memoir #Music for a #Writer’s #Christmas

Christmas divides Bo and me in a few quirky ways. He’s all about the magic of Santa Claus, Spritz cookies in a rainbow of colors and sprinkles and chips made with his mother’s cookie press, Frank Sinatra crooning as he crumbles ginger snaps over a ham, bordered by mountains of peeled potatoes and veg and butter as he cooks the blazin’ jingle bells out of our kitchen.

For me, it’s all about the music, and that music has always started with a blast of Mannheim Steamroller at sunrise the day after Thanksgiving.

Amidst the groans and pillows thrown at the door to shut it, I could never stop smiling, because that music announced the Christmas decorations had been pulled down from the attic. It also warned us to keep out of the living room, for it was now littered with strings of lights Dad was determined to save, and branches for our ancient fake tree we so often managed to fill with action figures and plush animals before Dad gave up on those blasted replacement bulbs and got new sets.

Mom always helped with the ornaments as a precious vinyl played: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. One song in particular could make her laugh no matter what had happened that day, and drew out the silly side we so rarely saw during a stressful school year. She even pulled this song out while my kids helped her decorate this year, and the four of them giggled and danced enough to shake the snowmen watching from her hutch.

For me, music ripples through memory and carries back the echoes of laughter past.

The insanity of Advent and Christmas preparations tossed baking aside as an impossibility. Did my brothers and I miss out? Oh heavens, no. What better gift for a pastor’s family than a plate of cookies/gingerbread house/cookie bars/brownies/anything sugary? Our screen porch would quickly fill with gifted treats from our congregations. We could have made whole meals off of cookies until Lent. 

For me, stepping onto the cold wood into a sugary kingdom of plastic wrap and frosting always carried a hope for a glimpse of snow. See, snow’s not a common visitor in Wisconsin during December. Lord knows why: we get it at Halloween, often at Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as Easter, but in my three and a half decades on this planet I can only remember a handful of white Christmases. So when snow falls, thickly and heavily, it is a true Christmas miracle.

Christmas Eve Night has always carried the most magic.

For me, we had no Santa–not because my parents were against Santa, but because it just wasn’t practical in our house: we always opened our gifts Christmas Eve night after all the services were over. When I was small, though, and living in a small hunter’s town in the North Woods, we’d visit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

No, I’m not making that up. No, I don’t know why renting a Santa suit and setting up a neat little booth was more difficult than constructing a giant puppet theater/stable with a great black sheet behind this giant, car-hood sized head of Rudolph with a red nose the size of a fist and a mouth that barely moved. (I sifted through all the photos in my house for an image, but alas.) I can’t remember much of those visits, but to this day my mother gives us a little something from Rudolph.

The magic of Christmas Eve night has always come with music.

After a day in itchy stockings and awkward dresses, sitting in church pews chanting “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a decree,” running laps around the classroom while teachers stuffed us with Kool-Aid, cheese, and Hershey kisses only to go back into the church for another round of “that a census should be taken of the enTIRE ROMAN world,” fighting off the other kids for your coat and those aren’t my mittens Mommy someone’s got my right boot…after getting a ride home with Grandma and Grandpa and stepping into the house because Mom and Dad have one more candlelight service at church:

The door opens to the Christmas tree, glowing with thousands of lights. The whole house smells of chili and spiced apples from the kitchen, simmering all afternoon. The Advent wreath candles glow upon the table laden with Great-Grandma’s china and crystal.

And music: Dad always has music, often choirs, singing softly all day long.

To enter twinkling lights, savory scents, and sweet harmonies brought Christmas’ magic to life in me and around me. Add Grandma’s laughter, Grandpa’s turns on the piano, the long-awaited sound of the garage that meant Mom and Dad are home and at last, long last, it’s time for presents and sweets late into the night…

Music always flows around us, but its power heightens with Christmas. May the sounds of the season enchant your Christmas, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

Writer’s Music: Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum

Few times in the year do we, at least many of us, see magic in the air. Even if one doesn’t believe in the baby Jesus, herald angels singing, and all that jazz, we tell our children that an old guy has flying reindeer and a sled filled with enough toys for hundreds of millions of children and he visits each and every child on the planet over the course of 24 hours. We tell them to believe in the impossible.

The magic.

And the music of the season has a feel unlike any other. Songs of Santa Claus jiggle like a bowl full of jelly, sure, but the carols of religious nature hold a sweet warmth to them like the candles of an advent wreath.

But this particular song takes the magic even further. Last year, I shared a carol sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that transcended, narrowing the gap between this world and Heaven. Today, I want to share the song that thins the divide between our world and magic’s realm.

Yes, it’s still a song about Christ, and yet…it begins with the harp. I initially heard this song sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who used bells. Bells resonate in the air, and their tin separates their notes  from the voices. The Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum, who sing the version I’m sharing, let the harp flow, the string plucks like trickling water from a fallen log in the stream.

And the choir: the circle of voices carry their harmonies unbroken as though the wind itself sings among trees. One soprano holds the melody as the moon gives light to the land. There’s no dramatic swell as there was with “What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger.” This song simply rises and falls as water upon the shore. It is Nature’s carol, quiet and mystical. It beckons one from mankind’s harsh light into the dark forest, where its magical kiss hides in a single snowflake.

Let us find it, you and I.

Facade

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I walk into the master bathroom and find a square present with “Happy Anniversary!” written in silver. Granted, Bo and I got married on New Year’s Eve, so to see such a gift on Christmas Day wasn’t outlandish. In the bathroom, though…anyway.

“I’m so excited! Open it, open it!” My sister-in-law Bev revels in all things special occasion. She’ll spend hours at work planning lavish parties and celebrations, the tiniest details settled weeks in advance. The fact she has been written up at work for not doing work is beside the point. Parties! She sucks in her breath a bit to fit between the half-wall and Christmas tree. “I did it at work. So easy, so fun, you know?”

That’s comforting, I think as I unwrap…a photo book of my wedding to Bo. It’s sweet, nice. I say as much.

Bev looks over my arm at the family picture which includes Bo, his brother, her. We do not comment on the change nine years and a child have done to her once marathon-ready body. We don’t have to. Tears once again well up in the corner of her eyes. I flip the page and comment on Grandpa Varinski, already losing the fight to Parkinson’s. Grandma Varinski, bless the old bird, swooped in and grabbed the book with her talons before I could turn another page. Bev could talk to her about all the pictures, about the smiles. About the niceties.

I can see the appeal of The Show. Sure, our house is always this clean. I’ve always got time to scrapbook. Oh, this ol’ recipe? Sure it took three hours to prep, but who doesn’t have the time? Care for a race car made of crackers and olives?

That Show, it proves to others you can manage work and family with time for you to spare. PROVES it, beyond a doubt. In Bev’s mind, that is.

No one likes to think about Life After the Show. Of an alcoholic family who doesn’t understand what decades of neglect can do to a person. Of a toddler who bites and screams and kicks the pet. Of a husband who doesn’t want another child. Far easier to close the curtain on the Real, and embrace The Show. Make it go on, and on…

With the help of wine and pills, Bev nearly did just that.

Bo turned on his phone when he reached work at 4am to find a flurry of text messages from his brother: Bev locked herself in the bathroom and tried to kill herself. Cops were called. Boy is with the Varinskis. She has to stay at a clinic for an eval. Not sure if she’ll be out by Christmas.

It is not a reality many can easily understand. Grandma Varinski still thinks it has only to do with alcohol. Sure, alcohol didn’t help, but it’s only a microphone for the voices already there. Few get how those Dark Solutions can speak up in the calmest, quietest voices, the same voices that tell you to wear shoes because it’s cold outside. I can still remember my own:

Put your shoes on. Dump your son on the side of the road.

Fix your daughter a snack. Break your son’s fingers.

 

It all flows together and makes so. Much. Sense. For Bev, the Dark fixed on her rather than her son. You don’t matter. You’re a horrible mother. Your own family could give a shit. Why should you?

Bo receives word from his brother: Bev is out. We’re coming Christmas Eve. She doesn’t want to be treated differently.

O-kay.

So, here we are, Christmas Day, happy smiles and bawdy jokes, and Bev on the verge of tears. Always on the verge of tears. Everyone knows, but no one comes to her, asks her how she’s feeling. She requested this be a happy Christmas, so by God, we’ll make it a happy Christmas.

Facades aren’t allowed to react. We’ll go through our designed motions, provide loads of accolades to her for her baking, for how well her son sang with his class. Remain fixed on the excellent, and nothing else.

Christmas lights are always so good at softening the world, giving it glowing warmth and magic. Bev endeavors to capture the tree in as many pictures as possible, to capture proof she did, indeed, have a happy Christmas after attempting suicide. When her son refuses to follow her directions for a sweet pose, I point out I don’t even try with Biff and Bash. I point out my own shortcomings, my children’s shortcomings, time and again, and the façade grows ever more real with my reality’s harsh details contrasting her perception of how her life should be.

Inside, I can’t help but think, almost bitterly: I am no façade.

Shut up, Jean. Today is supposed to be a good day for the kids.

So why am I bitter?

The book didn’t help. Seeing my father’s face, so alive, so joyful, knowing he won’t hear Blondie talk about Darth Vader or watch Bash fly up and down the halls like a helicopter or Biff go around looking for words, spelling them out, remembering them. Knowing who wasn’t with me, in my house, made me bitter, yes. Life wasn’t perfect. It’s supposed to be perfect.

No.

That’s Dark Thinking, Thinking Bev invited, entertained, all too often. And that entertaining nearly led to her Last Show.

No.

I accept Biff and Bash can be right little bastards. But they are amazing, too. Blondie frustrates me with her lack of imagination, but that is only because she doesn’t have what I perceive to be the RIGHT imagination. My life is filled with little glowing blessings that one harsh moment, feeling, can cut out. But just because they’re turned off doesn’t mean they’re not there. I need only find the source of the problem, untangle it from myself, and throw it out. The glowing returns, and I sit, and stare, and marvel at how such blessings could possibly be mine.

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Writer’s Music: Mormon Tabernacle Choir

I admit, music with words is rarely great for writing. One can so easily get swept up by the lyrics and the passion of the song itself, rather than take the passion of the orchestration and use it to propel the characters and plot forward.

Still, a unique aura glows around Christmas music. There is innocence and tragedy. Joy and sorrow. One is thrilled in the Coming, yet one knows what has to eventually happen, and one is brought to weep.

This is precisely what I feel when listening to “What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger?” as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The timid beginning with minimal instrumental back-up has that shy sense of a child first approaching a new sibling. The stanzas that follow introduce more voices and more instruments. The choir returns to its timid state for the final verse, and then…the build. Oh, the build. The orchestra and chorus both swell up, and up, and you’ll find yourself on your knees with your eyes to heaven awaiting the appearance of The Star.

In other words, it’s a pretty cool song, and if you want your characters to be, well, in awe for a moment, this song befits the need and the season. A blessed Christmas to you.

Click here for more on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.