Fritz could be my kid! I was thrilled to have this realization during one of my many, many viewings of The Nutcracker. I love The Nutcracker—the music, the dancing, the costumes. I am lucky enough to have seen it performed professionally several times.

My dad took me to see it as a kid and even in college. I made my husband take me when I was pregnant with our first child, and I forced my sons to go with me once they were old enough. This is actually not as hard a sell for boys as you might imagine. After all, there are swordfights and a Mouse King and all sorts of acrobatic dancing.

Most people picture graceful ballerinas and Sugar Plum Fairies when they think of The Nutcracker, but the story is actually not all so sweet. If you recall, the Nutcracker in the title is the gift given to young Clara by her beloved godfather on Christmas Eve. Her brother Fritz gets jealous, grabs the Nutcracker from Clara, and breaks it. That’s totally something my kids would do!

Nutcracker, missing an arm and his hat

A big part of my holiday stress since becoming a parent is due to the expectations involved in celebrating Christmas. There are my children’s outrageous gift lists, filled with live animals (hedgehogs, hamsters), loud musical instruments (a drum set, a ukelele), and every other page of the Lego catalog. Then there’s the jockeying of the relatives, all of them intent on getting equal time with my children. And there are the endless invitations and obligations, all of which seem to cost money and time I don’t have.

But mostly my stress is caused by this ridiculous notion that kids are supposed to be good and patient and grateful at all times in the midst of this melee—while all jacked up on sugar and up way past their bedtimes. The naughty/nice list is too much pressure on an energetic little boy with no concept of time or delayed gratification. Anyone who playfully warns, “Santa’s watching…” while wagging a finger at a kid having a hissy fit should be choked with a string of twinkle lights.

People who picture the holidays filled with cherubs in footy pajamas sweetly clutching teddy bears while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads need to come to my house in December. It’s all broken ornaments, tantrums, and time-outs around here. I am seriously considering having “Kids are why we can’t have nice things” stitched on a throw pillow.

But The Nutcracker reminds me that this is normal. Kids are sometimes often cranky and tired during the holidays. Sometimes they are unhappy with their gifts. No matter how much you coach them to force a smile and thank Aunt Betty for the hand-knitted wool socks, kids don’t have good poker faces. They might frown and pout when they get a lame gift. And let’s be honest: plenty of adults do too. Some of us just have better poker faces.

At Christmastime, I try to keep my expectations low and my décor replaceable. I may never have a Nutcracker to pass down to my grandchildren as a family heirloom, mostly because my own kids will have destroyed it first. But Nutcrackers make bad gifts for kids, anyway. You’re better off picking something out of the Lego catalog. May I recommend page 32?

{This post is part of the #Reverb16 writing challenge I am participating in this month, in response to the Day 5 prompt: What do you hate about the holidays? You can find out more about Reverb and how to participate here.}

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Life Goes On

by Abby on October 19, 2016

People still have to eat. Even in the midst of grief and loss and unthinkable events, people still need food multiple times a day. This was the thought that occurred to me two days after my father-in-law passed away.

breakfast

On some level, it seemed astounding to me that the world kept turning. I couldn’t believe things like groceries and mail and trash pickup continued to exist. Didn’t they KNOW? Didn’t the rest of the world REALIZE? Something earth-shattering had happened. A person who was loved, vibrant, and full of life was gone. Didn’t that merit a moment of silence, at least? A break? A pause?

But no, life continued its unrelenting pace. If anything, the pace of my life picked up. All of a sudden I had to notify teachers, book plane tickets, cancel piano lessons, procure khakis and new shoes – oh, and comfort my heartbroken husband and children who had just lost their beloved dad and grandfather.

I found myself in a shoe store in the god-forsaken mall on a Friday night with both boys, fighting back tears, the words of two separate friends echoing in my head: one of the hardest parts about being a mom is not being able to feel your feelings when they’re happening. They were right. No time for tears, no going back to bed, hiding in the shower, dissolving into a puddle of grief. There are kids to dress! Errands to run! Peanut butter sandwiches to make! People still have to EAT. It feels so unfair.

I was in awe of my sisters-in-law, who sprung into action organizing services, making arrangements, returning phone calls, preparing food. There was just so much to DO. And everyone rose to the occasion. Like a busy ant colony, each person carried far more than their own weight, on top of the crushing weight of their grief, to ease the burden on the others. In the midst of it all, my mother-in-law continued on. Breathing, hostessing, functioning. I was amazed.

I was also somewhat dismayed to realize that my children still needed attention. They still needed someone – me – to shepherd them through meals and brushing their teeth, someone to break up their squabbles, someone to tell them to quiet down and share. They were sad, too, of course. At the sight of Pop’s empty armchair, my 7yo’s eyes filled up with silent tears. But young children don’t sit around solemnly for days, allowing you to process your grief and collect your thoughts.

One morning I decided the best thing I could do was get them out of the house and out of everyone’s hair. So we found ourselves at a botanical garden on a cool, misty Massachusetts day. It ended up being the perfect place. The boys tore around the grounds, chasing each other and leaping over steps and walls, burning off their pent-up energy and maybe processing their grief in their own little-boy way. Meanwhile, I caught my breath. I sat on a bench. I had a moment of silence for my father-in-law.

Stickworks installation at Tower Hill botanical gardens

He was a special person. I wrote about him years ago, and those recollections still hold true. A dedicated family man. Appreciative of life and simple pleasures. Always thinking of others. Quick with a joke and to offer a glass of wine. He raised 5 kids, worked 2 jobs, had 10 grandchildren. He knew better than anyone that life doesn’t stop to wait for you. It goes on whether we’re ready or not, which is both a burden and a blessing.

Baby Riley and Pop

He would also understand that people need to eat. He adored Italian food, fresh lobstah and clam chowdah, and strawberry sundaes. I think that one of the biggest injustices of the cancer he battled for 6+ years is that it robbed him of the pleasure of eating. Chemo treatment dulled his appetite and his taste buds so that everything he ate tasted like sandpaper, he once told me.

Cancer didn’t steal his sense of humor, though. We shared a running family joke about The Tiramisu Incident of 2006. My in-laws came to visit us in Baltimore shortly before our first son was born. My MIL and I went to a play, which I barely remember because my maternity pants were so tight at that point they were cutting off my circulation.

Meanwhile, my husband and FIL went to a bar to watch the Red Sox, probably. Afterwards, they got tiramisu at an Italian bakery. Neither one of them could stop raving about this delectable confection, and how it was THE BEST TIRAMISU they’d ever had. Yet did either one of these gentlemen think to bring his wife a piece? Even though one of their wives was 9 MOS. PREGNANT?! No, they did not. We’ve never let them live it down.

When I think of my father-in-law, it will always be with a mixture of joy and sadness. We had some great times together. He is gone too soon. And life goes on, whether you’re ready or not. The next day comes, the next meal is served, and we all take our places around the table again, only with one chair now empty. You will be missed, Pop.

empty chair

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You’re Killing Me, September

September 22, 2016

The September tsunami has hit. I had high hopes that this year would be different, and the back-to-school stress would be minimal. I tried. Oh, how I tried. I went school-supply shopping — blessedly without the kids (their idea) — painstakingly digging through the picked-over bins at Target, Michael’s, Rite Aid, and Big Lots (yep, […]

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I’ve Been Doing Self-Care Wrong

September 7, 2016

Turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. The whole time I’ve been an adult, and especially a mom, I have been approaching self-care the wrong way. But first let me just say that it took me a while to get comfortable with that term, “self-care.” It sounded so… cheesy? Touchy-feely? Indulgent? Far less appealing, […]

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Dreaming of Water

August 1, 2016

“Mama, sometimes I dream something that happens in real life.” “Really?” I don’t tell him then, but this has happened to me, too. A room, a rug, a place—snippets of subconscious that come to life at a later date. A flicker of recognition, a feeling of déjà vu. Where have I seen this before? Oh, […]

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Reflections on a Decade of Motherhood

June 8, 2016

My oldest son turns 10 today. I started blogging when I was pregnant with him. I’m glad I did, because I have a record of my thoughts and feelings as I made the transition to motherhood, memories that otherwise would have been blurred, misremembered, and even lost entirely to sleep-deprivation and aging brain cells. You […]

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On Cute Baked Goods, Folding Thongs, and Perspective

March 20, 2016

Somewhere along the line, women’s perspectives got majorly messed up. I’m not naming names (Sheryl Sandberg, Marie Kondo), but somehow we have absorbed the barrage of information and opinions coming at us and emerged with the idea that all successful women are killing it at Fortune 500 companies and folding their thongs. (Seriously! There’s a […]

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I’m Breaking Up With Winter

February 16, 2016

Winter and I do not get along. Oh, it starts out promisingly, like a new relationship. Those first fleeting flakes, glistening romantically against the evergreens. The cozy fires and hot chocolate. The sledding and impromptu get-togethers with neighbors and friends. It’s invigorating. A break from the routine. But then things start to decline. One snow […]

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The Blizzard of 2016 in Emojis

January 27, 2016

You may have heard we got some snow here in the Baltimore area. Up to 30 inches, to be precise. But on Friday when they cancelled school I was confused. Because there wasn’t any snow. Yet. So I cleaned my house and invited the neighbors over. Fun! By Friday evening the snow was falling fast, and […]

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‘You Might as Well Dance’

January 14, 2016
Thumbnail image for ‘You Might as Well Dance’

My last living grandparent passed away last weekend, just a couple of weeks after he celebrated his 103rd birthday. I’ve written about my grandfather before. He was a great storyteller. One of my favorites was about the time he ran away from summer camp and supported his solo adventures by entering and winning dance contests. His […]

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