I love New York City. I have never loved a city more. I grew up in Tallahassee and have a deep love for its rolling hills and canopied oaks and its sweet southern people. But given the choice, I’d move to New York. Tomorrow. I wouldn’t leave my family, obviously. And I wouldn’t do it against the wishes of those important to me. But a girl can dream. And my dream is to live in New York.
I grew up in the aisles of public libraries. And in those aisles, I once put my hands on a Madeleine L’Engle book. After that first one, I put my hands on all of her books. I’ve never read another author that punched my gut more, struck more chords, or created more relatable characters. She was the voice of my dreams. The words of my unfolding childhood. The Small Rain. Camilla. A Wrinkle in Time. The Moon By Night.
As I fly home from NYC, I have Becoming Madeleine in my lap. It is her story, written by her granddaughters. Her story unfolds like the dream I once had for myself. But sometimes goals and dreams don’t line up. I never want to miss my life for my dreams. I can’t risk looking away from what’s been entrusted to me–and from the One who entrusted–to gaze at the what-ifs. Maybe even the what-shouldn’t-bes. Dreams can relocate. Dreams can change. Dreams can be deferred. Life can’t. If I get to the end of my life and never get a single page published but my kids are gathered around me, I have succeeded exponentially. I would have no regrets. On the other hand, if I get to the end surrounded by a career but having missed the point of the beautiful people, my regret would be the final chapter, likely read by nobody special.
For now, I’ll continue walking the lighted path in front of me, reading anything L’Engle, satisfied that I managed to create in 4 young people a love and respect for the colors and energy of New York City on a trip I will never forget. For now, that is dream enough and far more than I deserve.
But if fortune plays a different hand someday and I up and disappear, you can find me on a rainy day in Times Square. I’ll be the one looking a little confused and carrying a cheap umbrella.
“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.” -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I am sitting in the airport, delayed because the sky has settled into the ground like thick gauze. There’s zero visibility. It could be 3 p.m. It could be midnight. Nobody would know the difference. I’m fine to wait until someone can see something. I do hope I get home to my dog tonight.
We arranged our last few itinerary wishes around the forecast. Our forethought in doing so still wasn’t enough. You can’t know how hard the rain will be. You can’t know how many other people you’ll be dodging as you walk through it. And you can’t know how bad a $6.99 umbrella from Duane Read (Walgreens) will be.
Or can you?
I had some time to kill last night while four of my people went into Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I never go into a Ripley’s because I am in the Or Not category and I figure if I’m going to make fun of every exhibit, I can do that outside for free. So I did. I had a duplicate stocking stuffer to return with a receipt to Duane Read. I figured I’d just get on ahead of the forecast and buy my family some umbrellas for today.
After returning the items I had bought and not used in the kids’ stockings, I slapped 6 emergency ponchos and 6 generic black Duane Read umbrellas up on the counter. The man checking me out had long blue hair and looked like he used to be in Genesis. He stopped the process and looked at me.
“Is it raining right now?” he asked.
“No,” I answered. “But I saw that it was supposed to start by 3 a.m. and we have a lot on the schedule tomorrow, so I thought I would buy the umbrellas now.”
“Oh, ok,” he replied. “Just asking. Because we usually only sell this umbrella when it is raining right then.”
Hmm. I’m not sure I like your tone, sir.
“I only need the umbrella for one day,” I said. “We’ll trash it when we’re done. You think it’s got a day in it?”
“Hopefully,” he said. He had begun ringing me up. Even buying the worst umbrellas I could find, with emergency ponchos, I still rang up to $63.10. I wasn’t going to go higher in quality. That meant going higher in price.
I dropped those umbrellas into a brand new Pusheen backpack and walked across the street to Starbucks where I ordered myself a nice hot cocoa with an abundance of whipped cream. There was something about that whole experience that made me feel both very grown up and very childish. The backpack didn’t help my case. Walking to Bryant Park alone, did.
When I awakened this morning, I looked out at the Empire State building and it was lost in the drizzle and the clouds. A 90 story building that had boasted the colors of Christmas throughout our stay was no match for today’s gloom. We packed up and got out early, because our plan was to visit the 9-11 memorial and museum. A few other people made that same plan. So many that we changed our plan to stomping in disgust and getting back on the subway. Well, that’s not exactly how it went, but I personally was bitterly disappointed to skip that. We stood in the rain at the footprint of both the fallen towers and observed the memorial. Then we gave up on the museum.
We wandered the rest of the morning in a rainy Times Square and ate lunch in La Havana. The rain fell cold around us, but we had our $6.99 umbrellas, so we stayed not dry at all. One of the umbrellas only deployed by shaking it furiously, which becomes awkward in a crowd. Brady’s umbrella deployed forcefully at random, which at one point almost caused him a concussion. None of us asked him why he had it pointed at his own head, but it would have been a fair question to ask. The fact that none of us asked probably is its own answer. Jenna’s umbrella turned inside out three different times when the wind hit her wrong. And mine literally separated into two pieces. Other than that, I highly recommend the Duane Read $6.99 generic black umbrella.
The wet cold settled into us until we made it back to our hotel to gather our belongings. Our feet were soaked. Our clothes needed some time with a hotel hair dryer. But the colors. The colors. The colors in Times Square laid like mosaics in the wet streets. It was far more vivid than the dry days we walked it. Sometimes there are gifts in the rain. And colors in the rainy streets.
And sometimes the best thing one can do when it rains is to let it rain.
But there’s also something to be said for a quality umbrella.
After the night we had, I think I should probably stick to bullet points this morning. I’m also plunking this out on my phone, and we all know how phone typing goes for me.
Last night around 11:30, when I was threatening bodily harm already to the girls who wouldn’t stop flapping their gums, Jenna says, “What’s that creepy noise?” My answer was, “Go to sleep or the creepy noise will be the spanking you’re getting.” Oh, who am I kidding? She is who she is because she needed spanking and I just couldn’t do it.
Anyway, I’m good at the threats.
But, as I lay there with my good ear against a pillow and my bad ear to the air, I heard a noise too. A noise like dripping. A dripping like Niagara Falls. So I got up to check the bathroom, thinking our shower was dripping and discovered that the hotel room directly above us was raining right into our room. I grabbed the phone to call downstairs and Tim was at the door before I could even change clothes. Don’t worry. It’s too cold here to be indecent.
Tim didn’t have much to offer. No maintenance or mechanics were on duty and there were no rooms like ours available. I said good night to Tim and used every towel in the place to soak up the water and prayer to stop the water.
Then we tried all over again to get the talkers to shut up. Threaten and repeat.
This morning, I checked the situation and the water was no worse. I hope they fix it upstairs because I don’t want to leave this room.
Since sleep was abbreviated, I’ll keep the post abbreviated also.
After wandering a rather interesting neighborhood looking for the 2nd Street Subway station, we asked a man if he could tell us where it was. That man answered as kindly and articulately as any person I’ve ever talked to in my life. “Well, yes sir. It’s just right across this street, attached to the corner of the Whole Foods.” I was convinced he was Columbia University educated. Todd and Brady said he was homeless. Shows what they know.
Walking 34th Street with Todd and Brady at night and introducing Brady to Macy’s.
STOMP. What a great show they put on, in a theater they own in the aforementioned interesting neighborhood.
Riding the subway. The people watching is amazing. Not walking 30 blocks is a magic all its own.
The view from the 86th floor of the Empire State building.
The Black Magical Moments:
The 2nd Street Subway Station. Once we finally found it, we knew why it was hard to find. It’s because you shouldn’t find it. It shouldn’t be found.
Walking 34th Street with the girls. Let’s just leave it at this. I took them back to the hotel to stay with Andrew.
Brady got accosted by a dude selling airheads. “Don’t be scared, boy,” he said. We grabbed our son from the evil clutches and kept walking. We’re not scared, fella. WE JUST DON’T WANT NO STINKING AIRHEADS!
Lucy cannot pass a tour/bus company employee without accepting a pamphlet. “Don’t take any pamphlets” has become a family catchphrase.
Jenna is an easy target for people dressed up like Elmo and the Grinch. They grab her for a picture and before we know it, she’s posed between two strangers wanting our money. We. Don’t.want.the.airheads.people.
The line to the view from the 86th floor of the Empire State building.
There are a lot of people visiting New York City right now who apparently had the same idea we did.
They should have stayed home.
Happy Holidays. Wishing you the good kind of magic.
Everyone knows. Christmas ends 6 minutes after it officially begins. It ends faster than the Thanksgiving meal. That’s why I try to get my lights and decorations up at a ridiculous rate. When the magic is over, it’s over.
It was over at our house by 3 p.m. on Chrismas day. Sometimes we could cool my mother’s Jets for another 18 hours, which meant that our tree wasn’t at the curb until 8 a.m. December 26. But that was all we could hope for unless she had plans.
We consoled ourselves with the toys. Avert your eyes away from the dead tree and ride that big wheel, Missy.
This year was tough all around. For everyone, not just for me. It was a year of character testing and refining and pain and growth and ultimately, joy. There are things you cannot go around. You have to go through. For this round, I think we are through the hardest stuff. We are looking back on it with a Yeesh emoji face, feeling relieved to still be on our feet. Feeling wiser, but only in the areas where we were tested. We’ll mess up again in a whole new category.
The magic of the season had taken a hiatus from the people and places we normally found it. So we took a hiatus, too. And we have found it in new places and activities. And though it is past 8 a.m. on December 26, I hope to prolong the magic for a couple more days.
This year’s magic:
Wandering the Time Square Walgreens for stocking stuffers on Christmas Eve while trying to avoid the girls who were in the store with me.
Matching hats and scarves that don’t make you sweat when you wear them. In fact, you’ll die if you don’t.
The New York public library. The Lions out front are wearing wreathes. This is my favorite building in the city.
The red and green light show put on by the empire State building.
Talking the girls into not watching a real TV show on Christmas Eve and day. Instead, we watched 12 hours of the Yule Log on Hallmark, with classic music and baby animals.
Ice skating in view of the Rockefeller tree.
Wandering 5th Ave.
Listening to my kids snore.
There have been some unmagical things as well. Some might call these the dark arts. Black magic. But I’ll save those for another post, when I’m slightly more irritated with children. One of them has me locked out of the bathroom right now so I’m working on a post in my head.
Happy Holidays from me and my red hat. May your holiday cause you to puff out your chest even if you got nothing to show for anything. That is my wish for the world.
When I began writing early last week, I did it because I was missing my mom. And because I wasn’t at all in the mood for Christmas. The transformative power of words continually surprises me, even though no one believes in that power more than I do. Instead of missing my mom tremendously and feeling bummed, I began to celebrate who she was and what she brought to the holiday each year.
When I stepped off the front porch steps into the crunchy yellowing grass of winter, I was already looking left. Just barely downhill from me and across the street was my bestie, Debbie. We operated with only two settings: best friends and I never want to see you again. I can remember so many stomp offs where I said that very phrase and yet I didn’t last even the afternoon before I was back at the best friend setting again. Fortunately, a third setting of ah, just forget it, this friendship is too much trouble did not exist. It was always worth the trouble. And we always patched it up.
As a younger person, I never branded my family as one that
was entrenched in Christmas tradition. We had things we always did, but not
necessarily on a certain day every year or in exactly the same way. The more I
scour my mom’s photo albums of my childhood, the more certain traditions stand
One of our traditions was to decorate my sweet grandmother’s Christmas tree. My Mama always bought a real tree from a nearby lot and she had a type she always went for: short and fat. Every year, she bought a tree shorter than all of us and fatter than a cousin tug-o-war, After the tree was purchased, we picked a date to come over with my cousins to decorate and read the Christmas story out of Luke 2. I can’t think about the holidays without thinking about this. I was a stupid little kid who didn’t always know what was best for me, so I tried to get out of this event a time or two. I wanted to ride my bike or hang in the neighborhood or watch Happy Days reruns. I quickly learned that this was the one event there was no getting out of. Ever. No rearranging it. No cancelling it. No changing it up. This one was in stone.
Because it was the most important thing to my grandmother. And
that made it the most important thing. Period.
Later in my adolescence, my grandmother began to come over the afternoon of Christmas Eve and spend the night. This seemingly minor change in our routine brought me a comfort I can’t explain. I loved having her there. I loved that she wasn’t alone. I loved that she woke up in the house with us. It made me feel one layer more protected from whatever awaited me on the outside. She was the fleece to our blanket.
From year to year, there were the smallest of changes. The tree would change. Because again, it was a LIVE TREE. I have no words to waste on purveyors of the artificial. Some years it wasn’t as fat as I previously described. I feel I have to admit this, because I found pictorial evidence and the tree in the photos is quite fit. Short, but fit. Like a gymnast. But I didn’t lie about the short part. My 10-year-old cousin is taller than this tree. And the reader would change. We all liked to read aloud and we were all decent readers. I remember this being such a competition that at the end of arguing over it, we all needed the Jesus who was about to be born. My grandmother got smart, though, and started prearranging the readers and writing them down, so there’d be no repeats the following year. And the baked goods changed from year to year.
But there was always a 6 oz glass bottled Coke for each of us. And there was always a large jar containing full sized candy bars. And there was a spirit of joy in that tiny, one bedroom apartment, where we hung the 50 year old vintage ornaments and listened to the words and music of the season.
Sure, we misfired on a gift or 50 over the years. And we clearly stunk at handcrafting sleds from recyclables. But I think we had the big stuff right.
Happy Holidays. Enjoy the photographic fiasco that includes a red beret, large, wooden parrot earrings, snide expression, man’s plaid dress shirt, and Jane Fonda hair style.
Memories are funny things. From one side of my brain, a particular date or image can be completely locked away. But by lassoing the stories of certain Christmases past, one memory becomes the tripwire for countless others, exposing a box full of my mother and everything I loved as a child. Things that were there, but just hiding behind a thicker curtain. And where I wasn’t feeling much like celebrating Christmas before I started all of this, now I’m ready to ring the bell at Salvation Army.
So to speak.
As of 2 weeks ago, I knew I had spent one Christmas away from home but could not have told you which one or anything else about it. But last night, as I was laying in bed thinking about Christmas Eve 1988, it came back to me in full color. I remember living it. I remember my mom retelling it. I remember my souvenir from it.
We drove to Lakeland for the holidays on December 23, 1975. I was almost 5. Kicking rocks in the driveway as my parents loaded the car, I remember hearing them discuss the hassle factor. Wrapping gifts beforehand, making room in the trunk for everything you have to take there and then haul back. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted some toys.
When we arrived, there was the usual hustle and bustle of holiday baking and food prep. My grandmother, quite the southern cook, had an operation going that would take a flow chart and a staff of 15 for me to pull off. She didn’t need a flow chart. She didn’t have employees. She had skillz. As was her custom, and the only one I personally cared about, a chocolate cake was made and sitting stoically in her rustic yellow and white cake tin. Her signature cake was a square, 3-layer cake better than anything else I’ve ever sampled. One bite of an end piece, superbly slathered in homemade icing, was really all I needed for Christmas. But I kept that quiet, lest they take me up on the offer and buy me nothing.
When you travel at Christmas and you step into someone else’s territory 2 days beforehand, you have to hit the ground running and you have to run their route, at their pace. I was only 4 at the time, so I wasn’t asked to do anything except to stay out of the way. That should have been easy enough for me. The kitchen was about a 6′ x 8′ rectangle and you met yourself coming and going if you turned around good. I tried to stay out of the way and I wasn’t at all interested in cooking or helping. But that kitchen had 3 doors. You could practically straddle three rooms by doing a split right there on the tile. And that was pretty cool for a little kid. One door was an opening with a step down into the den. Another door was an opening flush with the carpet of the main hallway of the house. And the third door…well. The third door was a swinging saloon-type door. And that was about as fun as it got in that house. Or any house. I liked to dart in and out through that door between the dining room and the kitchen. I liked to smack it so it swung with force and saunter in like I owned the place. I liked to duck under it, and spy on anyone in range. The possibilities were rich and vast. But in a kitchen that small, with two adults already dodging each other as they worked, my darting and sauntering and ducking was less than welcome.
I was banished. But I’d be back. Maybe in the middle of the night.
The hallway off the kitchen led to the only three bedrooms in the house. My grandparents had the biggest, which wasn’t big, at the end of the hall. My parents had a small one with a queen bed and a dresser. And I shared my uncle’s old room with my brother. It had red shag carpet and the bed took up the entire room.
Things had been fairly smooth until Christmas Eve. I had managed to find other entertainment and left the saloon door alone. But I was working on a cold. I have 4 kids, so you don’t have to tell me that a cold in December in the nose of a 4 year old is commonplace. It isn’t anything to send out in the Christmas letter. Kids get snotty. But this cold took a diabolical turn and quickly became something else. It went straight to my ear. Again, it’s just an ear infection. It wasn’t pneumonia. But if you’ve ever had an ear infection–a really angry ear infection–the kind of infection that bulges up in your ear until the drum almost bursts, then you know it can be a painful kerfuffle inside your snotty head.
When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t my typical Santa-stalking self. Christmas Eve was a time to question everything, delay the process with water requests, beg for another story, or sneak off to the tree for one last peek at the bounty. For me that night, it was all about getting to sleep. I was hurting. I went to sleep with a slow, dull burn inside my right ear. Sometime after midnight, I woke up with a raging fire. My brother was asleep like a brick beside me, so I untwisted my nylon red nightie to free up my feet and ran across the hall to find my mother. She snapped awake the moment I reached her bedside.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, groggily trying to help.
“My ear,” I said, starting to cry with my right hand cupping it.
She scooted over in the bed and scooped me up to be with her. I have no idea how my dad didn’t get shoved off completely. There wasn’t enough bed for the 3 of us. My mom tried everything she could to bring me relief. Warm oil. Baby aspirin. Nothing touched the pain. So for the next 5 hours, she held my head in her lap as she sat propped against the wall. I cried all night. She cried some, too. We waited for daylight.
At 5:30, when my grandmother was stirring to start the Christmas meal, my mother told me to go get dressed. We were going to the E.R. Doctors weren’t open, Hospitals were. So, I was placed in the back seat of our Buick and driven to the hospital feeling like a very sick national celebrity. When we arrived, there was no one else there. No other sick people. None. Not one other patient. It was just me. And because there were no other patients, I was ushered in and treated like the royalty I had begun to believe I was. The nurses wore Santa caps and leaned down to me like I was on tour with the Jackson 5. Would you like my autograph? I can’t really write yet.
I was put in a temporary room behind a curtain that rolled on 1000 tiny metal balls. It was all quite fascinating. The doctor came in, checked my ear, said I was just on the brink of a ruptured ear drum, and got me a nice little antibiotic to make the whole thing go away.
It occurred to me right about then that it was Christmas. Straight up Christmas. And there I sat in the ER getting fawned over. The fawning was fun, but my stomach was growling for whatever my grandmother had going back at the house (our family never skipped breakfast) and I was more than ready to open some presents.
Before I left my fan club behind to rejoin my family, a nurse walked out with a toy for me. She said I had been such a great patient that I deserved a…weird little Santa doll. It wasn’t a cuddly plush Santa or a Santa with movable parts. It was a doll cut and sewn from 1975 Santa fabric. It was ugly enough to make a 4-year-old kid give up the myth of Santa altogether. And yet, I was immensely proud of that ugly doll. Because it represented the battle I had fought that day. It gave me an inflated sense of self importance. And because it was my first gift that year.
Until recently, I still had that Santa. Somewhere in the move two houses ago, I either tossed it or lost track of it. But you know the good ole internet. Nothing is ever really gone. So here’s a picture of some other kid’s ugly Santa. I’d be surprised if it’s not the same one. This one, with his rashy cheeks and sewn together black stumps, is sadly for sale on Etsy for a whopping $22. Whoever owned this Santa back in the day, I hope he earned it. Something this remarkable shouldn’t be free.
I grew up in Florida. Everybody knows it doesn’t snow in Florida. Not even that final northernmost strip of land that lies down in a bed next to Georgia. We didn’t understand the sentiments behind the song, “White Christmas” and I never once hoped for one. Why would I waste my time? The best we could hope for was the temperature dropping below 68 degrees. So we could wear us some Christmas gloves. And not sweat.
In December of 1979, my parents planned a trip to Gatlinburg. We would leave 2 days after Christmas and we would be there for my birthday. I was on board with this trip, because I loved Gatlinburg, but they seemed to be selling it to me as if I wasn’t already a buyer. It was advertised as my birthday trip. As a trip for me. I’m smart enough now to know an obvious sales pitch. Back then, I was not. I bought the lines and began to think of the trip as a vacation planned for me and around me.
There’s no way that was true. It wasn’t even a little bit true. Because if it had been, this story wouldn’t be typing itself. There wouldn’t be a story here at all.