Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Nail Set
Today I am 40. In case you were unsure, know it is a pretty wretched time of the year to have a birthday, regardless of your age. It's officially two weeks before Christmas, and amid the ubiquitous Christmas Carols, every year on December 11th, until this one, my mother woke me up — either in person, or by phone — by singing Happy Birthday to me. I was always embarrassed by that, as a child and as an adult. It was so heartfelt, that it just terrified me. My cheeks burned, and I counted the seconds until the little song would end. And, admittedly, I was always irked that she'd wake me up. Why did she call so damn early? But today, Matthew had me up at a ridiculous hour; he was laughing and playing with his feet; and despite my lack of sleep, and the permanent backache, my little baby boy makes me smile, and makes me sing, too. I missed the phone call this morning. A lot.
Karen's birthday is the day before mine; I know she misses my mother's unabashedly earnest singing, too. We both miss it more than we were embarrassed by it.
I've thought about my mom a lot since losing her, of course, but I think about her more during these cold, dark days. My mom was kinda nuts — there's really no delicate way of saying it — and she was always at the center of the birthday and holiday insanity: in my family, things were CHALLENGING from Thanksgiving right through New Year's Day, and often, beyond. Hurt feelings and offended sensibilities and loud voices preVAILED. I felt badly about it while she was around, and even worse now that she's gone. It's not exactly peaceful without her, but there has been less chaos. We're not better for it, though.
While my mom excelled at singing with abandon, she was pretty terrible at gift-giving (I say that at the risk of sounding like I lack gratitude; I don't). But I think some of that came from a good place. She told us stories of inequality and favoritism in her home growing up, so she worked hard to make sure her three daughters all got the same thing. The problem with that, though, is that we're all different people. The other part of the gift-giving dilemma is that possibly my mother thought we were all younger versions of her. So there were years and years of knee-high stockings and disposable razors, and orange lipstick with which to deal. Does anyone wear knee-highs anymore??
But those were just the stocking-stuffers. Once, she gave a particularly heinous pocketbook to my sister Karen for her birthday, and Karen didn't know what to do with it. As a joke, she wrapped it back up and gave it to Jenny for Christmas. Jenny wrapped it back up and gave it to Karen at the next opportunity, and Karen gave it back to Jenny. This went on for at least two Christmases, before my mom caught on, not too happily.
My mother had a tremendous flair for the dramatic, too. Every year she got us what I began calling "The Nightmare Gift." A trio of nail sets were wrapped and placed in our stockings, and we were ordered to open them simultaneously, so that my mom only had to explain once: she watched a show on TV about how to escape from a vehicle that's plunged into the water, and apparently, the only thing able to break through the glass underwater is a nail set. We were ordered to put the nail set in our vehicles, and while I have some lousy qualities, I am fairly dutiful. I put my nail set in my truck, where, I believe, it still lives, even though I am uncertain of its abilities to bring me to safety, if, in the ridiculously unlikely scenario, I wind up trapped in my truck, under water.
One year, we all received a book on how to set up our wills, along with a copy of my mother's last will and testament. "Merry Christmas, girls!" began the note that accompanied that gift. "You have to be ready for the inevitable," she told us.
There was the year we all received videotapes about breast cancer, because my mom read that one in four women — and this is where she'd solemnly note there were four women in the room — would get the disease.
She wanted us to be ready for when tragedy struck. But you never are. It strikes when and where it wants, and how it wants, and you can never prepare.
Despite our lack of control over our own fate, I still smile when I think about her uncelebratory, and downright frightening Christmas gifts. I teased her last summer about her fascination with death, and how gifts relating to death and disease are kinda depressing. She laughed, but disagreed. Even so, last Christmas she gave us far more appropriate Christmas presents: handmade soaps, chocolates, slippers, and garden decor.
It's not about the gifts, even though they take up so much of our efforts during this time of year. My mother's absence is a huge hole in the room. And I miss her especially today.
Now. I'm gonna try to lay off the melancholy for awhile, since it only reflects only some of my life. Things are good. We're having a family birthday party this weekend, and I'm hoping it provides some funny blog fodder. Failing that, there were those folks who rented the Baldassari this time last year for their own birthday party, and then brawled over birthday cake and chicken. I get it: birthday cake and chicken is some of the best stuff in the world. I mean that, truly. I hope that person/those people have a special birthday this year, with or without police activity. Though for our sake, I hope for the latter. As long no one gets hurt, right?