Tag Archives: motherhood

The envelope

Standard

I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

HOYA (2).JPG

Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

valerie1

Things Marmeee loved: Me

A beautiful day

Standard
A beautiful day

I called my mother from Los Angeles Airport while waiting to board my plane. It was around 7.00pm on the Pacific coast, about 4.00am in Johannesburg, and the WhatsApp message the Kat had sent while I was en route from Seattle to LA said she was awake, and alert for the first time in several days.

She was in the cancer ward at Johannesburg’s Donald Gordon Hospital. My sisters, the Kat and the Egg, were with her. She had been there for a couple weeks already, but a bureaucratic hairball had blocked me from returning to South Africa. At last that morning someone in the Department of Home Affairs coughed up permission for me to go, and I hurled clothes into a couple of suitcases and the Hubbit drove me across the state to Seattle. We arrived just in time for me to miss my plane to Heathrow, but I found another flight that went Sea-Tac – LAX – Heathrow – JNB and took only 12 additional hours to get there.

Marmee's Baskin Robbins boob solution

Laughter. An insatiable appetite for ice cream. A bawdy sense of humor. Delight in the little things. That’s my Marmeee.

The plan for the Marmeee that day was a procedure to draw fluid from from her overburdened lungs. The revised plan for me was to arrive at Johannesburg International Airport on Sunday morning, where the Girl Child would meet me and take me straight to the hospital. After that, my sisters and I would plan where she should go to recuperate – to Hospice or to somebody’s home – until she was ready to return to the retirement complex where she lived with my father.

Plans are so easy to make. You just say them out loud, or write them down, and … voila! Life goes right on happening.

My personal short-term plan was to chivvy her off that ridiculous hospital bed and whisk her away to eat ice cream. Oh, how she loved ice cream! No matter how satisfying the feast, there was always room for ice cream because “it trickles into the interstices between the intersections of your intestines.” Her mother used to say that, and now I guess it’s my turn.

Meanwhile, at LAX, I had a pocket of time, a seat in an uncrowded corner near the boarding gate, and a WhatsApp connection. I called on the Kat’s phone. “Hello!” the Kat said. “She’s awake. Hang on, and I’ll hold the phone up to her ear.”

There was a pause, then I heard a strange hissing noise, like a tap running, or loud interference. I thought the call had dropped, and was about to dial again when I heard the Kat’s voice at a distance. “Hey, Mom, it’s Belladonna on the phone. She’s in LA, and she wants to talk to you. You ready?” I understood then that the sound I could hear was the hissing of her oxygen mask.

“Hey Ma?” I said. I paused, waiting for a response, but heard nothing but the pulsating mechanical hiss. I remembered that they’d told me she couldn’t speak. It was still my turn. “Hey there!” I said. “I’m so glad you’re awake! I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon, but I wanted to say hi, and to tell you I love you. In case you’ve forgotten.” She made a sound – something between a gasp and a groan. My chatter slammed to a stop as I strained to understand. She made the sound again. She was speaking, saying “hello”, or maybe it was “I love you”. I didn’t have to hear it; I already knew. “Hush, little Marmeee,” I said, speaking more slowly and gently now. “Don’t tire yourself. We can talk properly when I’m there. I just want you to know I’m on my way – I’ll be boarding soon – and I want to tell you why it’s taken me so long to come. I really couldn’t help the delay.”

It was important to explain because I’d promised, back in February when she was sad that it was time for me to leave, that I’d return when she needed me. And although she hadn’t asked me to come, she’d asked the Girl Child why I wasn’t there. She knew that I knew she wanted me, and while she would not have doubted my love the delay must have puzzled her. But I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the closed door at Passport Control, because I didn’t want her to worry that it might not open in time.

There was no longer any reason to worry, so I launched into a chaotic account of Belladonna’s Battle with Bureaucracy – starting with me being declared “undesirable” when I left South Africa in February because I’d stayed 22 hours past the 90 day limit on my American passport, through to the breakthrough that very morning when my heart daughter Ngalitjeng realized she knew someone who knew an influential someone who worked for the director general of Home Affairs. Sitting in the LAX departure lounge I told it as a funny story, and she smiled and smiled, her eyes sparkling above the oxygen mask. (I know this because the Kat told me so later. She and the Egg had wanted to hear what I was saying too, so they could share her amusement, but when the Kat tried to take the phone to activate the speaker Marmeee shrugged her off, clutched the phone greedily to her ear, and wouldn’t let go.)

My tale rambled as I worked at amusing her while ignoring the relentless hiss of her oxygen. At intervals incomprehensible announcements erupted from the public address system; there was no getting away from them, so I would just stop talking and let her listen to the airport noises and know that I was indeed on my way. Then the boarding calls for my flight began, and segment by segment my plane began to fill up. It was becoming difficult to keep track of the conversation, but I wasn’t ready to stop.

I told her again that I loved her, and that I would be there in time for breakfast on Sunday. I sang her the little prayer she used to sing to me each night when she put me to bed. I told her that really she didn’t need to go to such extreme lengths to get me to visit. And then I said, “But just in case you’re not faking, just in case time really is short, I want you to know you don’t have to wait for me. I’d love to see you again, but if you need to go, it’s okay. I know where you’re going, and I’ll find you there one day.” For a moment I listened to her air hiss. I let her hear my boarding call, for rows 60 to 54. I said goodbye.

She released the phone to the Kat. She was still smiling. I know this, and all that followed, because people I love have painted that day for me in words and silences, in smiles and tears, so that it is etched in my memory as clearly as if I had been there.

Seated beside her bed, my sisters chatted softly, laughing at shared memories, as the dark inched toward morning. They held ice cubes for her to suck on, and at timed intervals they allowed a carefully measured teaspoonful of water to trickle down her throat. They rubbed cream into her hands. At one point she batted irritably at her mask and the Kat said, “Is it bothering you? Does your face need a rest?” She nodded, and the Kat lifted the oxygen mask and said, “Come on – exercise your face!” She grinned broadly, then pursed and pouted her lips, wrinkled her nose, blinked her bright eyes. Later that morning the Kat pulled the mask away again and had her perform her new face dance tricks for the rest of the family.

Every four hours nurses came to massage her and turn her so that she wouldn’t develop bed sores. They changed her diaper, put ointment in her dry mouth, checked her blood pressure. She smiled with relief and gratitude.

Twiglet, the sister of my heart, arrived. “Hey, special lady,” she greeted her, “What’s this nonsense now?” She kissed her, and Marmeee beamed at her with love.

The doctor came to check on her before the procedure to suction her lungs. His shoulders sagged and his face was sad as he told them she was too weak – they couldn’t do it after all. Gently he touched her swollen hands, and told them it was time to take out the drip. Her body could no longer process fluid – it was just making her uncomfortable.

Twiglet sent the Kat and the Egg home to rest. She picked up Marmeee’s Bible and read to her. She prayed for her, and sang Amazing Grace, and was quiet while she slept.

Loving hands (2)The Girl Child arrived with the Olde Buzzard later that morning. He took her hands, kissed her, said, “You’re so beautiful, my darling. I love you so much.” Then he sat as close to her as he could, refusing the comfortable chair because he couldn’t hold her hand unless he was in the hard upright chair.

Other family members came, and she captured each in turn with her bright, clear gaze, sending love like an arrow straight from her eyes to their hearts. Embraced by a room filled by her own most dear people, she basked in their conversation, laughter, teasing. She didn’t need to speak. She had forgiven all hurts, shared all she knew, told each one she loved them. She had left no business undone.

As the day drew to a close people began to leave. They kissed her goodbye, told her they loved her, promised to return. The Olde Buzzard was shuddering with cold and exhaustion after a too-long day. Gently the Girl Child coaxed him from his seat. “Come on, Granddad – Granny needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow.” The Kat took him home to her little Kat-House, and got him fed, washed and settled into bed. The only company left with Marmeee were my sister-in-law Sol and her children. They chatted quietly while Marmeee dozed, and sang Christmas carols to her when she woke, “Because,” said Sol, “she likes songs about Jesus, but I don’t really know any hymns.”

After a few hours, Sol had to leave. The Egg and the Kat were on their way back to take the late night watch, and she was alone for just a little while. When my sisters were just a short distance away, a nurse called to tell them to hurry. They said her blood pressure was falling fast. The Egg telephoned Twiglet, who said, “I think it’s time to call the family. Tell them to come quickly.” The Egg sent out a series of urgent messages on WhatsApp, while the Kat slapped her foot down onto her accelerator. They flew red lights and whipped around corners and slammed into a parking space, and they ran up to the ward.

There was really no time for anyone else to come. As they watched, she fell more and more deeply asleep. Her breathing, labored when they arrived, slowed to a whisper, to silence. The pulse in her neck flickered, stopped.

It had been a beautiful day, a beautiful life, but she was tired. She had said her goodbyes. It was time to go home.

Marmeee at Sol Duc Falls, Olympic Peninsula

Dislocation

Standard

I got a WhatsApp message 18 days ago. This is what it said:

Hi. Day of tests (eg CAT scan) and stuff happening, have some rather rough news. Luckily Dad was here to hear it direct from the doctor. The fact is, subject to confirmation from Oncologists, I have cancer, and don’t have a whole lot of time. Could be as little as 6 weeks, could be 6 months, he couldn’t say without opinion of oncologist.

The message was from my mother.

So now I am sitting on my sister’s stoep in Johannesburg at 3.30AM, 10,164 miles (that’s 16,358 km) from home. At home right now the time is 5.30PM, which means it’s been dark for more than an hour. The temperature is 29 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -1.7 Celsius) and it’s raining, but at least it’s not windy. The Hubbit has had to put heaters in the water troughs to prevent them from icing over, and he’s hung an infrared light next to the water supply in the chicken house. I am wearing a short-sleeved nightshirt and a light shawl, and on my feet I have thick non-slip socks that Himself brought back from some or other hospital visit; my legs and arms are bare and I’m enjoying the cool pre-dawn air. It’s pitch dark and not windy here too.

I have been trying to write this post for more than two weeks and I still have no idea how to proceed. How does one describe such profound dislocation? Does the language to do so even exist?

Fifty-eight years ago I slept and danced in the center of her body, just below her heart. A few months later, I rested on her breast, soothed by her heartbeat. As the years passed I shifted my orbit further and further out. I acquired my own satellite, I allowed my heart to take me to another country, separated from her by the full thickness of this planet. But always, any time I thought of it, I could hear the beat of her heart, and it beat for me … for me … for me.

I am afraid. How will I find my way in the terrible silence when her heart stops beating? How will I hold my orbit when she is no longer at the center of it?

Those questions are way too big. I cannot comprehend their answers. Instead, I focus on to do lists. I created one before I left home and completed most of what was on it – hay bought and stacked, a foster dog rehomed, filing and budget up-to-date, house cleaned, appointments canceled, Plans A, B and C in place to ensure that my crazy puppy doesn’t send Himself clear over the edge. I did all that I could to ensure the Hubbit’s well-being, even as I prepared to leave him to cope with a supremely shitty challenge on his own. And now I’m working off a new to-do list, featuring items like “Call Hospice” and “Deal with medical aid re oxygen”, and also “Birthday party for Dad”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Focus on happy memories … The Fogies, with various dogs and Marmeee’s snow maiden – winter time at Siyabonga in 2007.

I focus on living in the now. Now she is here, and most days we work together on the final edit of her book. We have conversations about life and death and stuff that we remember and God and that peculiar woman who just walked past their unit at the retirement complex. We pray together. We go out for coffee. We are relearning how to chuckle at the small things.

I am also using this time out from the everyday to recalibrate my own life. I’m spending time with the Girl Child, reconnecting with my siblings and best friend and others that I love. I’m paying attention to my health – yesterday my sister and I started the ketogenic diet together, and I have aspirations of swimming daily in the pool at her complex just as soon as I kick the sinus infection that I managed to pick up on my way here.

Sometimes I am troubled by my calm. I feel guilty because it seems I’m not sad enough. I’m finding it too easy to make lists, to diet, to remember how to drive on the left side of the road. I get irritated by other drivers and angry with my Dad for not behaving the way I want, and I am pleased that the exchange rate is working out well for me, and I read and watch TV and go to restaurants and argue about politics.

It’s only now and then that grief overwhelms me, and I find myself sitting in parking lots or pulled over to the side of the road, with snot running down my face as I wail and bite my fist and pull my hair. A few days ago, after an agonizing conversation with my Dad, I came home to my sister’s condo and I couldn’t go inside because no one else was home. So I hammered on her next door neighbor’s door and, when he opened it, begged the poor startled man for a hug – which he gave along with tea and lemon cream biscuits and a quiet place to sit and pull myself together.

But one cannot live in that place, and I’m learning that that’s okay. I know a dark day is coming. I know that none of my puny lists and preparations will make the least difference in the horrible breathless silence of that day. But right now, as I sit here on my sister’s stoep and coming to the end of my first blog post in more than a month, I am embraced by the dawn. I hear songbirds and hadedas, and the traffic of people going about their lives in the city. In a few hours, my precious Marmeee and I will work together on her book, and the oxygen delivery guy is coming, and a friend of hers who is a nurse. Maybe I’ll take the Fogies out for coffee and cake after lunch. This evening I’m roasting a chicken and my friend is coming for dinner.

Today is a gift, and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Tomorrow’s sorrow can wait its turn.

 

Lights in the sky … they pass me by

Standard

The moon did a beautiful thing last night. It bulged hugely over the horizon, as immense and awe-inspiring as the Great Pumpkin Himself, and then slid majestically into the earth’s shadow, where it lingered and glowed with an unearthly radiance…

Supermoon (source)

Supermoon (source)

… which is pretty much what you’d expect, given that the moon is off in space and not, in fact, on earth. But I digress. The point of this post is that while this was what I expected, it wasn’t what actually happened. By the time the moon rose over our part of the world it was already pretty well eclipsed. And anyway, I didn’t actually get to see the moon rise, despite having spent the past several days in a fizz of anticipation, because I had to go help someone who had just rescued puppies, and then when I was headed home it suddenly occurred to me that I had to go to Costco because we were out of dog food, and so I hurtled into our house five minutes before moonrise … to find Himself immersed in some or other entirely non-cosmic activity and not ready.

By the time the shouting was done and we were tearing up the road to and into the hills in search of a good viewpoint it was 10 minutes later, but there was still no sign of the bloody moon because the Pacific Northwest is still smoldering and there’s a thick band of smoke along the horizon. (Yes, of course I know the sufferings of the fire victims is way more important than my disappointment at missing an event that won’t happen again until 2033.)

Suddenly I saw a thin slice of moon poised over the river, and Himself pulled off the road and drove a short way through the sagebrush. We got out, and he set up his camera while the dogs moseyed about and I watched the silver sliver slip into darkness. In the cool evening air the fragrance of crushed sagebrush was … well, out of this world.

Then we came home, because we were hungry and also there were critters to feed. I was throwing hay over the fence at the steers when I turned my head and realized that we had a marvelous view of the sullenly glowing eclipse right there. I leaned on the corral fence and watched it for a while, and it was lovely, but I have to tell you I’m getting just a tad bit fed up with the way events of an astronomical nature never quite match up to my expectations, no matter how eagerly I wait, or how carefully I plan.

This isn’t the first moon experience I’ve managed to ditz up. The first time I even heard of the harvest moon was while my parents were visiting in 2008. (I’m sure harvest moons must happen in South Africa, but I never heard of them, growing up in Johannesburg. Was that because no one notices the moon in a big city? Or because the African moon is always spectacular?) For the 2008 harvest moon with my parents I fixed up a picnic supper and we took it down to the river, where we sat on the beach and waited for the moon to rise. And waited. And waited. And I kept telling them it would be worth the wait, because harvest moons are huge. And then up it came, somewhat south of where we were looking, a very pretty but otherwise quite ordinary full moon that had used up all its special effects while it was still behind a nearby hill.

This kind of thing has been happening as long as I remember. Take Halley’s Comet, for instance. I was 14 when my grandmother told me about how its tail swept across the earth in 1910. She described a spangled sky, and light so bright you could read by it if you were soulless enough to look down, and her eyes sparkled at the memory. Later my mother told me my grandmother was only two years old in 1910, but I didn’t care. That conversation was the beginning of a 14 year countdown until it was my turn to witness the glory first hand.

There was a tremendous amount of excitement in the lead-up to Halley’s arrival on February 9th, 1986 (just a few days before my birthday). Every supermarket had shelves full of comet-themed merchandise. My editor sent me on a balloon ride in the Magaliesberg, maybe hoping a close-up view of the comet would inspire Deathless Prose – or, at least, advertising.

The balloon ride was fun, and the champagne breakfast afterwards was even funner … but the comet? Let’s just say it’s good that I’d bought a mug, because the actual comet was a whole lot smaller than the one I had on my kitchen shelf.

I’ll be 102 years old when Halley comes by again. Perhaps Sam Clemens will let me hitch a ride … if I ever write anything more worthy than nonsensical blog posts.

Then there was the year I learned about the Perseid meteor shower in August. (We don’t see this in the southern hemisphere, so I’d never heard of it.) I invited a couple friends to go out for an evening picnic on our jetboat, and I promised “fireworks”. My friend Wonder Woman loves fireworks, so she was pretty excited. So there we were, floating in the middle of the Columbia River at about 10 o’clock at night, full of wine and assorted munchies. Wonder Woman – who is in her eighties – was starting to think about bedtime, and the friend she’d brought with her – who was jet lagged, having arrived from New Zealand just a few days previously – was dozing off, and Himself was muttering fretfully about having to find his way back to shore in the dark.

Wonder Woman turned to me and asked, “Well? When will the fireworks begin?”

“I don’t know!” I replied, scanning the skies with a feeling of impending social doom. “The newspaper said they’d be happening about now. And they’re supposed to be amazing!” I then explained that the promised fireworks, far from being made in China, were being sent direct from the heavenly realms.

“Oh, the Perseids!” she said … and that’s when I learned they came every year and that, when she was younger, she used to enjoy watching them quite often. So we sat and the boat rocked and about 15 meteors zipped across the sky(although not once across the piece of sky I happened to be watching at the time) and then Himself started up the boat and took us home.

I tried again last August while the Girl Child was visiting. We drove up into the hills and found a stretch of dirt road that ran through a cutting that blocked off all light from the town, and we plonked down a blanket and a couple of pillows and lay down on the side of the road. Immediately the breeze that had been bebopping about, playing with our hair, picked up its skirts and blew. So of course I got sand behind my contact lenses, where it commenced grinding my eyeballs. I just got up and got into the car and took the bloody lenses out and put them in my mouth to keep safe, and then I lay back down next to the Girl Child. Every now and then I saw a blurred streak, but in the half hour or so that we lay there until we could no longer ignore the wind, she saw 50. Or maybe it was 100. I forget. What I remember is being there with her in the blustery dark, with rocks pressing up through the blanket and into my spine, mumbling when I spoke because I was scared the wind would blow my contact lenses off my tongue.

It was beautiful.

Contemplating Christmas without the crocodile

Standard

I was over visiting Ms MPB today, reading her latest post, and it got me to thinking about gifts. She was pondering the changes that a baby would bring to her life, and one of the questions she asked was, “Will adoption make the rest of our lives messy?” Further down, in the comments, she commented on how much she dreaded having toys, especially plastic ones, all over the house.

After I’d done laughing, shaking my head, and murmuring, “Oh, honey, you have no idea how messy your life will become!” I found myself pondering the the stuff and clutter in my own life, and gifts given and received over the years, and which ones worked and why. It’s getting to be that time of year, people – Christmas is 101 days away, according to a nifty little countdown I have on my phone, and pretty soon the Crocodile of Christmas Present will jump up and grab you. We’ll need to have our wits about us to hold back the flood of cluttering Stuff – because if you don’t, it will suck you under, roll you over, and rip up the decomposing remains of your life just like a crocodile with its prey.

Well, you don’t have to be crocodile food or retail fodder. You can choose to break the cycle.

The thing about gifts for kids is, we’re always tempted by the Latest Shiny Thing – and the kids in our lives want it too. Oh boy, how they want it! They don’t just want it – they neeeeeed it to give meaning and fulfillment to their lives … right up until the day after Christmas. Or maybe it’ll last into the new year, if you’re lucky. But, guaranteed, the day they learn what their friends got, they’ll be dazzled and smitten by the Next Shiny Thing.

I rarely had much spare money when I was raising the Girl Child. Except for a few short years before the bank took it back, we didn’t ever live in a house we owned, and space was always limited. When she was very young she played mostly with the contents of my lower kitchen cupboards – pots and pans (delightful to thump with a spoon), plastic containers (they stack! They nest! You can put things in them and pour!), canned goods (they make towers and then they fall down and roll all over the floor, and sometimes make Mommy scream!) She had other people who loved her, though, so she accumulated some good stuff. She learned at an early age to entertain herself … and I learned, when I wanted to sleep late, to do so in a bed full of Lego.

But mostly I gave her intangibles. There was her own special china cup as soon as she graduated from a sippy cup, and for her third birthday her very first pillow in a bright yellow cover. (When I gave it to her, after several months of nagging, she exclaimed, “Oh! My pillow!” and hugged it tight. Some 20 years later I restuffed it with down off wild ducks Himself had shot, and she told me during her recent visit that she still had it, although it’s now a dog bed.) I know a cup and a pillow are tangible objects, but the real gift was the “You’re old enough for this now”. That’s a gift that lasts, because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the moment and the memory.

When she turned four I had a business trip that coincided with her birthday, so I gave her her first airplane trip, and she stayed with a friend while I was working. And the year she got her first bike, we packaged it in an enormous box. When we called her into the living room to open her gift she ripped off the paper then stopped, stared, and exclaimed, “A BOX!” because what could be better to play house in?

Best Christmas gift EVAH!

I got a robot instead of a baby. Perfect!

Himself and I have become pretty casual about gifts over the years. Last year I went all Fifties Housewife on him and requested a vacuum cleaner. This year it’s a replacement for my sick and sorry laptop. In both cases, I said, “Honey, what I’d really like for Christmas is…” and he ordered it a couple days later. The man has no self-control – he can no more wait for Christmas or a birthday to roll around than ignore that thumping noise in the left rear car tire.

He has surprised me only twice. When I married him there was no money for a diamond ring, so I told him that if I put up with him for 10 years he could give me diamonds then. Instead, he gave me a doberman. And then there was the birthday (I forget which, but it was one that made me grumpy and sorry for myself) that he kept asking, “Would you like your present now?” and I kept growling that no, I was busy. Eventually, near bedtime, I pulled myself together and mopily said I was ready. It was actually gift wrapped! I took off the wrap, and it was a beautiful jewelry box! “How lovely!” I exclaimed, while privately wondering why he’d give a jewelry box to someone who owned only junk jewelry. I opened it and … the box contained a string of pearls. No one had ever before given me anything so completely impractical and pretty. I am not someone who wears pearls. I don’t live a lifestyle, or in a place, that ever calls for pearls. But oh, how I love them! I wear them under my tees and sweatshirts while cleaning up after horses and dogs, and they’re like a secret between me and my skin.

By contrast, I love surprises, and although I’m hopeless at keeping secrets I’ve managed to surprise Himself a couple times. There was the year that he was grumpy the whole day of his birthday. I told him I’d give him his present when he came to bed (no, it’s okay, this is not where I over-share!) and he kept me waiting 45 minutes while he poked around reading the news online before finally stomping upstairs, to find me passed out and wearing nothing but a Stetson. (Oh calm down! The gift was the Stetson! This is not that kind of blog!)

Another time I gave him his gift before I got out of bed. He removed the gift wrap from a small box of shotgun shells, smiled awkwardly, kissed me, and said, “Thank you, honey … only … these won’t work in my shotgun.” I smiled coyly, reached under the sheet, and drew out the fancy new shotgun his best friend had told me to buy. “Well, will they work in this?” I asked.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, it’s okay to buy stuff and get stuff. Giving and unwrapping presents can be tremendous fun! But let’s not get dragged under by the Jolly Crocodile, okay? I think the worst, most dehumanizing insult the world dishes out to us these days is to call us “consumers”. I don’t know about you, but I am so much more than a consumer! I’m a maker, a doer, a dreamer and a rememberer. I’m a lover, a player of games, a friend, a defender of the vulnerable. a celebrator.

When I give gifts, they’re not just Stuff – they mean something. And if they don’t carry the same meaning to you that I placed in them, then please pass them along. Just remember the receiving of a kindness, an act of friendship. That’s really the best any of us have to give anyone.