Thursday, December 23, 2010


"Hi, honey. Would you like a glass of wine?"

Kathie is offering me a glass of wine as if this is the most natural thing in the world. As if this is just a completely normal December 23rd. I take the offered glass, even though the current situation is so far away from normal that normal would need a street map and a really good set of directions to find us.

Two hours ago, things were, indeed, normal. Jason and I were in our apartment in Lexington, trying to get our heart rates down after a nail-biter of a UK game. Today was my first day of Christmas vacation from my job as an education librarian at EKU; we were happy, just talking and laughing, gearing up to travel to Erlanger and Fort Mitchell tomorrow morning to spend Christmas with our families.

The phone rang; Jason just knew it was one of his brothers. After particularly stressful basketball games, one or the other always calls.

"Helllooooo! What did you think of that game?"

The look in Jason's eyes changed when he heard the voice on the other end of the phone. I don't know how to describe it; they were just blank. He stood unblinking, and the only clue I could gather as to what could possibly be going on on the other end of that phone was this, which he kept saying over and over and over:

"Mother, are you sure? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?"

The call ended and he looked at me.

"Mother says Steve's dead. They're waiting on the ambulance to get there."

My response echoed Jason's:

"Are you sure? Jason, are you sure?"

I should have gone to him. But I found myself frozen. The back of my nose and throat began to burn and ache as if I'd been hit in the face and the little part of my brain that was still rational piped up and told me to take a deep breath and focus because this is what shock feels like.

Another phone call, and this time Jason spoke to one of his brothers. Jason is the type of person who, whenever me or his mom or anyone else he knows looks up and screams, "The sky is falling!", takes off his hat, glances stoically at the sky, tests the wind direction with a wet finger, and sends up a hot air balloon.

When he talked to his brother, I could tell he was sending up his hot air balloons.

I don't do that; when someone around me yells, "The sky is falling!", I go grab some umbrellas. Just in case.

So I threw some random crap in an overnight bag and got the car keys and called my sister, who I knew would help sound the emergency alarms to my mom and dad.

An hour and a half later we crunched through a crust of fresh snow into the drive of the house with the pink neon star on the roof. There's a lot more neon now, too, as Steve adds a new piece every year. Candles. A huge Santa. A wreath. Carolers.

Added. Steve added new pieces every year.

By the time we had hit Georgetown, we knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Steve had died. My sister drove over there and arrived just after the ambulance left to check on everyone and let them know that we were on our way. She called us on our emergency cell phone to tell us; he was gone. It wasn't a hilarious misunderstanding we would all talk about every Christmas hereafter; it was real.

We would get the full story later. Steve had come home from work and wasn't feeling well; he went to bed. Out in the living room, the family had gathered to watch the UK game and, later, do the annual Christmas wrapping frenzy (I usually partook in this; in a family that big, it's all-hands-on-deck to get all the presents wrapped.)

When Kathie went into their bedroom to get wrapping paper and presents hidden in the closet, she could tell even by the weak light coming into the bedroom that he was dead. She said she knew immediately. I put myself in her place and I cannot imagine the horror.

The paramedics suspected a sudden massive heart attack. He just...died.

Kathie hands me a glass of wine and I look around. The house is full; several of her sisters have come out, as well as some of Steve's many, many siblings and in-laws. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was the annual Christmas Eve party. Wine is flowing, voices are raised, plans are being made. My mind can't wrap itself around it. Jason's brothers and sisters are there, and we all sit there wondering the same damn thing:

How? How could this happen?

We're there for hours, giving and taking what comfort we can. We learn that Kathie is still planning on having all of Steve's family over for Christmas Eve since it was her year to host; she says Steve would have wanted it that way.

"Christmas has to go on," someone says.

It feels that nothing can possibly go on right now. It feels like the world should stop spinning. How can we think about Christmas at a time like this?

But we do.

The crowd clears and I realize it's so late that it's early: it's now Christmas Eve. I leave Jason; he's going with his mother tomorrow morning to the funeral home to make the arrangements. More snow has fallen and I am conscious of the slipping and sliding under my tires and of the uneartly quiet the snow has made, muffling everything but the thoughts in my own head.

My sister has filled my mom in (she was on the phone when we were still in Lexington, and since she's the last person on the planet who doesn't have call waiting my sister had to go tell her in person) so she's waiting up for me.

I talk about it as much as I can and Mom makes up my old bed for me with fresh sheets and tells me I should try to sleep. I haven't brought anything to sleep in; my quick and dirty packing left a lot to be desired. Mom finds an old nightgown from back when I was in high school; it's snug and I try so very hard to quiet my mind and rest. Sleep eludes me tonight and, an eternity later, the sun is up and I hear Dad shuffling around the kitchen.

He's been working overtime and got home even later than I did. I can hardly believe he's back up.

He offers me a weak smile.

"Hey, kiddo."


"Are you and Joanie leaving for Lexington?"

And now I know why he's up; Mom has filled him in, and he knows Joanie is picking me up to drive me down to do a better job packing for what will now be a lengthy stay, and he feels the need to do or say something to me. Suddenly I am touched by his concern and feel like crying all over again. But I am not sure anything is left.

"Yeah. I didn't even pack a change of clothes. She should be here in a few minutes."

"Well, you know your sister..."

I manage to laugh. Joanie hasn't show up on time for anything since roughly 1983.

He reaches into his wallet and unfolds some bills.

"Here, take this. You all need money for gas, and stop and get yourself and your sister something to eat. You need to eat even if you don't feel like it."

"Oh, Dad. I don't need your money."

"Yes, you do."

His eyes meet mine, and I know Mom has told him everything. About how our finances are hanging on threads and we couldn't even get each other anything for Christmas this year. About how my new job is barely making ends meets while Jason is still a full-time student, and about how until Jason's student loan check comes in we can't even afford to buy ourselves a carton of Cokes.

I take his money and think about how much he's changed. Yes, he still falls off the wagon every so often in such a spectacular fashion that it defies everything we've ever learned about alcoholics. Once or twice a year, he slips, and from the first drink he takes to the day he's admitted to the hospital he doesn't draw a single sober breath. He's getting older now, and his body can't take that for long, so that old familiar cycle of sobriety to drunkenness to rehabiliation only lasts a few weeks. He has been near-death in an ICU more times that you would think possible. But when he's sober, he is this surprising, wonderful person who I have finally gotten to know. A man who can be devilishly funny, and smart, and hard-working, and loving. The man who looks at me now from across the kitchen table is not the same one who made my childhood a living hell.

We thought we were going to lose him for good last spring. He was diagnosed with stage I lung cancer from years of smoking. It was caught early; it was operable; he was told with intensive surgery and radiation, he could be one of those rare souls to beat it.

And he has. But not before pulling a spectacular drunk right smack in the middle of his month of radiation. The day of his last treatment, he got carted off to the Care Unit. We could have killed him for taking such a stupid risk if he didn't seem to be doing such a dandy job of killing himself.

Jason lost a father yesterday, and the emotions I feel looking at mine, who somehow is still here, well up and I have to look away. If I cry, he will be uncomfortable, and this little moment we're having will pass. I saw last night that when we have those moments with someone we love, we should appreciate them for the little miracles they are. You never know when that person will be gone from your life for good. It could happen, quite literally, in the blink of an eye.

We aren't huggers in my family, so we sit in silence until Joanie comes. We make the drive to Lexington and into an apartment where you can tell life suddenly stopped in its tracks: the ornament I was cross-stitching for Mom sits on the arm of the sofa with the needle just dangling from a thread; my water glass is half- full (half-empty?) on the coffee table and the TV is still on. I pack for both of us, and pick up the pieces we've left behind, and lock up. And before I step back out into the cold I say a little prayer:

Lord, give me strength to get through this Christmas.

Be with Jason, and his brothers and sisters, and give them comfort.

Be with Kathie and give her the guidance she needs.

And Lord, please, please do not take my parents away from me for a long, long time.

I thought losing a parent was something that happened to people a lot older than us, and I thought you got a lot more advanced warning. I am shaken to my very core to know that our parents are, after all, mortal. And they can go in an instant.

There was a time when I thought the best thing that could happen to me was to be far, far away from my father.

Now I am so grateful that when I go back home today, he will be waiting for me in the kitchen, saying,

"Hey, kiddo."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


"I hate men!"

I yell this from the closet in my dormroom where I have retreated after fighting with Jason during his fraternity Christmas party. My anger wasn't even directed at him, really; I was really mad at some jackhole in his fraternity who stole our champagne.

I've been a very good girl in college; funny how having a raging alcoholic parent at home will temper that whole getting-drunk-every-weekend thing that so many people I've been away at Centre with have done. But this Christmas I am 21, I finish up my student teaching on Wednesday, and I deserved every drop of that champagne. Damnit.

"Mom, what was that red champagne you and Dad used to buy at Christmas?" I asked my mom. This would be the first time in my life I could just waltz into a liquor store and buy some champagne; I wanted to get something good, and I figure I can probably afford the stuff that Mom and Dad had around at even our poorest Christmases.

"Cold Duck?" she laughs, and I can practically hear her shudder on the other end of the phone. "You can probably find something better than that. That stuff was awful. We only bought it because we didn't know any better."

Awful or not, Cold Duck (I can't believe that's really what it's called) makes me think of childhood Christmases good, bad, and ugly, so that's what I buy on a beer run up to Lexington one night. I planned on spliting the bottle with Jason and maybe not being the responsible, reliable, sensible English-major-seeking-secondary-certification person I so usually am at fraternity Christmas parties.

But nooooo. Jason and I had just had one glass (from a souvenir champagne glass we get every year, which we usually drink a "mocktail" out of of) of the stuff when he went to the friend's refrigerator where we were hiding our bright red stash and found it had been raided. Not only had someone drunk all but about one shot of the Cold Duck, someone had also taken the Keystone Amber Light he had in case the Cold Duck didn't go down as well as we were hoping. We aren't exactly made of money and barely scrounge enough extra for the occasional pizza or Whopper; that someone raided our booze has made me livid.

"Aren't you going to do something? Find out who did it? It's bright red; it shouldn't be hard to see who has it."

"Just let it go. It's not a big deal."

"It is a big deal! This is our last Centre Christmas party. I wanted to drink Cold Duck. Someone ruined that!"

"Let it go."

If there's one thing I'm not good at, it's letting it go.

So I grabbed my coat, didn't say goodbye, and left for my dorm room, where I knew my beloved roommate was having some girls over to watch Star Wars.

And now here I am, in one of our freakishly-huge-for-a-dorm-room closets, taking off my cocktail dress and getting into my sweats, cursing men in general and fraternity brothers in particular.

Karen pauses the movie and asks me if I'm okay.

"I will be." I come out of the closet, so to speak, and pour myself a drink from the bottle of Jameson (came with its own glasses!) Karen bought me for Christmas. Karen's love of all things Ireland has rubbed off on me and the whisky goes down smooth. I bought her a bottle of Bailey's so she can Irish up her hot chocolate this winter; neither of us are lushes, so we know we can handle the good stuff.

The one drink makes my head buzz pleasantly and I try to salvage what's left of my evening.

Before long I'm settled in watching Luke try to take down the Empire just like those pesky womp rats back home, laughing with some of my closest friends, gazing occasionally at the lights Karen has so beautifully strung around the room. I'm totally sucked in to this movie as if I don't know how it's going to end and I wonder why in the world I didn't just do this tonight in the first place.

Because I wanted one last Christmas party before all the uncertainty--that's why.

Who knows where next year will find us. Both Jason and I want to be teachers, and we both want to work in northern Kentucky so we can go back home. But who knows what will happen? Jason wants to be a high-school choir director, and those jobs aren't easy to come by. We're going to apply all over the state and just see what happens. Oh, Lord, I am so not good at just seeing what happens.

This time next year, Jason and I could be on different sides of the state. I'd like to think that since we've been together for almost 7 years that we're in it for life at this point, but as I love to point out when I'm trying to plant a seed, I'm not wearing a ring yet.

My roommate will be in Georgia, and so many of my other friends are spread out, too. Louisville, Lexington, northern Kentucky, Massachusetts, Alabama. This is the last holiday I'll be spending with this crazy new family I've made.

My last four Christmases have had a predictable pattern, and I don't need a therapist to tell me I thrive on predictability (though one did tell me that when I went a little crazy my sophomore year.) I dress up and go to a big party on campus; then on Christmas Eve I go to Jason's family party; Christmas morning is presents and dinner with my family; Christmas night we go to my friend Matt's grandma's house for cut-throat games of Rook or euchre. (Some may think it's odd that we hang out with Matt's grandma, but everyone young or old who's ever met her falls in love with her because she's that awesome.) During this 4-year period my Dad has stayed sober during Christmas though he hasn't at other times of the year. It's been nothing short of a miracle. I am not ready for all this to end.

Not knowing where I might be living this time next year has me seriously rattled. It seems like the whole fiber of who I am and what I know about myself is about ready to change.

Next week I finish up student teaching and my friends start their final exams for this semester. Then Jason and I have to stick around a few extra days performing in the madrigal dinner ("Wassail wassail, all over the town...") and then we go home. And that's it. Half of our senior year over and done. Five months until real life.

I could start to really flip out over this, but Luke is flying his X-Wing into the Death Star canyons and I've regained enough clarity to appreciate this evening for what it is.

Families are crazy and imperfect. Sometimes they're loud, sometimes they're obnoxious, sometimes they steal your Cold Duck.

Even when they make you insane, you love them. Because you never know which Christmas is the last one where you're all together.Tonight, I do know that this is the last one where this little family is all together. I slip out of the room for some water and to call Jason and apologize. I will spend the rest of the night with my hallmates, then go to Jason's on-campus apartment the next night for a bologna sandwich, Grippos, and Keystone Amber Light (he didn't take it ALL with him to the Christmas party). My favorites of his fraternity brothers will be there, and it will be the best fraternity Christmas party I've ever been to.

 It's bittersweet that I know it will be my last, but it's the sweet that I remember.


I'll say this: Jason's family sure knows how to throw a party.

I will also say that I am more than a little overwhelmed. There are just so many of them. I can't even tell you the name of the person whose house we're at right now. I know it's one of Kathie's sisters, but she has quite a few, and I can't keep them all straight.

"Just wait until someday when you go to a party with all the Wartmans," Jason says. "I can't even keep them straight."

Okay, first of all--he's making plans for me to be at future Christmas and family parties with him, and the thought makes my stomach drop. In a good way. The way you feel when you love someone very much and you know he loves you back and you realize that just might be the person you're going to marry someday.

Secondly, I secretly can't wait to meet Steve's family. I love Jason's mom; she's funny and warm and has made me feel like a member of the family. But Steve is one of the most interesting people I've ever met and I imagine his dozen-plus brothers and sisters (!) will be just as fun. Steve is like no one I've ever known; he works insanely hard as a neon artist (! again) but when he plays, he plays hard, too. I can't imagine being from a family as huge as his and want to see how that all works.

I can't imagine being from a family as big as Jason's mom's, either, but I am almost getting used to the noise and craziness and learning everyone's names.


"So, we're at which sister's house?"


"And who's that?" I asked, pointing out a woman who looks enough like Kathie that I know it has to be one of her sisters.


"Got it. Donna. Holly. Only a few more to learn."

It turns out Holly had my name in the big gift exchange, and she got me a bottle of Poison cologne. Well, not the real thing, but she sells cologne that is supposed to smell just like the big designer brands, just for less money. It's a pretty great gift to get from someone who is basically a complete stranger. Now I can smell just like one of the popular girls at school.

I know that I drew one of Jason's cousins, but I have no idea what I got her because I didn't actually get her anything. Kathie said she would take care of it, and before I know it this cousin (who, like so many of Jason's cousins, is tall and sexy and beautiful and makes me feel like a skinny shrimp) is gushing over my good taste and asking me how I knew to get that skirt and shirt for her in just the right size.

I look over at Kathie, who is really the one with the good taste.

Kathie looks gorgeous tonight, and it's clear that she and Steve love each other very much. From everything I've heard, Steve is a vast improvement over Jason's dad, who is (and I think I'm being generous here) a complete cad. Steve would have never walked off and left her with six kids to take care of and refuse to pay a dime in child support. Jason's told some stories, and from what I've heard, he's had some Christmases that make even my poorest Christmas look like a rich man's feast.

I look at Jason, this guy who has been in my world since I was in sixth grade but who now is my world, and it hits me: as long as I have him, no Christmas can ever be that bad again. Even if Dad drinks, even if we're poor, as long as I have him (and his crazy-fun family), I can get through it. My long streak of sitting at home alone on Christmas Eve thinking about how fundamentally sad Christmas is (our Savior was born in a barn, for crying out loud, and no matter how warm and blessed and holy it was that doesn't erase the fact that no one could be bothered to find better accomodations for a woman in labor) just might be over.

After the big party for all of Jason's extended family, we go to his house (decorated for Christmas with a pink neon star on the roof) for a smaller (but still big for me) party with just his siblings. He has six of them, so it's still bigger than any gathering I've ever had with my little family. I learn that they open all the non-Santa presents on Christmas Eve; this is what I've been trying to get my mom and dad to do for years now, ever since we started going to my sister's and brother-in-law's house on Christmas morning to watch my nephew open presents. My esteem for my new extended family goes up a notch for doing Christmas the way I've always wanted to.

Steve drinks Crown Royal while he watches Kathie open the beautiful gifts he got her (Jason tells me that his mom cries over at least one present every year, and this year she cries over a diamond ring Steve surprised her with) and it's nice to see someone drink on Christmas Eve without ruining the holiday for everybody. The younger kids squeal at all the toys their older siblings got for them, and the older kids get tremendous hauls of clothing and what-nots from Kathie. Jason says she goes overboard at Christmas; seeing how happy her family and their joy makes her, I say she's doing it exactly right.

I unwrap a beautiful watch from Jason. I know it took a lot of his Kroger bagging money to buy it for me, and the sweater I got him pales in comparison. Kathie spoils me, too, with a beautiful red silk blouse that looks exactly like me. I will wear it (with my new almost-Poison cologne) to my family Christmas tomorrow morning.

One of Jason's older brothers drives me home with Jason going along for the ride and he looks the other way while I kiss Jason goodnight.

I am so happy I could burst. But I am already dreading tomorrow.

"Did you have a good time?" Mom asks.

"Yes," I say, and I tell her all about Kathie's sisters and the food and the laughter and the presents.

"Is he..." I start after I've finished my stories.

"I don't know," Mom says. "I still can't tell. You know how he is; if I accuse him of drinking now, he'll use that as an excuse to pull a good one tomorrow and not show up at your sister's. Don't say anything to him and maybe we'll get through Christmas without a fight."

We've suspected that Dad has been drinking a little since Thanksgiving, but we don't know for sure. Sometimes he comes home from working second shift and his eyes are a little too bright and his walk a little too uncertain, but we know from experience to just let it go.

Tomorrow, I imagine, we'll find out for sure. It has happened before on various holidays; Mom and I go to Joanie's early and Dad says he'll join us after he's gotten some sleep from working the night before. We'll get "dinner" (hillbilly for lunch) just about on the table and when Mom tries to call Dad to find out where he is, he either won't answer or he'll answer with slurred words that he's not coming. We'll later find out, after hateful words are exchanged, that he spent Christmas morning watching planes land and take off out on Airport Drive while sipping from a bottle of Seagram's 7 that he always keeps under the seat of the car. When I was little, I thought those bottles came with every new car because the very first time Dad took me out for a drive in his new Ford Fairmont he kept sipping from that bottle and it was in every car we ever had after that.

No matter what, I am going to make the best of it. I start to feel some of my old familiar sadness creep in, but I've seen how Christmas should be and I am not going to let anyone ruin it for me. I am going to wear my new blouse to my sister's and watch my toddling nephew Kyle open his many Santa presents. When my brother-in-law takes me to go pick Jason up for dinner, I will put on a smile and act like everything at my house is normal even if it's not, even if Dad doesn't show up.

As I get ready for bed, I can see the red light on top of the radio tower at the police station, the one I used to pretend was Rudolph's nose on Christmas Eve. Even long after I knew better, I loved to think that that was Santa on his way to give me a good Christmas. I am sixteen years old now and way past such things, but I close my eyes and hope that Santa will bring me a peaceful Christmas morning, one where I don't wonder where Dad is and whether or not he's drinking.

I drift off to sleep with Mousie under my arm (I will never outgrow him) and smile; even if things are a mess tomorrow, I have a second family now who have made this Christmas one I'll remember for good things, not bad. As long as I have Jason, and his crazy, wonderful family, I can see many happy Christmases to come.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Oh, my God! They got me a keyboard!

I knew that's what they were getting me so it wasn't like a surprise or anything but I am still jumping up and down because it's awesome. It has full-sized keys like a piano which is what I really would have liked but I know they're super expensive. It doesn't have as many octaves as a piano but it's much better than the little toy keyboard they got me for my birthday last year.

I was thinking this was going to be a really sad Christmas but so far it's one of the best ones yet. My Mamaw died last year the day after my birthday and this is the first Christmas I can remember where we're not going down home on Christmas day or the day after. We all miss her something awful, but Dad is sober and home for Christmas for the first time ever and I don't think it's possible to be any happier than I am right now.

We almost had Dad sober last year. For the last few years, ever since the spring I was in second grade, he's been in and out of the Care Unit getting dried out and going through the Twelve Steps only to fall off the wagon a few months later and start the process all over again. For some reason, even if he's sober right before Christmas, he always starts drinking again around the holidays. It's made for some really miserable Christmases.

Last year he was in the Care Unit, which is basically a hospital for alcoholics and drug addicts, on Christmas. He was allowed to be picked up and brought home for about 6 hours on Christmas day to eat supper with us and open his presents before we had to drive him back. He had just gotten out of detox, so his hands shook so badly it was hard for him to enjoy eating, and he was a weird, gray color that made me worry about him. That time it was really hard for him to get healthy again; his doctors thought they were going to have to put him in the real hospital because he had been drinking so much his throat and his liver and his kidneys and Lord knows what else were being damaged. We thought he might be scared straight that time.

But no. He started drinking again by summer and within a couple of months he was back in the hospital. I know he will probably drink again. He didn't stop for good when my mom left him, he didn't stop for good when he almost died in a car wreck, he didn't stop for good when he got so sick during detox that they called Mom and said they might have to move him to the ICU. I know in my heart he will probably never stop for good.

Today, though, things are great. He cooked a prime rib for us last night and watched me open my keyboard this morning and has been taking lots of pictures of me in my cool new red hat playing my keyboard. He's laughing and eating and I so wish this was the Dad we had at home all the time.

My sister and brother-in-law are coming over later and I can't believe our whole family is going to be together at Christmas. They are building a house and it should be finished this spring. Then they're going to start trying to have a baby. Someday I'm going to be an aunt and they've said they'll have us over every Christmas morning to their new house so we can watch the baby open presents.

I won't be the baby of the family anymore, but I'm okay with that. I'm growing up. I'm in 7th grade and I've had a couple of almost-boyfriends. I am teaching myself how to play keyboard by paying attention to my favorite teacher in my chorus class and with the help of an old piano book from way back when my sister was a little girl who took piano lessons. I can even play some things by ear. My family likes to hear me play and say if I keep up learning on my own they'll try to get enough money to pay for real piano lessons.

I feel almost like an adult today. I didn't get toys for Christmas (unless you count the keyboard as a toy, and I do not); I got clothes and cologne and a little birthstone ring. I've been through some rough times and I've learned to take care of myself. So it will be nice to have a baby in the family to buy toys for and to babysit and to rock to sleep. We need a kid in the family now that I'm all grown up. It's the only thing right now I think our family is missing.

Besides my Mamaw, of course.

It is sad that we won't be going down home today or tomorrow. When we lived in Barbourville for a year when my mom and dad were separated, I spent so much time with Mamaw. I never knew how much I loved her until I practically lived with her that year. She taught me how to crochet, how to roll out dumplins and cut them and put them in a pot of boiling broth, and how to laugh even when you're sad. I'm reading Gone With the Wind now and she's like Scarlett's mother was: a Great Lady. With the capital letters.

I miss her and I miss going down home, but it feels like things are changing. And not in a bad way. That part of my life, being sad and having to deal with my dad and all that on Christmas, seems like it's over. We're all together on Christmas day and it feels like how it's supposed to be in "normal" families. This time next year my sister will have a nice new house we can all fit into better than our house and who knows? She may have a little baby on the way.

"One more. Without that hat on."

Dad is in my doorway with uncle John's old Polaroid camera. He's been dead a few years now, but we think of him every time Dad gets that camera out to take pictures of everything important that happens in the family. I take off my new red hat (I've decided I look really cute in hats and I always want to have one to wear when I'm feeling fashionable) and hit an F chord on my new keyboard and smile up at the camera.

One...two...three. And breathe. It's the best Christmas yet.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"You mean, we're not even going to have a tree?"

"No, I'm sorry. I can't afford one. Your Mamaw has a tree. You can spend the night there Christmas Eve if you want."

"Why does it matter? I know there's no such thing as Santa now, anyway."

I sat pouting at the kitchen table in the tiny, 3-room apartment. I could barely stand to eat my dinner, even though it was one of my favorites and one of my mom's most simple creations: Campbell's chicken noodle soup with a can of cream of chicken mixed in. That soup always felt like a hug from the inside.

I stirred the soup and blew my too-long bangs out of my eyes and tried to keep Mom from seeing that I was almost going to cry. Pouting was one thing; crying, when Mom was having such a hard time, too, didn't seem fair.

Nothing about the current situation seemed fair. I  had gotten exactly what I thought I wanted, and we had moved to Barbourville. I wanted to get away from my dad, away from the drinking and the yelling and the cruelty he could display on a good bender. But I was 9 and I didn't know how hard it was going to be to be on our own.

Mom found an apartment she could afford, owned by a family member who gave us a great deal, but it was in a run-down building and didn't even have its own bathroom. We hated sharing the one cramped little bathroom with two other families on the floor; I've never felt poorer in my entire life than when I had to wait in line with my neighbors to relieve myself and brush my teeth before bed.

The apartment was a five-minute walk away from my grandma's, and more often than not I put on my coat and walked to the trailer when nature called. That's also where my mom and I bathed; no way was Mom letting me spend any time in a bathtub that was cleaned solely on the honor system.

I was three hours away from my friends and my sister and new brother-in-law and missed them all so much it made my stomach hurt when I thought about it too much. I didn't fit in at my new school; all the kids in my class had known each other forever and didn't want to make friends with the skinny new girl who dressed and talked differently from them.

To top it all off, Mom had just told me the truth about Santa. It wasn't a surprise, but I so badly needed to believe in something that year, something bigger and more magical than a crummy apartment a long way away from the only place I'd ever known as home.

"Well, I'm sorry," Mom said, triple-checking the burner beneath the soup pot. The pilot light was always going out, and she had me scared to death that the apartment was going to fill with gas and blow us and the dirty bathroom next door to kingdom come. "I thought you knew Santa wasn't real. You're too old to believe in that, anyway, and I can't afford to play along. We're just going to have to make do. Now finish your soup. I have some ladies coming over to get their hair done."

Mom was working two part-time beautician jobs, one at a shop and one at the nursing home. Most nights, her family and friends would come to the apartment and have my mom do their hair in the kitchen, giving her a little extra money. She appreciated that, and the money did help. But it meant dinner was often rushed, and I would be shooed from the only spot in the apartment that was bright and cheerful. And I often went to sleep with the sweet smell of perm solution in my nose.

"If Santa isn't real," I asked, "how did I get that bike the year Dad was on strike? You all couldn't afford it."

"Your sister bought almost everything that year," she said. And for the first time since we moved, I thought my mom was going to cry. "Your uncle John bought a few things, but your sister bought the bike and used every bit of money she had saved to give you a good Christmas. Lord, I miss her this year."

And suddenly I missed her so much I thought my heart would break.

We became quiet. We both missed home. We both missed the simple joy of using our own bathroom and taking a bath whenever we wanted without trecking to a trailer five minutes down the road. We missed our Christmas tree and the lights the neighbor put up on his house and shopping and eating out and all the things we used to do at Christmas. We missed my sister, without whom we just didn't feel like a family. Dad had made last Christmas miserable for us (my bedtime story on Christmas Eve was a horrifying tale about an abortion he allegedly witnessed in Vietnam), and Mom didn't want us to have to go through that again. But at that moment, we would have gone back to our house in Erlanger and put up with the drinking, the verbal abuse, whatever just to not be in this sad little tree-less apartment three hours away from all we held dear.

There was a knock on the door. It was one of Mom's cousins, right on time for her shampoo-and-set. But she didn't come alone.

"Here," she said, shoving a big paper shopping bag into my hands. "Randy's coming with the rest of it."

"The rest of what?"

"Oh, just an old tree and some decorations I found. It's small enough to fit on the end table, I think."

Another knock, and my cousin Randy came in with a box holding a perfect little table-top tree. Before we could protest, he started setting it up while Mom's cousin tested lights.

Then another knock on the door. One of Mom's friends came with an extension cord and candy canes. A few minutes later, another knock, and yet another friend with a box full of presents.

"You have to have something to put under the tree," she said, and winked at me.

Over the course of the next hour, Mom's usual clientele of family and friends paraded in bearing beautifully wrapped presents, food, and decorations. We set out the food, decorated the tree and the walls of the little apartment, and laughed together. Someone even brought us a tape player and some Christmas music.

Some of the people who brought presents wanted us to open them right then and there, so for me that little surprise Christmas party was my Christmas morning. Santa DID come that year, and he brought me my very own diary with a lock and key, a set of paper dolls with magnetc clothing that stuck to them like magic, a plastic candy cane full of M & Ms, and Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. He brought my mom clothes, cologne, and envelopes of cash ("tips", her friends and family told her) that she tried in vain to get people to take back because she felt it was too much, but that people threatened to hide in my pockets if she didn't take it. Santa brought a tree, and decorations, and food and friends and laughter. He brought Christmas to us when we couldn't bring it to ourselves.

The next summer we would leave Barbourville and come back home to the house, the family, and the friends we left. We were happy to go home.

But we would never, ever have a Christmas quite like the Barbourville Christmas again. A Christmas where we saw just how good people can be to each other. A Christmas where we quite literally "didn't have a pot to piss in" (my mom's favorite little colloquialism for poverty) but for one night were as rich as kings because of all the love people showed us.

The year that I found out for sure that there was no such thing as Santa was the same year that I found out there's a little Santa in everyone who goes out of their way to make Christmas for others.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Okay, a short break from the memoir stuff. I had a great experience over the weekend and I just have to write about it. It was That. Awesome.

From 7th grade through my senior year in high school, Christmas had a soundtrack.

The holidays began each year when my chorus teacher passed out old paperback books of traditional Christmas carols and had us brush the dust off of the harmonies so we could go caroling. I had the same teacher every year, and sang with the same core group of fellow students. Every December, we gave a string of performances in venues large and small; there was the big concert in the band room for all our parents and teachers and friends, but then there were the elementary schools, the mall, sometimes a nursing home.

Once I got into chamber choir my junior year, the smaller, elite group consisting of people who were flat-out good singers (plus me, who just worked hard and had a good attitude despite a mediocre voice), we went to even more caroling gigs. Sometimes paying gigs, even, which our teacher used to line the chorus budget coffers so we could have something resembling a set for our annual musical. We sang at the local convention center, we sang at the department store formerly known as Lazarus, we even were featured performers once at a hoity-toity dinner at a country club.

The applause never got old. But more fulfilling than the applause were the quieter moments when you knew your singing had made someone's day a little brighter or touched a listener in a way that didn't inspire clapping. At one caroling outing to a nursing home, a lady got up from her seat while we were singing and came up to my friend Michelle and grabbed her hand. This lady had dementia, and she thought Michelle was her daughter. She just wanted to hear her sing. Michelle kept it together and just let her stand there holding her hand and smiled later when the lady said, "Thank you, Katie. That was beautiful." Then she lost it in the parking lot, as anyone with a heart would.

The annual caroling ended when I graduated. Oh, my college choir tried to get it together once and sent a small group to the hospital and to the nursing home, but it wasn't the same. Since we went my senior year during finals week, our director couldn't make it a requirement and it was entirely on a volunteer basis; not many volunteered. The ones that did show started looking at their watches while we were still at our first stop and acted as though it was a chore rather than a joy. The magic I'd had with my high-school chamber choir was gone, and I remember going back to my dorm and having a good cry because I knew something had just officially ended. A time in my life where the very seasons were dictated to me by the pieces of music in a black folder in a choir room was over.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my shaky relationship with the Christmas season started roughly around the time I said goodbye to those paper-bound books of carols. All those years I took for granted the pleasure of putting a jaunty red scarf around my neck and belting out an alto part in front of a group of shoppers, or children, or the elderly, all of whom needed to hear us as badly as we needed to be heard. Music can be healing for the body and the soul, both for the singer and the listener.

Last night some of that long-missing magic came back in to my life.

Thank God for Facebook. Really. It allowed my former chorus teacher's daughter, herself a chamber choir alum, to organize a group to relive the good old days and go out and carol. Three of us, Jason included, showed up from my graduating class. We were the oldest, and we had never sung with the others that showed who were from later classes. It didn't matter. We were all there because we missed the tradition and wanted to once again sing in harmony for people who needed some cheer.

I didn't think it would come back so easily. My voice is not what it once was, and it was never great to begin with. But it knew the way on "The First Noel" and "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." There were 13 of us, and everyone there knew their way around a Christmas carol. When we warmed up with a lush arrangement of "Away in a Manger" we all used to love because it's not the shrill melody we all sang as kids, the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. That used to happen all the time when we sang particularly well, and I didn't realize how much I'd missed that sensation.

I also didn't realize how much I miss applause. I blushed the first time a group of shoppers at the Borders coffee shop clapped; I'm 36, and I haven't sung in front of people since I was 22, and it almost felt wrong.

"Where are you from?" someone asked. "You all sound beautiful."

"These are alumni," said our teacher. "I'm retired, and some of these guys have been out of school for 20 years, but we wanted to get together and sing today."

"You mean, you're not part of a regular group?" she asked. "You sound so good! I thought you must be a church choir or a community group or something."

"No, we're just doing this today for fun. It shows you what kind of kids these were."

"Shows you what kind of teacher we had," one of us said.

Our last stop was at a truck stop where one of our alums works as a mechanic. He told us the truckers could certainly use some cheer; it's hard being on the road this time of year. The restaurant area didn't have much room, so we all stood in a circle. We could all see our teacher for the first time as he had mostly been staying in the back row being a bass. He was still our director, though; throughout the day he had called the altos out for not singing out enough, and let someone know when they had jumped from one bass to tenor. Some things never change.

On that gorgeous version of "Away In a Manger", we watched him and got all of his signals and my oh my, we killed that thing. We smiled after the last chord.

"We actually did some phrasing there. Nice job. And by the way," he leaned in to us. "When we sang 'Silent Night', I think you got to some of the drivers. I could hear what they were saying and see the looks on their faces. You touched them. That for me is what this is all about."

No encore was necessary. We hugged, and passed back our borrowed copies of those little paperback carol books, and said our goodbyes as we stepped out into the starlight and the leftover snow from our first snowfall of the year the night before.

And suddenly, just like was Christmas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


This is the second in my Ghosts of Christmases Past series. Go back a few entries to learn more if you're just joining us.

Cold, bright sunlight comes in through my window and wakes me up. I slept late today. I think we all did. Dad tells me that me and Mom sleep too much and we're sleeping our lives away, but I don't feel like getting out of bed today even if it is Christmas.

I don't know if Santa was able to bring me anything this year. We watch the news every night and those boring news shows on Sundays and I hear a lot about how a bunch of people are out of work this year and I heard one man say that even Santa had to tighten his belt.

My dad has been out of work for a while and I know we're not doing real good. He's in a union and it's been on strike for a while. The strike is supposed to end soon and I hope it does because everything is weird when Dad doesn't work. I get free lunches at school which is neat, but there's some other stuff going on that's not neat. 

I got to open one gift last night like I always do on Christmas Eve and I picked the one from my uncle John because his are always the best. This year the box didn't have a fun toy or game or radio in it. It had a pair of bright red overalls and a white shirt and some socks. When I started to ask where the toy was Mom asked to talk to me in the kitchen and told me that she wanted everyone to get me clothes this year because I am outgrowing everything. It made me a little sad, but I do really like the overalls so I tried not to make a big deal about it.

I get up and go to the kitchen first because I can't stand to look under the tree yet. I think I'm the only one awake because things are so quiet and it was such a bad night last night but John is in there. He made some coffee and is drinking some from Dad's U.A.W. mug. He looks tired and I notice how much older he is than my mom and dad.

"What did Santa bring you?"

"I haven't looked yet."

"You haven't looked yet? Why not?"

I shrug. "There might not be anything in there."

John smiles. "I bet there is. I think I heard Santa bringing something big in. Go see what it is."

I go into the living room and see my bicycle. It's not one of the ones with a long seat and tall handlebars with streamers and a basket like my friends have, but it's a nice bike that doesn't have training wheels. It's blue and shiny and all my own. It looks like Santa tried to fit it in a stocking because one of the stockings Mom let me hang on a nail in the living room is on a handlebar. I laugh and run to see if it fits me.

Everyone is awake now. My sister walks in rubbing her eyes. She has a new boyfriend and she went to his family's Christmas Eve party last night and came home after most of the bad stuff happened. She says she loves my new bike. Mom is next and she stands and admires my new bike for a few minutes before she goes in and starts the biscuits and gravy she knows we all love for breakfast.

While everyone is looking at the bike and looking under the tree for their own presents, I sneak over to the other stocking I hung up. I am very curious about something. Some of the kids at school have been telling everyone that Santa isn't real and that it's really your parents that put the presents under the tree. I don't believe them, but I had an idea.

Last night I put an extra candy cane I got from school and one of the oranges we always keep around at Christmas into a stocking. Mom told me once that when she was a little girl in the mining camp, Santa always left her an orange and a piece of candy in her stocking and it was a special treat because they didn't get things like that every day. Ever since then I've wanted Santa to leave me an orange and a candy cane in my stocking even though I can get those things at home. Just in case Santa isn't real, and just in case I didn't find anything under the tree this year, I wanted to pretend Santa is real and that he brought me the same things he brought my mom.

I reach in the stocking and I almost hope they're gone. If they're gone, Santa took them and that means he is real. He put the other stocking on my bike but I really hope he left me something else or took my fruit and candy and left me a note instead.

They're still there. Mom comes in and sees me pull them out.

"Did Santa bring you something in your stocking?"

There's a funny look on her face. She really looks surprised. I feel my heart jump a little.

"No," I say. "I left these for him. He didn't take them so I guess he wasn't hungry."

"Huh. He probably was in a hurry putting your bike together and forgot to look."

Maybe. I don't know what to believe because I don't really think my mom and dad could have bought that bike and I also don't think they could have put it together last night.

Last night started out good. Mom opened a bottle of the red champagne she likes and the adults had some and told old stories and laughed and I watched some Christmas shows on TV. But then Dad moved on to some wine that John bought and then he had some beer. Mom said something about him being "three sheets to the wind." I don't really understand what that means but it makes me think of sheets of the filler paper I have to use at school and how if they were in the wind they'd just blow around all over the place, and that seems about right.

Dad wanted to go out and buy more beer but Mom didn't want him out driving so they had a fight. John tried to get Dad to stay at home, too, but he left anyway. He was gone a really long time and I wasn't sure if he was coming back. And I felt bad because a part of me didn't want him to come back because sometimes things are better when he's gone.

He's up next and we're all quiet when he comes in. But he smiles, and he inspects my bike and says it looks like a good one, and he goes in to have coffee. He and Mom don't talk but I know things will get better because they always do, at least when Dad isn't drinking.

There are other presents under the tree. More clothes for me and the Fashion Plates toy from my sister, which makes me squeal because next to a new bike it was the thing I wanted the most for Christmas.

Soon me, Mom, and my sissy will be going down home for a few days like we always do on Christmas night. Dad never comes with us when we go to visit my Mamaw and I start to feel guilty again because I want to be away from him and from home for a little while. He's a lot of fun this morning and he helps me tighten everything on my new bike. But his mornings are way different than his nights.

For right now things are okay. We eat breakfast and I am allowed to ride my bike for a few minutes in the family room while Dad takes pictures on John's Polaroid. I put on my new red overalls and while turtleneck and when I want to wear the blue socks instead of the red ones I'm allowed even though I know it doesn't match. I pack my Fashion Plates and as always Mousie and get ready to make the long drive to my Mamaw's.

I know I'll sleep in the car on the way down and I know I'll hear my mom and sister talking about things quietly when they think I'm asleep. Things they think I'm too young to understand. Things like Mom leaving Dad and finding a new place to live. They think it would make me sad, but it's really what I want more than anything in the world, more than a new bike or Fashion Plates.

I'm still kind of a little kid, but I know a lot. I know that my sister has a good new job and a new boyfriend we all like and soon she will leave and have a home of her own. I know that my mom doesn't make very much money and with Dad not working we're going to have a really hard time this winter. And I know if Dad keeps drinking too much something really bad is going to happen though I don't know what.

We pull out of the driveway and John stands in the doorway and waves and looks as sad on the outside as I feel on the inside. The clouds look like mashed potatoes in the sky and the sun feels warm on my face even though it's so cold outside. I start to feel better as the car heads south where I know my Mamaw's waiting for us with a turkey and dumplings. I tell myself it will all get better.

It always does.