family

Memories like fireflies.

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Robert HayesWe sat in a horseshoe of high-end furniture on the brick patio of my grandparents' house, the one they moved into just before my little sister was born. Gam sat in the center — equally composed and frazzled, ironclad-strong and fragile — flanked by my stepfather, mother and sister on one side, my aunt, her adopted son and me on the other side. We sipped ice water from stemless wine glasses that sweetened onto flowered cocktail napkins in the humidity.

She wore tailored black pants and a white linen jacket with a mandarin collar, set off with a brightly colored dragonfly stick pin: prim as always, but absent a bit of her luster and polish. The light started to leave her eyes, I think, the day she found out about Grandy's cancer.

He tried to fight it — tried everything, from medications and radiation to chemo — but the treatments only succeeded in weakening his body further.

When we saw him at Christmas, he was a physical shell of his formerly robust, barrel-chested self. In years past, he'd already be dressed in pressed pants and a casual button-down, the morning paper already half-devoured, by the time our pajama-clad crew arrived to open presents on Christmas morning.

This past year, he wore a robe like the rest of us, with soft drawstring pajama pants I imagine were the only thing he found comfortable anymore. What little hair he had left was reduced to an ashy down, sparse on his head.

But his eyes still twinkled — mischief and wisdom and wit still clawing their way to the surface through his broken body — and his voice, when he spoke, still echoed all the same.

That Christmas morning's celebration was a little more somber, and echoingly quieter. Instead of the big brunch, we left early to make room for an afternoon nap and all the attending difficulties life with someone dying of cancer inevitably brings.

Grandy had written my sister and I a Christmas poem every year for as long as I can remember. He was a master of the cutesy art of iambic pentameter, and it was impossible not to crack a smile, or giggle a little, when reading the poem aloud to the room (as we were always asked to do).

There was no poem for us this year, but on the table, wedged between the lamp and Gam's glasses case, was a plain piece of white printer paper folded in thirds. He'd written her a poem entitled "Our Last Christmas."

 

robert hayesIt seems, in the six and a half years since I moved to Chicago, my soul has blackened and shrunk; few things make me cry anymore. But I cried when I found the poem. (I didn't even read it; the title was enough to break my heart.)

I cried when I found out he'd died that morning in February: I was on the Brown Line to the Loop when my mother called, and I knew as soon as I saw the caller ID what I'd hear on the other line. I day drank and wore myself out running around town that day.

And I cried when I came home that weekend afterward, though not when I expected I might. I'd been dry-eyed, all smiles, when we arrived at the airport and when we went to the house to give hugs to our newly widowed grandmother. But as I padded aimlessly through their pin-drop-quiet house, his imprint still pressed into his easy chair but the smell of his pipe already beginning to fade, I started to tear up. And somehow, the sight of his Mercedes sedan in the garage, shiny, clean, dark and forever without its driver, is what brought the house down.

Grief is a funny thing.

 

robert hayesGam began the afternoon with the story of why we were there. Grandy had said, when he got word that he had four to eight weeks left, that he wanted a funeral only if everyone sat and sang nothing but Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson music.

Gam said they'd compromised and agreed on a small family memorial gathering, where we would sit around and say nice things about him. And that's what we did.

We read letters Gam had received from friends and former colleagues both before and after his death. I read aloud from his autobiography a bizarre history of the cars he'd owned throughout his youth, as well as the tale of how he'd scandalously sold his 1935 lemon to his "buxom and very pretty" Spanish teacher, so he could upgrade to a "late-model beauty" of same manufacturer.

Then we sat in our quiet little horseshoe — his wife, his daughters and their small families — and looked through photos of him doing what he loved, trading fond memories and sage adages he'd shared.

I tried to put words to my own fond memories, but in the end, I didn't have much to say. My memories of Grandy are suffused with his wisdom, ooze with his stoic warmth, but lack form. My memories are hazy and vague, but they're all vividly focused in that twinkle in his eyes.

robert hayesI remember my pleasant surprise at him occasionally picking up the phone when I'd call. I remember his patience every time Gam interjected into a conversation, and the way he said her name.

I remember him gleefully sabotaging our family Christmas Eve craft every year. I remember his lung-crushing hugs, and the dirty-sweet smell of his pipe emanating from his basement office.

Barely, I remember him at the helm of his boat, never doubting he could steer us back to shore.

And I'll remember him now, too, in the warm, gusty breeze that ruffled our cocktail napkins that afternoon, and the nightfall glow of the lightning bugs along the walk I took to clear my head that night.

I've never gotten close enough to catch a firefly in my cupped hands, but off in the distance, they blink and flicker with the essence of everything that's lovely about a Kansas City summer.

My black heart may not cry for him again, but it'll be impossible not to smile.

Not so little.

Tonight, I'm sitting on the dark brown, faux-suede love seat I bought just before I moved in to my first apartment in Kansas City, in the living room of my best-yet apartment in Lincoln Square, listening to my cat eat in the next room. I'm wearing argyle knee socks, flowered men's boxer shorts that have always been mine, and my rabbit ears. There's a glass of pink wine on the table next to me.

And I can't help but think, at this very moment, This is what it means to be a grown-up.

~

It was cold and grey last Saturday, the day my younger sister graduated from Drake University. But my graduation day six years ago was hot, humid and windy — the way a Midwest May afternoon usually feels. My boyfriend at the time had gotten so wasted the night before that we weren't sure he'd make it to the ceremony.

And that would have been so…him. Runner of the Beer Mile.

Between journalism school graduation and my initiations into Kappa Tau Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa, the most important parts of my day, at least on paper, were over before most kids even had to be on campus for the big ritual: the walk down the hill from the Campanile to the football stadium for the actual commencement ceremony.

None of this was a big deal for me. I knew I would graduate. And I hadn't worked particularly hard to get there. If anything, graduating meant I could finally just be a damn grown-up. Have a job and a paycheck and a relationship that actually meant something. Good riddance, college.

But I did the walk down the hill anyway, smiled and laughed with the friends I'd made in the journalism school, which had been my saving grace as a college student — one of the only reasons I stayed sane enough not to try to kill everyone in my sorority house. I remember seeing my boyfriend's family more than I remember seeing my own; his brother-in-law was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his face, sideburns and goofy grin in all their glory.

My friend Bill walked with a bright yellow smiley-face balloon on it to help his family recognize him in the crowd.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, I found my mother, then we turned away from the stadium and toward the parking lot. We got in the car and drove with my roommate and her mother to Louise's West. I skipped my massive commencement ceremony to drink spicy bloody marys garnished with dill pickle spears.

I can't imagine that day going any other way.

~

But as I wandered, bewildered, into the Knapp Center on Drake's campus six years later, the concert band already sounding very academic over the loudspeakers, I couldn't imagine my sister doing the same. Drake is a tiny school. And she was an integral part of the student life there during her four years. Or so it seems from the outside. And though I think she's just as eager to get out there and grow up already, her empty chair would have been a tragedy at this ceremony. We — my mother and stepfather, my father and his wife, and Holly's boyfriend — made our way to blue folding chairs high above the basketball court, and finding her among the rest of the black robes and mortarboards was a reading of Where's Waldo? far too early in the morning. There were no striped shirt or trademark spectacles to look for; the only giveaways were her button nose and a tuft of short, layered hair sprouting from the back of her mortarboard. Maybe that proud Worthy walk, if we looked closely enough.

 

She looked so pretty in her cap and gown.

And for the next two and a half hours, we watched and listened and she made that rite of passage into the next phase of her life. My lungs burst with pride — and the loudest yelp I could muster — as she took her diploma and walked across the stage. And after she moved the tassel from one side of her jaunty little hat to the other, I thought, Jesus. We're both adults now, with papers to prove it.

And really? The reason I was vaguely depressed all weekend probably didn't stem from my realization that the Flightless Bipedal had already rejected me, but that my little sister was really quite far from it anymore. And that's hard for me.

 

But I've still got five and a half years on you, kid. So this, madam, is what I would have written in all those letters your friends and sorority asked me to write for graduation but I didn't make time to do: You've got this.

My advice likely means nothing. Most of the time, it seems you've got it together more than I ever have or will. It's quite possible that you are just the family badass. Maybe you aren't even feeling apprehensive about what lies ahead.

All your grand plans to have an apartment with a coordinating color scheme, dinner parties and potlucks, to subscribe to Real Simple, see your name in a masthead and your hands in the historical preservation of Des Moines? Those are all fantastic plans.

And you will make it all happen. Probably not in the six months after you graduate, but you'll do it.

But? There will also be times when you'll want nothing more to be treated like an adult and get exactly the opposite; there will be times when everyone wants you to be an adult but you want nothing more than to be babied.

You will fuck up. A lot. (Hopefully not as much as I have.) And you will be better for it.  Even if it doesn't seem like it at the time.

There will be breakups, and they will destroy you. Temporarily. And you'll be better for them. (And in the meantime, I will be there for you.)

There will be crises where you have no idea what you want to do with your life. And…well, I have no reassurance for you on that one. I think you'll be fine, but I'm in the middle of a phase where I want nothing more than to quit my job, drive a semi cross-country for a year and write a book about it. I'm not sure I'll be fine — ever.

Anyway. Just remember that this is all part of it. Most grown-ups are absolutely flailing, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You've got this, just as much as anyone else does.

My biggest hope for you is that one night, you're sitting somewhere doing nothing in particular, listening to a good song while you cook dinner for friends or watching your favorite movie as you much mindlessly on some disgusting snack that no one else could possibly like, and realize that this — not the job or the paycheck or the relationship or the sofa you bought on Sunday — is what it means to be a grown-up.

My second biggest hope is that we're even closer friends when that hits you.

Christmas: The McPhersons.

I got a Christmas e-letter on Wednesday from the McPhersons.It was a two-page, full-color PDF, laid out like a church bulletin or corporate annual report, studded with family photos and well wishes for the coming year. It was such a sweet letter. Just one thing wrong: I don't know the McPhersons. The trouble with electronic greetings — especially those sent en masse — is that it's pretty easy for them not to reach the intended recipients. The letter I got was meant for Pam Worthy, whose e-mail address supposedly differs from mine by a single character. But for some reason, it didn't make it to her and came to me instead.

Before I checked the distribution list, I read the entire letter, thinking the McPhersons were long-forgotten friends of my family, business colleagues from deep within the horticulture industry or among the thousands of people I follow on Twitter.

The wife and mother, editor and publisher of the McPherson annual update, is so proud of her family. Her husband just started working for a local nonprofit. They have two daughters, the oldest of whom suffers from a pretty severe disability. Mom's days are spent shuttling the daughter to and from doctor's appointments and therapy sessions. In one of the photos, their oldest daughter had just won a blue ribbon in an event at the Special Olympics and displayed it proudly as she leaned in for a celebratory kiss from her father. The younger daughter, with curly hair and glasses, smiled wide in another picture as she held a tiny baby bunny in the cupped palms of her hands. Another photo shows her dressed for Halloween as a cheerleader.

This family has its hands full; that much is clear from the letter. The sentences are short and each paragraph jumps to completely different aspect of life. Wife and mother seemed to have trouble picking which news to share from 2010, a year full of "blessings and challenges."

In my circle of friends, we half-jokingly complain about our semi-tragic first-world problems: Not being able to get a primo reservation at Girl & the Goat. The battery dying in our $400 smart phones. Agonizing over which color to pick for that spa manicure and pedicure. Gosh, life is hard!

The McPherson family's life is hard. I imagine that caring for their handicapped child affects absolutely every aspect of their lives. Money's probably tighter than they'd like. Husband and father's job as an addiction counselor must worry wife and mother every day as she hurries from place to place with daughters one and two. And yet? There's not even an inkling of negativity to be found in that letter. The McPhersons are deeply religious and thank God regularly — in every paragraph of that letter, actually, sometimes more — for all the blessings in their life. Husband and father is doing God's work in his new job. The Lord blessed them with a new van with a ramp to help get them around with a new wheelchair in tow. God has provided wonderful doctors, therapists and teachers.

The McPhersons' life seems to be all about those little blessings, those tiny miracles: Wife and mother would miss the weekly appointments if she suddenly didn't have to go to them anymore. Disabled daughter has learned to eat real food this year, and her little sister is delighted to be learning the names of the months. The girls fed a giraffe at the zoo.

Christmas at the McPhersons' is all about the miracle of Christ's birth, that much I can say for sure. For me, this holiday has never been about Jesus. It has always been about Santa. All about Santa. (And the occasional reindeer, and maybe Frosty.) And I've always been perfectly happy with that. I get pretty cynical about religion. And I flinched when I saw the Bible verse at the top of the McPhersons' annual update. But their profound faith seeped into every word of that letter. It made me warm.

Tomorrow, they'll go to church. They will have a quiet, peaceful day basking in the simple happiness of another year together. Husband and wife will settle in together, exhausted, in front of the fire, after another joyous Christmas with their two beautiful, special daughters.

Wife and mother will never make a video of her kids throwing a tantrum that they got books for Christmas. It will never go viral with more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. I sat by myself and laughed hysterically watching that video early this morning, shared it with my sister and snickered expectantly as she watched it for the first time. There's a particular holiday pleasure that goes with laughing at some spoiled, snot-nosed 3-year-old boy yelling "POOH!" at the top of his lungs.

But it's another thing entirely getting a glimpse into the cozy, complicated and wonderful life of a family that still seems to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because it can be pretty easy to lose sight of that in my life, over here with my first-world problems. With my laptop and smart phone and the piles of presents waiting to be torn into under the tree.

I love my life, and my family, and the way we celebrate the holidays. I do. My extended family will arrive in two hours for cocktails, a beautiful tenderloin that's been marinating since before I went to bed last night, and caroling by the fire with toy instruments bought for the occasion. We'll wake up in the morning and sit with our piles of presents, with our mimosas and breakfast casserole and festive holiday napkins, with Christmas music playing softly in the background, and enjoy one another in our own way. But when the inevitable Christmas Guilt kicks in, after the hypercaloric gorging and orgy of gifting, I may take a few quiet moments and say my own version of a prayer for the McPhersons. The I'll go back to enjoying my family and appreciating those tiny miracles I find here at home.

Pam Worthy is a lucky woman to count the McPhersons as friends. And I was lucky to happen upon them by accident this Christmas.

God bless us, everyone.

Where are you, Christmas?

My Christmas tree fell over yesterday.It's perched a bit precariously, by three plastic legs loosely pegged to a spindly base, on top of a little table that's just wide enough.

I'd stayed up far past my bedtime, just after 2 a.m., the night before trying to fix my scanner — and that is not code for "drinking spiked egg nog and crooning, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' in perfect harmony with a tall, handsome man in an ivory cable-knit turtleneck sweater," as much as I wish it were — which left me groggy and a little out of sorts.

For a four-foot tabletop tree, it packs a sparkly, festive punch. Every light twinkles; every ornament has a story. Perched precariously, yes, but pretty. Maybe the danger makes it all the more beautiful. The scanner, finally fixed after hours of finagling, and my tiny tabletop tree were intertwined by fate. Fate and power cords.

I wanted to move my printer into the other room so I could watch daytime TV while I scanned receipts. My life: so, so glamorous. I thought it would be a fun trick to unplug it without moving any furniture or checking any of the other plugs. I tugged at the scanner's cord once and heard a faint jingle. I thought I felt the plug start to give, so I gave it one last sharp jerk, and the faint jingle crescendoed into a cacophony of bells and breaking glass. I winced and surveyed the damage behind me. My most precious ornaments were still in tact, except for a glass rabbit with a hole through its heart and a clay ballerina with two broken legs.

I did my Christmas crying before Thanksgiving when I put the tree up; I was cold and lonely, and the ornaments' stories seemed bittersweet as I did my trimming solo, fanning each artificial branch into something more lifelike, choosing the best hanging spots for my prettiest treasures and reserving the back for the glass pineapple of unknown origin and the fat blue crab from Boston.

Nothing about this apartment deserves a pretty little tree. The white walls and high ceilings swallow its light.

The glass pineapple had broken. I scooped up its shattered spines and the other big shards and threw them in the trash, then I vacuumed up the smaller pieces of glass and glitter, and gave my kitchen a once-over with the Dyson while I was at it.

I put lunch in the oven and scanned my receipts. I showed my light-swallowing, white-walled apartment to the man I hope will free me from my lease and gingerly unplugged the tree again when I left for the afternoon.

The Christmas spirit hasn't really found me this year. Mostly — and I've never felt this way before, ever — I want to fast-forward to February, when I'd like to think I'll have the time to start making sense of my life. For the past few years, Christmas has been about the stress of travel, finding the money to afford all the presents and getting them home in time for the big day. I used to love Christmas so much. Last year, I needed a change. I spent the holiday in Chicago with the Knight, in my cozy Lincoln Square apartment that embraced the light of my tree. Every molecule of the living room glowed. We opened presents in our pajamas, ate leftovers from our Christmas Eve feast and watched movies on the sofa. We never even went outside that day. It was so blissful on the surface, but it was punctuated with guilt, disappointment and resentment.

I must really be an adult now.

Christmas is next Saturday. I'm not really sure how that happened, and I can't seem to get myself excited. So the toppled tree didn't strike me much either. It was more like knocking over a lamp. A broken bulb, a busted shade.

That's how it felt this year, anyway.

I've re-fanned the branches, and the lights still work. The man who looked at my apartment noted how pretty it was; everyone else who sees the tree oohs and ahhs over it. It brings out the Christmas spirit in others.

The ballerina's legs can be glued back to her body. She will dance again.

The hole in the rabbit's heart can't be patched, but he'll go on. I'll think of how I felt when he broke every year I take him out of the box — that's his story now — and I'd like to think I'll be in better spirits then.

Bear with me?

As my checks start rolling in — sloooooowly — I'm loosening my purse strings a bit. Which means I've finally let myself splurge on the Wordpress theme I've had my eye on. (Hey, big spender!)

But as I crank through a busy post-holiday week at work, there's not going to be a lot of time to tinker and tweak. So if you read my blog on paigeworthy.com proper, it's going to look like a grabby-hands 6-year-old or really cute kitten (she will be mine) got all over my keyboard and reset a bunch of stuff.

Bear with me? Thanks. You're great. Oh, me? No, you.

Sidebar: Remember that time I didn't blog about Thanksgiving and skipped straight to some crazy story about a minor car crash? Don't think me ungrateful. God, I have so much to be thankful for. To the point where I'm so overwhelmed that I end sentences with prepositions. To the point where it seemed stupid to try to write about it.

However. I got back to my Chicago apartment on Saturday night around 9 p.m. Before I left, I turned the furnace off completely, and after five days the temperature inside had dropped…considerably. It was 40 degrees. So I put on a pair of socks, yoga pants and a hoodie, and jumped between my plaid flannel sheets, comforted tugged up to my chin. The Christmas lights were on, tree plugged in — I'd decorated before I left so I wouldn't be faced with the task in an extended tryptophan coma — and before I let my solitude depress me, I thought about how nice it is even to have people to miss. If loneliness were really my life, it would just be there all the time. It probably wouldn't get to me much. I do not like my apartment. And Wicker Park makes me die inside. But I was so happy to be back in my little Chicago life, missing my family (who I'll see again in less than a month) and eager to see friends again, that it… Well, it warmed the little cockles of my heart.

Cold hands, warm heart.

Bear with my ugly, rarely updated blog, please.