Friday, November 30, 2007

Not So Silent Night

1968: I’m home for Christmas break from the University of Wisconsin, spending another big holiday with my family. We celebrate big because we are blessed with two precious little ones—actually, one and a half. My nephew, Mikey, is a toddler. My niece, April, is nearly five months from birth—so tiny in her mom’s tummy, there’s no visible sign of her yet. This is the last time she’ll ever be subtle.

The previous year, we all survived the horrendous Chicago snowstorm of 1967. That, in and of itself, is some kind of miracle. It gave us monumental family bonding time. The entire metropolitan area was snowed in solid. We couldn’t leave the house for a week except to walk to the corner store and carry home necessities by sled. I can still hear my mother swearing about the SOBs who jacked up their prices, taking advantage of people during a crisis.

“Those jackasses! Bleeding money out of mothers that need milk for their babies…” These loud outbursts of cursing and carrying on and protectiveness of all mothers occurred at least three or four times a day—not only after my cousin Tony brought back what we needed on my classic flyer sled, but each time she heard these atrocities reported on the news.

By comparison, winter 1968 was a contrast in calm. Our family tradition is to celebrate on Christmas Eve—big dinner, presents, then Midnight Mass. Christmas Day is more of an aftermath for us—a time for the kids to play with toys and the grown-ups to veg in front of the TV, watching holiday specials. In this case, after the hoopla and snowla of ’67, we were looking forward to our first winter celebration since then and a more Norman Rockwell Silent Night.

Instead of doing Christmas at my parents’ in the suburbs, as usual, my brother Nick insisted on hosting us at his large apartment in Chicago. Nick was flamboyant. He loved anything new and different, so surely, this would not be an ordinary Christmas. He had only recently learned that he was going to be a father, and I think the gleam in his eye threw off his vision a bit.

Dinner seemed to start backwards. Nick spent an inordinate amount of time doing—and redoing—dessert.

“These ^&*^*()!! cream puffs! This is the third time I’ve done these damn things. I just can’t get ‘em right.”

Frustrated, Nick called Cousin Ginny. He had gotten the recipe from her. Lots of long pauses on his end of the conversation.

“Well, thanks a lot, Virginia,” he said, oozing sarcasm like cream in the supposed puffs that were flat as pancakes.

“What’s wrong?” Ma asked.

“She forgot to give me the magic ingredient—baking soda. That’s why they wouldn’t rise.”

Maybe his pregnant wife had him fixated on puffy things, but to his credit, Nick did not give up and whipped up one more batch of cream puffs while he roasted the chestnuts.

Since he didn’t have a fireplace, Nick, being creative, just stuck them in the oven.

Nick figured we should start eating while the nuts roasted, which were just a snack, anyway, given the built-in delays of his stubborn dessert. My mother’s Italian custom was a meatless Christmas Eve dinner, including spaghetti Aglio E Olio —pasta sautéed in garlic and olive oil. This was a side dish to baked fish and usually a green veggie like broccoli. Being an all-American meat-and-potatoes family, I can’t say any of us particularly loved this meal, but with dessert and presents to follow, we could stand once a year to have our taste buds under whelmed—except for maybe the garlic.

Mom was twisting spaghetti artfully around her fork, despite being a little tipsy from the wine at dinner. Rina, my sister-in-law, took breaks from stuffing her face due to prenatal indigestion.

The conversation was muffled, even quiet for us. It was a relief that everyone was giving “shop talk” a rest—discussing the family beauty shop business. Mom, Nick, Rina, and my sister Chris all worked there. I even worked there as a receptionist one summer vacation, till my prima donna brother with his hot temper let the F-word fly at me. Insulted, I quit on the spot. By now, this fact is hilarious, considering it was the ‘60s and every college kid, including me, found it to be the most versatile term of self-expression in the English language.

It was actually during a lull in the conversation—a rarity for the Mason family—that we were nearly blown out of our chairs by a loud explosion. It was coming from the direction of the oven.

Nick raced to the scene of the disaster, grabbing potholders en route. His version of chestnuts roasting on an open fire turned out to be chestnuts exploding in a closed oven. Smoke billowed and the inside the oven was beyond description.

“I think you’re supposed to pierce them with a knife first,” Mom said, between giggles. “It reduces the pressure.”

The rest of us had exploded into gales of laughter, leaving mirth on the walls like Oscar Madison’s linguine in The Odd Couple. It was hard to stop laughing long enough to go to Midnight Mass a couple hours later, especially lubed by the wine. I thought we’d have to have the bomb squad out. What a mess Nick had to clean up! Although he was hardly religious, he opted for Mass not mess, which he probably hoped Santa’s elves would clean up for him when they dropped by at midnight while we were at church.

Later, my sisters and I bunked out on blankets and mattresses on the floor and had a big family pajama party. Nick served Grasshoppers (he was incapable of anything simple), and I was looped by the time: the packages were torn open, we were sprinkled with holy water, and the instant replays of exploding chestnuts and flat cream puffs finally died down.

I am sure I dreamt my own unique Visions of Sugar Plums. I was on a sugar high on the sweetness of my wacky family, and how the greatest gift of all is the laughter we shared at our own human foibles.

Silent nights have their place, but so do memories with loud laughter.

Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bounty Hunters

It’s the occupation of Stephanie Plum, the wacky Janet Evanovich character in her numbers novels (One for the Money, Two for the Dough). I love her crazy antics and terminal ineptitude as she bumbles through life with a cast of equally hilarious characters trying to catch the bad guys or gals who have jumped bail.

Most of us are a different kind of bounty hunters. We seek the fruits of a life well lived: good food, good friends, a fabulous family, a comfortable lifestyle, and a sense of purpose.

One of my favorite symbols is the cornucopia, the horn of plenty. The harvest celebrates abundance, one of the main purposes of the feast, Thanksgiving.

But there is another even more important purpose—the thanks.

From the earliest age, as tiny toddlers, “please” and “thank-you” are among the first words we learn. I wonder why I bother with the child who doesn’t even let me know my gift arrived, much less says thanks. I’m much more willing to keep giving to people that acknowledge my efforts.

The universe works the same way. The more we say thank-you, the more it wants to give.

That’s why it’s important to develop your sense of gratitude all year long. Gratitude isn’t a season. It’s a way of life.

The word Christians use for communion—Eucharist—means thanksgiving. Catholics have a concept of being Eucharist to each other, which is the ultimate “being there” for someone. They can rely on each other in community to meet all those needs that the cornucopia represents. I’m sure there are many other traditions that uphold this concept of each feeding others, and in doing so, becoming the food that never stops giving—a perpetual loaves and fishes—in a divine domino effect of loving kindness.

To get that relationship with All That Is, you have to be part of the giving—starting with giving thanks.

Developing an attitude of gratitude isn’t just easy; it’s fun. Here are my two favorite bounty boosters:

• Every day, or as often as possible, write in your journal at least 10 things you’re thankful for. They can be of any size or subject—it didn’t rain today, I got a raise, my cat kissed me on the nose. Whatever it is, when you write it down, you send out waves of attraction for more good of the same kind.

• Create a gratitude box. Do the same thing as often as possible, only write them on slips of paper. They become your a self-made cornucopia. Especially on a blue day, you can dip into the box and find one, two, or fifty of your blessings. You know the old song Bing Crosby song from White Christmas, Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep. Why not? Toss the Lunesta. Visit your personal gift box instead, even if it’s just the one in your mind.

Gratitude is a simple awareness of the blessings all around us … how much good there is when we have the eyes to see it and bother to say hello to the Source.

Let this Thanksgiving kick off the next 365-day cycle of bounty hunting. To get really radical, and possibly to focus more on gratitude than gluttony, here’s one last exercise. Before dessert, draw names out of a hat of everyone present. Go around the table. Each person then expresses their gratitude to the one they have drawn. It can be for something he or she has done during the year or some ongoing quality or action.

Not only will this give your poor, overtaxed digestive system a rest before assaulting it with pumpkin pie; I have a hunch it’ll become a new tradition and the new whip cream.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Baby Angels

November 1995: He was an orange kitten whose loud meow stopped me in my tracks. He looked just like my Georgie Pie, one of the two cats I had lost within the past year. The kitty had a screeching “meeaah!” like Phineas, the one who died first. Within a year I had lost both my boys at ages 15 and 17. They had long, spoiled lives. I had been their mom for most of their time on earth, especially in Georgie’s case. He was only six weeks old when my ex-husband brought him home. He had also brought me Phineas, who strayed over to his apartment during a time when we were separated. Phinney was a year old, give or take a little, when I adopted him. I named him Phineas because it means “mouth of brass.” His meow was so loud, it sounded like a gong that shook the rafters.

After I lost my second baby, Georgie, I lost it all together. At the time, they were my only immediate family. One night, I was so bereft and bawling; I screamed out to God, “If there’s any way possible, please bring my babies back to me!” I had already believed in reincarnation for a long time. I remember sitting on my black, blue and white sofa, feeling like my spirit was the black and blue part and my heart was broken forever. I had memorial celebrations for both my beloved boys, bolstered by doting friends, but still, my grief was private and painful.

Then, a few days after my outcry on the couch, I walked by the pet store next to the market where I did most of my grocery shopping—a place I walked by all the time. A magnet pulled me through the door. The mouthy redhead had me at meow-lo, but there was this other black, gray and white ball of fluff snoozing sweetly that reminded me too much of Phineas to deny.

I told the owner I was 99% sure I wanted them both and asked if I could have till the next day to sit with it, think on it, and come back when the dark guy was active in the morning so I could see his personality and make the final decision. He agreed. It only took a split second of seeing the black and white one in action to know I had to have them both … and only as I was closing the deal did I find out they were littermates. I had tabby twins!

They could not have looked less alike except for their markings—tear drop noses, a white bandanna on their chests, and nilly (vanilla white) toes. When I got them home, I whipped out a baby book. (Writers always have lots of those to name characters.) In no time at all, I had named my little characters Duffy and Darrin.

The dark guy, Duffy, had one gray toe in the mix of white ones, and much longer hair than his redheaded brother, Darrin. Duffy’s fur often looked punked out, like he just woke up with a bed head. I learned that hard sleep, that place where he zonked when we first “met,” would be a one of his trademarks. He slept through meeting his own adoptive mother, and he’d sleep through a lot more in his day, looking adorably rumpled when he finally came to.

Darrin, though, was a screamer and a con artist who wrapped me around his little paw for the rest of his life. My friend Janet helped me pick them up that next day. They walked into the house like they owned it. They knew where everything was located, and within seconds, they were grooming each other just like their predecessors of such similar looks. When Duffy licked Darrin’s butt just like Phineas used to lick Georgie’s; I wasn’t grossed out. I was ecstatic! They were back!

I always called them my baby angels—and the babies that healed my broken heart. They were so cute; I could hardly stand it. Even today, when I look at their baby pictures, I turn to mush.

Their early childhood featured a couple of crazy episodes. When my friend Teresa, a professional animal communicator, lost her cat Katie just after I got my new little ones, I packed up the Tabby Brothers and drove them 200 miles to Katie’s memorial celebration in Monterey. They were the talk of the circle of animal lovers who attended. Getting there wasn’t half the fun. Poor Duffy was so freaked, I had to stop after the first 10 miles and give him major doses of Rescue Remedy. But by the time we were driving home from the Great Long Distance Adventure, they were snoozing sweetly, probably dreaming of all the lovely ladies they met and Duffy’s near swim in a dog food bowl that was a veritable pool to him when he was still so tiny.

Soon Mommy took her own big adventure to Greece and Turkey. I was very nervous about leaving them with a young pet sitter while I was half-way around the world. Don’t ask me why I would think this was an appropriate conversation, but I was telling a cab driver in Istanbul how I didn’t have kids and my cats were my children. I was having a hard time leaving them for the first time. He apparently thought I was nuts. “Cat is cat,” he said. I guess he was really literal and not a pet lover.

Many adventures later, I thought of that crazy cab driver during the last year I have spent losing Darrin. What did he know? Nothing about the bond a person can have with a purr person, that’s for sure.

“You were made for each other,” my husband said of Darrin and me—or the Daredevil as I used to love to call him, especially during his itty-bitty kitty days. He leapt furniture in single bounds, and while I was still trying to figure out which was which, I had a little rhyme to remind me: Duffy is fluffy and Darrin is daring.

In-between those first months twelve years ago and my loss of Darrin on October 30, 2007; there has been a lot of life and loving. As I said in my last post, Darrin was could absorb all the love I had to give and then some. We had a symbiosis so sweet, it made my face hurt from smiling. It made my head hurt from the furrows in my brow when I was worried about him: his “toots,” where he’d be gone for a day or more while I prayed and sent posters around the neighborhood if his absence went too long. I’d eventually figure out; he was never more than a stone’s throw away, often just camped out under the house.

His last year started with the toot to end all toots. A friend’s dog visited and scared him senseless. I tried to get him close to her visiting pooch, figuring he adjusted to our own dog, and he was just being melodramatic. That was one of his trademarks. He was enough to make a genuine drama queen look amateur. He jumped six feet into the air out of fright, straight up out of my arms. Only a helicopter and Darrin could fly in the vertical.

I kept food and water out, and by the eighth day of the Mega Toot, I pieced it together that he was under the house and started to talk to him through a crack in the porch. (“Baby angel! You can’t stay under the house the rest of your life.”) I finally coaxed him out and grabbed him on the tenth day, thanks to stinky fish cat food. I felt terrible that I had not honored his fear, and I allowed no dogs other than our own to set paw in the house from that day forward. During his long absence, friends helped with advice and web sites with genuinely helpful information. That’s where I learned that dogs often run off for the adventure, but cats usually run away from something.

A few months later in January 2007, Darrin was diagnosed with cystic liver disease. Dr. Elizabeth found a large mass during a routine “well baby check-up” and regularly scheduled vaccine. He had part of his liver excised—an expensive operation to which I did not hesitate for a moment to consent. He bounced back from the brink like Lazarus. I couldn’t tie him down to recover before he was leaping all over the place, against doctor’s orders.

His resurrection was short-lived. He got violently ill in August. The initial assumption was that the cystic liver disease was back with a vengeance, but further analysis revealed a fever and an acute kidney infection on top of anything underlying it. We nearly put him down, it was so bad—but I had to give him the last hope of antibiotics to see if he’d bounce back. He did, even though the vet only gave him a 20% probability of recovery. However, his kidneys were damaged.

All these ups and downs were getting tough on The Parents. We barely got him evened out and eating up a storm before we had more follow-up lab work and the dismal diagnosis--liver cancer. I prayed he’d make it through his 12th birthday on September 28th and our wedding blessing ceremony on October 20th. He was so perky during that month, I sometimes wondered if he were really dying. Like everything else he did, his last hurrah was overdone and adorable.

Every extra day I had with him this year was a gift—the meaning of the name Darrin. I know it’s no accident that leaving the vet from having him euthanized, I passed a car in the lot with the license plate THNKFUL. That said it all.

And speaking of thanks, thanks to my friend Teresa, the animal communicator, we have already “talked.” I hear he’s coming back—maybe next spring. Says he wants to be an orange boy cat again. Fine with me; that’s exactly what I was hoping for.

But meanwhile, his presence was so big, our house echoes in his absence. We’re all trying to cope, especially brother Duffy who was with him since before Day 1 in their cat mother’s womb, and our sensitive dog, Bear, who is in waning health himself.

Darrin taught me everything I could ever want to know about the last cycle of life. He dealt with fear, poor health, and a mother who made mistakes. His zest for life was contagious, even when his physical body was weak. He loved me every second of his life and especially the last leg of it--and vice-versa.

The two last things I told him were to come back, if he wanted, whenever he was ready; and a rhyme I always said to him: “I love you Baby A (for angel), I love you every single day.”

Now I just have to make it through the days I’ll never stop loving him, in-between now and his next trip to Planet Earth. It’s going to be a long winter.