I love the holidays, but they aren’t easy for me. (I know, join the club.) But this year is the last time I’ll use my credit cards to make things merry and bright.
Not that ordering piles of presents doesn’t help — those laptops, iPods and especially the BMW (a little pick-me-up for moi) certainly infused cheer into Christmases past. But there are better ways to ramp up the holiday spirit.
Christmas didn’t used to make me sad, but it did wear me out. I’d race around trying to make everything perfect, from the presents to the poinsettias to finding the shining-est star to crown the Christmas tree.
The last Christmas Michael was alive, he said he didn’t understand why I ran myself ragged that way. He did the cooking in our house all year, and more than his share of everything else, but Christmas was my territory, and Mr. Why-buy-a-present-now-when-the-mall-is-open-on-Christmas-Eve wasn’t the biggest help. But that last Christmas morning, as the children screamed and laughed, digging through a pile of packages I needn’t have wrapped with such care, under tree branches dipping with ornaments from blown glass to construction paper and popcorn, as bacon was frying and a frittata I’d forgotten about was burning, and we hadn’t even gotten to the bulging stockings dangling from the mantle yet, which I worried might drop into fire if we didn’t speed it up, Michael put his arm around me, smiled, and said, “I get it now. Next year it’s my turn. I’ll do all the work.”
He would have done a great job, too, except for the procrastinating.
The next year, I had my neighbor Mitch take a photo for our Christmas card of the kids and me laughing in front of our Christmas tree, so everyone would think we were happy and stop feeling sorry for us. And truth be told, we were happy, all things considered.
The next year I took a picture of just the kids and the dog for the Christmas picture, figuring enough time had passed that instead of people saying, “Look how well they are doing, how nice,” they’d say, “Oh my, has Lynn put on a few pounds?”
Because, you know, the camera adds a few.
The year after that, I didn’t bother with a Christmas card at all. Friends were fretting about fresher tragedies by then, ones where the victim perhaps wasn’t fortunate enough to cheer herself up by buying a car.
I did still charge up a storm, though, because I could.
I have to get used to not doing that, though. There are better ways to mark the occasion.
Take my front door. I read an article about sprucing up your house’s entry, and the next day, I painted the door bright red and slapped a wreath on it. Naturally I didn’t do all the sanding that Joe in the hardware store recommended (do you not know me at all yet, Joe?), so it needed five coats of paint instead of two, but that door makes me smile every time I look at it, even with the pine needles stuck in the paint because God forbid I wait until it’s dry.
Life is good, and all it cost was a can of paint.
I have been very busy lately with holiday cheer and whatnot, but I have to take a few moments to share the story about the mysterious noise in my kitchen, before I forget the funny parts.
Foreshadow alert: It involves the last time I will yank the wires out of a heat sensor without calling the alarm company first.
It all started on a Saturday night. I was alone in the house and heard a buzzing noise. I tiptoed all around the kitchen, trying to find out where the noise was coming from, becoming increasingly concerned and eventually convinced the buzzing sounded exactly like a live wire that could at any moment make my house explode.
Except the kids weren’t home, so instead of springing for overtime for an electrician, I decided the most prudent course of action would be to turn on music so loud I couldn’t hear the buzzing anymore, and open a bottle of wine.
That did the trick. But the next morning, the noise was still there, and now I had a headache.
Circling the kitchen once again, I determined the buzzing must be coming from the heat sensor, so I pulled all the wires out. That left it dangling from the ceiling, and set off the alarm. “FIRE! FIRE! GET OUT OF THE HOUSE IMMEDIATELY!” shouted the alarm lady.
That didn’t help my headache one bit.
I hastily tapped in the code to make her SHUT UP, then phoned the fire department to assure them there was no fire at my house, hoping the firemen had by now forgotten last summer’s blackened catfish experiment gone awry.
And the buzzing continued. I finally summoned the electrician, who turned off all the electricity in the house, and when that didn’t stop the buzzing, opened a drawer next to the stove and produced a meat thermometer that was making the noise because its battery was low.
That cost me $100.
The electrician then tried to reassemble the heat sensor, but couldn’t because I had neglected to mark where any of the wires went. On the bright side, he pointed out, at least I hadn’t electrocuted myself.
My next call was to the alarm company, to have someone come and reattach the wires on the sensor. The woman who answered informed me the sensor would never have made a buzzing noise like that, and suggested I call next time before ripping it out of the ceiling, adding that since their system hadn’t been at fault, the repairman’s trip would set me back $157.
Soon after, the repairman showed up, and I told him what had happened. He took a gander at the mangled sensor and asked if I had a service contract. I said yes, but acknowledged I knew it didn’t cover this particular problem. “Looks to me like that sensor just fell out of the ceiling on its own,” the repairman said. When I started to disagree, he winked. “I’m the expert here, and it looks to me like it’s covered under your contract,” he insisted. Five minutes later it was fixed. Then he discovered the alarm wasn’t properly linked to the firehouse, so if I’d had a real fire, they wouldn’t have been notified. He fixed that (for free) too, and told me it was a good thing I’d taken that sensor apart, after all.
And just like that, I went from feeling like an idiot, to feeling happy and grateful for the kindness of strangers, and not in that creepy Blanche DuBois way, but for real.
Talk about your holiday cheer.
Things can turn around on a dime, can’t they, and you never know when it’s going to happen, or how. But it’s been my experience that it pretty much always does, eventually.
Just be patient.
And maybe think twice before you rip anything out of your ceiling.
Last week, for the first time in ages, I was alone on a Saturday night.
I’d dropped my daughter off at a Bat Mitzvah, and my son was playing music at a friend’s house. Normally I would be having dinner with You Know Who You Are on a Saturday night, but You Know Who You Are had to attend a client’s charity event in New Jersey, and he realized that the only thing worse than paying an extra $400 to buy me a ticket, too, would be to sit next to me at the dinner and listen to me complain the whole time about how boring it was.
So I had the place to myself Saturday night, and I decided to make the most of it.
I lit some candles, opened a bottle of wine and ransacked the CD stack until I found a Billy Joel song that has been running through my head.
It’s called “I’ve Loved These Days,” and it plays like background music to the waves of memories that have been hammering me ever since I put my house on the market: Michael and me seeing the place for the first time at dusk and me sighing and saying, “It’s my dream house,” and Michael smiling and saying, “Then we’ll get it,” not realizing because of the darkness that it had been so neglected that the engineer’s report would label it “a handyman’s special”; Patrick, at age two, running around the kitchen in his little yellow fireman’s helmet, pointing to the oven and yelling “Fire!”, and us thinking it was so cute until we realized the oven actually was on fire; Michael buying a tent so we could have sleepovers in the backyard, but the kids getting scared of the crickets after fifteen minutes, so pitching the tent in the middle of the living room instead, and keeping it there for nine months until we had to make room for the Christmas tree.
So I blasted the Billy Joel song and listened to it over and over until I was embarrassed the neighbors would hear.
Of course, most of the song has nothing to do with my life. Michael and I did not “drown our doubts in dry Champagne,” for example, or “soothe our souls with fine cocaine.” There were no silken robes.
There was cabernet, however, and a string of pearls. And a foreign car.
But mostly, just days and days and days that I loved.
Billy Joel wrote this song about settling down and renouncing excess, then went on to divorce three times, do multiple stints in rehab and build a $20 million house in the Hamptons, so I can’t go too far with the analogy. But I do understand the powerful poignancy of happy memories when you’re on the brink of a loss.
I also understand that if it hurts that much to lose something, you were awfully fortunate to have had it in the first place.
And I’m not talking about the cabernet.
There’s another part of Saturday evening that involved a mysterious noise in the kitchen, but I’ll save that story for next time.
Right now there’s a song I want to listen to. Again.
Will this be the last time I set out pots of red chrysanthemums on my front porch?
It will be if I sell my house soon. I’m having an open house this Sunday, so from 2 to 4 you’ll find me in my neighbor Annie’s kitchen, spying from her window at the looky-loos who pull into my driveway.
Or don’t. It’s not the smartest time of year to hold an open house.
My poor realtor. It’s taken me six months to get comfortable with the idea of a pack of strangers from the city tramping through my living room, but those strangers will more likely be driving around upstate gawking at leaves this weekend than checking out open houses. Suckers. I can see gorgeous fall foliage right outside the wall of windows here in my tastefully renovated 1924 Dutch colonial.
Want to buy it?
If you do, you probably have little kids. Most of the people who’ve liked my house are parents of pre-schoolers. That’s because the house has a big, beautiful backyard, and it’s near the duck pond and the reservoir. The (fully finished — new carpet!) basement has a nice room with big windows and a bathroom. I’m sure people with little kids check out the basement and think, “Wow, what a great place for an exercise room.”
That’s what Michael and I thought, too, and there used to be a treadmill in it.
Not anymore. Now there’s just a teenager.
It’s a good deal all around: Patrick has his privacy, and I can’t smell his old socks and three-day-old cheeseburgers. What I can smell, through vents in the family room, is cigarette smoke, which has been useful on more than one occasion.
The house also has an alarm system with a very handy setting: a beeper goes off if a toddler tries to go outside when no one’s looking.
It’s equally handy if a teenager tries to sneak out when everyone’s sleeping.
Yes, there’s lots to like about my house, but you never know what kind of people will show up to see it.
I hope whoever buys my house will love it as much as I do. I hope they have little children who will giggle as ducks paddle over to them when they toss bread in the duck pond. I hope they have pony rides for packs of squealing kindergartners at birthday parties in the backyard. I hope those adorable children grow up to be teenagers who find the shortcut home from beer parties at the reservoir, and slip in through the basement door without realizing that their parents discovered the tape they put over the button that sets off the alarm.
I hope they fix the garbage disposal, but shhh, don’t tell them it’s broken.
I guess more than anything I hope the people who buy my house appreciate all the things that make it special.
If they do, I might just throw in the minivan.
There are currently three cars in my driveway, and only one driver in the family. It’s time to get rid of a car. But which one?
Not the BMW, which reminds me of the first luxury car Michael and I bought, a black Infiniti. We loved that car. I had never owned a nice car before. Michael had a leased Jaguar when he ran a company with his cousin before we were married, but he had to give it back when it turned out his cousin was a crook. So technically the Infiniti was the first nice car Michael owned, too, since it wasn’t paid for from questionable business accounts like the one that funded his cousin’s three-week safari in Africa.
Driving around in the Infiniti made us feel special and magical and maybe a little smug, which karma didn’t like, evidently.
One night Michael went to buy a pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke very often because he felt it wasn’t worth the nagging, but we’d had a stressful, long flight with two little children that day and he felt he really, really needed a smoke. So much so that at 11 PM he drove to a pub in town, left the car running and ran in to get cigarettes. When he emerged from the bar minutes later, he discovered the car had been stolen. You can imagine my reaction upon waking up at midnight to find Michael arriving home in a police car to sheepishly explain that his nicotine habit had cost us our car.
A few days later, we got a call from the New York City police: They had picked up someone in the Bronx who didn’t look like he should be driving an Infiniti. The car now smelled foul, was littered with fast food containers and had a big rock sitting on the passenger seat, which the police explained had likely been used to smash the windshields of other cars, in the interest of stealing things. Or injuring people.
Poof, the magic of the Infinti was gone.
At least Michael never smoked again.
But my BMW still feels a little magical, and drives great in the snow, so that one’s a keeper.
There’s also the Toyota Corolla that my mother gave me after she had to give up her license. It’s a peppy little vehicle and fun to drive, and will be perfect for Patrick if he ever decides that being able to drive is worth sitting through driver’s ed for. (His sister has warned me not to bother passing the car down to her when she’s 16, as its roll-down windows are “too much work.”)
Which leaves the minivan. It’s a 2006 Odyssey with less than 30,000 miles on it, since it was the car the babysitter just drove around town for carpools. I really like the car. The navigation lady is nice, and the DVD system was a lifesaver when the kids were little. But now I don’t have a babysitter, we haven’t used the DVD system since the kids got addicted to iPods, and owning a car that fits seven teenagers means means seven drop-offs at 11 p.m. when I’d really rather be home watching reruns of Two and a Half Men.
Plus, I have twice sideswiped stationary objects while driving it, so the door has scratches.
Want it? I’m selling it for $17,000, but for you, I’ll make it $16,000.
I realize that still leaves two cars and one driver, but a backup vehicle really comes in handy. You never know when chipmunks will make a nest in an engine, or a car will need gas when it’s raining out and you don’t want to get your hair frizzy, or pay for full service at the gas station.
So very soon, I will drive the minivan for the last time.
Bye, navigation lady.
The DMV, like much in life, can really be a pain if you let it. You wait and wait, slowly snaking your way up to the counter just so a clerk can inform you that you’re on the wrong line, or didn’t bring the correct paperwork. I always dreaded my trips there, but no more. I finally discovered that even the people at the DMV will bend the rules if they can, if you just treat them with respect and cordiality, instead of like surly roadblocks to registering the car that was stolen from your mother by someone who worked at her independent living facility.
Last year, my mother was told by her doctor that she couldn’t drive the car she’d recently purchased, so she arranged to sell it to a woman who worked at her facility. It’s a very nice facility — it has beautiful views, pretty rooms and lovely people. But it also had a worker who secretly whisked my mother to the DMV and had her sign over the title to her car, without giving her any money. I believe they call it “stealing.”
My sister Laurie discovered what had happened when she was visiting my mother, and Mom mentioned that the lady who’d “bought” her car nine months earlier had never paid for it. “I see Joanie every day, but she never mentions it,” sighed my mother. My sister, worried about my mother’s hurt feelings but a lot more, too, marched up to the director of the facility to complain. He insisted my mother must be confused. Then he was presented with the title of the car. My mother got her car back, and Joanie lost her job.
By now, the car had dents, thousands of miles on it and reeked of cigarette smoke. All of which made it the perfect vehicle for a teenager, so my mother offered it to me to give to Patrick when he gets his license.
The only problem was, I had to sort out wresting back the title, dealing with regulations from a different state, handling taxes, etc. Not to mention a trip to the dreaded DMV.
I did hours of homework online, collecting signatures and filling out forms, and arrived at the DMV with a sheaf of papers. After spending the requisite time waiting on line, I finally faced a clerk. Normally I would be stressed out and harried by this point, but since I had recently left my job, I was relaxed. In fact, I was enjoying the process, or at least enjoying being in the unusual position of having plenty of time to take care of it.
I was so friendly and easygoing, if you didn’t know me better, you’d think I was a people person.
I cheerfully handed over my papers, which the DMV clerk looked over and stamped, one after another. We were both smiling and chatting, until she got to a form that hadn’t been completely filled out. All it needed was the color of the car.
Which I didn’t know, since I’d never seen it. I called my mother, but got the answering machine. Same with my sister.
I had to make a decision, and I had to make it quickly: Lie and pick a color at random, or throw myself on the mercy of the DMV lady.
“I have no idea what color the car is,” I admitted. “I’ve never seen it.”
The DMV clerk stared at me for about 10 seconds. She had a decision to make, too.
“Let’s just say it’s silver,” she winked.
Now we were both liars, albeit for the very good cause of me not having to wait on line again.
Except, as it turns out, I didn’t have to feel guilty about lying, because it turned out the car really is silver.
I’m not suggesting every situation can be wrapped up as neatly as my car quandary was just because you’re nice to someone, but I think it’s worth a shot. Don’t you?
2011 did not get off to a good start: My son got suspended from school. I lost my job. I put my house, which I love, on the market.
So why am I happier than I’ve been in years?
Part of it is being liberated from a work situation that passed its shelf life six years ago. Part of it has been the opportunity to spend a lot more time with children who needed me more than I realized. Part of it is finally being ready to give up two bedrooms no one sleeps in, a formal dining room we only use on Thanksgiving, and a swing set no one plays on anymore.
But another reason I’m happy is the unexpected outpouring of support I am getting from a community I’d clearly never appreciated enough.
After word got out that my son was suspended, three different people offered Patrick work, to raise his self-esteem, and it did.
After word got out that I left my job, one friend after another, including people I hadn’t seen in years, called with contacts — names and numbers, not just advice — and took me out for lunch and coffee and drinks to make me feel better, and it did.
After word got out that I put my house on the market, everyone just wanted to know what I was asking for it, but that’s real estate for you.
Networking is not in my nature. “You have to reach out to everyone you know,” advised a friend about job-hunting. But I have never been a reacher-outer. My mother told me that at my kindergarten parent-teacher conference, Mrs. DioGardi revealed that during free time, I never joined the other kids. I just sat in a corner and played with dolls. My mother asked if that was a problem. “Not really,” said Mrs. DioGardi. “The other kids always come over to her.”
Waiting in the corner for people to come to you might work in kindergarten, but you wouldn’t think it would be an effective strategy for a middle-aged single mother who has to find a new job.
But so far, so good. I’m actually excited about finding a job, and have all sorts of intriguing directions to explore, all because a lot of people I’ve never even invited over to dinner want to help. (You didn’t miss anything, ladies, I’m a terrible cook.)
As I made my escape every weekday morning on the 8:13 train to the city, I used to think about how suburbs are a web of gossip and sniping and social-climbing. And some probably are (hi, Scarsdale). But where I live, that web has been more like a safety net, made up of people ready to catch you when you fall, then take you to happy hour for $5 Appletinis.
I’m a long way from understanding how grace works, but I’m learning that even if you sit around and wait, it will find you.