Flip Flops In The Snow

I hated Christmas music from November 2004 to November 2005. Nothing about it made me chipper and bright. I hated Christmas shopping, which I normally loved. I wasn’t even keen on the tree in 2004. I just wanted it over. My mom’s breast cancer diagnosis hit my family just before Thanksgiving in 2004, and no amount of false department store spirit could lift mine. I normally liked Christmas. I started shopping after Labor Day and I could be counted on for caroling and decorating just after Thanksgiving.

I was always the first one to send Christmas cards. I should have purchased stock in Hallmark due to the sheer volume that I needed. I had a Santa hat that went everywhere with me. One year, I made stockings for everyone I worked with and I always planned some sort of holiday celebration.

In 2004, it wasn’t the same. I didn’t have the desire to plan, play, and fake my way through the holiday season. Frankly, it was exhausting.

I hated Christmas music and with surprising force, I blocked out the sounds. I did not watch any Christmas movies, including my favorites. I love It’s a Wonderful Life, but even my beloved Jimmy Stewart was too much. I didn’t wear my Santa hat. I don’t remember what my family did that year. I think my parents and I stayed home and wathed movies and ate. (Not that spending time that way isn’t a perfect holiday either way.)

When my mom was issued a clean bill of health, and came home on New Year’s Eve 2004, 2005 came in with a renewed hope. And although I was still weary regarding Christmas music, I was mostly bad to my “old” self that year. Christmas movies didn’t bother me, for the most part. I enjoyed shopping again and I made Hallmark’s sales quota singlehandedly. My mom has had a clean bill of health for thirteen years, so the pure detest for all things Christmas only lasted for one season.

As an adult, Christmas is a big deal at my house. I love having family packed into our small (ish) ranch and the togetherness that the season brings. Every square inch of my home is decorated and I have never failed to have our Christmas tree up either on Thanksgiving or the day after. This year, my husband indulged my adoration of trains and bought me a train to circle our tree. He also started getting me pieces to a Christmas village, and every year, I find a new one from him. I love the way that he takes his time selecting the piece and the energy he spends studying each one to make sure it is just right. (Our village may or may not be still on display in the living room window. Yes, I know it’s April. Yes, I know it was seventy degrees last week. I’ll get to it.)

However, as much as I love Christmas, and I will fully admit that I do love it, it’s not my favorite holiday. And even before 2004, that wasn’t the case.

Very few people, including most of my family and friends, do not know my truth. And a few of those people are probably scratching their heads right now, or they are in complete denial. Better yet, and a much more fitting response, they are questioning how well they actually know me?  If one finds himself, or perhaps herself, in that position, there is one question to ask: what do I wear, all year round, no matter the temperature? If the immediate answer is “flip flops”, it is correct. I wear them all year, even when I can’t parade around outdoors, they become home attire. It is not uncommon to see me in fluffy fleece pants, a fluffy fleece snuggly robe, blankets topped on me, and flip flopped feet peeking out and asking, “when’s spring?”

What do I thrive on? Sunshine. Being outside. The color of grass and the look of the world in bloom.

The truth is, Memorial Day has always been my favorite holiday. Always.

As a youngster in elementary school, it meant that the school year was almost over. In high school, it still meant that the school year was almost over. In college, it meant that the semester had already been over for about a month. As an adult, it ushers in open windows, gardening, reading on the porch, early mornings and late nights, and things coming alive again once more.

Spring might start in March, but for me, my new growth and beginnings start in May.

I had friends that resented the parade we did as members of the high school marching band. And it’s true that I might have resented being there because of band, I didn’t resent the day. I loved it.

Memorial Day combines two of my favorite things. Memories and spring. I take pictures of everything and am careful to make memories. I don’t want to forget anything or be left out of anything, so if I document it, I was there. And I can always go back. As a natural observer of things, this has always been poignant for me.

I haven’t experienced a lot of loss. But others have And Memorial Day signifies a day that we remember the loved ones of our friends and neighbors that went to serve the United States and didn’t return. Do you really think Christmas is an easy holiday for those people?

It wasn’t easy for me and I had it rough for one year. I can’t imagine what Christmas feels like to those whose loved ones are permanently missing.

Memorial Day represents starting over and looking forward, at least for me. It’s a day in the sun (we hope) for those that have lost someone dear.  And it was always a year to plant and be outside. To watch something new grow and thrive simply because I said, “yeah, that pansy looks good there”. It’s about life and tending to it.

That’s not to say that Christmas isn’t. It certainly is. But there is something about warmth inside and out, both mentally and physically, that doubles Memorial Day.

I find it interesting that green is such an important color for both holidays. We see green and red everywhere around Christmas and nature pops up with her annual greens for Memorial Day. Christmas green is a bit darker and it has the same pine smell associated with it. Grass green always carries with it the promise of new hope and remembrance. The time of year acts like a hug and it gives us permission to remember.

And when we do remember, the traces of our memories won’t stick to our faces like they would during many Decembers in Michigan. In May, the traces of our memories can be easily managed with by carefully sliding a hand, or simply tipping your face into the sun. We can remember and feel the warmth of a new day and know that it really is okay. There’s no forced merriment from overzealous store clerks, catchy songs on repeat, or artificial green to remind us of the way we “should” feel because of that damnable pine scent.

One might argue that New Year’s Day offers us the same sense of renewal, but from where I come from, you can’t wear flip flops in the snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

P.S.-Christmas is my second favorite holiday and I am not a huge fan of fake pine scent. It makes me think of wood cleaner. How ironic.

FFITS

The Way You Looked That Night

As a young girl, I never dreamed about my wedding. I didn’t have a box full of cut outs from magazines. I didn’t have an “ideal” setting. Sure, I would have loved getting married along the beach, but not getting married on the beach wasn’t a deal breaker. I also thought of something in the summer because I love hot weather.

But when it came time to get married, my ideas were quite different. My husband and I planned our wedding around his leave from the military. My summer wedding became a February wedding.

When asked what I wanted, I really wasn’t sure. I knew that February was going to call for something indoors and I wanted a relaxed reception. Nothing stuffy. I knew I wanted my dad to walk me down the aisle and I wanted to dance with my grandfather.

Those two things were at the top of my priority list, regardless of how much time I spent looking for dresses and wedding shoes.

Today is my grandfather’s birthday. He is eighty-eight years old. He has been a great papa (as I call him).

This past year hasn’t exactly been his friend. My grandmother, his partner of over fifty years, has suffered some significant health setbacks and she was just recently diagnosed with dementia. My grandfather on the other hand, is doing well physically and mentally (as much as he can, given the circumstances).

He has always been young at heart, and today, I have been thinking about a few of those instances that really shine.

When I was around five years old, he got us enormous squirt guns. I remember playing outside and chasing my papa around their house. I remember yelling “got you!” and blasting him with my squirt gun. And I remember him getting me back quite thoroughly.

At eight, my grandparents took me on a trip to see parts of the western United States. I remember my grandpa playing Hank Williams on the drive out, simply because it drove my grandmother crazy. I remember my papa telling me all about Wall Drug and how excited he was to take me there. Looking at Mount Rushmore at night was another highlight. And one of these days, I am going to go back to Wind Cave, just to feel the air blow backward like it did when the two of us stood at the entrance.

We visited Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes when I was growing up, more than once, on family vacations. My grandpa would run (yes, run) up the dunes with me (and later, my younger cousin as well). Once we reached the top, or at least three-quarters of the way, we’d turn around, face the rest of the family, and begin running (yes, running) down the dune. However, at some point, we’d jump in the air, land on our behinds, and yell “HI-YA!” This could last for hours.

When I graduated with my master’s degree, my parents and my grandparents stuck out the mid-June, Michigan, early humidity and heat to watch me walk across the stage during an outdoor ceremony. Once the graduates were ready to file out, I spotted my family, minus my grandfather. At the instant he heard the music que up to release us, he ran (again, yes, ran) up the hill to the outdoor amphitheater. He wanted to be the first one to greet me once I reached the top as well.  He was quite successful.

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(Above: me and my grandfather before we left for graduation)

Then, at twenty-six, I got married.

I made lists for every memorable song and dance, which was, for the most part, fairly easy. My daddy-daughter dance was Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish”, Paul and I would cut our cake while Billie Holiday’s “The Very Thought of You” played, but choosing a song to dance to with my grandfather was tough.

At least I knew it would not be Hank Williams.

I adore Frank Sinatra’s voice. Just like Cary Grant could have read me the dictionary, Frank could have performed the Michigan Bell phone book and I would have love that as much.

“The Way You Look Tonight” was our song.

We danced and he laughed at his footing. He sang parts of the song and looked as overjoyed as I felt.

His sister, my dad’s aunt, told my mom that… that. That was the Elmer she remembered. That man. The one dancing with the bride. He was the Elmer from their youth. It was fun to see him again.

I guess she didn’t know about the water fights and the sand dunes.

Today, on his eighty-eighth birthday, I will listen to our song and recall that perfect moment on that perfect day. I’ll have to remind him of that when I call him later, so amid the chaos and confusion that is his new reality, he can remember it too.

Just the way he looked that night.

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(Above: me and Papa at my wedding.)

P.S. He sings just as well as Sinatra ever could.

A Chance Encounter (See You at Disney)

My mom worked in a group home for the physically and mentally handicapped when I was young. She took care of her clients and loved each one as if they were all her own relatives. I came to work with her a few times, or was at least in the building. I was under the age of seven, so my memory there is more than a little sketchy. However, the one thing that I remember is her telling me that people are not conditions.

“Melissa, you need to know that people are people and what they have, or live with, does not make them who they are.”

I made a friend, whom I’ll name Norman. Norman was born a neuro-normal child. He was placed in a state home as a child and his neurological development was stunted. I remember meeting him and he liked children. He didn’t like all adults, which I now completely understand, but he latched onto my mom. I think it was because she saw him.

My mom eventually stopped working at the care facility, and I don’t know what happened to Norman. If I did know, I have forgotten, which embarrasses me a little to admit.

She still has a photo of the two of them on the refrigerator.

***

April is a lot of things for me. It indicates the end of winter semester. My birthday falls at the end of the month. Spring usually sticks around for a nice visit before leading into summer. April is also National Poetry Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Autism Awareness Month, among many others.

Today, while I was checking out at a store, I was asked if I wanted to donate to Autism Speaks. The man working was really trying to sell me on the benefits of donating to Autism Speaks, and from behind me, I heard a voice say, “I am autistic.”  I couldn’t see this person yet, but I admit that I was a little surprised at what he said because it flew in the face of the way I address people.

I finished my transaction and turned around to see the young man that had spoken. I saw an older teenager sporting a hoodie naming a school where I once taught.

I said, “are you going to Mott now?” He told me that he was and all about his degree program. I told him that I used to teach at his school. He was excited to tell me about his classes, even naming off all his current instructors. I asked, and he told me about his future career ambitions.

They sound amazing. This young man has an imagination that I would have liked to bottle.

I asked him what his ultimate career goal was and he replied, “I want to work for Disney.”

My teacher brain lit up. I knew something about this!

“You should check out Disney internships!”

His eyes got big. “They have them?” To which I replied, “yes! They do! I have to admit that I am not an expert, but I do know that they are out there. I imagine that you would love it. I want to do it but I kinda can’t now.” He laughed, and I understood that he understood my self-deprecating, “I’m old now”, humor.

We ended our conversation and I wished him good luck with the rest of his college career. He told me to have fun teaching.

I truly enjoyed meeting this young man today. He was friendly and excited to talk about his future, which is, of course appealing to me. Preparing young people to achieve their dreams is what I live for!

I left wondering why he identified as his disorder, and I know how an individual identifies himself or herself is completely up to the individual. Yet, he as the first person I’ve ever met to identify as his disorder (And I hate that it is called a disorder, but I did check before using that word.). I’ve always been taught not to do that!  People are people, no matter what. You don’t go around introducing someone by saying, “Hi, this is Bob, he’s HIV”, and I’ve never heard, “Hi, I’m Jane, and I am Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

If I could tell this young man a few more things, this is what I would say.

You are a bright, charismatic, energetic, engaging, young man. I hope every single one of your dreams comes true. You, good sir, aren’t autism. Autism is something you live with. Plain and simple. We all have something that we live with, but we are all more than whatever our individual disorders are.

(And don’t pretend you don’t have one. You do. We all do.)

I hope the young man I met today knows these things about himself. From all outward appearances, he seems quite self-assured, so I imagine that he does.

But what leaves me thinking now is why awareness month? Why one month to pay attention to something that impacts so many lives on a daily basis? I won’t pretend to know much, if anything of substance, about the Autism Spectrum, because I don’t. I know a few people that are directly impacted, but their children are just kids to me. Like everyone else.

My mom’s words: “people are people. They are not what they have, or live with, and those things don’t make them who they are.”

There is so much wrong in this world, and I imagine more wrong will come. Why contribute to it?

It’s wrong to identify someone as something that they have or live with.

Have compassion. For Pete’s sake! It’s free. We’re born with it but love to leave it behind somewhere. Find it. It has GPS.

Talk to people. Engage with them. Learn their stories.

Take the time to be a person. And treat people like people. At the end of the day, arbitrary things, even medical conditions, add up to what? Nothing. Those things tell us very little about who a person is.

See people.

We are all more than the things we openly identify.

 

 

 

 

This piece is dedicated to my friend: M.I., whom I admire and love with all my heart, and her son. Both you, and your boy, are extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

Attack of the Wild

The sound of shaving cream exiting a can is one that many women despise, and I am one of them. However, it isn’t the “task” of seasonal (yes, seasonal) leg shaving that drives my eardrums crazy. It is that the sound is a subtle reminder of the one and only time I’ve ever been ambushed in the dark by the very real creatures, wild, and native to high schools across the United States (and I’m sure beyond) known as band camp bitches.

It happened during the annual torture known as band camp, late August 2002. I have never been one to really love camping and the idea of sharing a cabin with my friends sounds fun now as long as said cabin is actually housed indoors and could double as a hotel, sans Troop Beverly Hills. When I was seventeen the idea of spending a week in a hot, stuffy, crowded cabin didn’t seem like my idea of a good time. I loved my friends. I even loved marching band back then. But no one could pay me enough money to love the idea of “camping.”

I hated everything about band camp. I hated waking up at dawn to fight for a lukewarm (at best) shower. I hated hearing bugs and not being able to identify their stance before the inevitable attack. Not being able to have access to a lamp. Not being able to read myself to sleep by said lamp. Not having a bathroom near.me.at.all. I hated not sleeping in my own bed, or even a comfortable bed. Not having “real” food.

I am well aware that these things are first world problems, but when you’re seventeen, your first and only world, is yourself.

My parents drove the forty miles to Camp Hell about three evenings a week and brought provisions for me and my equally desperate friends. They brought pizza, snacks, Gatorade, water, you name it.

Overall, that year was going okay. I was in a cabin that wasn’t “quite” so bad and I was bunked with two friend I still have today: Morgan and Kennedy. I still hated the before dawn showers, the bugs, and the food, but I was surviving. I was a junior and it was far from my first rodeo.

Every night, I prayed that something would happen and we’d all have to go home. Maybe the water would go out? Maybe the kitchen would suddenly catch fire? Maybe, just maybe, we’d have weather severe enough to threaten our very lives. (See? Seventeen. Very centric thinking.)

The night of the sneak attack was like every other had been that week. I went to sleep with the hope that I’d wake up and be able to go home.

But I didn’t.

I woke up to find that a group of senior girls (keep it classy 2002) had gotten into our cabin and made messes of varying degrees and “shaving creamed” a few of us lucky ones.

I couldn’t hear very well out of my left ear. It was packed with shaving cream. I have no idea why I didn’t wake up while this was happening to me. I can only say that I slept like the dead and still do. I recently slept through my husband testing the fire alarms in our house.

My friends and I sprang to action. Our cabin was a disaster. And my ear hurt.

Morgan and Kennedy helped me get the shaving cream out of my ear the best we could. They held my head under running water and flushed the ear as much as we could. After a few minutes, they left me in the bathroom to take a shower. What they, what no one knows, is that I sat on the floor and cried. My ear throbbed and I couldn’t hear still.

I showered and our parental chaperone dropped a few drops of hydrogen peroxide into my ear to help dilute the cream.

We told our director and the girls were caught. They gave us pithy apologizes. They cried. Not because they were remorseful. They cried because they got caught. They were a group of girls that I didn’t like. Fifteen years later, I don’t like the women they became either.

I went on the rest of the week pretending I was fine.

I wasn’t fine.

When I got home, I had to go to my family doctor. I had a severe ear infection in my left ear. The one that the senior girls packed with shaving cream. And yes, the infection was caused from that event.

What those band camp bitches also didn’t know is that I had broken my left eardrum as a kid.

To this day, I know I am getting sick when my left ear hurts. It also bothers me on occasion for no apparent reason.

These girls, now women, likely do not remember the event. I struggle to remember the details, except what it felt like to cry in that dirty cabin bathroom. I know that I couldn’t stand them and that had I been then, the woman I am now, I wouldn’t have taken their pithy apologizes. I would have demanded more from the director that I already didn’t respect much. I was only in marching band because my friends were and I had fun with them.

I wouldn’t necessarily call their actions bullying but it wasn’t exactly fun teenage hijinks either.

I went to camp one last time as a senior. That year, I got sunburned, my nail color melted off my nails from the heat, and it was yet again, an exercise in things I actively hated, but it was different. “We” were in charge and no one got hurt.

I pass the camp as an adult on my way up north with my husband. It gives me a case of chills. I may or may not flip it off, sometimes mentally, sometimes actually, as I drive or ride by.

I am sure that those girls that didn’t mean any harm, but they caused it.

I got hurt from their actions and I never forgot what it felt like to be seventeen years old and crying on the floor in a dirty cabin because someone else thought they were being “funny.”

I like to laugh as much as anyone else, but the sound of shaving cream exiting a can does quite the opposite.

Still.

 

(Bottom left: me-leaving for the first day of band camp my senior year)

(Bottom right: me-home from band camp my senior year)