The 2020 Christmas Tree


My father had a strict tinsel rule when it came to Christmas trees. You could only put tinsel on one piece at a time, which was excruciating for his three kids. I suspect he did it so we would tire of decorating quickly, and he could have the tree all to himself. I have spent the last decade or so feeling I wanted my tree all to myself, too, so I’ll blame him. I see pictures of families all crowded around, ornaments in hand, singing Christmas carols and having a whale of a time, but that was not for me. I like the control of putting things in just the right spot and waiting for guests to compliment my work.

I had every intention of doing it that way now that 2020 has made a mess of everyone’s lives. I find myself clinging to routine when I can, wary of all the uncertainties around us and heavy with so many sad stories. But the other day, one of my sons had come over and dragged my tree up from the basement for me. The next day, my two youngest granddaughters were over, and what is better when you’re three and five than being presented with a naked Christmas tree? Yes, I told them, of course they could decorate it, and I went in search of my collection of ornaments. As excited as they were at the thought of the project now in front of them, my mind had already fast forwarded to exactly how I’d fix it when they were gone. Thanks, Dad.

So they got to work. When they found a sturdy branch, they figured where one ball would do, five or six would be even better. They decorated as far up the tree as they could reach. Digging into the contents of the box was like uncovering a treasure chest. They were full of questions about where each ornament came from—intrigued when I told them the story, and equally disappointed to hear I’d bought some of them at half-price sales after the holidays. For an hour, the girls were in that perfect space of sibling nirvana where they kept complimenting each other’s choice of placement and going out of their way to take turns. For an hour, I kept seeing the tree decoration as a temporary distraction. After all, I am still my father’s daughter, and a tree only one third decorated would never do.

When they found the star, they excitedly brought it to me and insisted I place it at the top. I did, only to look up at it five minutes later and see that it had, miraculously, achieved a perfect Charlie Brown angle. It looked like it would just teeter over and fall to the ground.

But it held. Just like we have this year.

That was the moment I knew my Christmas tree would stay exactly as it is. Until January, I will pass it many times a day. I will admire it from every side. I will treasure those moments when those little girls were so proud of what they had created. It’s the most glorious Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Take that, 2020.

To the New Mothers From an Old One

My father and his mother, the year she died

In 1978, when I was about to give birth for the first time, my mother-in-law and my mother were full of information I would never need. Motherhood had changed since their day, when babies were on strict schedules and parents believed that letting them “cry it out” was in everyone’s best interest.

We were the New Mothers, and we were reinventing the parenthood wheel. We had everything figured out by reading books, Lamaze breathing our way through labor, breastfeeding on demand, and raising children who might never know a critical word but would always have a room full of soccer trophies to call their own.

I know. I know. It’s a new day, and by now everyone knows that my generation didn’t make fewer mistakes than our mothers had —just different ones. Everything is again different when it comes to babies, and I wouldn’t dream of getting into a discussion about baby sign language or sleep training, because I’m just that far behind in baby trends.

But maybe there are a few things that never changed and never will. So because I can’t see any patent disinterest in your faces as you read this, here you go, New Mothers — truths from an Old Mother.

* You will be holding your newborn, maybe even your first day home, and you will have a flashback of yourself as a teenager. You’ll hear the exact vile words you uttered to your parents, and see yourself as you stomped out of a room, amazed by how truly stupid they were. When that memory comes to you, you’ll wish you could go back in time and smack yourself in your fourteen-year-old head.

* When you find yourself tacking a sign to the front door for the UPS delivery person: “Do NOT ring bell! Baby sleeping!!” you will recall all those conversations you had with friends that started with your saying: “Our lives won’t change after the baby.” You might wish you hadn’t been quite so specific about your plans to backpack through Colorado with your infant strapped to your chest.

* You will glance down at your beloved cat or dog, the one you bought Halloween costumes for and gave a pseudo baby name. Suddenly it occurs to you that it can’t talk. And it eats off the floor.

* Your baby will roll over or sit up for the first time, and you’ll say out loud, “That’s really early to do that, right?” You’ll search the Baby World Records Book to see if he is a contender. You will throw around the word “genius” more than once, even if it’s just in your head. The first Kindergarten parent/teacher conference might rein this in for you. (Okay, it did for me.)

* The word “poop” will grace nine out of ten conversations and you’ll wonder why you didn’t talk about poop more often before this. That’s how fascinating it’s now become. I am not kidding.

* Under oath, you will declare that you cannot possibly love a second (or third or fourth) baby the way you do your first. Then someone will place that new baby into your trembling arms, and you’ll realize that love can be divided in two without changing one molecule. It’s non-mathematical. It’s magical. And it will come over you that very first second.

* In the middle of the night with a screaming infant, you will long for that pregnancy heartburn you believed was the worst thing ever. And here’s a little sneak peek into the future: When your baby is seventeen and out somewhere driving with her friends, you’ll long for the nights she was in her crib, even if she was wailing away. In other words, there is always something coming.

* For the rest of your life, when you read a story about a person who has done something horrible — something despicable and beyond forgiveness — you will think, although maybe not right away, “That is someone’s child.” You will know at your core just what that sentence means.

* Some days will seem many miles long. But the culmination of them will whiz by while you’re looking the other way. Try to laugh as much as you can. It’s one of the few sounds your child will remember for an entire lifetime.

* You will ask, and you will ask this a lot: What did I do before this? How did I love before this? Why didn’t someone tell me?

You just couldn’t hear them until now. Welcome to motherhood.

Heartbreak. Vote.

This day began at a dining room table, over bowls of granola with a 6- and 3-year-old. After a spirited discussion of how grapes become raisins, they want me to know that Hanukah and Christmas are their favorite holidays. They know that they’re not the same, but they want me to know that they don’t like one more than the other.

What they don’t know is that my heart is breaking. Everyone’s heart is breaking.

My practical side knows that I’ve felt this way before. Almost all of 1968. September 11. Times when I knew the powers that be didn’t share my values, or (worse) didn’t have any. Times when I felt there was nothing I could do except muster up more kindness and not treat the unthinkable as normal.

So here we are. I’m still good with the kindness idea, and I know the amount of time I’ve spent angry in the last few days means I haven’t succumbed to any of this being ordinary. I keep hearing myself say Election Day.

My first Election Day memories happened when I was about eight. I was on my way to a friend’s house—walking, which shows my age. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Schwindt, was burning a small pile of brown leaves in the street in front of his house (again…my age).

He commented on the beautiful day we had off from school. Then he made a joke: “Are you leaving to go vote?” I’m sure I giggled. He said something about growing up and how important voting was. He told me one day I would understand.

Mr. Schwindt didn’t need to give me that patriotic little pep talk, and chances are he knew that, too, since my parents never missed an election, even a midterm, even a School Board referendum. My father voted the way he did everything in life—quietly but with purpose. Never calling attention to himself. Willing to listen to all sides of the argument even if it got a little painful.

My father was something of an arm-chair historian. He loved to follow politics, feeling, maybe, that as a WWII combat veteran, son of an immigrant, a dad and a taxpayer, he had a vested interest in being informed. My cousin, Anne, who used to have political phone calls with him weekly, says she has it on good authority that in Heaven both CNN and the New York Times are available. That makes us both smile.

So Dad, if Anne is right and by some quirk of the universe you can actually see my words as well as those of Maggie Haberman, you would just love this Early Voting thing we have now. There is so much that feels out of my control this week. But one thing that doesn’t. My heart is broken. But I showed up and voted. Thanks.

“It’s Just Lipton’s”

Young friends have a baby due soon. At their shower, I watched the mom-to-be unwrap soft blue outfits that made the room go, “Aww.” On still evenings this summer, I sat outside with the dad, talking about how life is about to change.

Now it’s time to start planning the dinner I’ll make for them. I have a signature dish for celebration and a different one for grief. I’m big on making food no matter what, a product of my upbringing. I grew up believing that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Apparently, I internalized that aphorism more seriously than my grandmother’s warning about giving away the milk for free.

For a new baby’s arrival, I usually go with Chicken Tarragon Crepes. It’s fancy but mild. It’s showy, but it’s only chicken, so how fancy can it be? I chop the tarragon and make the crepes from scratch. I blend the cream sauce—making sure it doesn’t curdle—thinking about the new mother and father in that space of wonder and trepidation that new life brings.

It’s something I do well. But as much as I love to cook for other people, I grew into the role shakily. There was a time my cooking could be almost scary.

In college I lived in an enormous off-campus Victorian that had been cut up into student housing. I had an apartment on the ground floor. The young men who rented the single rooms upstairs were poor and always in need of a good meal. Senior year, I began to fancy myself as the resident “First Lady of the Boarding House” and decided to give my very first dinner party. I hope I didn’t actually call it that because it was five starving college guys who were happy to be shoveling almost anything into their mouths at my kitchen table, which was about two feet from the stove and sink.

I bought a cookbook from the bargain bin at a drug store and trusted the author to guide me. I found a recipe for beef stew, something that sounded hearty and satisfying. I followed it word for word, the way a Fundamentalist might interpret the Book of Leviticus. I trusted every syllable. How hard could it be? The recipe told me to add ¼ cup of cloves to the beef and the vegetables. I did.

As the stew simmered on the stove, all those cloves made my apartment smell like what you’d think Thanksgiving in a Currier and Ives painting might smell like, but somehow it didn’t concern me. By the time my guests arrived, the clove smell was burning the inside of my nostrils. Still, it was food and they were game.

First bite. Up went their napkins to their mouths. There was coughing. Our tongues burned for days.

Years passed and I got better. Maybe a little cocky. So much so that I planned an elaborate Chinese dinner for my boyfriend. We had spent most of the summer apart, and this was to celebrate his homecoming. He had lived in Manhattan and had stories of “real” Chinese dishes he loved, so I had a goal. I did my research. I bought a wok and a rice steamer and got up to speed on ginger and hoisin sauce. The day of his arrival came, and I was in the kitchen chopping carrots and bok choy and picturing how impressed he would be.

The recipe called for four cloves of garlic. Somehow, I’d lived for 23 years thinking that a head of garlic was just another name for a clove of garlic, and in the pre-Google era, I was on my own. It took an hour to chop four heads of garlic, but somehow this didn’t alarm me. You can sort of picture the rest of the evening.

I don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’ve learned how to read recipes. I’ve learned to taste my food as I go. I’m a solid cook, a poised cook, sometimes an adventurous one.
But for all the great food in celebration that I’ve given and received, it’s a simple Mason jar full of hot soup—in grief—that is my strongest food memory. In January 1978, my brother, Rob, died suddenly. He was 26. My parents were out of their minds with grief. Lots of friends and family filled up the house, and it seemed everyone was talking, but nothing was registering.

The doorbell rang. It was our friend and neighbor, Joan, from across the street. It was the first time she and my mother had seen each other since the police officer had come to my parents’ door and opened his horrible, sad speech by telling them both to sit down. I don’t remember what Joan said, but I remember this: She handed my mother a Mason jar of soup across the front stoop. My mother was thanking her profusely. Joan smiled and said, “It’s just Lipton’s. I wanted to make sure you had something hot tonight.”

Sometime in the coming weeks, I’ll probably opt for the chicken tarragon crepes for my young friends when their baby boy is born. Lucky for this couple, there will be no cloves or garlic. But just like Joan’s gift on that freezing night so long ago, it won’t matter if it’s fancy and took hours, or if it’s “just Lipton’s.” I’ll want to make sure they have something hot. That’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters.

Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring

I haven’t written in over a year. A few times lately, I see someone I know in a store or on the street (or even, once, at a friend’s wake) and that kind person will say, “I haven’t read anything from you lately.” I usually come up with the same response, which is pretty weak because my honest reaction is that the person is just being nice or wanting to soothe a writer’s fragile ego.

I most often say: “I ran out of things to say.” I guess I’m looking for a quick laugh, and usually I get one. But now after a year of not seeing my name in print, I feel little phrases or sentences forming when I least suspect it. I think: “I need to remember that. That’s not bad.” So maybe I haven’t run out of things to say after all.

This brings me to last Sunday.

A neighbor emailed. She had agreed to canvass for a political candidate we both believe in. She hadn’t exactly planned it; it just sort of happened. Would I go with her because if we went together it might not feel so terrifying? I said I would, and then spent three days picturing the angry people we’d meet—called away from their lunch or their televisions—slamming front doors in our faces. But for more than a year I’d been talking about the demise of the world as I saw it, and I thought maybe I’d feel better if I did something. (Yes, it’s all about me.)

On the designated day, it rained. Poured. All morning. The candidate sent out a group email saying that usually on a day like today, everyone would stay in the headquarters and make calls. But we couldn’t waste a day this close to the election. The last line said something like, “Grab your umbrellas and let’s make this happen.” I checked the temperature. It was cold. I convinced myself that people my age shouldn’t be walking out in the rain for hours. I convinced myself that life would go on without my contribution. I convinced myself that my neighbor would forgive me.

I bailed. But I promised the candidate I’d be there next week. And I was.

The local Democratic headquarters was full of signs and young people. I saw phone banks but no one sitting at them, so I ran right for my comfort zone, trying to sell the woman in charge that “I’d be really good at making calls.” I don’t remember if her answer was “Nonsense,” or “No, no, no, no,” or “Oh, please,” but she cut me off with a comment about the sensational weather and that they needed everyone to canvas.

She meant business. Within a minute or two, I had signed in and was being paired with a young man who was already scanning a map of the neighborhood we’d been assigned. As we got into my car together, I was relieved that he had done this before but a little shocked at how quickly I was now sitting in traffic with a complete stranger on our way to letting other strangers be rude to us at their front doors. Although I was rattled and thinking I was in way over my head, he calmed me. I asked him about his unusual first name, and he told me he is an immigrant. I asked him how long he’d been out canvassing. Since March.

The day was full of surprises. For one thing, it was hotter and more humid than I’d predicated and early on I regretted not packing something to drink. Yes, we were waved off a few times. Yes, we knew people were really home when they heard the bell but pretended they weren’t. But there was the young man in a Metallica shirt who listened intently and asked great questions. And the funny woman who petted her dog while she tried to give us some advice about what we were up against in her neighborhood. And the 89-old man who came out onto his stoop to talk and knew more about the issues than I did and—after a long and spirited discussion of the candidates—said, as he looked at my flushed face, “Let me go get you a bottle of water.”

I was conscious after a couple of hours that I was probably slowing my partner down. He kept telling me how much better it was to do this with another person. (And unsaid: “even if she’s red-faced and a little out of breath on the hills.”)

Here’s what I was left with, words that have been floating around my head since last Sunday. Words that got me to my desk this morning to write something after a solid year of no words. My favorite Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

I rang some bells. On a Sunday. For a few hours. Trying like hell to be just that tiniest sliver of light in a bleak time. Maybe that’s what you’re being called to do, too.

Go.

When Mama is Nana

This piece was published on the Parent.co Web site this week. It’s a piece I love: 

Last fall, my friend spent Tuesdays in a utilitarian meeting room, sitting on a folding chair. The bad part was that “experts” expounded on topics like bonding, sleep patterns, and infant milestones, information she didn’t need since she had already ushered her own children into adulthood. The good part was the other grandmothers in the class, who told each other their stories. Tuesdays also brought paperwork and state mandates and social work regulations. Her new normal—the one she never saw coming—had just landed in her lap.

When her grandchild was born and it was clear the birth-parents could not be the caregivers, my friend— quietly at first—began with texts to the baby’s temporary foster parents in another state. She relished the photos. She would comment on “the sweetest little hands,” which, the next month, turned into “the cutest smile ever.” She sent books and clothes and every age-appropriate toy she could find.

It made sense that she’d be invested in giving this baby the best start she could. After all, she was the baby’s grandmother. I figured her role would be filling in the gaps until “real parents” could be found as soon as the Court ruled the adoption could go forward. Then, I thought, the social worker would consult the list of couples yearning for a baby, and a whole new family—a young family—would be created, and those parents would take over.

I was fooled. Partly because my friend carefully skirted the issue of the baby’s future, and because she’d indulge me in phone conversations that began with my saying things like, “I know this is sad, but there’s a young couple somewhere, just aching to have a baby and soon they’ll have one!” Looking back, only now do I remember her soft silences in response to my enthusiasm. She was probably averting her eyes, too, but I couldn’t see that.

I believed that in her life—as in mine—it would be unthinkable to dive back into the grinding mechanics of caring for an infant 24 hours a day. Much less summoning the reflexes to prevent a 3-year-old from darting into traffic. Or sitting—albeit proudly—in the audience at your kid’s high school graduation when you’re in your 80s.

When she finally told me she was beginning adoption proceedings, I told her all the reasons she was making a terrible, immutable mistake. I warned her that once the baby arrived in her home, no matter how difficult the going got, she would never be able to turn back to her old life—her sane, comfortable, predictable life—with me as her sane, comfortable, predictable friend. “How fair is that?” I asked. Not to her and not to her grandchild. Not when there were prospective (young) parents, waiting so hopefully in the wings.

She approached my logic with statistics, about the numbers of babies who have been rescued by willing grandparents, 2.7 million nationwide. About her distrust of the system the baby would be thrown into, even for a short time, and the damage that could be done. Then she refuted my logic with emotion. The term “grandfamilies” has entered the lexicon. The baby was part of her extended family. The baby was her family.

Her mind was made up, and I was left to look at what my rational arguments said about me. I wanted our two lives to stay on the intended arc we envisioned together, the continuation of everything we’d shared. We always had each other as we parented our young children. Then came the teenagers and the college years. We hosted weddings, then baby showers. Now we were supposed to be free to go out to lunch, learn to play golf, discuss politics, or gossip idly without any interruptions. What about our bucket lists?

It turns out her baby loves eating in restaurants. Watching people go by. Sampling new foods. Playing peek-a-boo with the waiter. I look at my friend, enveloped in all of it. She’ll be called “Nana,” she tells me. The baby is beautiful.

There are all kinds of bucket lists.

 

What Writers Do, Even After a Bad Day

This was just published in The Sunlight Press, in its Artists on Craft Series. For anyone wondering what writers do…
Every year, on January 1st as my friends make their resolutions about losing weight or achieving world peace, I start to dig into my writing. Then February comes, and I feel the need to restart. If I’m honest, I seem to restart once a month or so.

This year is no exception, and my goal of getting at least two pieces out a day is my summer plan. I fashioned a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions. It is color-coded. Green when I submit; gray if it gets rejected; a brilliant fuchsia when something sells. I get really detailed in the fuchsia spaces, sometimes pasting in the editor’s email, sometimes just letting exclamation marks fly to show myself how delighted I am in my talent. Of course luck and timing play equal parts in the equation, and my spreadsheet bears witness to this, too.

Setting my goal at two pieces a day can seem daunting, even on a morning when I’m raring to go. But I also consider a revision (after a rejection) to count as “a piece.” I write personal essays—stories about my own life—that often merge into the areas of motherhood, education, or family. Rereading one of my essays that has been rejected, I often see where I went wrong. What did I mean to say? Is the reader likely to misunderstand my humor? Is this a piece that just doesn’t go anywhere? It’s amazing how much better writing can get after I’ve gotten a polite “No thanks” from an editor.
I get up insanely early and write for four hours straight. Then during the day, I check my email constantly, hoping to see a first line that says more than: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

For me, writing is as much part of my daily routine as talking to my kids, taking a walk, watching the news in the evening. Still, I seldom write on weekends, and that leads to more energy for Monday morning. For me, early in the morning is my most productive time for getting the words right. To make writing a real and lasting part of your life it makes sense to figure out your own personal rhythm and adjust your creativity to it, not the other way around.

And, of course, you have to be ready for the inevitable bumps that will come your way. Late into the afternoon recently, in the span of five minutes, this is what landed in my inbox:

A terrific website that was considering serializing my memoir got back to me. The editor began with: “I love the stories — I think they’re soulful and honest and funny, beautifully written,” but I’d already scanned down to the last line, which stood alone like a sad little kid left out of a birthday party. “My apologies.”

Two minutes later, another email rejection, full of my least favorite editor-speak: “Thank you for your submission. We’re going to respectfully decline to run it.” Here’s how I translate this one: There will never be a time we will consider your writing, which is just awful, by the way. As you can tell by my tone, which is meant to put as much distance between us as I can humanly muster, do not darken our inbox again.

I had a half-hour reprieve while I reminded myself about that third-place win in the short story contest in 6th grade. Then *bing* an email from my best friend, who helps me edit and shape my words and does it very well. She sent back a draft I had asked her to look over. Her first words: “Hmmm . . . I don’t know about this one.” She went on to give her reasons. They were abundant.

It was a trifecta fail of a writing day. I ate dinner and turned on the news, which, I figured couldn’t be more depressing than my last 12 hours. I slept well. Early this morning when my cat started walking on top of me to remind me it was time for him to eat, I was ready to dive back in and see if there were any emails from nocturnal editors about recent submissions.

 

About The Author

Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based freelancer who writes about family, education, and motherhood. She has been published in Newsweek, The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Parenting Magazine and others. She has recently completed a Memoir, “I Haven’t Got all Day,” and is represented by The Rudy Agency.