Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Letter, 2016

I never do this.  It's against my principals.  Christmas is Victorian in origin and should remain that way, including paper cards, with stamps, with a short note.  I get bogged down trying to read the annual Christmas letters that come my way, partly because they're so grateful and partly because they read like a slide show: we did this and then we did this, and then this happened...

Oh, yeah.  I forgot about the "we" thing.  "We," in this blog, is Daisy and me.

Still, I haven't written Christmas cards in two years and my handwriting isn't up to what it was after the 40th time I've said something.  So here goes.

In October, 2014, I decided to move from Brooklyn Heights and my dark, dusty apartment, back to my hometown of Missoula.  Actually, I'd been waiting for years to move in with a friend in Seattle and raise ducks and maybe a monkey, but I almost never heard from him any more, I was done with New York, my father was weakening and my sister-in-law finally blurted out, "Just come home.  You can wait for the Mr. Seattle here as easily as in New York and in more comfort."

So I went back to Brooklyn, packed up 4200 books and Brenda and Kimberly -- my sister-in-law and youngest niece -- flew out to help with the last packing and drive me and Daisy home.  It was Kimberly's first trip to New York.  I got the best seats I could for Cabaret, which Alan Cumming was reprising, took them through Little Italy and Chinatown, and then pretty much left them to do their thing while I tied up loose ends.

We took the scenic route home, mostly to avoid the November weather due to hit the Great Lakes but I finally got to see Lansing, PA, and listen to school kids scold my sister-in-law as she took pictures of them.  Since they were unhappy about that, and it's really not OK to do it, I took pictures of their laundry hanging out to dry.  So Brenda has kids happily playing and I have photos of their knickers.

We landed in Missoula and I waited for a good used car to become available.  I began to develop crippling social anxiety and mild agoraphobia as I lived in the basement of Jim's house.  I was hoping to move into a cottage which was at the end of a domino chain that didn't happen and in June my father died.

Dark, dark days.  Jim, Brenda and my shrink decided I should continue living with them until after the memorial in September.

It was a solemn occasion because Dad had a military interment.  He was a retired colonel so an officer of equal or greater rank was not hanging around wondering when the next old geezer would die.  I asked an acquaintance from high school, a recently retired Army general, if she would come out to present the flag.  She didn't hesitate to help out and it meant a great deal to me that she was there.  She presented the flag to Jim, who then turned, went down on his knees and presented it to me.

Our friend and former pastor gave a knock-out eulogy that started with, "Whenever I talked to Leonard, I felt like I should go home and read a book."  He went on to discuss Daddy and their long friendship and then his wife (this is part of the group at the "alternative Catholic community" in Missoula which I call "Our Lady of Off-Off Broadway) read the time to dance/time to mourn section of Ecclesiastes.  Jim and I took Dad on his last walk to his niche which is engraved with "Learn, love, laugh," and tucked him safely in. 

Then we all had enormous swigs of Bushmills.

The next night we had a party.  Jim and Brenda thought I was nuts for renting a karaoke, but you don't know what laughter is until my two nephews sing, pitch-perfect, one in falsetto, the other in a forced baritone, "The Music of the Night."  We danced, we sang, we ate hors d'ouerves, My nephew- in-law mimed cool jazz piano playing until we nearly passed out and it all ended with my youngest nephew Satchmo-ing Dad's favorite song, "What a Wonderful World."

Dad had an honorary chair with his favorite baseball cap on it: "Whatever."  It was cathartic. gave new meaning to Ecclesiastes literal meaning.  It was as much about having the whole family together for the first time in years as it was about grieving with laughter.

Soon after I began looking for an apartment.  September is a dismal time to look for a place to live so I decided to rent in a complex that's on the pricey side but has "amenities" (Work-out room, pool, club house.) It's like playing house for me: a garbage disposal!  A washer & dryer!  A patio!  I use the "master en suite" (I watch too much HGTV) as my office so I have lots of light and all my books together.  I fell in love with having plants on the patio and now have seedlings I'm growing in those clear plastic clam shells that pastries (shhhh'hhh) & pre-cut fruit come in.  The chives are growing like mad.  & friends from New York so sympathized with my mourning over the last of the flowers that they sent me a hibiscus tree.

I also potted iris and just before the snows came in earnest, made condominiums of boxes filled with straw, dead leaves, and paper and put them in my OUTSIDE STORAGE UNIT.  

I'm playing house, you see.

I was a busy girl going through boxes that came from New York, Arizona, Missoula storage and Oregon.  There were moments of tears in the unpacking -- finding that my mother had packed up her big jewelry box that Dad brought back from R&R in Japan during the Korean War & finding my own smaller version he'd gotten in case he ever had a daughter.  There were other such moments.  I'd gotten pictures on the walls when it was time to put up my first very own full-size Christmas tree.  I gave a lot of ornaments away, things I felt Mom and Dad would approve of going to more appreciative homes.  And I gave a lot of other treasures away -- Southwestern pottery which I have no taste for but was treasured by a friend, 1960s sterling serving ware to my 1960s architecture & design-obsessed nephew, ornate beer steins my connoisseur-nephew found fascinating.  It felt good to see these things go to the right homes.

But January of this year issued in a new project that hit me like a jackhammer: going through (and I'm not kidding here) boxes of photos and family papers dating back to the 1860s, and a history going back another 230 years. 

I'd been impatient with my grandmother when she died.  I was absorbed in myself and my life in New York when my grandfather and aunts and uncles died.  All the missed opportunities to talk to them on top of Dad's death and the side of Mom I appreciated most, the collector of china and student of dinner parties and a comfortable home, was too much.  I plunged into a 6-week depression that was the worst in 30 years.  I cried.  I slept.  I punched myself in the face,  My sister-in-law sailed in to make sure I got my meds & saw my shrinks because I couldn't leave the house.  At one point I was down to instant potatoes for food.

I snapped out of it in a sweat of anxiety when I realized by license plate tabs had to be renewed & I had one day left.  It was March 31st, a preternaturally spring day.  I put on a silk sari skirt & sweater & went downtown, stumbling from place to place before I found the right office.  I was shaking & dry-mouthed but I was legal & I'd done it myself.  I began to get better,

It was also around that time that my friend in Seattle began to get interested in living together.  I didn't and don't feel the timing was right.  I can't put Daisy through another move.  I have a novel that's writing itself in my stomach.  I really hadn't, in the weird limbo of staying with Jim for a year & then going through the massive task of moving, begun to get to know Missoula or even, except for a dinner party I gave & which everyone loved, reconnected with old friends.  I needed to give Missoula a year of not being agoraphobic & that was the least of my reasons for not wanting to move so soon.

We began talking about property in the Bitterroot or up the Flathead or in Missoula.  We Zilllowed Spokane.  In late July I went out for a needed vacation & we laughed & laughed -- but the pressure was on.  He was extending his teeny house.  Spaces were referred to as mine.  I repeated my reasons for not relocating 500 miles and we had a pleasant time in which I saw close-up some things that would bother me.

I also got to see four of my seven cousins, the children of my father's youngest brother.  It will be one of the highlights of my year.  I had missed the funerals of their parents, both of whom I was quite close to.  These are women I have aspired to be like, envied for being "real" Kuffels (all blond, all dimpled, all with the musical Kuffel laugh -- traits that my other set of cousins share exactly).  But that day when we were all staring at our 60s, the old shyness and need to over-exert dropped away.  One cousin said, as soon as we sat down, "So tell us about the Kuffels" -- I have the genealogy another cousin did that dates us to Napoleonic times in the Polish diaspora of Lvov and Prussia -- and my first question was, "How many times a day do you almost call your dad to ask a question?"  We all laughed at that, and I laughed when another cousin turned to me and said in a low voice, "Is there a Twelve Step program for china?"  I have three sets.  I understand.  I went home and boxed up our grandmother's crystal for her.  It was heaven.  I've been hinting in Christmas cards that we should all run away for a Girls' Thing.

I was sad, too, to be asked about my middle uncle and his four daughters.  They remember meeting them once -- and I remember that meeting like glass wind chimes, all those musical laughs going up and down a middle register that never hits an annoying whinny of giggling.  There was a disruption between the two families that was partially corrected when my uncles got together, but never a mending, never the chance for those eleven wonderful people to get to know each other.  

And I was happy that my uncle had told my cousins how my father helped out the family while my uncle was in medical school.  I was even more pleased that they didn't know that when my uncle was in practice, he offered to pay for my father to take any residency he wanted.  It was a moment in which a story was completed, showing a kind of fraternal humility that made me, for one, understand better the family culture our fathers had.  I wished my other cousins would have been there to hear those stories of sacrifice and help that were bone-deep appreciated between the three and not just the two brothers.

Ten months after the Great Depression and five months after that lunch I can be weepy and grateful and a little wiser but it somehow doesn't plunge me into a terrible day of regret.  I feel like I got to see my aunt and uncle through my cousins and that they, my aunt and uncle, understood why I wasn't there to say goodbye at the right time.

Goodbyes abounded this year: coming to terms with Daddy's death, feeling my mother as I transform her things into mine, Daisy's five-month battle with terrible bladder infections that started with a careless veterinarian and almost killed her, and then vistibule which looks terrifyingly like a stroke and that made it impossible for her to roll in the grass, let alone pee without falling over.  Twice in four months I thought Jim was taking me to the 24-hour emergency clinic (a Missoula amenity that does NOT need quotation marks: they see the sickest animals and have to be at the top of their game) to have her put down.  A year after my father died, I didn't know how I would survive it.

She's much better now, although at 13, she's a much weaker swimmer, has no interest in -- gasp! -- playing fetch (and everyone in New York knows how astonishing that is), and has a permanently slightly cocked head that makes her look like she's perpetually considering and judging the situation.

I'm grateful every time she eats and every time she hops into bed with me.

The last goodbye might be a real and living one.  Finally, my friend in Seattle got it that I'm not packing up and moving.  I feel horribly that he had to come to grips with this on his own and after so many cloud dreams of his own.  That landing in reality, taking place as I begin to get to know people and hang out with old friends who are genuinely happy I'm back, was a hard smack and no bounce.  He's cut me out of his life and I've lost a good friend.  I had responded that we're family -- I'd come out for Easter and he'd come out here for the Fourth of July, that my not moving to Seattle wasn't in the least personal except that there are deeply personal things I need to do in Missoula.  This, alas, did not get through.

Part of me wants to write a really nasty letter but the bigger part of me knows that the friendship had changed inexorably, that it was predicated on co-habitation and not on mutual delight.  I am trying not to ascribe blame in these statements.  What I can say, at the recently ripe age of 60, is that there is no such thing as a best friend in my life.  I have an oldest friend to whom I can say anything.  I have a second oldest friend, ditto.  I have a friend I was in love with and could be if I let myself that I fancy with via pretty constant email.  But I can't say any of these really wonderful people are my Best Friend.

Which is good, albeit dateless on Saturday nights.  

I named this blog for a Joni Mitchell song about waiting for The One to come as promised.  This morning I'm thinking of another lyric from the same album:

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you

Ah, but what is found!  My brother and I are friends for the first time in our lives.  I want to wiggle out of my skin when my nieces and nephews get together.  I think of that lunch with my cousins every day with delight and love.  My sister-in-law and I have become very close, although no longer living there can impose a distance on us that we really shouldn't indulge in.

The new year?  I expect to be jailed for using my First Amendment rights the Great Pumpkin is intently eroding.  I hope to get this novel under my belt.  I can't wait to start eating an entirely healthy diet again.  I want to become more myself, and become more so I can give it away and not feel empty after.  I want to put reindeer horns on a bouncy Daisy next Christmas.  And I want everyone who reads this to know I love you, love you for reading it, love you for being you, love you for having been there when the chips were down, love you through blood and honey.

Merry Christmas.
  Let me know what you want for your new year.


Lynn Koeppen said...

What a read! You are the best writer! Thanks for sharing some very personal events! I remembering our meeting on Garrett St. Fun times, they were! 60 is coming up fast for me, too! Have a great year to come! We need to meet for a lunch to share some laughs!

Laura N said...

Beautiful Christmas letter, Frances. Thank you for sharing from your heart. Merry Christmas!

Caffeinated said...

A beautiful letter and so, so you. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Frances! We love you! You have always been (and always will be) one of the writers whose books I go back to again and again and whose books always amaze and inspire me. Reading your post today I am, as always, so impressed by your fearlessness, honesty, humor, and wide-open heart. Parts of your post made me cry; other parts made me nod my head in agreement; other parts made me laugh in delight. You have such a gift, Frances. For the new year, I wish you love, joy, beauty abounding, and the ever-present knowledge that so many people love and admire you. For all of us, I wish just . . . quiet. Peace. Resourcefulness. The ability to stay the course and know that things will get better.


Hilary said...

Oh, Frances, this letter is just beautiful and so full of nuggets. You sound happy. You have been through quite a bit and survived. Very interesting and I have things in common with you. (1) My family reconnected with some cousins whom we'd been estranged from because our parents were feuding. I've been to a couple of reunions. My brother lives in their area and so sees more of them. (2) I don't feel that I have a best friend either. I have a wonderful daughter who just spent a week with me and I just loved it and she left for the airport this morning. I'm fairly close to one of my brothers--we have good talks. I have church friends and email friends. But no true best friend and actually I never did. My husband was wonderful, and I liked to call him my best friend sometimes. I'm a widow now with an empty nest. I do volunteer work with children. Children do it for me more than adults sometimes. You love Daisy. My daughter loved a cat and wants another one. I love children. I wish you much luck with your novel. I don't know how many people have true friends. But if you can enjoy the moments that you have with people, it's like putting gas in your car--you have something to get you through. And sometimes being alone can be great as I'm sure you know. Writing is an occupation that is fulfilling and time-consuming and certainly you don't need people around when you're writing. Oh, one more thing that resonated with me--the person who wanted to cohabit with you. I had a male email friend who lost his cool when I started to back off from making it into something more--he told me to never write him again and so I didn't. People can be vindictive at times. I'm glad you saw some red flags (or pink flags maybe!) and realized that you were probably just as well off. I certainly felt that way. Savor the happy moments. Remember them for the dry times. Hug Daisy. Take care. Happy 2017.

MWF said...

Thanks for the update and for sharing. Here's to a great year for both of us! Happy New Year!

Hilary said...

You asked us what we wanted for the new year. I turned 70 yesterday. By this age, wants are usually few in number and rarely material in nature. I want to continue to live as I have lived all my life--in a free country. If freedom continues to reign, my greatest desire will be fulfilled.

Gallis said...

Great to hear from you Frances and a wonderful read. Some sad events to be sure, but there is a lot of hope and happiness in this blog entry. I look forward to hearing about more of you Missoula adventures!

Anonymous said...

Oh my God Frances, I read your weight loss book a few years ago, and you blog on and off over the years. Mostly off, because I see myself in so much of your writings, I 'm tired of my wet face with runny makeup.

What a gift from God, to write as you do.

Keep writing.