Whenever I go home to Philly, I find something old in my dad’s refrigerator. This time around, it was yogurt. Expiration date: March 2009. It was Thanksgiving. I scowled, made fun of him, told him I’d rather not hospitalize my girls, made fun of him some more, and eventually dumped the goo into the sink. He muttered, “What can happen to yogurt anyway?” and I shook my head, feeling sorry for this man who keeps old food in his fridge.
He’s actually doing just fine. He’s been taking care of his house on his own for these seven years, since my mom’s been gone. And he’s always taken care of us. Though he’s from a family of lawyers, he has spent his professional life in education. He knew right from the start that he wanted to teach. Who really knows what they want to be when they grow up? My dad did at age 20. 40 years as a college professor, and he still talks about his students with humor and respect, as if he enjoys going to work each day. He spent his younger years playing sports and will be the first to tell you how good he was at quarterback and point guard. He follows Philadelphia and Villanova teams with intense interest, but he’s forgiving—he doesn’t lose his mind when his team loses a game. He’s a patient fan, a patient man. When my siblings and I were growing up, Dad would get a certain angry look that we called “The Face.” When my dad was about to blow, one of my brothers would make snide verbal note of “The Face,” and Dad would inevitably break, accepting it was just much easier to laugh it off. He tells funny stories; he has funny friends. He sings a lot, and he whistles—as a kid, I always knew when he was home from work.
Despite all of this, I can find the good in most everyone I know, but in those I love most—like my dad—I sometimes chip away at the not-quite-good-enough. Poor guy. I’ve been doing it to him for years. So when I was last home for Thanksgiving, I gave a cursory glance towards the newly paved driveway; I appreciated the renovated master bath; and I acknowledged his attempt to keep plants alive—but I wouldn’t let the old yogurt die.
Then, I took the two-hour drive back to my own messy house.
On the first Sunday of Advent, I sat in my hometown church between my dad and my daughter, Caroline. She was relatively entertained by softly knocking her knees against the pew in front of us, so I was able to catch a few lines of the sermon. The priest was suggesting that we clean our houses. I thought it was a little funny that he was going there until I recognized—from somewhere in my distant, distant past—the use of metaphor, and I attempted to stay focused long enough to see this thing through. We probably would be attentive to our homes, yes, as we cleaned and straightened and organized for the holidays. But what the priest encouraged us to do as well, was to ready ourselves—our minds, our hearts—and clean up the inside spaces, so that we could welcome all that Christmas represents. Do some interior de-cluttering. Make room for love.
Though he meant metaphorically, I also thought I’d take the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to tidy our place up a bit. Sanitizing the soul is one thing, but it couldn’t hurt to organize the Tupperware drawer, right? I thought the priest was really onto something—a clean, quiet approach to Christmas—but I also thought that in order to prepare for the birth of Jesus, it would be helpful if I, quickly, became a much better person. I would do it all—but contemplatively. I would get my shopping done without spending a lot of money. I would forego the Biggest Loser finale and instead spend time reading a book on the couch, occasionally glancing up at the Christmas tree because that’s why the tree is there, to enjoy at night, rather than chastise during the day when it’s blocking all natural light from entering the living room. I would get those holiday cards together early, and then spend time writing actual notes, connecting with my faraway family and friends. After all, it’s only once a year that I check in with some of these people—the very least I can do is put pen to paper and sign a name.
If I were to lose my mind completely—if that were to happen—my guess is that I’d be shopping around for institutions starting . . . right about now, during this time of year. It’s so cliché—like setting a horror flick at night in a deep, dark forest. Peter Benchley set his scary story on a beach in the middle of a bright sunny day, and when Jaws snatched its first bikini-clad victim, that freaked us all out with originality. That’s the kind of crazy I would like to be. I’d prefer to go nuts on a Tuesday in April. But, I’m a lemming when it comes to increased anxiety levels during this season of lights and giving. I can see it in everyone else’s eyes at the mall: stress, confusion, disbelief. I was walking with Caroline and Lexi through a parking lot the other day and a woman was screaming into her phone, “That’s beside the point, what are you trying to say to me????” She was ripping mad. Thankfully my girls looked at her strangely, like they’d never seen a lunatic yelling loudly before.
I’ve begun to feel a slight tightness in my chest, and for some reason, I’ve started barking at Dave in response to any question he may have for me. As my to-do list triples in size, I contemplate the use of spreadsheets in order to get my literal and figurative houses ready. Meanwhile, homemade holiday projects pop into my periphery, floating around like sugar plum fairies: Yet-to-be-framed photos of the kids; cute (but still, concrete) stepping stones for the grandparents; an as-yet-unused “World’s Best Cookie Press.”
I’ve scoured the earth for a purple doggy because it is the only thing Lexi wants for Christmas. I have not yet found one. There’s that tightness again. My left eyelid is twitching.
This morning, instead of putting out an All Points Bulletin for a purple doggy, I turned on my iPod. I defy anyone to stay stressed out while listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” I danced—socks gliding, butt shaking, hands waving—the best I can. (And in my own kitchen, without anyone watching, that’s some good dancing!) Cleaning house while Stevie’s getting down and dirty—probably not what the priest had in mind, but I snapped out of my holiday funk by getting funky. We’ve got to do what it takes to make room for what’s important. Room enough to answer Caroline’s “Mommy, how ‘bout a snuggle?” with an “Absolutely”; time enough to count hugs with Lexi: 1 to 20, and 1 to 20 all over again; space enough to bundle up the girls, take a walk downtown, and point at all of the sparkling lights on the boats, on the buildings, and in the sky.
At Thanksgiving dinner, Dad said grace. He had us all with him: kids and grandkids. He had a gorgeous meal in front of him and great wine. He didn’t have his wife, but he was gracious just the same, thanking God for our many blessings. He added, “If you don’t mind, we’d really like to keep it this way.”
My dad, he’s always found a way to get through. He just gets there most of the time—to optimism, hope, calm, resolve, faith, patience, and ultimately, to happiness. He finds that place. He’s been tidying himself up for as long as I’ve known him, uncluttered and wide open with love, with room to spare. And I am so proud of him, for doing what he has done in the space my mom has left behind.