Having my moments


Somewhere between the shrimp cassoulet, the lobster mac ‘n cheese, and the “perfect pairing” wine, it  happened. I had a moment. I stopped, looked up from the mounds of “I can have turkey any day” stuff I’d loaded onto my plate, and saw Helen and Tom—really saw them—sitting there with me. And I was overcome, enraptured. It only lasted a second, of course, as moments like that do. But the feeling of how completely thunderstruck I was lingered.

We’d been planning our Old Port Thanksgiving for weeks. With Helen working retail in Boston, it would be fun to meet halfway and have a special holiday dinner in Portland. We’d spend Christmas together at home in Rangeley, we decided. But for Thanksgiving, we’d be doin’ it up down country.

“Got reservations at the Portland Harbor Hotel!” I messaged Helen. “Here’s a link to the menu. If we start fasting and prioritizing our food groups now, we might be able to do that five-course buffet  justice!”

When Thanksgiving arrived, sunny and unseasonably warm, I eagerly donned a dressy V-neck and a pair of swanky but stretchy black pants. I was feeling festive already, with my favorite pendant unburied from my  everyday fleeces to bejewel my bare throat. I even made it into the city without a speck of muddy car crust on the back of my slacks disclosing my point of origin! By the time I cozied into the ambiance at the historic hotel, I was pumped for the food, the memories, and the magic. I was primed for my Thanksgiving moment.

It didn’t happen, not like I imagined when I made the reservation, memorized the menu, and picked out my holiday clothes. And when it did, it wasn’t really a Thanksgiving moment, but more a moment of thanks giving and receiving, of gratitude for living out my own sweetest dreams.

“More of the same, thank you Spirit,” I said back in January. “Let’s keep it comin’.” Another year of finding balance in all things. Of rediscovering who I am, what I came here to be, and the crazy, wonderful people who help keep my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds along the way. Of being prosperous and healthy enough to travel, to splurge now and again, to wander without fear. Of having the supreme good fortune to always come home to simple abundance, to Rangeley. Of proving my mother right that, despite my doubts, most days I do live up to my name. That’s what I’d hoped for, what I intended for myself, what I’d sought and found. How it came to pass was not always pretty, and certainly not as I would have planned, but it was all good. And how blessed I was to have come full circle and then some! The grace, the gift of being exactly where I wanted to be hit me in one glorious second, mid-forkful, on Thanksgiving.

“I’m thankful to be here with you guys,” I blubbered, “and for all we’ve done this year as a family. This is wonderful.” In my head, voicing my gratitude sounded like a beautiful halleluiah chorus. What actually came out of my mouth, however, was a second-glass-of-wine sentimental slur my daughters call “the Mom voice.”

“Awww, me, too,” Helen replied. We all smiled, nodded, and shared a look like we had the best kept secret—better than any wine talkin’ could express. Right then and right there, together, was perfect.

Now that Christmas is coming and another New Year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what made my  moment of thanksgiving perfect. What is the difference between a real heart swelling moment of grace and those holiday moments I imagine having because I’m in the right place with my special someones eating perfectly roasted foods in my once-a-year outfit?  Here’s what I believe.

While the visions I stage in my mind might be picture perfect, the genuine ones don’t care if my camera is ready. They don’t come on cue because the calendar, a costume, or even a rite of passage says it’s time. The truly perfect moments sneak up when I stop trying so hard. They catch me with my mouth full, tinsel in my hair, and my traveling pants all wrinkled. They leave me awestruck, wondering what just happened, wanting more. Of course, the rational, calculating side of me wants to rewind and repeat, to figure out a formula for guaranteeing I keep getting those real moments of grace. But that’s also the side that thinks I should be in a Currier and Ives print this time of year, or staging my version of It’s a Wonderful Life. If she had her way, she’d altogether spoil my chances for serendipity, for divine surprises. I gotta put her in the back seat, so to speak, and let my intuition drive. I do know I need to plan, give myself a course of action. Because I definitely can’t get what I don’t put out there, don’t even dare to ask for. But I also know I can’t make room for those “everything coming true” moments unless I’m willing to let my best laid plans fly out the window and go on faith. Then, when I’m moving forward in “focused surrender”—when synchronicity can take over structure—amazing stuff happens.

“Our anniversary’s coming up soon. How do you want to celebrate?” Tom asked awhile back as we sat together in our favorite spot this time of year. The furniture store called it a loveseat, but we call it the only couch that could fit facing the woodstove in our remodeled Rangeley living room. A bunch of anniversary moments flashed through my mind as I pondered my answer. Like the time we went to The Keys for our 25th and I rented a silver, Mustang convertible as a special surprise. I had it all planned, saw exactly how everything would go down. My husband would see the car sitting in the airport lot, gleaming in the Florida sun. Somewhere in a nearby palm tree, a bird would sing its little lungs out as I wished him a happy anniversary and admitted that yes, I had up-scaled our usual “crap box” car rental. As it turned out, we didn’t get the video footage I had playing in my head. But we did get a spot on the Boston news channel as two of the stranded travelers trying to make it out of Logan during the post-Christmas blizzard. Besides, it was too dark by the time we finally found the Mustang in the parking lot half a day late—and we were too busy trying to figure out how to cram our luggage in it without throwing out Tom’s back.

Then there was the time just before our Big Move to Rangeley we’d planned to spend a romantic anniversary “at home” in our cabin. We’d sit in our cute little living room, watching the snow flakes flutter past the white birches. Nice, right? Well, we got up here just in time for the toothache Tom had been nursing for a week to erupt into a golf ball sized abscess. When I turned the Subaru around and headed back down the mountain, I knew we wouldn’t be the “spend your holidays in Rangeley” brochure couple that year. It was all good, though. We’d have our moments. They’d come out of nowhere, maybe as we were cruising down the Overseas Highway with the warm breeze whipping through our hair and Even Better Than the Real Thing blasting on the radio. Or maybe we’d be holding hands and drinking homemade wine, hanging out with the beagles in our Rangeley flannels.

“Should we travel, stay home, maybe get a dinner reservation in town?” Tom asked. I gazed away from the fire with a smile and we shared a look like we had the best kept secret.

“We’ll see,” I said.

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Posted in Family and friends, Mindfulness, health and healing, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | 2 Comments

A 9/11 prayer


For my friend Edie Lutnick, and for all of us, here is how I am remembering:

Today, I will put my hand on my heart and know the loss and healing that connects us all.
Today, I will pause in silence and hear your comforting words and the harmony of the world’s finest voices rising above the haunting echoes.
Today, I will see the people around me—truly see each coworker and friend—the color of their eyes, the way they smile or can’t smile, the familiarity of each beautiful face as it adds a new focus to my day for one special moment.
Today, I will hold my family close and feel your hugs and the strength and softness we share in memory of those we can hold only in our hearts.
Today, I will speak of this anniversary—mostly in present tense —of those who mark it moment by moment, day by day. I will tell the stories behind the statistics—of the sisters, mothers, sons, husbands, daughters, wives, brothers and fathers who honor those taken on this day by over and over taking the small, courageous steps that bring them through another year—whole and strong enough to hear their loved one’s name read aloud one more time.
Today, I will breathe deeply, lift my face to the sky and let the wind and sun remind me that I never walk alone.
Today, and always, I will remember.

(Originally published on September 11, 2008 and given to each family member attending the Cantor Fitzgerald memorial service.)


For my related “Rooted In Rangeley” posts, see:

For more about Edie and how she continues to help turn tragedy into hope, see:

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A day for Dada cookers, homemade Hallmarks, and lakeside legends


Today is Father’s Day and the first day of summer, or so says the calendar. Our Rangeley weather, on the other hand, just isn’t buying it. With every downpour, it says “Go hug Dad. Don’t wait to tell him how special he is. ‘Cause the whole summer thing catching up with the calendar so you can celebrate without Gore-Tex and goulashes? Yeah….you’re gonna wait for that.”

Oh we saw the sunshine, remember? We let it lure us outside to flock to the Lupine Festival, line up at the Pine Tree Frosty and launch onto the lakes and ponds. But that was yesterday.

Today reminds me of the days I’d wash soggy PB&J sandwiches down with tepid Tang and hope I’d catch a fish before the rain found its way inside my slicker. I’d buck it up to be with Dad. And if he were still here, I’d be sitting in a boat cushion puddle next to him until he out-fished me and we could call it “a good day.” Instead, I’m watching the rain rile up the lake from my warm, dry seat by the window. I’m happy that my best Father’s Days are still rooted in Rangeley, that more love and laughter with Tom and our daughters is yet to come—certain as the promise of finally, full-blown summer. I’m glad we passed down our fathers’ out-on-the-lake legacy to Helen and Becky, and I know the girls agree. Plus, I’m pretty sure they’re tickled that their dad doesn’t make them wash PB&Js down with Tang like their Grandpa did—and that he uses a watch and the position of the sun, weather permitting, rather than a running trout tally to tell him the day is complete.

“When the girls call, tell them I love them and I’m having a good Father’s Day,” Tom said this afternoon. He was headed up to Aziscohos to fish in the rain for a couple days with other guy friends who’d join in as soon as their cookouts and other dad celebrations were finished. As usual, he’d be out of cell phone range because, even if he carried one, there’d be no transmission towers for miles.

“They know,” I said. They couldn’t come “up” today to wet a line in person. But even though Helen is back in Boston and Becky is camping in California, I’m pretty sure a good part of each of them is right next to their Dad, sitting in their little girl rain slickers, waiting to reel in and squeal with delight.


For more about “Dada cookers,” homemade Hallmark moments and man-of-the-house heroics, see:

Daddy’s grown-up girl
Dads of daughters
From Daddy’s little girl
Dining with Dad

Posted in Family and friends, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | Leave a comment

Beware the packin’ kraken!


Kraken (kra-khun): Noun — A legendary sea monster that, when provoked, is believed to have devoured helpless voyagers.

Just when I think it’s safe to get back on a plane, to venture away from mud season in Rangeley, I hear its primal bellowing. What begins as a low, guttural vibration soon erupts into a full-on war cry. “Whaaa….ugmph….AARRGGGGH!”

Did I make that beastly sound just trying to lift my own luggage? Did I bring the devil of unwieldy travel logistics out of hibernation to, once again, haunt me for packing way more than I needed?

“It’s just vacation stuff,” I mumble. “And ah…eeergh, it feels like I’m going for a year!”

Each time I go through this me-versus-my-material-belongings ritual, I remind myself of the classic George Carlin “stuff” monologue. According to George, we spend our whole lives getting more and more stuff till our houses become just “covers for our stuff.” Then, right after we convince ourselves we need bigger houses for bigger piles of stuff, we realize we have extra rooms to hold more and more stuff, and on it goes. Traveling poses the huge dilemma of selecting, carrying, and reloading some of our stuff into a new, usually smaller, containment pod till we have to reverse the process and lug the stuff back home.

But each time my packin’ kraken resurfaces, I also console myself that I am not a Carlin joke. I now have less stuff than ever, not more. During the Big Move to Rangeley, I sold stuff, gave or threw away stuff, whittling my stuff hoard down to what would fit in my smaller log “cover” by the lake. My vacation stuff—a subset of the downsized stuff—fits into a small bedroom holding area, neatly encased in Ziplocs and Tupperware. Come travel time, I plop it into rolling luggage fillable to within a few ounces of the standard checked baggage limit, a backpack fillable to cram but not jam into an overhead bin, and a personal carry-on fillable with just enough overflow to not sprain my shoulder and still pass as a “pocketbook.”

Fortunately, most of my vacations are in climates where a perfect day means changing out of my bathing suit long enough to eat dinner and watch the sunset before I’m back in the summer jammies I can only wear a couple days a year on Mooselook. Lightens my load as much as possible. Otherwise, I find myself whittling down my packing list to whatever color scheme I think will get me through various climate zones. Like my “green” trip to Chicago last fall, where my entire wardrobe was various shades of green so I could “mix and match” a week’s worth of carry-on clothes.

Wherever I’m going, when I get there I blissfully unpack my stuff, admiring how my plain necessities look better, more exotic, while temporarily arranged on a gleaming Hampton Inn counter or tucked into cute, eclectic little condo shelves. And then the race is on to actually use most of my vacation stuff—my dental floss, my ear wax removal kit, my alcohol (rubbing and drinking) and all those things so critical to my temporary survival I lugged along like I was going to Timbuktu—far flung from any place resembling a Rite Aid or Hannaford. I start swapping just enough stuff out to cram in souvenirs and any last-minute tingums I buy at the airport in a moment of nostalgia-tinged panic. And, on the last day of vacation, I practice good condo rental ethics, paying it forward big time. I hope that the thrill the next renter gets upon finding a bottle of Worcestershire sauce and a box of Wheat Thins in the cupboard far outweighs my need to haul ’em home.

Still, when the time comes to transport my stuff back through the airport, there’s a fine line between getting the most bang for my baggage allowance buck and not being able to drag it along without bellowing or taking out small children in the process. When the equation works, the packin’ kraken and the TSA agents are temporarily tamed. Passage is smooth till the last leg “up over the mountain” back to Rangeley.

AAAARGH!” I groan, thundering over the threshold with bulging canvas now covered in all manner of travel spewage. It’s all worth it, I tell myself, leaving the stuff in a pile till tomorrow. Besides, the packin’ kraken always roars louder at the end of mud season. It’s a monster of mythical proportions until it can haul out summertime stuff and submerge in the lake once again.

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Mooselook State of Mind


“What did you call that lake you live on way up there?” my friends Edie and Lewis kept asking. We were in Florida where they’d gone to escape winter on Long Island for a bit, and where I’d eagerly found them as soon as the invitation was issued.

“Moose-LOOK-megun-TIC,” I said, enunciating like they were second graders learning a foreign word. “It’s Abnaki Native American for moose feeding place. Fourth largest lake in Maine and, actually, the fourth longest place name in the US.”

I couldn’t see behind their sunglasses, but suspected that my little factoids were not helping them form a vision of my special spot on the globe any more than Google Earth had that morning.

“See that small strip of sand across from that big island? I live right about there,” I said, wiggling my pointer finger around the iconic Height of Land picture Lewis Googled on his laptop. But the postcard panorama didn’t satisfy his curiosity. He wanted a bird’s eye view, wanted to punch in my exact coordinates or, at least, my nearby intersections.

“You can type in my street address, but it’s really not a GPS sort of street address,” I tried to explain as he zoomed in and out over green-roofed openings in the trees along the lake, any one of which could have been my cabin. “Nearest town, where I pick up my mail, is Oquossoc. Stands for place of trout. You’ll just have to come visit and see for yourself! But if you come before June, you’ll probably want to bring skis or snowshoes…”

End of conversation. Talk of snow was just too much to bear with our toes in the sand and the warm breeze softly dissipating memories of the polar vortex of 2015. For the moment, it was enough to sit quietly with the knowledge that they were almost as far from their tribal sounding strip of frozen water frontage as I was from mine. And then Lewis started playing New York State of Mind on his ukulele, changing up the words in honor of my failed map quest and his floundering concept of where I called home. Something about being out on the dock fishing and drinking beer.

“…only time I care about is dinner time,” he sang, “cause I’m in a Mooselook-moe-gawntic state of mind!”

For the moment, it was enough to laugh and let him make up lyrics. And then I returned to the Big Lake in mid-March—to the winter that was way worse than the Farmer’s Almanac prediction too ominous to wrap my brain around in November—and the words became my very own.

Mooselook State of Mind (Waiting for spring 2015 version)
Sung to the tune of
New York State of Mind by Billy Joel

Sometimes I go take a break.
Need to leave the lake and the wind and snow.
Hop a flight to a thawed out beach or to Chicago.
But I’m back by the wood stove with what’s left of the homemade wine.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.

I’ve strolled on the golden sands in the far off lands where the steel drums play.
Been lost in food options beyond the IGA.
Now I’m eatin’ hot oatmeal in my longies ’cause I’m freezing my behind.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.

It was so easy livin’ without socks!
Out of touch with the dump hours and the moose.
But now I’m hoping just to see my dock
A bit more sun. Ice breakin’ loose.

When it comes time for the April thaw, winter’s last hurrah, I’ll be Elmer Fudd.
I won’t care if my old wool hat falls in soupy mud.
I won’t rush for the sunscreen, I’ll be too disinclined.
I’m in a Mooselook state of mind.
I’m just prayin’ for bare arms and jeans that aren’t fleece-lined.
Cause I’m in a….I’m in a Mooselook state of mind!


Editor’s note: Any readers prompted to make snarky comments about me not fully appreciating the four-seasons lifestyle I knew I was getting into when I made the Big Move to Rangeley, please know that there will be a summer reprise. Come July, I’ll be singing a different tune when, God willing, the glorious balmy days beside the lake that we all live for last long enough for me to remember the words.

Posted in Family and friends, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | 1 Comment

Directionless TV


New Year’s Day 2014: “To read more in my free time.”
New Year’s Day 2015: “To watch less TV, giving myself infinitely more free time.” (See last year).

Watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve two years in a row, while what my body really wanted was bed, must have been the final straw. I stopped being a resolution recluse and boldly proclaimed my change of direction: “Start picking up a book more often than the blasted TV remote, you lazy, half-witted slouch!”

So far, it’s working for me. Not perfectly well, but I’d say distinctly better. I’m doing more page turning than channel surfing. I’ve gone Wild and vicariously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and become engulfed in an Inferno of mystery and intrigue. I’ve left the Sister Wives and the Little Couple in favor of some quality time with Mike Bowditch, my favorite fictional game warden. And if I stay strong in my resolve, I fully intend to be Daring Greatly by March.

It’s still a hard-fought battle, a nightly dilemma. Will I open a book and forge new mental pathways or once more kid myself that The Learning Channel somehow deserves its name? Will great authors spark my imagination, or hoarders, bridezillas and gypsies totally snuff it into the couch cushions?

Not too long ago, there was no such choice to make, when TV and “camp” were not mutually possible, when the only big screen I had was the one keeping mosquitoes from swarming as I watched my own National Geographic episodes live from the porch. I could get a few different channels if I stared at the fire in the wood stove long enough. But aside from that—and being entertained by the pantry mice—paperbacks, cards, board games, and a retro radio tuned into “The Mountain of Pure Rock” atop Sugarloaf was as exciting as things got inside the cabin after sundown. Company from away didn’t always understand, especially after they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty had worn off.

“But what else do you do up here?” one of Helen’s middle school friends, who reportedly had Nintendo and her own TV/ VCR in her bedroom, asked.

“We play Yahtzee and Monopoly and eat s’mores and read,” she said. “We read a lot.”

“Like chapter books?” the girl said. By Sunday morning, her attention span was shot. And that was in the summer.

“I s’pose this will be kinda nice in the winter,” Tom said just after we made the Big Move to Rangeley full time. He was kicked back in his new double recliner watching our first ever upta camp TV, which also happened to be our first ever flat screen, hi-def, bigger than a breadbox TV. It was a huge buying decision, solely mine to make, while Tom had been away working out his teaching contract till the weekend. Did we really need to bring a boob tube into our “dream” log cabin? Was it time to ditch the tiny Discount Warehouse set we bought back in the ’90s, even though it still had some life left to it? “Yes!” I decided in a moment of early spring slump. I closed my second novel of the week and called DirecTV.

But I still couldn’t imagine how in the heck we could pick up satellite reception out here amid the towering trees. “Don’t worry,” friends told me. “Norm will set you up. I’ve seen him put a DirecTV dish out on an island. He even put one on an outhouse once.”

They were right. A few days, a really tall ladder and some serious roof hook-ups later, Norm clicked through the remote, and presto chango. I could see glaciers calving into the Gulf of Alaska, the real shades of The Color Purple, and every single palm frond and bug bite on Survivor. I had more than a hundred channels and, soon, a renewed addiction.

I fell deep and hard into “reality” TV—my obsession of choice, convincing myself I could turn it off any time I wanted. After all, I said, I didn’t get sucked into the sports/movie super-mega-bundle dish package. I didn’t have a bedroom TV and a kitchen TV and a loft TV. I had one TV in a small corner formerly known as “the beagle room.” And thanks to steadfastly refusing a DVR hook-up, I had to be strong. Who knew when I’d have to go to the bathroom and miss some vital twist, some witty comment or, heaven forbid, seeing who got Chopped or wasn’t The Biggest Loser? I had high standards for when and how I indulged.  Amazing Race, Undercover Boss and, if no one was around, an occasional Say Yes to the Dress, were my allowable choices. And North Woods Law—a vital local broadcast—was a non-decision, my civic duty. I deliberately black balled Amish kids binge drinking, and couples wanting to “embrace” life in Alaska while not wanting to haul wood, poop outside, or butt up against bears.

And then it hit me. I was sad. Not the kind  of sad that kept me from walking the dogs, showing up at the dinner table, or opening the curtains. Too much mindless TV had given me a case of what Psychology Today calls “infinite sadness,” a seeping, low grade feeling that I was turning into a total waste of skin. While it hadn’t suffocated me yet, a door was closing, slowly crushing my psyche, show by stupid show.

I began to wonder: If my mind was a bookshelf, what would it be lined with after hours and hours of reality TV? Wilting roses from the Bachelor? The Travelocity gnome sitting atop a stack of Amazing Race clues? Would it have any of the rich permanence of a grand old library, or the vacant stillness of an empty warehouse? Or worse, maybe the regions of my brain had become a row of closed cubby-holes—and the only thoughts waiting to pop out were silly, vacuous, Laugh In-like one-liners!

I took a hard look at how I defined “surviving” the long winter evenings out here. Was it letting the dim glow of an idiot box keep me going till ice out, or spending long evenings becoming truly enlightened by the books that were piling up like cord wood? I sure did miss Mike Bowditch and whatever new adventure Paul Doiron had for me to read! And I kept promising myself I’d finish The Promise of Energy Psychology, a second-hand paperback all the more inspiring because it was earmarked, highlighted and annotated by its previous owner. “This book is a New Age textbook,” I decided when I read the first half. “It’s helped someone be the best she could be!” The only thing the Learning Channel and Discovery Channel were teaching me was how much back-to-back crap I could gaze at, slack jawed and inert in my recliner, till I shuffled off to bed. I did learn to be glad I wasn’t a third sister wife, or compulsively eating dryer sheets, or cheap enough to dumpster dive out back of Parkside and Main. “At least I’m not dating my car!” I’d mutter to myself when I finally clicked the off button. “Plus, lucky me, I’m way past the threat of suddenly squeezing out a baby in the Coos Canyon rest area because whoops….I was more than just fat.”

So I backed away from the TV and got back to my books. Real books. I don’t do Kindle ’cause yup, you guessed it, I don’t own one. Tracking words across a tiny screen is what I do for a living. So when it comes to reading for pleasure, I prefer the tactile enjoyment of holding a real book, the thrill of unearthing a good Rangeley “dump” book, or the social amity of visiting my friends who own the bookstore in town.

It’s over a month into the New Year and I’m happy to say I’ve gone whole days immersed in Paul Doiron, Dan Brown and Colleen McCollough. No more gypsy wedding brawls or folks long-jumping through hoards of junk to get to their front door. I’ve limited my consumption to select comedies, North Woods Law, and a few upbeat reality shows. I’ve only slid off the book wagon once but, hey, that was a special occasion. It was free HBO, Cinemax, Starz and Showtime weekend. And now that I fork over almost as much for satellite TV as I used to for a car payment, free trumps everything. “My books will be there next weekend,” I decided, “Fifty new channels won’t!” Except for when I have to run to the bathroom and chance missing something really cool, home entertainment doesn’t get much better than that in my cabin in the woods in February.

Posted in health and healing, Mindfulness | 1 Comment

Extreme gift wrapping


I didn’t inherit any aptitude for gift wrapping. Whatever chromosomal matter it is that makes most women capable of tucking, taping and adorning paper-covered boxes so they look fresh out of Macy’s—instead of frigged up beyond all recognition—bypassed me completely. Those genes definitely skipped a generation. And by the time they resurfaced in my daughters’ DNA pool, they were a bit special.

Oh, the girls started out just fine, teaching themselves to perfectly fold corners and criss-cross ribbon as soon as manual dexterity would allow. But somewhere along the way, sibling rivalry mixed with a legacy of twisting holiday traditions, and the Decade of Packing Wars began in earnest.

The presents themselves didn’t really matter. But, oh boy, what was on the outside did! Keeping the containers hermetically sealed from the recipient as long as possible was the real prize. Because, when it came right down to it, whatever trinket could be bought with high school allowance money and still be left intact after the prying and ferreting necessary to unearth it was more trinket than treasure. Yup, it was the thought that counted. And whichever sister started thinking like a structural engineer right after Halloween usually claimed victory at Christmas.

If I remember correctly, Helen started it all, as big sisters often do. Inspired by Photoshop and a printer that could finally keep up with her imagination, she turned a Becky selfie into custom wrapping paper. Unfortunately for Becky, the picture was not the stuff of which party cakes or personalized coffee mugs are made. It was taken after a skiing fall, when a hard face plant onto the icy slope left her with a rather large headlight scab and the dazed look of potential road kill. Thanks to Helen, what should have been for Becky’s eyes only ended up immortalized in a collage under the tree that year, and the first shot of the Decade of Packing Wars was fired.

Becky retaliated in style, and soon both girls were lobbing gift grenades back and forth with such force that the “normal” gifts got lost in a fallout of paper, scissors and rock-hard sealants. It’s all sort of a blur now, but here are a few of my recollections.

  • Nothing says “I care” like a huge glistening ball o’ duck tape
    These days, it comes in every color of the rainbow and in enough holiday patterns to be festive in and of itself. It’s even the featured art form at our annual Rangeley Building Supply kids’ Christmas craft expo. But back when Becky first let loose with yards of duck tape to encase her sister’s present, she was a trend setter, for sure. Relying on the good, ole silvery kind as her media, her mastery grew while her sister’s hopes of extracting her gift dwindled. Those little craft expo kids should have seen the Origami splendor Becky could bestow when she wanted to magically hide a dinky $4 surprise in $14 worth of duck tape!
  • Some dis-assembly required (AKA: “Dad can you grab the screw driver(s)?”)
    The wrapping paper was innocuous enough. But the box underneath was not. Once Helen ripped away Santa in his sleigh, she saw the real barrier to whatever special sister gift was to be hers that year. It must have been another Becky retaliation year, because she went at it with guns blazing, and her Dad’s power drill smokin’. She’d always been an avid student of what was going on in Tom’s workshop, and it certainly showed when Helen uncovered the wooden box that her sister had so meticulously hand crafted just for her. ‘Twas not a nice wooden music box or jewelry box that could be flipped open to find little velvet-covered compartments and a pretty pair of earrings. It was a plain plywood box, unadorned except for the screws drilled into every inch of its cover. And it made noise—jingling and jangling each time Helen shook it! Intrigued, and no stranger to a tool box herself, she asked Tom to go get her a screw driver. “Better bring a Phillips head and a flat one!” she called after him. Half an hour and a sore wrist later, she popped the lid off the box—to reveal that it was filled with another pound of screws…and a note from Becky instructing that her present was hiding under her bed.
  • Open with caution…and a chisel
    Helen was pleased to have found a nice piece of tapestry she knew would make a perfect decorative accent for her sister’s dorm room. But could she fold it lovingly and put it in a gift bag? Never! This was a double-retaliation year, and she just happened to have Plaster of Paris. She was considerate enough to put the fancy cloth in protective plastic—and give her sister a chisel to chip away at the layers and layers in which it was encased. ‘Twas not an under the tree present, but an outside on the back deck present. Good thing we were blessed with unseasonably mild weather that year as we watched Becky hack away out there, covering everything in a flurry of white Christmas plaster.
  • Frozen in the front yard
    And then came the year when there was just enough snow for Becky’s present from Helen. An early thaw had Helen worried, but a few inches fell by Christmas Eve, and she was overjoyed to bury her sister’s special surprise in the front yard. We lived on a busy road back then, and passersby must have been curious about why we had a snow obelisk with a Jolly Roger flag stuck atop it out next to our well pump. Good thing Becky hadn’t spied it yet. That would have spoiled the fun she had stopping traffic as she dug for her little trinket with the plastic shovel and the treasure map her big sister left under the tree for her, all specially wrapped, pointing the way to the front yard.
  • All I want for Christmas is a skin graft
    In hindsight, Becky should have called a truce already. But how could she know that this would be the year that, in the course of her costume design business, her sister would gain access to materials that could shape-shift at the slightest variation of temperature and touch? And how were Tom and I to know that instead of just playing Santa—delivering Helen’s special gift (tee hee) to Becky while visiting her in The Keys—that we were actually pawns in the final Packing Wars skirmish? What we casually carried through airport security looked, to us, like a small green and red package tied with a festive bow. What it ended up being, however, once in Becky’s possession was a dirty bomb that should have put TSA on high alert. ‘Neath the wrapping paper was a plain plastic cylinder inside which, immersed in a mysterious goo, was an envelope containing a gift certificate.
    “We should go roller skating next time you come home,” Helen said that summer. The thought was nice, buying a gift certificate to the local roller skating rink so she and her sister could act like little kids again for an afternoon.  But the afterthought, the one that took hold around Halloween about how to showcase her sentiments—not so nice. To this day, Helen claims the mysterious goo was supposed to dry to a semi-hard foam that would harmlessly encapsulate her gift till Becky pulled it from its shell. It wasn’t really meant to stay in the gelatinous, Super Gluey state that came bubbling out all over Becky’s hands when she pried the plastic apart. It wasn’t supposed to stick Becky’s fingers together and then stick the envelope to her stuck-together fingers on the night before she had to help run a SCUBA dive boat, wasn’t meant to not come unstuck when we doused Becky with nail polish remover, then Jim Beam, and any other solvents we could find in our luggage.

The sisters never did go roller skating, partly because the gift certificate didn’t withstand the trauma. And partly because Becky called Helen a friggin’ biotch for thinking it was somehow funny to make her rip the top layer of skin off her fingers and then immerse them continuously in salty sea water. But they did call a truce. They made up, like nice sisters do, both able to laugh about it a few Christmases later. We were all in the Bahamas for the holidays and Becky had just taught her sister to SCUBA dive. “Right about Halloween, when I knew Helen was going to come visit, I started dreaming of hiding her present underwater,” Becky told me.”Like under a rock next to a moray eel at about 30 feet.” But payback, she decided, from a SCUBA diving, costume designing big sister—who still had a digital photo of her making a goofy scab face—would really be a bitch.

Merry Christmas everyone. Play nice!


For more Christmas postings, see:
Welcome DecemBear!
A Rain-geley white Christmas
Yankee swappin’
A moving feast
Four stages of Santa 
A friend called Coco

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