Country Tunes, Rose Ceremonies, and Expectations

IMG_0921It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.

  • How Could You Not Know
  • Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
  • Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
  • Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
  • I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
  • My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
  • Stalled in the Friend Zone
  • Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
  • Sleeping on the Sofa Again

Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.

Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”

Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals. 

“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”

“Okay,” he said.

We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.

He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.

He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.


This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.

I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.

The Great Sausage Meltdown of 2015


Homemade pierogies frying in butter

I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.

My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.

Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrorsfor our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.

With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.

Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.

“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”

“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.

“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.

“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.

“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”

After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.

I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.



A Belated Holiday Letter For All The Late Bloomers

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

I was rifling through a stack of papers on the counter yesterday and came across a holiday letter that arrived in a card from some friends of ours around Christmas. Okay. I feel your sneer of judgment. Yes. I still have holiday mail on our kitchen counter. Guess what? We still have a broken, faux Christmas tree lying on the floor in the rec room too. I’m leaving it there at least until Easter to prove how very zen I can be in the face of ridiculous things. So there. Anyway, I opened the letter and reread it. It was, as most family holiday letters are, a beautifully composed, loving tribute to our friends’ apparently flawless, exceptional, decorous, loving children. I’m a natural skeptic, so I’ve always assumed children like the ones outlined in those letters are figments of fantasy, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and men who multitask…a charming idea, but a complete fabrication. Still, we get many letters just like that one every year, rife with phrases like Eagle Scoutstraight A honor studentVarsity letter, State championships, class president, volunteer hours, and first place, which are aimed at making me believe that children like this exist in families all across this nation. It must be reality for some people.

Friends have asked me why I do not send out a letter with our Christmas cards. They figure that a writer should be at the top of the list of Persons Most Likely To Write A Holiday Letter. But I don’t because comparison is an ugly thing. We don’t have the kind of children who look good on paper. They’re off schedule and complicated and not in line with many other children their ages. In terms of learning, our children are classified as “atypical” and that doesn’t play well without lengthy and exhausting explanations. Even though we don’t write holiday letters, we think they’re awesome. We’ve just accepted that their beauty sometimes gets lost in the comparison game.

If I were to write a holiday letter, it realistically might contain paragraphs that read something like this:

Joe is thirteen and in seventh grade this year. He’s completely immersed in Pokémon and adores Japanese culture. He keeps asking when we can go to Tokyo. He used most of his Christmas money to buy Pokémon plush toys that he and his brother use in elaborate stop-motion video stories they are creating for their YouTube channel. Despite his ADHD and dyslexia, he’s making great progress at school. We are so proud that he’s using capitals and periods in his schoolwork on a more consistent basis these days. He’s still reversing his Bs and Ds, but we are hoping that he’ll have that mostly figured out by the time he’s writing college entrance essays. Joe has finally mastered the coordination and multiple steps to tie his own shoes now, which has taken one thing off my plate. He uses about 400 knots to make sure they don’t come untied, though, and that has created a different hassle as I now have to unknot his shoes each morning. Be careful what you wish for! After two years of private ski lessons, his core strength and coordination have improved enough that he has a mastery of most beginner slopes. We hope to have him exclusively skiing intermediate slopes by the end of next season. His favorite books are graphic novels, his favorite food is pasta, and his classmates call him “Puppy.” He never misses his nightly spa time, which mainly involves sitting in the bathtub while watching a continuing stream of Netflix videos on his iPad from across the room. Thank heavens he was gifted with great eyesight and the brains to know not to bring the iPad into the tub with him.

Luke is eleven now and in fifth grade. He is a talkative, class clown, and his teachers have initiated a rewards system to keep him reined in during class. So far it seems to be working because our last parent/teacher conference went off without tears. This year his decoding skills have gone off the charts and he is reading at a beginning of fourth grade level. He’s still struggling with fine motor skills and his pencil grip is downright bizarre, but his handwriting is bafflingly lovely. He loves to draw, write stories, build Legos, and watch episodes of Parks and Recreation. And, this year he began catching footballs successfully. He’s still two inches shy of being tall enough to ditch the booster seat in the car, but he’s getting there! His latest career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur/architect/engineer, but he’s planning to author books in his free time, which we think will make him quite well balanced. His sensory issues force him to sleep in a nest of blankets, pillows, and plushes, but he showers regularly, doesn’t eat in bed, and sleeps on the top bunk so we are reasonably sure there are no rodents up there with him.  All is well and we are grateful. 

Now, this holiday letter fodder might seem a bit hyperbolic, but overall it’s an accurate account of life with our exceptional sons. They are not straight A students. They are not athletes. They are not overachievers. They’re not on the Dean’s List. They’re not first chair in orchestra. They struggle a lot, work hard to catch up with other kids their age, and keep plugging away. They are, in every way I can see, damn near perfect human beings, emphasis on the human part. And I may never be able to write a holiday letter extolling the impressive scholastic or athletic achievements of their youth, but I could not be more proud of my young men.

I don’t begrudge any of our friends the joys of having children who are achieving at a high level already. After all, it’s a lot of work being a parent, and a smart, capable child who is excelling in many things can only do so with personal support and chauffeur services. My friends have earned the right to brag about their offspring. As for our boys, I suspect they are simply late bloomers. Sooner or later, all their hard work and dedication will pay off. And someday I’ll send out a holiday letter to share how far they have come. Our Christmas card with personal letter in 2035 might just blow your socks off.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Dead trees tell no tales

Dead trees tell no tales

It was with great joy today that we slayed the ghosts of Christmas past by dismantling our holiday decorations. Few things delight me more at the beginning of a new year than boxing up baubles and stashing stockings, organizing ornaments and gathering up garland. As tedious of a task as it is, paring down after a season of excess is exhilarating. I love putting things back to right, restoring order, and returning to ordinary time.

Some people love Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm. I am not one of those people. I do my best to live in the moment and revel in the excitement of my children during the season, but I could do without the trappings of the holidays. I’m happier without all the overdoing. I prefer to practice random gift giving and card sending. I like buying things for someone when the mood strikes me and not when the calendar says it’s time. I enjoy that smell of pine more in a summer forest while I rest in a hammock. If someone parked a red-bow Mercedes in my driveway on Christmas morning like the holiday ads imply some people do, that might increase my seasonal joy. Still, it probably wouldn’t stop me from grousing about the wasted hours putting up and taking down lights. Every Thanksgiving, as I turn my face toward New Year’s Day, I lie to myself as I repeat this mantra: “Five weeks of insanity and then it’s over.”

It’s never truly over, though, is it? We removed the dry, dead carcass of our Christmas tree from our house this afternoon. The drag marks from the front door made its disposal look like a crime scene. Its needles on our walkway told a grisly tale of one cut down in his prime, held hostage, tortured, and cruelly left to die far from home. I might be able to muster a bit of melancholy about it all if I wasn’t sure that I’ll be finding its errant needles in our home until next Christmas. It’s hard to miss a holiday that never truly leaves.

Somewhat Accidentally Living Deliberately

Image 1

Let’s do this thing.

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”                      ~Henry David Thoreau

When we went to cut down the tree last week, we actually had two permits and cut down two trees. We do that every year. In past years, we’ve cut down one tree for the living room and then one for the family room. This year, though, we decided to make a change. We would cut one big tree for our living room and a smaller tree that I would use to make garland and maybe wreaths. Why would I do this to myself, you ask? When I complain each and every year about how I simply try to get from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day without running away from home what with the season doubling my average workload, why would I decide that crafting some fresh, pine decorations would be a wise choice? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m certifiable. Always have been. Always will be. If it seems like it can be done, I will find a way to do it because I’m a loon who at some point unconsciously decided that sleep is overrated. I had a grand plan to save us a bunch of money by cutting down a $10 tree and sacrificing it for nostalgic greenery. A grand plan is all I ever need to get myself into trouble. My life is filled with grand plans.

Well, that “extra” tree had been resting near our front porch all week. Every time I opened the front door, I felt that tree judging me. Oh….you had such big plans. Yet, here I sit…waiting to be burned in next year’s fire pit. Shocking! Yes. This is what happens when I am sleep deprived. I see dead trees. Sometimes the dead trees talk to me. (I really should get more sleep.) I began to despise that obnoxious, sarcastic, negative spruce. And, as lazy and exhausted as I felt, I vowed to put a stop to its derision. So today I found my way over to Michael’s where, for approximately $20, I bought some wire, some wreath forms, and some pre-made holiday bows. I was going to do this thing and stop the tree voices.

Yeah, baby!

Yeah, baby!

In the waning hours of daylight as we approach the shortest day of the year, as the sun began to sink behind the hills, I stood in my backyard with a dead tree, pruning shears, and green wire. Me. The one who gets rashes hanging ornaments on a fresh tree because I happen to be allergic to trees. I tried something new. I created a wreath. I actually did it. After years of buying fresh, evergreen wreaths for our home, today I made one myself. Tomorrow I will create its twin. I will hang them around the lights on the garage to decorate our home festively for the holidays. Every time I come home I will look at them and be proud of myself. And, I will cross this task off my lifetime list of things to try my hand at. Okay. Okay. Making a wreath was never actually on my list of things to do in this lifetime, but I’ll put it on my list just to cross it off because it feels good to do something I’ve never done before. Crossing things off my lifetime list has become my pastime.

The older I get, the more important it’s become to me to try new things. There’s a sense of urgency in my life now that there wasn’t at 20. At 20, I thought I would live forever or, at least, it never crossed my mind that I would die. But, I will die and as I look at the moments of my life as I leave this place, I want to know that I made the most of my time here. I want to know that I loved, that I created, that I gave back, and that I did not always shy away from the experience of living in even the smallest way. My life is a work in progress and someday it will be halted by death. When it is, I really hope I’m in the middle of trying something new, sucking the marrow out of life even as the life is being sucked out of me.


Sorry — I Gave At The Office

Sometimes back lighting doesn’t work

Okay. You caught me. I am late writing this blog again. Why? Basically because, well, I am insane. I am normally a busy person. I don’t think anyone who knows me would dispute that. But, during the holiday season, I become the rough equivalent of an ADHD squirrel on four Red Bulls. I take my normal daily workload and add a few items to it. Today was our planned “lazy day” at home. In my head, I imagined watching football while casually stringing lights on the tree. Somehow, though, that leisurely day dissipated into chaos. We put the exterior Christmas lights on the house, hung the wreaths, washed and folded four loads of laundry, meticulously placed seven strands of lights on a 10 foot tall Christmas tree and then decorated it, adorned the boys’ tree with ornaments, posed for our annual holiday card photos, edited said photos, designed and ordered 100 holiday cards online, cleared the refrigerator of the last of the Thanksgiving Day leftovers, and did it all without murdering our children in the process. I think that’s a reasonably full day, don’t you? So, I hope you will excuse the fact that this is a brief and prosaic entry, devoid of pithy sayings and greeting card sentiments. I hope you’ll understand that today I gave at the office and have nothing left to offer.

On a side note….to the cyclist who chastised us for parking briefly near the front of our neighborhood while we used a self-timer to attempt to capture at least one decent photo of our four-person family for our holiday cards, thank you for starting off our holiday season with the kind of spirit we’ve come to know and expect this time of year. It wouldn’t be the holidays without a spoil-sport Grinch now, would it? Keep calm and merry on, friends.

Take Your Stocking And Stuff It

Guess which stocking belongs to my husband…

I’ve blogged a few times recently about traditions and about how we’ve struggled to create some for our little family foursome. Steve and I both came from families with fairly ingrained family traditions. When you start a new household, you ideally take some traditions from each side and then add to them or make them your own with a slightly different twist. One thing I looked forward to when Steve and I got married was picking out new Christmas stockings that would be unique to our household. Steve and I each had inherited the stockings we’d had with our parents. It sounds silly, I know, but I was adamant that I wanted us to start a new tradition for our family with matching stockings of our choosing. I couldn’t wait to purchase and hang our own stockings and to add to our collection of what would be hung by the chimney with care with each child we added to our happy home.

The first Christmas Steve and I were married, however, my incredibly thoughtful mother-in-law had a special stocking created for me, one that looked exactly like the one Steve had when he was growing up. The stocking is hand knit and has my name as well as the year I was born (I really wish I could erase that part). The funny part about my stocking is that it is quite obviously smaller than Steve’s. My mother-in-law swears they were created using the same pattern, but you’d be hard pressed to believe it if you saw his stocking that is big enough for a Cadillac or at least for twice the amount of gifts that mine will hold. I have to admit that I was not a great sport about the gift, at least not in front of Steve. He tolerated my tirade about how I felt the stocking was an intrusion and how it robbed me of my chance to start my own tradition. Although he understood then what I did not, that his mother was trying to be inclusive and thoughtful when she had a stocking handmade for me, he also understood my feelings and told me we should go ahead and start our own tradition.

So, we did. We ordered some holiday needlepoint stockings from LL Bean and had our names embroidered onto them. When the boys were born, my mother-in-law commissioned knit stockings for them, just as she had for me. I also got them stockings, stockings that matched the ones Steve and I had chosen for ourselves. I was hell bent on setting up this tradition for our family. I figured that since his parents lived in another state, it would not matter. We could keep the stockings my mother-in-law had knit for us and just put up the other ones in our home. No one would have to know. Well, then, my in-laws decided to purchase a home 30 minutes away from us and to come to Denver in the winter. The space between us dissipated and, as it did, the ability to put up the stockings we’d bought without creating hard feelings disappeared.

Now, seventeen years after my hand-knit stocking was gifted to me, those stockings are the only ones we put out. Oddly enough, the tradition I fought so vehemently is one I now truly enjoy. I love our stockings. They were created from a pattern that Steve’s grandmother had, and we know no one with stockings like ours. Because they’re knit they stretch to hold a ton of stuffers. And, I love to point out to anyone who will look that Steve’s stocking is gargantuan while the rest of ours are all the same, significantly smaller size. Although they look funny on our mantle with Steve’s stocking dwarfing the rest of ours, there’s a charm and a story in that which trumps the visual oddity.

Every time I open our box of Christmas decorations, I’m reminded about how pig-headed I was as a young bride and how ungrateful I was when my mother-in-law was simply trying to include me in her family. I’m also reminded that I wasted $140 on holiday stockings that we simply do not use. They stay in the box while we hang and stuff the knit ones instead. They’re the ones the boys recognize and are excited to see. Now, I have a yearly reminder that sometimes the effort is not worth the battle. Sometimes, the things we think are important are truly not important at all. I no longer want to tell my mother-in-law to take that stocking she had made for me and stuff it…unless, of course, she wants to stuff it with Starbucks gift cards and cute tops from Boden. I’d be totally cool with that.