Friday, December 23, 2011

Not-So-Perfect Christmas Memories

As a mom, I want Christmas to be perfect. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything done and to do it well.

But, as a kid, I don't think I ever expected Christmas to be perfect. I just loved this time of year when everyone in my family stopped being so busy with their ordinary tasks and just enjoyed spending time together.

Here are a few random and precious memories of my Christmases past:

1) My mom, her sister Roberta, and my grandma "Honey" telling stories at the kitchen table. The more they talked, the harder they laughed. I remember my Aunt Bert with tears streaming down her face trying to make them stop talking so she could get her breath and stop cracking up.

2) One year my dad had the flu. We also had a house full of relatives. I remember my aunt and mom bundling my dad up and propping him with pillows next to the tree. Feverish and flushed, my dad was not his usual self - but my aunt kept teasing him - and we all loved him back to health.

3) My Grandma Storms gave the worst Christmas gifts ever. She was known to wrap up "used" gifts. One year I received a pair of men's overalls with the name "Jeff" written in black sharpie on the reverse side of the bib. She said I could wear them when I went camping. Our family would compete to see who could come up with the most creative "thank yous" for those gifts.

4) Every Christmas at Grandma Storms would feature take-away bingo and molasses cookies. My Uncle Ken would always try to win the not-so-cleverly wrapped up onion that my grandma put in as one of the prizes.

5) When I was very young, Christmas at my grandma and grandpa's (Honey and Papa's) would always include a Christmas pageant. I spent many hours practicing the drama with my older cousins and wearing bath towels on our heads as costumes.

6) In high school, I still hadn't lost my enthusiasm for Christmas morning. One year, I woke Julie (age 8) and Tim (age 13) up at 3 am to open our stockings and see our Santa gifts. My dad came down to ask, "What in the world was I thinking?" and sent us back to bed.

My dad playing Christmas carols on the piano. My mom's amazing marinated olive salad and Christmas roast. The Ben Franklin stove with a log burning and Johnny Cash's family Christmas album playing in the background.

These are Christmas memories I will always treasure. Not perfect to anyone but me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mothers and Daughters: Lessons from The Joy Luck Club

Last night, I watched a favorite movie of mine, The Joy Luck Club, with my teenage daughter. The movie, adapted from the novel by Amy Tan, tells the stories of four Chinese mothers and the daughters they raised in America. It was just as powerful as I remembered it to be.

The Joy Luck Club begins by introducing the daughters who are trying to forge their own identities in America and apart from their very traditional Chinese parents, specifically their moms. The women are both irritated by their mothers' concerns and, yet, still anxious for their approval.

One woman fears that her mother will never accept her white, very non-Chinese, fiance. Another thinks her mother will never really be proud of who she has become. Both women yearn for their moms to approve of them to be proud of them.

What they do not realize, is that they are.

The movie makes a point that resonates deep within me. As mothers (and former daughters) we must be honest about the events that have made us who we are today. We must tell our daughters about our triumphs and give them advice. But, we must also be honest and share our regrets and our failures. The hard lessons we learned - the good and the bad - will help our children understand how deeply they are loved and teach them difficult truths about life.

We are more like our moms than we realize...the connection runs deeper than we know.

As young girls, we look up to our moms. As teens, we sometimes begin to resent them. That struggle for individuality is natural, I think. But, it is also hurtful to both people involved. The Joy Luck Club paves the way for a resolution of that gap.

This is not an easy movie to watch - and parents can decide whether or not their teen is ready for the content. It tells hard stories. It does not flinch at depictions of rape or murder or grief. But, the stories here will move you deeply and open up converations with your daughter or your mom that you might need to have.

Sabrina and I in Okinawa, Japan, where we discovered our shared love of Asian culture.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Advent: How do you celebrate with your kids?

The weeks leading up to Christmas are among the busiest for most families. The parent to-do list is endless: shopping, baking, cards, decorating, scheduling parties and activities.

And, in the midst of it all, there is the nagging feeling in our hearts that maybe we should be doing things differently.

How do we push aside the "to-do" list and take time to honor the holiday with our children? How do we help them realize that Christmas is not just about toy commercials and making "I want" lists, but about celebrating the birth of Christ and spending time with those we love?

A recent facebook post by one of my former students, Misty Zeller, suggested a great idea. She has a basket of Christmas cards that each list a potential family activity. She has her kids choose one, open it, and use it to inspire a creative time with her little ones.

One of her friends said that she wraps up all of the old Christmas story books. Each night the children unwrap one and she or her husband read them the loved stories that only appear once a year. That might also work with Christmas movies. Whether it is Elf, The Christmas Story, or White Christmas - make it a movie/popcorn night!

Among my daughter's favorite pre-Christmas activities:

- the Chocolate Advent Calendar. I know this one is too easy. I almost didn't buy it this year, but she said that 14 is not too old to count down the days. We've had all types of these calendars - even a simple chalkboard that counts down the days.

- making Peppermint Bark Candy. When cookie baking was too time consuming, this recipe saved the day. Melt white chocolate, crush peppermint (have them go outside, give them a hammer, and let them pound the pepermint in a zip-loc bag). Spread the melty mix on a cookie sheet and set outside to cool. Kids have fun breaking it apart and bagging it for gifts that they made by themselves.

- explore your Heritage. The Polish Christmas involves placing the manger and Baby Jesus in the middle of the family dinner table along with a flat, pressed biscuit. The biscuit is broken and passed from one family member to another with a kiss, blessing, or word of love. We tried this one year.

- cutting down a Christmas Tree. Some years we have gotten away with buying our tree from the front of Walmart (or our 1950s aluminum tree pictured above), but my daughter loves the real-live-cutting-down-the-tree tradition. We freeze our way through snow and slush, arguing about the right tree. One year, our dog leapt right into a puddle of slush and I had to warm him in my down coat. Even when we find the right tree immediately, we spend a good half hour laughing and walking and enjoying the time together. Okay - I guess we'll do it again this year.

What do you do with your kids to make the days before Christmas special?