In the back of my scattered brain (the very back) there is a post about life with two kids. It’s funny, poignant, and informative on all we’ve been going through. Probably I’ll have the time and mental wherewithall to write this post when Ty is six months old, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I thought I’d share this story I wrote. I entered Real Simple Magazine’s life essays contest back in August when I had more time on my hands. The prompt was: “Finish this sentence: I never thought I’d…” Unfortunately, having lived a fairly lame uneventful life, I directed my essay to more vague interpretation of the prompt 🙂 I didn’t win. And I didn’t deserve to. You can read the winning essay here. It is so good! But since I worked so hard on mine, I thought I’d post it here so someone besides my husband and sister could read it 🙂 And in the meantime I’ll work on that real-time post about life with two kids. Although it might be a while because above that on the to-do list are a few other important things, like brushing my teeth and shaving my legs. JK. Kind of.
Christmas In July
I never thought I’d be an optimist. I’ve been anticipating the worst since I was a little girl. I cried everyday for the first month of first grade, sure I would hate it forever. I had to be talked into roller coasters, ear piercing, and junior high volleyball, each of which I was sure would be the death of me. On school days, if Mom was five minutes late, I began looking for police cars and ambulances instead of the family suburban. I am petitioned daily to be more positive, mostly by my husband and mom, to whom the task falls to assure me that the sky is not falling in one world or another. But I just can’t help it. It feels like you might as well ask me to color my hazel eyes blue, or grow a few inches so my jeans won’t shred at the bottom when I step on them. Sure, it might be nice, but it doesn’t seem possible. And my pessimism is worse than usual. Some people see dark clouds and dust off the umbrella; I herd the pillow cushions into the pantry for the impending tornado. Some people rush to the doctor for a darkening mole; I’m already having nightmares about who my husband will remarry. I should be ashamed of myself, but if I’m being honest, I’ve kind of gotten attached to life being Eyeore. I feel safer, more prepared, less foolish. If I expect the worst, at least I’m not surprised, right?
But whether blessing or curse, I know one thing. I didn’t get it from my dad. We could not be more different. Dad is the self-proclaimed “Eternal Optimist.” This phrase pops up in various different scenarios. It could be that his team is down 34 points with a minute and a half to go, or that he’s air-balled the crumbled paper thirteen times, or that he has six hours to clean out the entire garage. To Dad, no game is hopeless, no shot impossible, no job too big. The Eternal Optimist. You’d think such foolishness would bite him, but oddly, it doesn’t. I’d never waste my money in a slot machine; several times, he’s tossed in a quarter and a few years of our college tuition clinked out. To me, negotiating seems fruitless; Dad’s been known to drive a car past befuddled car dealers at half of the sticker price. He smiles at the world, and the world smiles back. He’s his own biggest fan, and yours, too. When I was sixteen, I ran off the road and got a flat, and he praised me for pulling over in time. He frequently tips the worst waiters best. And he always, always, believes you can do anything.
In high school I wrote a piece titled I Wish Snowmen Never Melted and to my dad, it might as well be Faulkner. He’s asked me for a copy at least six times, and twice in college, mailed one back along with a gift card for pizza. It’s no masterpiece, but he loves it. It’s cheesy, cliché, completely predictable, but it’s totally me. We were supposed to write a Christmas piece, and, having no imagination, I decided to list everything about Christmas that I wished would last, or be real. But don’t be fooled by cutesy language and mentions of snowmen – it’s still gloom and doom. All the things wrong with the world, all the things I wished were different. A few of the things I wished for were that snowmen never melted, that Santa was real, that everyone had a mommy like I do, that every Christmas was a white Christmas, that every Cinderella always found her Prince Charming, that pets never died and roses never wilted, that I never had to grow up, that “suntans, vacations, promises, snowfalls, and the smell of the Christmas tree in my living room lasted forever.”
A decade later I read it like I read old love letters, or look at prom photos. I laugh a little at the girl I used to be, at my childish hopes and fairy tale wishes. But also, I think teenage Jessica was right about those premonitions regarding adulthood and the real world. Grown-up life is hard, and, despite any wishes to the contrary, it’s nothing like Christmas when you’re nine.
Take parenting, for instance. My husband and I joked that having our little Sam was a “jolt into adulthood.” Nothing makes you feel more adult, and more afraid, than knowing you are the one responsible to pay stacks of hospital bills and get a screaming baby to, somehow, fall asleep. The crying part, you get better at. The bills – well, they keep coming. I’d happily traded my wardrobe allowance and Todd his love of cable TV so I could stay home with Sam. These losses are small to us, and passing up a Starbucks craving here and there isn’t really that horrible. The worst part is when you realize no matter how frugal you are, no matter how organized your coupon box is, no matter how many times you do and redo the budget, it just might not be enough.
This summer, we’d just found Sam would have a sibling, and were realizing the house was too small, the car was too small, and, of course, the single income that was already too small would be way too small. We met in our living room with some very helpful financial advisors, who showed us color-coded charts explaining that in addition to the $1.3 million we’d need for retirement, we’d better allow $394,000 for our two children’s college. Charts are usually comforting to visual types like me, but these made me want to throw up, and hide my stupid coupon box with those silly $2 Pampers coupons.
As if on cue, a few weeks later, my car started making a humming noise. An expensive humming noise – I could tell.
I think there may have been a lump in my throat when I reported the damage back to Dad, the resident car expert. “I need a new hubcap system. It’s $449, but it’s okay, it could be worse.”
A few days later when “Black Beauty” was healed, to the mechanics I went.
“You do take Visa?” I was impatient, tense, eager to swipe the card and forget it. I’m not even sure I made eye contact. Then came the words. The ones you hear in movies, or in other people’s stories.
“It’s been taken care of.”
I looked up. “What? By who?”
“A very nice gentleman came in here and wanted to take care of it.”
And he handed me the receipt. My eyes started blurring but something was circled, and in between all the random numbers and car jargon was a phrase so out of place but so familiar:
“THE SNOWMAN NEVER MELTED.”
I stammered something, completely sobbing. Sobbing to my car, sobbing through the intersection, sobbing dialing the number.
“Dad? It’s me. Why – why did you do that?”
He played dumb for a while, like when we were little kids and the puppets burped “mysteriously,” or when you’d find your favorite donut on the counter. Then, this. Just this.
“Those snowmen, you know, people think they melt, but some of them just don’t disappear.”
Dad knew that $449 hurt for our little family, and it was nice to have it back. But he gave us more than that, too, on that muggy Monday in July, like a few things I’d lost while working so hard to be a grown-up. The reminder that we’re not alone. The encouragement that God hadn’t forgotten about out little family. And the humble plea to believe that things aren’t really that bad, and they’ll get even better. Dad had changed the words to my poem, and was asking me to do the same. He was asking me to believe that life this side of Santa isn’t quite so cruel and rational and scary as it sometimes seems, that miracles still happen, and that sometimes, we do get just what we wish for. It’s been a few decades of Christmases since I’ve had that kind of hope.
Our frugal little family went out to dinner that night, and I ordered everything I wanted, not the cheapest thing on the menu. And then I dug up that silly poem. One day I’m going to read it to Sam. Maybe I’ll give it to him with a gift card to somewhere. You know, one that I’ll buy with all of our future earnings. All this saving is doing something, right? And if not, well, there’s always a slot machine. Anything’s possible, you know.