Happy New Year: Decade in Review

At the start of 1999, I was single and living on the South Side.

By the end of the year, I had started dating the man I was going to marry, the father of my children.

It’s been a heck of a decade.

Some high- (and a couple of low-) lights.

July 1999: A guy I knew from college walks into a bar. We chat, he asks if I would like to have dinner with him sometime. I say sure. “Look me up; I’m in the book.” That’s my parting line.

September 1999: I email the guy I knew from college to see if he was serious about dinner. “Uh, yeah, but I must have a really old phone book, because the number I called was disconnected.” Three dates later, I think, “This is the man I’m going to marry.” It freaks me out, but I manage not to sabotage the relationship, which would be my first instinct. (I was in therapy when Dan and I met, and I always say if it weren’t for my therapist, I would never have gotten married.)

It’s a miracle we’re together.

September 1, 2001: Dan and I get married on a beautiful day in Pittsburgh. Everything is perfect.

September 10, 2001: Dan and I land in Rome for the start of our honeymoon in Italy. We hop a plane for Florence.

(You see where this is going don’t you?)

September 11, 2001: Dan and I come back to our hotel room after a morning of touring and a two-hour lunch (with wine) to discover America is under attack. I will simply say, the Italian people (along with being beautiful) are warm, welcoming, and extremely concerned. It was an amazing time.

October, 2002: I’m pregnant!

June 4, 2003: Our son dies in utero.

June 8, 2003: Gabriel is delivered. It is possibly the saddest day of my entire life.

August, 2003: We fly to San Francisco with Dan’s family for a vacation in wine country. It’s a little tough, for a lot of reasons. But it is beautiful there. We ship 30 bottles of wine home.

March 2004: I’m pregnant.

March 2004: We travel to Las Vegas for Jeanette and Chuck’s wedding. We tell everyone I gave up alcohol for Lent. It’s a drag to be in Vegas and not be able to drink (or stay awake much past 10 p.m.). But our friends have a lovely wedding.

November 11, 2004 (11:11 p.m.): Flora Maria is born. It is possibly the happiest day of my entire life.

June 20, 2005: Dan and I close on a house in Moon Township. It is next to the house he grew up in, where his parents still live. It’s not as weird as it sounds.

May 2006: I’m pregnant again. Oops. That’s a little earlier than we had planned. We roll with it.

January 6, 2007 (2-something a.m.): Kathryn Castle is born. It, too, is the happiest day of my life.

January 31, 2007: I launch Red Pen Mama. My foray into social media truly begins.

Those are pretty much the important points. I’ve been in and out of work as a writer (freelancing and full-time); Dan got his Ph.D. (“Hey, mom, I’m married to a doctor!”), earned his license, and started his own practice (Bill, baby, bill!). I’ve made new and incredible friends. Dan turned 40 this year. He is a wonderful (most of the time) husband and father, and we have completely incredible kids.

The next decade is going to be amazing. Probably for different reasons than this one was.

Happy New Year, everyone. Wishing you health and happiness, and your hearts’ desires, in 2010 and beyond.

Christmas Bullets

Unfortunately, I have to sum up Christmas in bullets instead of in photos. Apparently someone in my house (someone whose camera needs new batteries, I think) got a hold of my little P-and-S Olympus, and smudged the lens. Wish I had noticed before I took all those pictures Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Oh, and I have to do some serious red-eye removal in any case.

So: Christmas Eve, etc.:

• You would have thought my MIL was feeding 50 people on Christmas Eve. There were twelve of us, eight adults and four kids. We adults did our best (truth be told, the kids didn’t do too badly, either), but we barely put a dent in all that pasta (and more).

• But we did have a very nice time, and some very nice wine.

• I managed to get Kate into bed Christmas Eve by 9 p.m. (with one minor meltdown). Flora I don’t think went to bed until about 10:30 p.m.; I was in bed before midnight (not by much).

• Even though we had to drive to Erie Christmas day, it was still pretty low-key. We slowly opened gifts, Dan & I had coffee (from my belated anniversary gift to Dan, pottery mugs), the kids played. We managed to get everyone together for noon mass, only to drive down to the church to discover there was no noon mass (I’m an awesome Catholic).

• Gray, wet drive to Erie. Completely uneventful, except for the occasional whine from Flora: “Why is it raining?”

• If it had been snowing the way it was raining, we totally would have stayed home.

• Up in Erie, more gift-opening, more food, family, some wine. A late night for the kids, again, with accompanying (and not unexpected) meltdowns, but all-in-all a nice, successful day.

• Saturday was yet another low-key day. We had a big brunch, then Flora, Nonna, Dr. Sis, and I went to the The Princess and the Frog. It was Flora’s first time at a movie theater (which she kept referring to as a ‘theodore’), and she was appropriately awed. We shared some popcorn, cuddled up in the fourth row (Nonna & Dr. Sis had to sit elsewhere) and made it through 90 minutes.

She really liked the movie (she already is asking for it on DVD). After about an hour, she asked a couple of times, in a whisper, “Is this almost over?” She didn’t seem too scared or too upset about anything, and she liked the story. She can even summarize it for you!

I liked the movie, too. A great twist on the typical princess story, plus really fun musical numbers.

• Saturday night, we ordered take out.

• Saturday night, H and I went to Brewerie for a couple of beers, and to get caught up. She is looking well, and her family seems to be doing well. Last year was tough for her and her family. They are taking things one day at a time.

• Sunday was probably the busiest day: Church, brunch with my best friend M, out to visit my grandma, G.G. to the girls. That last was hard. It’s difficult to see the lively woman I knew for so many years so completely erased. I don’t know how my mother and her brother do it.

• Home. The kids were so tired they were practically spinning in place. Dan and I managed to get them bathed and in bed around 7:30 p.m., and I think they were unconscious before 8.

• Two days later, and my house still needs a butt-load of organizing/cleaning. I haven’t unpacked the suitcase (read: laundry) yet. But we’ve another three-day weekend coming up, and we’re not doing anything. (Except dinner at my ILs on New Year’s Day.) (Sorry, Polar Bears. But you all have a good time, now.)

Hope everyone’s was at least as good!


As the nurse was helping her into bed that night, she discovered a photo in her pocket.

“Oh, look, Olympia! Your great-grand-daughters are beautiful!”

She looked at the picture, a little creased from spending the day in her pocket. Two little girls smiled out of it: a blue-eyed, dark haired beauty, and a green-eyed blondie with mischief written all over her grin.

She wondered whose children they were. Certainly not, probably not her own. She was an old lady now. Her daughter’s? She did have a daughter, she thought she recalled. Had her daughter had children? Her daughter’s daughters? Her daughter’s daughter’s daughters?

“Do you know their names?”

Oh, she thought, oh, they probably aren’t mine, she thought. Someone probably gave that photograph to me by mistake. But wouldn’t it be nice if they came to see me, too? I would hug them and give them cookies. They look so sweet. Such sweet little girls. I wish I knew who they were.

Snippet: Post

Flora, sitting dejectedly at Bella’s table for lunch yesterday.

“Flora, honey, what’s wrong?” I am trying to coax her to eat some lunch before our drive to Erie. “You look really sad.”

My 5-year-old heaves a sigh. “I’m exhausted,” she says.

Yes, Virginia

From the mouth of babes, and the Newseum Web site:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

For more information, check out the Wikipedia entry. This letter is simply one of my favorite things in the world.

Merry Christmas Eve.

It’s (Not Always) the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This time of year (obviously, if you’ve been around here this past week) makes me very reflexive. That is, given to reflection.

And, lately, I’ve been thinking of Gabriel. Not the archangel, the son, my son. (Possibly the son because of mentions of the archangel.)

As I often do when thinking about Gabriel, my son, I wandered over to Glow in the Woods, where I was reminded, forcibly, that I am not alone. Unfortunately.

The first Christmas after Gabriel died, I did not want to do anything. We did not put up a tree; we did not decorate; if we exchanged gifts, I’m sure they were of the book/DVD variety  — nothing special to my mind.

I don’t remember what we did. I think Christmas Eve at his parents; Christmas day at mine. To add to the pain of the holiday, my SIL’s boy was only two months old. It was horrible. (None of my brothers’ sons, of which he had two at the time, a toddler & an 8-month-old, were in Erie when we were. Which was probably very helpful to me and my peace of mind. Such as it was.)

I probably drank a lot. Which is probably why I don’t remember very much.

Christmas is about the birth of a child. It is a holiday rife with images of babies and children — happy, lively babies and children. The irony of celebrating such a holiday is soul-crushing for a bereaved parent, especially in that first year. I am not exaggerating.

For me, I am sure it only got better because the next Christmas that rolled around featured Flora. And it was still difficult, and not just because of the stunning lack of sleep.

Grieving is hard for anyone this time of year. The pressure to express forced gaiety must be enormous. I for one would love to let the grief-stricken off the hook.

There is no ‘joy to the world’ when your baby (father, mother, spouse, fill in the blank) is (recently) dead. A first holiday without him/her is numbing. I stumbled forward — Dan and I stumbled forward together.

Six years after that Christmas, here we are reveling in our daughters’ wonder and joy. Answering questions about Santa. Buying gifts and decorating trees. Toying with the idea of baking (not really). Creating gifts for teachers.

But not all of us babyloss parents are here. Not all of those newly bereaved are here.

If you know someone recently bereaved, reach out. I know you don’t know what to say. Say, “I’m thinking of you.” Say, “I’m thinking of him/her too.” Say, “I miss him/her too.” Send a card, send an angel ornament. The grateful feeling that person will have, knowing he or she is not alone with their memories, their loss, it will be a gift. [Edited to add: Need proof that what I say is good advice? Go here. I’ll be writing her an email myself soon.]

[Edited to add: And I’m touched, too, by this post. I thought of Her Bad Mother — and a number of people I know who have lost parents this year — when I was writing. I’m glad I told her.]

Here is the comment I left at “winter. discontent.”:

“And if I am going to sit here, with everyone in the [Glow in the Woods] community, I will say, Take it easy on yourself. Try not to let others’ expectations force you into ‘celebrating’. Use the winter as an excuse to hibernate with your spouse, and your grief. It’s okay. Have some tea; have some wine. Rest.

“This time of year can be like a slap in the face. I remember that. I think it’s okay to turn your face away, and wait for the new year, the new spring.”


Easy, Peasy, Fun

I am, like, the anti-craft. I learned how to knit a few years ago, and I liked it a lot. And the last thing I knitted was a baby blanket for Flora.

Do the math.

Recently, I was looking for gift ideas for Flora’s preschool teachers. Last year we — well, I — did a “cookie mix” in a jar thing, which the teachers seemed to really like. I was about to start looking for the book I got it from when I stumbled onto this post at Pittsburgh Girlie, and then onto this one.

And I thought, “We can do that.”

So we did.

Yeah, the lighting stinks and all, but these are super cute in person. Flora and I — together — made about 50. The 3/4″ hole punch that Beth mentions is key. They were the perfect thing for Flora and I to do while Kate napped on Sunday. We used Zip-Dry Paper Glue, so there wasn’t too much wait time for drying, and we got most of our patterns from last year’s Christmas cards. The hole punch was easy enough for Flora to use, which was a bonus. She had fun picking out pictures.

The only other thing I would add is that bold colors and graphics show up better than muted colors. Which, if I weren’t the anti-craft, I probably would have figured out. Still, they are all very cool. I have to pick out some for me to keep!

Why It’s Christmas, Part II

I have been pondering my response to the comments to my last post for several days now.

First off, I just want to thank everyone for being so open, honest, and willing to have this conversation. The comments I got, especially from people who don’t practice an organized religion (anymore) are much appreciated. I see where you are coming from as far as the tradition of the season goes. And I’m glad that Christmas — this time of year, in general — gives us good reason to celebrate peace, give gifts, and spend time with family.

If you still struggle with the “pressure” to celebrate it, as a couple of you do, I hope you find a way through. And I have to admit, I don’t envy that struggle.

Second, I did find two wee things that I took exception to, and I wanted to address them.

Kim Z and Abby both mention the pagan thing — I knew someone would! — and I thought about that happening before I even posted. It made me laugh to see it. Yes, Christians picked a date and adopted some customs that were less than Christ-centered at the time of their adoption. But it is the way that Christmas has been celebrated for hundreds of years now, and trees, wreaths, and candles have been imbued with religious symbolism in that time. I think everyone gets to use them now.

Let’s remember, early Christians were mercilessly persecuted, a practice that persisted for centuries. You’d pick up some camouflage, too, especially so you could peacefully celebrate the way you wanted. (Rudolph doesn’t figure into my religious celebration, but my kids love singing the song!)

The other comment that rankled a bit came from “Anonymous”. He/She writes, “…my realization there is no God…” and I’m going to take issue a bit with semantics. Anonymous believes there is no God. I believe there is. I am unlikely to persuade him/her differently, and vice versa.

After I returned to my faith in my late 20s, I was speaking with a friend. It was coming up on the Christmas season. She was familiar with my history (religious and otherwise), and she said to me, “Well, you don’t actually believe that Mary was a virgin when she conceived, do you?” And I said, “Actually, I do.” She looked at me like I was crazy. And I get it.

I have my own issues with the Catholic Church. But in a nutshell, here is why I am faithful: I believe my God (and Jesus) are all about the love. This is probably where institutionalized religions get it the most wrong. We humans, we should be all about the love, too; but we’re mere humans. The other thing about my faith, and Christianity in a larger sense: It is about the miraculous. The unbelievable.

I will never scientifically prove to you (if you do not believe) that God exists. I cannot show you how Jesus was resurrected, or what happens to the Eucharist each Sunday, or how the Bible (regardless of when it was written and by whom) is, definitively, the Word of God. But that’s exactly the thing about faith: it is not science. And that’s why it’s not called “science”.

I believe in God. I believe in the redemptive power of love. I believe in miracles.

Somewhere, a baby was born. Somewhere, there was a star.

Merry Christmas.

Do They Know Why It’s Christmas?

I risk ruffling some feathers with this post, and I risk offending people whom I really like. But it is… not bothering me exactly. It’s truly something — like my Santa issues — that I wonder about every year right around this time. And that’s the spirit in which I am posting. To hear others’ points of views, not to offend.

I am genuinely curious about something: if you are agnostic or atheist, why do you bother with Christmas at all?

I don’t mean to denigrate a person’s decision to practice goodwill towards fellow men and women, or celebrate some winter downtime by hanging out with family and/or giving gifts. It’s just that I read over and over again about the stress of baking and shopping and decorating and spending time with family, and how so many people dislike the holidays, yadda, yadda, yadda, and then some are like “I don’t even believe in God.”

Well then why all the stress?

The thing that keeps me very centered this time of year is my faith. (Obviously, it keeps me centered most of the year, but I lean on it particularly around now. Focus and all.) Christmas is very much about the birth of Jesus Christ, who I believe is the son of God. Christmas is a celebration of the fact that God “so loved the world He gave his only Son”.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the trappings of the season (to an extent): the lights, the food, family, presents. I love driving down the road with my children yelling, “Lights!” from the back seat over and over again. I also completely let myself off the hook this time of year: I do not bake just because I’m supposed to (I don’t bake the rest of the year either; it’s definitely a mom-type short coming). We do not put lights up outside (oh, how I would love to… but I just can’t take it on). Although I love to host, I cannot this year because of my work schedule. I (try to) keep spending and present-buying in check. I do not send Christmas cards. I work firmly within my limits.

But it seems to me agnostics and atheists have the perfect excuse to step away from the madness. A simple, “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God” should suffice. They don’t need to be mean about it, and they shouldn’t be treated rudely for their beliefs (I have complicated feelings about proselytizing, but we can all be civil at least, right?).

I read somewhere about how a mother told her children that Jesus was a very wise man, and that he is why Christmas is a holiday, which is all well and good, but isn’t really the whole story. The reason behind the season is not that I believe Jesus was pretty smart — I believe Jesus is the Son of God. I celebrate his birth in a unique way. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. was a wise man; the presidents were wise men (arguably); there are even some pretty wise women out there who should be feted. But we’re not giving gifts and putting up trees for their birthdays. There’s no Advent before Lincoln’s birthday, you know?

Again, I don’t mean to be insensitive or non-PC. I am sincerely curious about this. Baffled. I am not angry or pissed off; I don’t believe there is a true “war on Christmas” like Christian fundamentalists do. Has the “cultural norm” somehow overridden the religiousity? Is it “doing it for the kids”? Shouldn’t we celebrate differences? Or is that just easy for me to say?