I have at best an uneasy relationship with January. In my youth and young adulthood I was captivated by the holiday season and resented the cold return to the ‘real world’ that arrived every January 2nd. As a kid it meant my brother and sister returned to college or their grown-up lives, leaving our house emptier and colder and me bereft of their company. In my adult life, January has often meant grappling with long days too cold to bring a baby or toddler outside, dark, bone-chilling mornings scraping off the car, icy drives to school, slush and road salt tracked into the house, and endless piles of mittens and hats that have since been lost to what I’m sure is an alternate universe populated by stray socks. While the snow-covered landscape does have its beauty, it seems to be an unmovable barrier to the life I want to be leading. A life that’s warm. A life that isn’t frozen.
This January has seemed especially cruel. The temps plummeted, the snow fell, and everything from little inconveniences, to fairly significant changes and hurts and disappointments appeared, haunting my sleep, upsetting my stomach, and creasing my brow. I became cross, impatient and short-tempered, and my barbs sharper and more pointed, a telltale sign I’m struggling with change, uncertainty, and anxiety. My front steps became a metaphor for my moods, as I fought what seemed to be a hopeless battle against the inches of ice built up from the dripping roof above. I salted, chipped, and cleared (cursing under my breath and attacking the ice with abandon) every night only to be faced with inches more the next morning. I’d curse and start again much to Kelly and Liza’s amusement. I became the crazy woman of the front steps, defeating the ice my only goal in a month where everything seemed daunting, hopeless, and sad. A January thaw brought some hope to the situation and a bit of a spring to my step until another storm arrived like clockwork and the battle began anew, an apt metaphor for the way January has been treating me so far.
In January’s quieter moments, when I’m not driving Liza somewhere, or poring over spreadsheets and grants, or answering mountains of email, I click through my pictures of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and summer escapes. But even the holiday season already seems a lifetime ago, when our home was lit by the colorful glow of the tree, and we spent long afternoons reading our new books, when wine and chocolate and pancakes (not all at once) were the order of the day, and nights were spent laughing ourselves silly over Wii games. The cocoon created by our family had enveloped me completely and I was angry at the harsh winter light and relentless challenges that heralded January’s arrival. Little things taunt me. The scatter of pine needles frozen into the snow of our back deck the only remnant of what was truly the best Christmas tree ever. The patio table upended and covered in snow reminds me of grilled feasts after a day on the beach in what seems like another world. And the 2013 calendar Kelly gave me (photos of gorgeous porches – one of my obsessions) has as its January photo a tropical porch overlooking the South Pacific. (Really? They couldn’t find an ice covered front step in a New England suburb to more accurately represent this month?). Oh sure there are January’s bright spots – Kelly and I have the time to indulge in our pre-Oscar movie watching blitz, and our weekend calendars are a bit less crowded. And of course at the end of every stressful day and tear-stained anxiety attack there is the comfort of the thoughtful presence of my wife, and the big fleecy blanket that is big enough to cover two middle-aged women watching Bravo.
The brightest sign of all however lies in the creeping minutes of sunlight (weak though it is) added to each day as the calendar marches slowly onward. There are eleven days left in this longest, cruelest month, and I mark each of them by noting the sky seems just a bit brighter when I leave work. And I remind myself that even as January punishes and pushes me, that after its’ passing I can begin the countdown to my summer and my beaches — what I call my calendar dance. That hopeful happy moment when I realize the time that has passed since our last swim in Ogunquit is greater than the time until our first dip of 2013. This January has hurt in ways large and small. But, like the problems I currently face, January also won’t last forever. And out there lies the promise of sun and warmth and life on the deck. A life that’s warm. A life that isn’t frozen.
In the meantime however, if you need me, I’ll be under that fleece blanket.
This year I let Liza have an Instagram account as a first tentative foray into seeing how she would manage the big bad world of social media. I have her account access on my phone and daily check in to make sure nothing objectionable is going on. Fortunately the Instagram accounts of thirteen year old girls and their friends consist of endless self portraits in their OODs (Outfits of the Day), quotes from One Direction songs, and lengthy homages to their ‘besties.’ Liza herself posted such a tribute to her best friend complete with the requisite “I would be lost without you” language and photo of them posing wackily in a local restaurant. I love seeing Liza so happy, and her best friend – a lovely and hysterically funny young theater pal — is a delight to have around. They truly adore each other and support each other in the way best friends should. They of course truly believe with the fervor possible only in young teen girls that they will be friends forever. And, they might. But as I watch them do their favorite things – shop, watch movies, do their makeup, talk about boys, run their lines, – I know that for each of them life will bring more than one ‘bestie’ as the years go by and that’s ok. Life is long and when friends, especially best friends, wander into our lives, it’s truly something to be grateful for.
When I was five years old my best friend was a girl named Janet. She is inseparable from my early childhood memories of fort building, sleepovers, lake swimming, movies, and playground drama. Janet was brilliant and a natural athlete. I felt safe in her orbit on the playground, knowing that the other athletic kids wouldn’t pick on her fat best friend out of respect for her. When I think of Janet I think of pickup games of “HORSE” in her driveway, sleeping in the cold of her lake cottage basement during the summer, climbing the huge snow banks of Falmouth in bulky snow-pants and hats, and later, in high school, tutoring each other in our strengths (mine=English, hers=anything math or science) to help the other along in her weak spots. As we grew into teenagers our interests were wildly different and we spent less time together but we never stopped having the connection that comes with having been each other’s first, best friend.
When I was in third grade I met the girl who would become my best friend through most of elementary school, junior high, and high school. Anne was more sarcastic at nine than some adults are their entire lives and I loved her instantly. Over the years we’d lose track of how many times we heard “Katie! Anne! Separate!” from harried teachers frustrated with our inability to keep quiet in each other’s company. We staged elaborate pranks on my uptight older sister, practiced haughty irritation with her pesky younger sister, got in trouble together, (including the one and only thing I never ever told my parents about. No I’m not telling you either), experienced teenage rites of passage together, and spent so much time together it felt strange to be apart. When I think of Annie, one special memory stands out — her mom taking us out of school to go to the Fryeburg fair and stopping on the way to eat a picnic lunch on the shores of Sebago Lake. Sitting together in the abandoned lifeguard chair watching the autumn leaves reflected in the clear surface of the lake, I remember feeling so safe and comfortable in the overwhelming feeling of belonging that came with being with her. So secure in being part of that “best friend” package that is so important to life when you’re 12. Annie and I drifted a bit our last year of high school when the boys we’d known our whole lives suddenly realized she was skinny, athletic, funny, and a catch and her social life exploded leaving me with my Saturday nights of Love Boat and Fantasy Island. We went our separate ways to college and stayed in “Christmas-card” touch for years until Facebook reunited us. I can’t think of Annie without smiling. She is the keeper of the best memories of my Falmouth years and I will never ever forget her.
I traveled to college with a combination of excitement at leaving behind a town where your social status was pretty much set by the time you left kindergarten and the fear that comes with wondering if I’d find any friends waiting for me. Of course I did –Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Ar, Christine, Maureen, Katie and so many others. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I met the person who would change my life. Joe and I fell for each other on sight and a best friendship was forged from study dates over Cranberry Cove tea and the Camelot soundtrack, constant quoting of 1970s sitcoms, typing each other’s papers, cavorting backstage and in the costume shop of the Theater Department and wandering around campus looking for new places to sit always exclaiming “we’ve never sat HERE before!” In the years after graduation, before social media, email and texting, we sent each other long letters often covered with cut out photos of sitcom icons Bea Arthur or Isabel Sanford (What? Weezie Jefferson that’s who!). For over twenty-seven years now, there has never been a week we didn’t talk or ‘check in,” a life event (happy or otherwise) we haven’t gone through together, or confidences we haven’t shared. I can count on one hand and not use all my fingers the number of times we’ve ever been upset with or angry at each other, and we’ve never exchanged harsh words. I’m one that chafes at too much overt “support” in tough times but Joe always strikes the right balance. When my sister died after a sudden a brutal cancer battle, Joe’s was one of the first calls I got. “Just remember”, he said, “we will ALWAYS have those FABULOUS stories about how horrible your sister could be.” Perfection. And exactly what I needed to hear at that complicated, difficult time. To say Joe is my best friend is like saying New York is a city in America. It simply doesn’t do it justice, and it can’t come close to conveying all that it truly is.
My life is richer for best friends like these, and so many other dear friends who have chosen to share their lives with me. Adult friendships can be hard. They require care and feeding and mutual respect, and most of all time and attention when life pulls us in so many directions. And as often as I think I’ve succeeded at being a friend I have also failed. And failing a friend is just about one of the worst feelings there is. I remember once my mother receiving a letter from a friend who felt my mom had let her down, not been there, and even went so far as telling my mother she “didn’t have the corner on pain in life.” The words devastated her because she couldn’t believe she had let a friend down in such a great way. I’ve walked that path myself a time or two, (having inherited more than my prematurely gray hair from my mother), and it doesn’t feel good. When I look at Liza and her ‘bestie,’ in the full glorious midst of best friendship I wish for her what my best friends have given me: unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, laughter, support, and guidance. And I wish for her that someday she truly understands that being a friend, especially a best friend, is a gift that should never be squandered.
Christmas, 2006 started out promisingly enough. We had attended our usual gathering at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve while Liza enjoyed time with her dad’s family, returning home to us to sleep the excited sleep of a 7 year old waiting for Santa to come. All was calm, all was bright. Until about 3 am, when I was awakened by the unmistakable sound of a child in distress, a child on the verge of getting violently ill. Hoping the incident was simply the result of too many sweets at Grammy’s house she was safely tucked back into bed only to get sick an hour later. By the third time we realized this was the dreaded stomach bug. It proceeded to strike like clockwork every 30-60 minutes for the next fifteen hours. Merry Christmas indeed.
Christmas Day dawned cold and bright and, although we were bleary eyed from the long night we tried to interest Liza in opening a gift or two. But it was no go. Our plans to travel to Massachusetts for Christmas dinner at Kelly’s sisters house were impossible. I sent Kelly on her way with my love to her family and hunkered down for a long quiet day with my sick girl. Her dad came over bearing Gatorade, ginger ale and popsicles courtesy of the gas station convenience store. But even they were no match for this particular strain of stomach bug. The only presents I could entice her to open were some new pajamas (much needed at this point) and an American Girl Doll movie about “Molly, girl detective.” For the next six hours she lay near me while I read and we watched Molly solve the mystery of the Depression-era boarding house over and over and over. Six years later I could probably still recite that movie word for word. I felt sorry for her and sorry for myself. For I knew that under the tree was a present I had scrimped and saved for and carefully packaged to surprise her – tickets to “High School Musical: Live in Concert,” which for a seven year old in 2006 would have been like being in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles took the stage. In other words, it was BIG. All I wanted was to see her face when she opened that gift and yet my “do you want to open some presents?” question was only greeted with muffled groans and a shake of her head as she burrowed deeper under her blanket.
Eventually later that night Kelly arrived bearing a plate of food from her family holiday dinner. (Can we pause here to thank my then girlfriend for driving 5 hours round trip just to make sure I had a holiday meal?) The stomach flu eventually gave up the ghost, and I tucked Liza into bed thankful for the long ordeal to be over. Christmas had always been my favorite day of the year and I felt sorry for myself, sorry for Liza and cheated out of a day I had anticipated for weeks. “Worst Christmas ever,” I thought. But I was wrong. You see, every year at Christmas Liza and I remember that year of her stomach flu. She remembers being sad, but safe and cuddled up with mom, and the excitement of a Christmas that came on December 26th. (Yes, the High School Musical tickets were a big hit and my eardrums have almost recovered from the experience). I remember a Christmas Day so quiet and so still, when my role was distilled down to the bare bones of motherhood – caring for a sick child – at a time when I daily doubted my ability to effectively parent my complicated girl. I remember the endless loop of that American Girl movie, the way I read the new book Kelly had given me while Liza slept, and the way the plate of turkey and stuffing from her sister’s kitchen felt like the best food I had ever tasted.
Liza is now a lovely young woman of thirteen who has surpassed me in height. The fleecy pajamas she got for Christmas that year have long seen been outgrown and replaced by shorty shorts and tank tops from “Pink.” Tomorrow morning the gifts she opens will come from trendy stores and cosmetic counters as I haven’t entered a Toys R Us to Christmas shop in a few years now, and we no longer set out cookies for Santa (although Mrs. Claus does miss them, truth be told). But every year at Christmas I hold her a little tighter and she permits my embrace a little longer, because every year that sick little girl on the couch is further and further in the past and promise of a young woman heading off to a bright future is a few years closer. And we remember that Christmas that wasn’t about presents or big family dinners. But simply about a mom and her girl.