The Chanukah of this memoir occurred several years ago. It was the Chanukah during which I seriously considered downsizing my parenting. Well, just the presents.
I sat there wrapping. Like Tillie Olson stood there ironing. I sat there on the hard floor because there were too many to move onto the soft king-sized bed downstairs. I sat there crouched, beginning to cramp, scissors and scotch tape continually disappearing under the next thing to be wrapped, or under the wrapping paper which kept unrolling more than it needed to. They came on hot and heavy. They had been organized – bags for Elle, Arin, Bret, Devin, and now the new extended family members, the significant others, Elle’s Matt, Devin’s Ariel, grandsons Jack and Shane, and Jon, my own new significant other.
For the three and half decades of being a parent I had given every-body far more than eight Chanukah presents. When the kids were really little, it used to be one each night until, after the first night, they had started asking, “Can I have my second present EARLY?” I had decided, rather than spend the next seven days listening to THAT, I would begin giving all eight gifts on the first night.
But eight is a small number when you do thrift stores – toys hung from their rafters, whole bags of them for $3.99, hundreds of Fish-er Price “little people”, huge farmhouses, gas stations, stoves, fridges, games galore, handmade dolls… I’d gotten carried away. Starting early October, I’d started buying and storing. Whole draw-ers, whole closets, whole rooms. By Chanukah there’d been two or three big bags of gifts for each kid. As they’d grown older, the toys had become clothes. Each item had cost a dollar or less but all together they’d probably cost over a hundred. I’d lost count, I’d lost money — all out of love, caring, enjoyment, and temptation.
But that year there were just too many. I’d wrap each one and another would come falling onto my lap. They were fun to handle – especially Ariel’s, her ever-so-skinny skirts, H & M black jacket with lace on the back, Limited Express top with delicate pink vel-vet ribbon threaded through. And my tall handsome sons’ wear-ables, Arin’s cool T-shirts, most with Native American themes as requested, Bret’s cozy grey 100% wool sweater (as required) with long enough sleeves, Dev’s long lanky Armani corduroy pants. They were all great, completely fashionable, expensive brands, and I never ceased to be amazed. But did I have enough paper to cover the huge boxes they had to be in? How many trips downstairs would I have to make with them?
And what about the potato latkes? The salad was finished, the apple sauce and sour cream needed only be lifted off the crowded bottom shelf of the fridge, and the table was pretty much set, with Dollar Store blue cloth and yellow dishes. But I had worked on all that in order to procrastinate on the ultimate – namely, the potatoes weren’t even grated yet.
Devin and Ariel had helped me bring up the boxes and the wrap-ping paper. And they’d each wrapped one present for me. Then they’d remembered something they had to do. It was something they should have done the day before. I had done everything that I should have done the day before.
Oh, I knew I didn’t have to make up for their father. I couldn’t, and I didn’t have to, be two parents. I didn’t have to make up for their father living in a nursing home so much of their lives, for the home health aides in our home the other part of their lives, for all our dire straits, for some of their lost childhood, for my inevitable mis-takes, among so much done right. I knew I didn’t have to make up for it, but maybe I could.
Uh-oh, I was minus a box. Ariel’s. And none of those fancy bags from Dollar Store was big enough for all her cute skinny items. The bags were tall but not as wide as they needed to be. And the scissors and scotch tape kept wandering – where were they?
Earlier that day I had stood on the steps with Jon, hugging him and saying, “Look, something I have to get straight, to YOU I mean: I know there’s an imbalance on Chanukah between me and everybody else. I know I give many times more than I am given. That’s because I like to go thrifting and I get all this great stuff really cheap; it’s what I DO. Nobody else does, so nobody, not even you, will get ME that much stuff. And you don’t have to. It’s fine. Please don’t feel that you have to.”
Half of the twelve by twelve room was now filled with presents, some wrapped, some unwrapped. It was 4:30; I’d told everybody to arrive around 5:00. So now, that Chanukah late-afternoon, my hormones were kicking in bigtime. Well, they FELT like hormones. I’d always had good hormones. Hormones had told me, definitely, when to get pregnant, how to give birth, how to lactate joyfully, how to menopause without symptoms. They even told me when I needed a man again. Someone once actually said to me, “You have good hormones.” So now, when my hormones gently whispered, “genug”, I listened.
Enough present-wrapping. Kaput. I’d always known when to quit things. When their father had to be in a nursing home, for example. I knew it could be a matter of life and death for me, for all of us. I knew when to quit at-home caregiving and how to quickly stop feeling guilty, or not feel guilty at all.
And I knew about un-bonding. I might have invented the word. My hormones had taught me about bonding, in particular with a new baby. The height of bonding really IS at the moment of birth, or when you wake up from a Cesarean. That’s the height, and it’s high. But almost immediately you begin to UNbond. The second day feels slightly different form the first, the third from the second, and the end of the first year, almost to the day, is a new un-bonding. So right then my hormones were saying, “Un-bond a little more.” “Bring on the empty nest.” In other words, “No, Virginia, there ain’t no Santa Claus.”
It was now 5:15 and was that the doorbell ringing? Which kid was it? Arin? Bret? I hoped it wasn’t Elle and Matt with the little ones. They’d want something. Probably the presents unwrapped. Already. After I’d just wrapped. Or they’d want the latkes, unstarted, and none of the h’or deurves or other munchies that had been set out. Shane would want Gran’ma’s attention; he’d have his arms out for mine. And THEY were still wrapping presents. I’d also have to explain that I had to go back up to get the rest of them so I wouldn’t have to go up in the middle of the meal. But yes, it WAS Elle, Matt, and the little ones – or rather, it was the little ones WITHOUT Elle or Matt, who were busy parking the car. And yes, Shane had his arms extended and was calling “Ga – ma” and Jack was asking to open just ONE present.
But Jon was being helpful. I mean, literally, whadda guy; how grateful I was, and still am, to the Internet. There he was on the Cuisinart, already grating. The gratings were coming on as fast as the presents upstairs had been. We didn’t realize we had too much gratings until it was too late. We knew we’d have to throw out a lot of it. Well, we reminded ourselves, that wasn’t the end of the world. The problem was: How come, when we squeezed it through the white towel, no liquid came out. The whole thing was utterly dry. We should be happy about that, we said; it meant we wouldn’t have to squeeze. But we felt suspicious. What would the latkes be like once we took them out of the oven?
We got diverted from that question by the sudden onset of another, when in the midst of everything Elle called me over and quietly inquired, ‘Did you get the cake?”
“Cake?!” I gasped.
“Yeah,” Elle continued. “Remember? The cake? I was sure you’d remember. I was gonna call you but I was sure you’d remember.”
Because of course, with so many people, it was somebody’s birthday. Devin’s just the week before and Shane’s just the week after. And yes, Devin had already had a cake and Shane would have a cake later, but Elle meant a cake right THEN. A Chanukah cake. She might have been deprived of a normal childhood but by George, she’d get that cake.
“Do you want me to get it?” she asked. Translated, did that mean “because YOU didn’t”?
“Do you want Bret to get it?” she continued. “Or what about calling Arin? Or would you like ME to get it?” Yes, again.
“Don’t ask me ANYTHING,” screamed my hormones. “I DON’T KNOW.”
Half an hour later I did know and asked Bret to please get a cake and he did. And, only forty-five minutes later, the latkes, successful thanks to Jon, were on the table, the applesauce, sour cream, salad, and other extras just perfect, everybody very relaxed. This turned out, after all, to be a good Chanukah. It had merely GOTTEN OFF to a bad start. And twenty-or-so minutes later Ariel was exclaiming over each and every of those size-6 items I’d gotten her in Global Thrift’s dollar sale. Oh, it was so gratifying to see everybody love, and later wear, all, or most, of those thrift-store things. Oh, I was so good at it! Oh, that was so much fun.
I even RECEIVED four or five things, most of them body lotions but, from Jon, something I WANTED, Charles Simic’s latest poetry book. And Elle got me that book we’d discussed, “Big Fish”. So yeah, I also got a few. It didn’t matter, because I’d gotten MYSELF thrift-shore stuff while buying for everybody else. And ach! My family! Such a big close family, having survived some really tough stuff and getting along so well. Proud, gratified… those words were understatements.
“But,” I thought about all those presents, “it’s gonna be different next year.” And it was. And the year after that. We had, and still have, great latkes – sometimes the potato gratings need squeezing and sometimes they don’t – with great applesauce, great sour cream, and so on. Sometimes someone besides me makes Chanukah. But now I get them each TWO presents, maybe three if I find a really irresistible thrift store deal.
Sometimes I miss all those presents, and the fun of watching them all unwrap the infinity of treasures. But I don’t miss the up-sized wrapping, just as I’m sure Tillie Olson doesn’t miss the ironing. That Chanukah was over ten years ago. I’m still young-ish and I still love Chanukah, along with all the birthdays. And a few years ago they started making the dollar store bags wide enough. And, while I’m doing the downsized wrapping, the scotch tape and scissors stay put.
Marion Deutsche Cohen is the author of 27 collections of poetry or memoir; her latest poetry collections are “The Project of Being Alive” (New Plains Press, AL) and “ “New Heights in Non-Structure” (dancing girl press, IL), about home-schooling and other ideas with respect to engaging with children. She is also the author of two controversial memoirs about spousal chronic illness, a trilogy diary of late-pregnancy loss, and of “Crossing the Equal Sign”, about the experience of mathematics. She teaches a course she developed, Mathematics in Literature, at Arcadia and at Drexel Universities. A poetry chapbook, “Truth and Beauty” (WordTech Editions), about the interaction in that course among students and teacher, was released in 2016. Other interests are classical piano, singing, Scrabble, thrift-shopping, four grown children, and five grands.
Her website is marioncohen.net .