“I want a flat egg. No, no, I want a bagel and some Cheerios. And some milk.”
The Boy’s breakfast decision process is similar almost every day. I feel fortunate that we are in a position to provide him with so many choices, but at times, it exhausts us.
This indecision spills over into all parts of the Boy’s life. When given a choice for clothes, he can dither similarly. When given options for how to spend the afternoon, he can flip-flop similarly. It’s only a mild inconvenience, and probably common for his age. I can’t remember L being like that, but perhaps that’s just selective memory.
His indecisiveness comes into full bloom (to thoroughly mix my metaphors and split my infinitives) when he as a little money to spend, which has been the case for the last few weeks. He’d earned money with various chores and received some from aunts and neighbors, so for the last few weeks, he’s been playing out his options for how to spend his $30.
“I think I want a new log truck,” he said one day.
“But you had a log truck, remember. You lost all the logs, and now you don’t know where any of it is.” That probably wasn’t quite accurate: I don’t know those things are, which is not to say that he doesn’t know.
“Well, still, I think I want a new one.”
A few days after that, it was a new Nerf gun.
“Son, you have two Nerf guns.”
“But they don’t fire that well.” Don’t they? I wasn’t aware of that.
He toyed with a few other ideas, but when we went to the toy store tonight, he’d finally settled on a Nerf gun.
So often in life, things come to an end and we don’t even realize that we’re living through last moments of this or that. Someone might lose a job and the whole family leaves, and you never see them again. More tragically, someone might pass away unexpectedly, and we regret deeply that we didn’t know that the last time we were with that person.
When an end comes and we know it’s the end, then we tend to savor it all the more.
Friends are moving to Connecticut. Good friends, for the last several years. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween we have always been together for the last several years. And tonight was the last time we’ll all be together for Christmas, perhaps for good. Sure, we talked about going up to Connecticut for a visit, but the chances of that happening, of us all being together like that, are quite honestly very slim.
It added a gray lining to the rest of the evening.
Down at the bottom of the page, there are posts about the last several wigilias. How many? K and I were counting this evening after the food had been put away, the dishes washed, the presents opened. Thirteen together with Nana and Papa, which would make fifteen together as a couple. I stop and think about it: that would make the first in 2002. Surely that’s not right. We got married in 2004, and we were engaged in 2003. I check my photos from that period and sure enough, there are the pictures of K preparing food at the table where this summer she sat with Babcia in the morning chatting over tea.
Fifteen years. Fifteen times we’ve put up a Christmas tree together, cooked and cleaned for wigilia together (though K has done the vast majority of the cooking), bought gifts together.
We began all this a couple of years before the students I currently teach were born.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with how much time has passed. I used to be that way, but I think it was youthful sentimentality that I eventually outgrew. It’s not that the time has passed but that I no longer really notice it. Not like I did when I was so eager to be somewhere I wasn’t at that moment, when I looked ahead instead of looked around, so eager to be older, beyond where I was, not who I was. Grown. And truth be told, I never really felt that way — grown — until things became serious with K, when the future began to take definitive form. But since then, with our move to the States, the birth of our children, the purchase and eternal remodeling of our house, the pressures of our jobs, and all the other things that pack our days and nights, I don’t often give it much thought.
That’s the greatest gift of wigilia: a pause, a step out of time with the rest of our lives, a ritual that calls us to reflect and remember the past and appreciate the present.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We have the same preparation rituals, the same cleaning. The one change: the involvement of the kids increases. The Boy eagerly helps with anything; the Girl, not so much, but that is changing as she matures. She’s eleven now, nearing what promises to be one of the most challenging and rewarding period, her teens. Wigilia always provides a metric for growth, both in the amount of help she provides and the willingness with which she eats some of the things she’s not really crazy about.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We eat the same foods with little repetition. Barszcz z uszkami, pierogi z kapustą i grzybami, jakaś ryba. Zawsze tak samo. It’s the ultimate comfort food, recipes that have passed through generations with little change. I sometimes wonder what L and E might do with their families after we’re gone. Will they take these recipes with them? Will they find themselves reminiscing on Christmas Eve about how different their Christmas Eves were as children?
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.We follow the same script with little repetition. A nativity story, usually from Matthew. We sing a Christmas carol, usually “Silent Night.” We share the opłatek. And our wishes for each other never change, always involving health in one form or other. Is there anything else we need to worry about? Is there a greater or more important wish we could have for others?
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We even give the same gifts (a photo yearbook of the previous year’s adventures). It’s not the most fiscally generous gift, but it’s what everyone really wants. “We always look forward to getting it,” K’s sister-in-law once told us, and in truth, K and I truly enjoy making it. It’s a challenge to narrow a year’s worth of pictures (approximately 12,000 in 2017) to a selection to fit into roughly 150 pages. And for me, it’s always the same: a bottle or two of some libation. We’re all so easily pleased.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We end the same way, sitting around drinking coffee, listening to carols, watching the kids play with their toys. This is something that will eventually change. L no longer gets toys, not in the sense of something she can play with. E will reach that point too. In ten years, L will be in college, E in high school, and what gifts will we be giving then? Lego won’t be so very special, but we’ll figure that out. Hopefully, the gift of just being home — the Girl coming home from her junior year of college in ten years — will be enough.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. I end the evening alone, drink at hand, chewing on a cigar (and it’s even been the same cigar for the last few years, I would bet: a Partagas Black Label — a dark, earthy, rich, strong nicotine kick in the pants to end the evening), with Christmas music playing (this year, Chanticleer’s Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas), working on pictures taken throughout the day, then writing about it all — writing the same thoughts.
Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.
And yet there are all the little changes, little jewels of growth and change that make this year different from last. The Girl, singing soprano in the children’s choir under the direction of a new choirmaster who, looking for a change, has come through a miraculous chain of events from the Vatican where he was assistant music director at the Sistine Chapel to our little church in Greenville and has made the music of Mass positively angelic. The Boy, trying so hard to be a man, agreeing to change into more formal clothes because K explained that I would be doing the same. K, realizing she doesn’t have to do everything every year — notice: no kapusta z grzybami or zupa grzybowa on the menu, and only two deserts — and having a much more relaxed day as a result.
The Girl is creative: there are no two ways about that. She’s always making something, recycling something, inventing something. Sometimes, it comes about after some searching for DIY methods; sometimes she just thinks of something.
Her latest obsession is stress balls — balloons filled with various items. Rice, flour, slime, sugar (white and brown), quinoa. Whatever she can find. I think that’s the experimental part coming out.
Kids at school have asked her to make them their own stress balls. Or perhaps she just offered to make them. At any rate, she was buzzing around the kitchen in the afternoon, looking at the notes she’d made, filling orders for rice stress balls and flour stress balls and sugar stress balls.
The kids stayed home today, and so I stayed home. What to do on a day off? Simple — play games.
First, Sorry. I love how this game teaches patience: you get all your pieces moving around the board, making real progress, and suddenly someone draws an 11 and switches places with you, destroying the work of the last few moves in an instant. Or worse: your opponent draws a Sorry card — back to the beginning for you. Then there’s the opposite problem: you’re right at the entrance to your safety zone, and you draw a 12 card.
“Time to make another lap,” I told E when it happened to him. He was frustrated, but dealt with it well. (Yes, I see it. I choose not to acknowledge it.)
The real surprise for me these last few days has been our children’s desire to play chess with each other. I’ve been teaching the Boy to play chess, and since L already knew, she decided to take it upon herself to teach him the final pieces (king and queen) and start playing with him.
Naturally, she beats him as badly as I would beat her were I to play seriously against her, not pulling my punches, so to speak. Still, Magnus Carlsen began taking chess seriously at about E’s age because his older sister kept beating him and he didn’t like losing. Now he’s the world number one, with an astronomically high rating, and by and large seems unstoppable. Doubtful, but one never knows. The love of the game and the patient critical thinking it encourages are enough .
We never know when we’ll get snow here in South Carolina. We once went several years without much more than a little flurry that melted the instant it touched the ground, so when we do have snow, we have to make the most of it. We have to get out into it, feel it, hear it (if it’s mixed with ice crystals, which it often is here).
So last night, with dinner done and the kitchen cleaned up, we all took the dog for a walk in the snow. Unfortunately, the snow was mixed with rain, and what lay about the road was a slushy mix that got everyone wet almost immediately. K and the kids turned back quickly; I went with the dog for another mile or so.
Today proved to be better. It was supposed to stay below freezing all night, and there was a forecast for continued snow throughout the morning. And fall it did — big fluffy flakes that floated down delicately that would then transform to smaller flakes that fell quickly. Back and forth between the two forms of snow throughout the morning.
But the kids begin still sick, we were reticent to let them out. The Boy and I decided to play a bit of chess. He’s learning piece by piece. For a few weeks, we played only with pawns until he got the hang of their basic nuance. Then we added bishops — after all, they move in a way similar to how pawns attack. Then rooks. Finally, knights. We spent several evenings just practicing how knights moved.
“Daddy, can we play with rooks, bishops, and knights now?” he asked this morning, and so we went for it.
“Are you sure you want to move there?” became my mantra. Occasionally, he would look and reconsider.
“Oh, no! You can take me there!”
“But can you take me back?”
And so we played. I made purposefully stupid moves for him to take advantage of, but I made a little rule for myself: if he didn’t reconsider his move after I suggested it, I would take the piece, so in the end, I won. (The aim in king-less/queen-less chess? Get one pawn to the other end of the board so that it can’t be taken. It’s how I teach my students at schoool as well.)
Still the snow fell — but almost none of it was sticking to the roads, which were wet and relatively warm.
“Maybe we’ll have a snow day Monday!” L pondered.
Still, we have a large district, and we have had snow days when there’s not a flake on the ground here because of what was going on in the northernmost edges of the district.
The announcement was simple: “Teachers, please check your email.” Though there was not a word said about the content of the email in question, we all knew, teachers and students alike, what it said. It had been snowing for an hour, and there was only one option: early dismissal.
By the time all the kids were gone, it was only a few minutes before teachers’ normal departure time. Still, with everyone — absolutely everyone — on the road then, it took over double my normal time to get home.
By the time I got home, the Boy and the Girl had already spent a good bit of time in the snow, such as it was.