My Italian Leprechaun

The whirring and humming and thump-thump-thumping of a sewing machine will always remind me of one person: my dearly loved, and deeply missed, Italian-with-an-Irish-name grandmother.

This lady:

If you knew her, you loved her.

If you knew her, you loved her.

Even though it’s been over 20 years since I sat in my grandparents’ family room watching Dukes of Hazard while my grandmother sewed, the sound of a sewing machine still brings her presence back to me. I spent so many hours in that room with her, especially during the long years of my mother’s illness, that I think I will always associate the sound of sewing with my grandmother, no matter how many decades separate me from my memories of her.

I have been thinking about this, and her, frequently over the past week, as I struggled to make a matching set of St. Patrick’s Day dresses for my daughters. After one failed (and un-saveable) attempt and many, many mistakes, I finally succeeded in creating two decently cute dresses that actually fit the child each dress was intended for. A minor miracle, in my opinion.

A St. Paddy's Day Miracle!

A St. Paddy’s Day Miracle!

I’d like to think that she would be proud of my effort, but I know better. I’m pretty sure my technique (or rather my lack thereof) would have driven her crazy, had she been there to witness it. I’m not very good at sewing.

Still, she loved St. Patrick’s Day, so I know she would have entered into the spirit of things, and she would have emphatically approved of the final product once she saw how adorable they looked on her great-granddaughters.

The other one ran away from the camera. -- but this one is pretty darn cute!

The other one ran away from the camera. — but this one is pretty darn cute!

For an Italian lady, she really did get a kick out of St. Patrick’s Day, even though her attitude toward the Irish was ambivalent at best during the rest of the year. She was born a Mastromonica, and she was proud of her Italian heritage. But she married an Irishman deliberately, because she refused to marry an Italian one: Her father used to make her mother, his subordinate, walk behind him in public. My grandmother was determined to walk right next to whatever man she married.

Still, it didn’t stop her from telling us, after her diabetes got so bad she couldn’t use her legs, that she was Irish from the waist down and Italian from the waist up. Her mind was spry, her legs not so much. She may have spent 60-odd years as a Fitzpatrick, but her heart pumped Italian blood.

But on St. Patrick’s Day, she was all Irish. She had her sweatshirt emblazoned with the Fitzpatrick name, and her green pants, which she paired with a jaunty felt shamrock hat and green beads. She wore that outfit every St. Patrick’s Day for years. And every year, with her short, round stature, her sprightly smile, and her twinkling, mischievous eyes, she looked just like a leprechaun. A laughing, Italian leprechaun.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you and yours, and as the old blessing goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy's Day.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy’s Day.

A Christmas Post

This is going to be an unusual post for me: deeply personal, painful, and unedited.

Around this time of year, talking heads on television have a lot to say about what Christmas is, what Christmas should be, and what Christmas is not. Many of them are angry — no, outraged — over how others celebrate their holiday.

Christmas should be about CHRIST, these angry faces argue. Which means that in our words, and in our decorations, and in everything we do outwardly, we should be focusing fully on CHRISTmas. They make definitive assertions about Santa and Jesus and behind everything is an attitude of scathing contempt for people who celebrate Christ’s birth differently from them.

In the midst of this anger are people like me: people for whom Christmas is a season of anxiety, excitement, and bittersweet memories.

I have a hard time at Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday. I have so many treasured memories of the season. And now that I have children of my own, there is even more joy to savor and celebrate. I look forward to it every year.

I also dread it every year. Because Christmas is also the season when my mother, and later my uncle, died of cancer. So along with the memories of happy Christmases past, I have the memory of myself, 11 years old, praying fervently, desperately, that my mom would be out of the hospital to celebrate Christmas with us.

I have the memory of myself a few days later, on Christmas day, in bed with my mother, who had just been released from the hospital, not because she was healthy, but because there was nothing left to do. She was in hospice care.

I have the memory of myself giving her a $5 vial of drugstore perfume, because an 11-year-old has no idea of what impending death really, truly means.

I have the memory of the last time I spoke to my her, the day after that Christmas, but I have no memory of what she said. I remember her coma, her suffering, and her death, which happened on a Sunday, January 6, just after my family returned from the Mass celebrating the Epiphany. My prayers had been answered; she was with us for Christmas, through to its very end. But my grief was nevertheless unfathomable.

It has been 23 years since that last Christmas with my mother and the grief is still there. It has changed and matured and is no longer as incapacitating as it once was. But it lingers, and at times it hits me like a punch in the stomach. I still hide in bathrooms to cry.

So you can imagine how, with all these mixed emotions coursing through my mind, I’m a little on edge at Christmas. Just a little… jumpy, if not actually constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

You can also imagine my feelings when, upon tuning into the Daily Show for some much-needed laughter, I see people who, in the spirit of keeping Christ in Christmas are genuinely, thoroughly infuriated at the idea of a holiday tree in a public square or a tongue-in-cheek Festivus pole near a nativity scene.

Really? You are asking me, as an expression of my true faith in Christ, to be angry about decorations? You want me to be annoyed when people wish me Happy Holidays, and to limit my own greetings to an emphatic Merry Christmas? You want me to call legislators about how they refer to the decorated trees in their cities and you want me to complain when retailers don’t feature life-sized nativity scenes in their Christmas displays? And you want me to do these things because THAT is how we keep Christ in Christmas?

No, thank you. Christmas is hard enough for me. It’s hard enough for many, many other people for whom the holidays are a time that reminds them of their own losses, their failures, their regrets. I’m not going to get angry about how other people celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the birth of a Savior. And I’m not going to get angry at the anger.

Here’s what I am going to do, to keep Christ in Christmas: I am going to ask everyone who reads this to walk away from the anger and the criticism and the so-called culture war over what our Christian faith truly means.  I am going to ask you to remember all of us who are broken or hurting or empty this Christmas. But above all, I am going to breathe through my feelings of joy, anticipation, regret, and pain and I am going to remember that a Child was born and that he was the Prince of Peace.

She was pretty damn special.

She was pretty damn special.

Elves on Shelves from Hell

It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. The time when the Internets make parents of young children feel like it is our sacred duty to make every single second of the four weeks that precede Christmas Magical, with a capital M and a Disney-esque flourish.

We have the old standbys to get through, the breakfasts with Santa, the viewings of holiday movie classics, the parties, the socials, the cookie baking, the awkward gift swaps. And then we have the Pinterest traditions, which technically aren’t traditions, but the Martha Stewart perfection that we see all over social media makes us think that they are, or at least that they SHOULD be. And if we aren’t doing these things, we are, at best, Christmastime failures, and at worst we are irrevocably harming our children and, instead of college funds, we should be starting therapy funds. Which we probably should be doing anyway, because if we can’t get Christmas right, then we most likely aren’t getting anything else right, either. At least, that’s what Pinterest is telling me.

Chief among these non-traditional traditions is the Elf on the Shelf. You know who I mean. That blue-eyed imp who gets up to all kinds of yuletide shenanigans, while watching and reporting on our children.

We joined the Elfin fray two years ago, inspired by the ever more creative Elf exploits that my Facebook friends were posting. There were prayerful Elves in Nativity scenes, adventurous Elves in airplanes, silly Elves hanging from fans, addict Elves mainlining sugar, and naughty Elves doing naughty things with Barbie dolls.

I knew that getting an Elf meant committing myself to him and his nightly activities for a full month, every year, for as many years as I had kids who believed in Santa. I knew the costs, but I had to take the risk. It was for the children, after all.

The first year was a moderate success. My younger daughter was still an infant, but my older daughter was three, and, although she didn’t fully get the Elf concept, she enjoyed looking for him every morning. We named him Santa, and he was mostly tame.

Our second year was more exciting. Our girls were four and 18 months old, and the little one had a blast following her big sister around as she searched for Santa. He joined us on a trip to Disney World, which was quite the event, and he started to get more creative in his hiding places.

And now we are into our third year. Santa has been with us for a full week now, and, oh, what a week it has been. My older daughter is now five, and if there is a child who has been drawn deeper into the Elfin lore than she has, I would like to meet him.

She LOVES the Elf. She regularly offers to tell me “nonfiction” stories, as she calls them (because they relate true events, she says), about Santa the Elf, his family, his history, his adventures, and his aspirations. When I ask her how she thinks Santa has gotten into his various hiding places, she acts out every move she thinks he made, hopping gleefully around the house. The Elf on the Shelf was made for children like her.

And then there is the little one. Now two, she seemed to be as excited as her sister when Santa made his first appearance. But then, things changed.

On Monday, she told me that Santa the Elf was “scawy.” On Monday night, she woke up screaming and told me the Elf was watching her. On Tuesday, she refused to be in the same room as the Elf and by Wednesday, she had become so fearful in our house (but only in our house) that I had to take her to the local mall before she would let me put her down without crying.

Her fearfulness and clinginess continued until I became convinced that this was no longer about the Elf, that she probably had some sort of cancer and that OMIGOD, she needed to see the doctor and/or be taken to the ER. And yes, I tend to overreact, but seriously, this kid was acting WEIRD. I had never, ever seen her behave the way she has been behaving the last few days.

So this morning, I took her to the pediatrician. He checked her out. It’s not cancer. It’s not even a cold. Apparently, it’s just a fearful age. In my doctor’s words, she probably experienced a traumatic nightmare, possibly involving the g-ddam Elf, and that her daytime fearfulness is a perfectly natural effect of an extremely upsetting dream.

And no, he said, it really isn’t odd that this fearfulness has lasted a full week. In fact, he would be more surprised if it ended in just two days, as I thought it should have done. Actually, it would be more likely for it to last a full month. That’s just how things go with kids in this developmental phase.

So let’s hear it for Pinterest, and Facebook, and the everloving Elf on the everloving shelf.

Hi! I'm just your friendly scout Elf, here to make Christmas extra Christmasy!

Hi! I’m just your friendly scout Elf, here to make Christmas extra Christmasy!

There’s nothing scary about ME!

Yep, just a friendly Elf. Here to make Christmas fun. Oh, and I'm going to watch you. All day. You know, just so I can tell good ol' Father Christmas how you're doing.

Yep, just a friendly Elf. Here to make Christmas fun. Oh, and I’m going to watch you. You know, just so I can tell good ol’ Father Christmas how you’re doing.

Yep, I’m just watching you. All day. All night, too. Juuust watching.

Did I say Father Christmas? Whoopsie! I meant BIG BROTHER Christmas.

Did I say Father Christmas? Whoopsie! I meant BIG BROTHER Christmas.

You better close those bedroom doors, Christmas lovers, because I will stab you in your sleep.

Nice Things, and Why We Can’t Have Them

Sunday was the first night of Advent, and I decided that THIS year, our family was going to light our Advent candle and say our Advent candle prayer every. single. night.

This laudable resolution was challenged from the get go. First, I only had white candles. The proper purple and pink candles were nowhere to be found. But that didn’t matter; what was important was that we would light those candles and say our prayer together, as a family.

So I set our white candles up in the lovely Celtic-knot advent wreath I inherited from my grandmother. They didn’t fit in the holders, and I didn’t have time to rig them up with paper towels, so they leaned awkwardly in four different directions. Still, no matter. It was dinner time and we were doing this Advent thing, candles be damned. I mean darned.

All four of us gathered at the table. The lights were low; the single candle was lit. It was a solemn scene, which lasted approximately 15 seconds. Then, my two year old, Norah, started singing Happy Birthday and blew the candle out.

But I was determined not to let my plans be derailed by a toddler. I moved the wreath out of her reach, re-lit the candle, and said the first line of our prayer:

“O God, as light comes from this candle…”

While my five-year-old, Michele, sweetly repeated after me, Norah shot out her Go- Go-Gadget arms and yanked the wreath toward her. She blew out the candle, grabbed the two candles closest to her, and started drumming.

Teeth clenched, I removed the priceless heirloom to the top of the fridge and confiscated the candles. But still, I persevered. With or without candles, we were DOING. THIS. THING.

I moved onto the second line of the prayer.

“May the blessing — ”

“MOMMY! No!” Now it was Michele’s turn. “You can’t say the next line. My FLOWER didn’t get a chance to say the FIRST line.”

And so, in a tiny, screechy voice, the sparkly flower that had fallen off of a Christmas decoration said her part of the prayer. We moved through the next two lines, slowly, as each was repeated three times, but steadily. Norah was quiet. Too quiet.

As the little flower was squeaking out her repetition of the fourth and final line, Norah could contain herself no longer.

“PooPooPeePee! Butt! Snot! Boogers!” She shouted out her entire potty vocabulary. My husband started man-giggling, laughing harder and louder the more he tried to contain it. Michele didn’t even try to hold back her laughter, and, playing to her audience, Norah repeated her repertoire, adding in animal sounds and random words.

“Moo! Baa! Hair! Nose! Shirt! BUTT!”

I know when I am defeated. But I finished my prayer anyway. Because even though we can’t have nice things, I can still pretend.


O God, as light comes from this candle,
May the blessing of Jesus Christ come to us,
Warming our hearts and brightening our way.
May Christ our Savior bring life into the darkness of this world,
And to us, as we wait for his coming.