“Season’s greetings!” A commonly heard phrase this time of year. The holiday season seemingly starting in summertime. Store shelves stocked with Santa-themed silliness earlier than the 4th of July is underway.
“Season’s greetings!” Season of life, season of year, seasoning for a good savory stew. Joni Mitchell pops into my head, “And the seasons they go round and round…we’re captive on the carousel of time.” For me, greeting the seasons is starting to take on wider meaning, not just a holiday greeting, but an invitation to look at the seasons of life, the beginnings and endings, the natural cycles. As a mother, my own children’s beginnings and endings are often my main focus. Their pictures with Santa from the previous year bring their astonishing growth into glaring view.
Ah, childhood. Such bliss! “You don’t know how great you’ve got it, kid!” I shout this golden nugget at every impatient child I see tortured by waiting in line at the mall to see Santa, my vocal volume trying to break through that childhood wall of flittering fascination to the cores of their souls. This child will receive my message, feel it in her core, and grab a-hold, never to leave the bosom of the playroom or stroller, where all of her humanly needs are met at a whimper. “Stay where you are!” This rarely goes over well with the parents of the child at which I am shouting my words of golden wisdom. My delivery method has been passed down from generation to generation. Probably an indication as to why these parental warnings from childhood loom large in my daily thoughts, and more so during the gift-giving season.
The holidays are such a blissful time for my children. The wishing and the hoping. The crossing of the fingers that the “nice list” might include their name. As a parent, how I do love the power of the simple phrase, “Santa is watching you.” I now know why the “cult of Santa” survived for so long and why I will gladly pay my blood-oath-dues to the retail gods to keep his powers alive for parents of children yet to be born.
Seasonal subject: 5-year-old boy.
As I look at my young son and the growth he has made in the past year, I reflect on the changes I see for him in his future. One season I am looking forward to him outgrowing is the season lovingly referred to by experts on human behavioral psychology as “experimentation with the physical surroundings of one’s environment.”
A brief holiday history of some of this boy’s past “experiments” should illustrate the necessity for the speedy passage through this particular season of life.
Experiment example #1: Holiday Guest
One Christmas Eve morning my young son comes downstairs in his jammies, opens my bedroom door, and climbs into bed next to his mom to “cuddly-up.” As we nestled in and began to drift back to rest, I heard a loud kerfluffle then a crash overhead in the room directly above my own where Grandma was staying overnight. The 5-year-old boy began giggling with an uncontainable glee.
“What did you do?” I accused.
“I set some traps to catch the elves. I am practicing for Santa,” was his pride-filled response.
“You did what?”
But he already escaped my room, his contagious laughter infecting me as I shook my head and tried to contain my inner smile as I headed upstairs to check on our unfortunate latest victim hoping that a trip to the hospital wouldn’t be ruining this Christmas holiday. That’s what I get for letting him watch Disney’s Prep & Landing. Mental note: never, ever let him watch Home Alone.
Experiment example #2: Three Very Important Lessons in Silly Putty: A Stocking Stuffer Nightmare
• Lesson #1: Silly Putty works great for sealing the upholstered storage ottoman in the living room shut tight. Bad guys can’t get in. Bonus, Mom’s face turns 3 shades of purple when you show her the “bad-guy-proof” ottoman.
• Lesson #2: Silly Putty is awesome at securing the dog inside of a blanket. Just wait for the dog to tunnel under Mom’s favorite reading couch throw. Take three sides of the blanket and stick them together at the bottom. Don’t worry! As blankets go, this one is pretty thin, so the dog can thrash a hole through it so she doesn’t hyperventilate. Bonus, Mom’s face turns purple—my new favorite color.
• Lesson #3: When 10-year-old sister says it’s probably not a good idea to get me Silly Putty for Christmas, Mom should definitely take her advice!
Addendum added 6-months later by the mom:
I caved and bought some silly putty the other day. Why did I ignore lessons 1-3 you are asking? We were walking down the sidewalk just at Owen Beach and 5-year-old boy says his foot hurts. I offer to take his shoe off to check it out, thinking maybe a rock from the beach had wedged itself between his foot and shoe. He tells me that it’s not a rock but that he tried an “experiment” (Danger, Will Robinson!). He put silly putty, then his sock, then his shoe on to give him more bounce in his step. I thought he was joking until I removed the layers.
Experiment #3: The Wintry Attack of the Piss Bandit
We happen to live in a drafty old house that requires various heating devices to be placed in certain rooms to keep them cozy and warm. One such device is shaped like an old-school radiator, but it is portable, plugs in, gets extremely hot and has a fan on the front that puts out even more heat. One very recent, below-freezing morning set the scene for this particular experiment. Its hypothesis, I assume, went something like this:
What will happen to a heating element at maximum heat output setting when a human subject unloads his full morning bladder (when the bladder is most full and the odor is most pungent) directly onto the heating element in the main living area of a 4-person household?
Before the 5-year-old boy could think his hypothesis through step-by-step using the scientific method, he was well past putting his experiment into action. Results were varied. His father’s entire head turned purple, not just his face, and his volume went from his normally calm and unaffected tone to extremely loud and uncharacteristically condescending. Phrases like, “I have no words,” and, “what are you, a dog?” wafted through the closed bedroom door to my awakening ears.
Before I reached the living room, the vocal reactions from 5-year-old boy, his 10-year-old sister, and his inflamed father indicated that something entirely unpleasant was upsetting the three of them to the point of physical pain. As I emerged from my bedroom, the source of the pain became apparent. The aroma of burning piss mixed with the effervescent scent of Christmas pine tree filled the entire bottom floor of the house, and the pungent aroma choked every afflicted orifice. The stench was unbelievable and equally unbearable. No amount of cinnamon-scented room spray would penetrate the thick, acrid aroma.
I rushed into the room to make sure that the first step, unplugging the heater, had been sensibly accomplished. Nope. No wonder the entire house had filled so fast with the fragrance of burnt piss. Once the heater was unplugged and began to cool, the liquid, which turned to a golden-brownish, crusty solid, could be wiped from the slats and the bottom of the radiator. The window was opened to let in the frigid breeze accompanied by a few summer fans dug out of the basement to circulate the oppressive air. Then came the carpet cleaning. Then came the calm talk between mother and son.
“Boy, the next time you are wondering about what would happen if you pee on something, ask your mommy first, okay?”
“What could have happened when you peed on the radiator?”
“I coulda blowed up the whole house.”
“Yeah. You could have blown up the house and the Christmas tree with all of the presents. It wasn’t safe to pee on something that was plugged in. You know that. Where are you supposed to go pee?”
“In the bathroom.”
“Not just in the bathroom, but in the toilet.”
“In the toilet, I know.”
“Okay. So, if you have a question about something, I want you to ask me first before you try any more experiments, okay?”
“That was the most terrible smell I ever smelled. Please, don’t do that ever again.”
“Ya. I thought I was going to die. I hope Santa didn’t put me on the bad kid list for that ex-pair-ment.”
Mission accomplished. I hope.
Seasonal subject: 10-year-old Girl.
I look back at my daughter’s, the 10-year-old sister’s, “experimental phase” in horror. The way she walked through the house smacking every piece of furniture with her full force, a habit that her father and I referred to as her “hand of smiting.” The lovely afternoon when Daddy fell asleep on the couch and she decided to fingerpaint every surface in the playroom using Vick’s Vapo Rub. The time that she stretched above the top of the futon at Grandma’s house and removed a framed portrait of herself from the wall to play with, which, once she sat upon it, shattered and sliced her foot wide open: bloody battle scene never to be erased from Mom’s memory, and we are supposed to look back fondly and reminisce, pining for the good old days? Bah humbug! Seasons change. Thank the stars! It doesn’t always mean the next season is better or worse.
This past Fall heralded in a new life season for my daughter. The 10-year-old sister is now officially in the “season of the tween,” those awkward years where she hates everything and everyone. All things are childish, ridiculous, and extremely exaggerated—accompanied with an eye roll and a huffing sound for full emotional impact, unless loss of important privileges are imminent—mostly to do with access to various technological devices (her Christmas list is filled to the brim with such things).
Still, she is incredibly intelligent, compassionate, curious, and agile. Luckily, she is much less likely to scale a wall while my back is turned for a moment. However, I do still keep an eye out for the hand of smiting, since it has been known to rear its vengeful wrath now and again. The hand of smiting rarely interacts with the furniture these days but may just land on the 5-year-old boy if his experiments are too focused on her as a subject for too long. Keeping the peace is a full-time job in a house with siblings. This season is one that seems daunting for the both of us. Maybe because we both are achingly aware and conflicted about the endings and beginnings of what is coming and going for her as a young girl and young woman.
Let’s face it, there is not much freedom when you have a bedtime, a lunchtime, recess, reading time, homework, a little brother to wrangle, and dog poop to scoop (her favorite chore aside from sweeping the kitchen). Top that off with a changing body, girl-themed drama mainly involving boys, and the lately loathsome colors pink and purple. Then there are the notes I find stashed in the laundry, backpack, and underneath the bed whose intimate details show me that the world is as wide as it has always been, and it is wide open for this 10-year-old sister.
I could pretend that my daughter isn’t dealing with the pressures brought on by tests, teachers, peers, body image, videos, movies, shows, music, books, conversations she overhears, and everything and every person she encounters. I could pretend that at her school’s weekend Winter Holiday Bazaar I didn’t read a note that fell from her jacket pocket confessing that a friend in her class threatened suicide over a boy.
On the drive home from the holiday bazaar, I turn up The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” and sing along.
“I love this song,” I say. “Good memories of good times. Do you like this song or do you think it is totally weird mom music?”
“Ummm,” she hesitates and looks at me to gauge whether or not she should tell me her truth or what I want to hear.
“It is okay if you don’t like this song.”
“Really?” she says. “I don’t have to like this song? Because, I totally don’t. I really don’t like this song, Mom.”
“Ya, I get it that you don’t like it. Actually, I like that you don’t like it. That means you have your own view. You have your own way of seeing things and hearing things. You are yourself. If everybody liked exactly the same things, then every house would be the same color, every outfit would look the same, haircut, shoes, music, books, and so on. This song might be on repeat forever like on the Lego Movie. There is only one you. So be you. Be the best you that you can be, because you are my favorite girl on the planet. I always want to know exactly what you think even if it is different from me. That is who you are, and I will always want to know you.”
I choose to walk this path along with her. I ask her questions. She asks me questions. We tell each other our truth. I tell her it is okay if she doesn’t like the song I am listening to on the radio or the last book that she read. I tell her it is okay if she has a different opinion than mine. She looks at me in a thoughtful way, like I am revealing something to her that she never thought of before.
Then, I tell her she has to take the note to her counselor at school on Monday. I tell her that I know it will be hard and it will feel uncomfortable to involve an outsider in “their” problems.
“This is a big problem. It is bigger than you and her so you need some big help. So, grab some help. That is what the counselor is there for. She helps you with things that feel too big for just you. She knows how to help. She has taken all kinds of classes and read a ton of books and watched videos to learn all about helping with big problems. She will know how to help with this. Maybe this could be a special gift you can give your friend before you leave for Winter Break. Show her that you care enough about her to take what she says seriously.”
Now I have to trust that the right things will happen with this big problem I am leaving in the hands of two 10-year-olds and a school counselor right before the holidays, so the 10-year-old sister will continue to trust me. I have to hope that the friend will be okay and that the suicidal feelings won’t result in irreversible trauma this holiday season. I pray the 10-year-old sister will survive this life season without another scene never to be erased from her mom’s memory.
How did my own mother survive it, greeting all of the seasons? She managed to keep six whole children alive to adulthood, and we are all still here to tell the tales. Winters, springs, summers, and some pretty big falls. We survived every holiday season without seat belts, all packed into a 1967 Chevy Impala, my Dad blaring his psychedelic rock music, “Eight miles high, and when we touch down, you’ll find that…To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
*Michelle Nikisch hails from sunny Las Vegas, but has made her home in the Tacoma area since 1996. She has taught at PLU, the A.C.E. Language Institute, and at secondary schools in Las Vegas, and King and Pierce County, WA. Currently, she is teaching in the tiny town of Orting, WA, in the majestic Puyallup valley carved by Mt. Rainier.