A Different Sort of Holiday

The crisp air cleared my lungs like a slap across the face. It felt good to inhale the burning chill as it cleared  the webbed strands of endless holiday malaise. Sugar, wine, nuts, bourbon, bread, baked goods, all cheeses melted. Over endulgement in most aspects of life. Don’t get me wrong. I believe “to everything there is a season” and have no problem enjoying the fat of the year. But I needed to clear my head as much as my palate and running packs that unique double whammy. As I set out on the familiar winding blacktop near my house, it felt as though life was settling back to normal. Decorations were down except for the tree, house guests had returned to their towns and cubicles, and the last cycle of towels and sheets were whirling in the washer I had to purchase on December 27. I could almost see the back of the refrigerator.

For our oldest daughter it was a different kind of Christmas. At age 8, she has surpassed the need for pink plastic and television gimmicks and requested two very grown-up gifts: a microscope and a Nook. The excitement of viewing each new specimen under the lens is still childlike in it’s wonder of discovery. But the way she cares for the machine and the seriousness of her science experiments is  foreshadowing of afternoons in a high school chemistry lab. And at least 4 times over the past few days, I have found her curled up on the sofa, ankles tucked under her backside, as she loses herself in the words of a book amidst all the chaos of conversations and television shows and games and snacks. Our middle one too is beginning to tiptoe on the maturity bridge asking just yesterday why the ads for toys on tv make things look so cool but once in your house they are not. Rather than feeling profound disappointment, she simply wondered why. There was not disgruntlement in her voice but more a curiosity as to the reasoning behind making something appear cooler than it is.

I think we adults spend a lot of time keeping up cool appearances, marketing ourselves if you will. It is cliche to talk about it at the holidays and yet year in and year out I see people, myself included, try to maintain an image that is lovable or smart or popular or rich or happy or together or whatever your demon in the closet says it is. The problem is, it is hard to do this much past a 30 second tv spot. Once the toy is home and out of the box so is the dirty little secret: outwardly things are never as enticing as they appeared to be at first glimpse.

My friend Kemp died on December 21, suddenly and in a tragic way. He was one of those people who did not keep up appearances. He was kind and good and filled with wonder and zest and love. He made me feel like a better person for spending time with him. Once he came by to drop off our daughter after a sleepover. In a sequence of events fitting of a Macaulay Culkin movie, I got locked out of the house with 2 girls and the baby trapped inside napping. Greg was out of town and all our spare keys were awol. Kemp stayed with us until a way in was found. As if he had all the time in the world and no better place to be. He told funny stories of being locked out of various places in his life and laughed easily with an infecting glint in his eye making this worried mother laugh at it all . More recently I had bumped into Kemp at a bike shop with my new racing gift and we shared the excitement of triathlon training. Before I returned home from the store, there was an email in my inbox with a list of upcoming events, training schedules and encouraging words. Each time we parted or passed each other on the greenway, I would smile and tell my running buddies I am going to spend more time with Kemp. But I didn’t. And now, I can’t, not with him. But I can spend more time with real people, like him.

The evening of Kemp’s death, I was driving Coco to a birthday party. We had not told her yet, knowing she too had loved spending time with him. He is the father of her dear friend and each time Coco returned home, there was some anecdote about Mr. Reece. “He took us bike riding or made his famous spaghetti or let us stay up until 10 watching a movie and drinking soda”. There are not many adults children have relationships with but Mr. Reece was one of them. As we drove out Glenwood Avenue past the strip malls cheaply lighted for the holidays and pedaling wares promising to bring happiness, Coco piped up. Her teacher had advised the students  to do something kind for someone else during the break. Finally a realistic and time-worthy holiday homework assignment! Coco began to throw out ideas like packing bags for backpack buddies at church or getting an angel off the giving tree. I quietly said we would find something to do, full well knowing the project of caring for her friend who had just lost her Dad would be the first big assignment of her little life.

As Greg and I quietly told her the news the next morning, her response was quiet and unexpected. In short, she gave us the cold shoulder which led me to fret she will face big news on her own in life and hide it inside. I guess I wanted her to burst into tears as I did when I heard the news and let me stroke her hair and cry along side her. But grief rarely goes as we expect. She went on about her day, seeming un-phased. An hour later she came to me and asked if we could go for a bike ride. We got on our helmets and set off down the 2 mile path she had biked with Annie and her Dad. I knew this was Coco’s way of processing. She was doing something she had done with Mr. Reece, to show it wasn’t a dream, or fake, or a false advertisement. Her memories were real and good and alive.

2012 starts in 36 hours. Make a memory. Bring something to life. Be where you are.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Oh, you made me weep — but they’re cathartic tears. Lovely writing. Thank you.


  2. Posted by katie ukrop on December 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    beautiful. thanks for sharing…

    xoxo. Katie


  3. Posted by Mary Holly Bigelow on December 30, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Rick works at Davenport in Richmond and did a lot of business with Kemp. I shall share this with him. Those who knew him in Richmond really liked him. He is still processing his death.

    mary holly


  4. Posted by Maggi on December 30, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Tears here, too, as when I read Kemp’s obit last week. Although I did not know him as an adult, growing up in Greensboro he was always one of the nicest guys around. Thanks for letting me see what a fine man he became.
    Love to all the Joneses!
    (and you have us on your card list twice . . .)


  5. Posted by Jan Reece on January 2, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    This is beautiful Melanie….thank you and we love you and your family.


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