At some point in my 30s, I was drowning in people. I had so many people to care for, I often couldn’t remember their comings and goings, so I wrote my friends’ itineraries on my calendar: so-and-so goes here, this one has a doctor’s appointment next week (cancer), friend back from trip to (insert location) now.

At the holidays, I kept elaborate lists of gifts, shipping times, and a budget. Throughout the year I would keep my eye out for good deals on great things or small things, but I got earnest in September. If I spread the spending out, it was more a slow bleed than a hemorrhage, but everyone got their share right down to the grandparents who, I’m sure, were never surprised to receive a Christmas towel or framed picture of the kids.

At work, I coordinated over 200 volunteer positions a year. I made it my goal to know personal bits about everyone, if possible. This was a lesson I learned by my mother telling me on my wedding day that one of the guests shared our now anniversary. In the receiving line, I said to Eleanor, “And congratulations to you, too.” You’d think I’d hung a star in her name. Note to self: people need to be seen and known.

I could never make my mother happy with any number of visits. I think she would’ve planned years in advance, if I’d let her. No sooner did we put away the dishes on a family dinner, she would ask about the next moment, holiday, or trip. One year, I was packing up the car from a visit with the kids (and without Bill) where I had struggled over the long weekend with a sinus infection. To this day, the thought of sitting in an aquarium watching dolphins leap for tiny fishes through hoops dangling high in moist, humid air brings the onset of a headache. I digress.

Kids were shouting, restless with energy they would pack into the car on the drive home. I carried last pieces, all the bells and whistles necessary to divert them on the five hour drive or six with potty breaks. My mom had the snacks.

And she said, “So about the holidays…”

The holidays?? I wasn’t even out the door on a sultry Indiana day in August. The anticipation of a return six hour drive made my head pound.

I replied, “Gee. I don’t know. I need to check with Bill and his family,” helplessly shrugging my shoulders, sensing impending doom, ten bags shifting in my hands.

“But, it’s just that with our calendar, we need to plan,” she pressed.

“I don’t know, mom. Can’t it wait until I get home?” I stalled.

“Well, if it’s too hard to make plans with your own mother, I just won’t ask,” she banged the door on our conversation. But I wasn’t done.

“Mom,” I heaved, “Quit making yourself a martyr.”

Her response? She threw a three pound bag of apples at my head.

mom christmas 2012
Mom: Who taught me how to wear the hats and keep plates spinning, at the same time. I owe my calendar to you.

At home, my kids were growing up. Not only did I work with a group of over one hundred preschool through elementary kids, I tried my best to fit in band, PTO, musicals, choir, soccer, a bit of la crosse, tennis, and befriend the good parents and volunteers. There were little gift bags and notes of thanks to make, signed in childish scrawl.

Oh, and the parties. There were Christmas parties for eighty-some people, open houses that I was sure no one would attend, and within the first ten minutes I wanted to cancel, until everyone showed up and the house was rocking. There were kids’ themed birthdays right up through Anne’s junior year (Sesame Street – another story), prom photo parties, Halloween trick-or-treating. One year, I thought my Sweeting side of the family should come and look through all the old photos my grandpa had shared with me. Another, when my dad’s health took a turn, I thought it was important to have his wife’s people over. When those photo booths were popular, I made enough snow man hats and Santa beards for about fourteen people, who all smiled through an open gilded frame.

shirley christmas 2012
MIL: Shirley. The best. 

We’d get phone calls on Christmas day: “What time will you be here?” My eyes would roll. Bill’s eyes would roll. We would say to each other, “It’s like the party can’t start until the grandkids arrive.” What time should we eat? Is it okay that Uncle Jim wants to sit by the TV and watch the Lions while we’re all in the dining room? Who wants a glass of wine? Or two? Or three? Who bought Sam a siren-ringing police car, roaring fire truck, and honking long-hauler, all in one year? Can someone just turn out the lights?

And then, we lost people. A few of those school mate parents stayed around, but my job change divorced me from the life of the church. Family members moved on or passed away, one by one. Within several years, we lost three of our parents, my dad gone years before. Siblings now take care of their own grown up families.

me christmas 2012
Me. Wearing all the hats.

Our last Thanksgiving comprised the five of us and my sweet nephew.

I said to my friend Kathy, over breakfast this summer, “I have to find some people.”

Do I sound like a martyr?

I feel like one. I’m not hard-wired for this. An extroverted introvert, I get myself up for the festival, the family, the finale. I love each and every one. I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, anticipated running out of people, of losing so many loved ones who can’t be replaced.

I don’t think I’m done. I’ve been thinking about it, what it takes to bring people into your heart. To create family. To make spaces where people can reside, rest, have fun. But this summer and last, in somber retrospect, have been about facing the lost people. I miss you all more than words can say.


Photo credit: National Lampoon, “Christmas Vacation,” 1983.