It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Part 3.

December 2003, Naples, FL

My baby girl is turning fifteen this month, and as always, I’m left wondering where the time goes. Over the years, people have jokingly given me a hard time about giving birth the day after Christmas, saying things like, “Well, you didn’t plan that very well, did you?” (wink wink, nudge nudge), but I feel like I planned it just right. So far she loves having her birthday wrapped up with Christmas, and we’ve never encountered the “Oh no–her birthday and Christmas gifts are wrapped in the same paper!” drama. Not that she would mind–she honestly loves Christmas. 

But in addition to her being the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten, doing my photos with her each year has become my best gift to myself. (In case you missed parts one and two of my “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” posts, they can be found here and here.) Since she turned three, I’ve been taking photos of Holland in my wedding dress each year for her birthday, graduating from a point-and-shoot camera to a much nicer one, and moving from my bedroom or the park in our neighborhood to destinations like L.A., Miami, Disney World, Amsterdam, London, and Paris and now, this year, to New York City. It’s been an amazing journey so far. 

The downsides of this particular project are as follows: extreme nostalgia on my part; cold weather in our chosen locales that require her to wear her jeans under the dress and to let her teeth chatter dramatically as she assures me that there is no way I could possibly love her, otherwise I’d never make her put on a frilly pink dress in public and pose in front of strangers; and the inevitable squabbles between the two of us that go something like this:

Me (theatrically): “Someday I’ll be gone and you’ll be sorry that you couldn’t just pose on the Brooklyn Bridge in twenty degree weather like I wanted you to.”

Her (with eyes rolling): “But why aren’t we done yet? I’m not doing this anymore today. Seriously, Mom. I’m done.”

Her father (sternly): “Do this one thing for your mother. She never asks you for anything.”

And then, in the end, I have the photos I wanted. Some days we’ll go out and I’ll feel like I got nothing that’s even worth editing (and every December I flog myself for not taking a photography class at some point during the year that would make me more technically adept so that I wasn’t relying on luck and creativity alone), but in the end, I find that I’m thrilled with the crazy things we’ve captured and the amazing places we’ve gotten to go. If 18 ends up being the last year we do this, as planned, then I’ve only got three more years to go…and I can’t believe that.

Other than writing, this has been the biggest and most creative project I’ve undertaken, and whether or not the photos are “technically” on the mark or not, it’s something I’m really proud of. It’s a true labor of love, and I know someday she’ll look at these photos and smile fondly, forgetting that I made her stand on the steps of a church in Paris in December in a tank top while I pulled the dress on over her head, and forgetting that I made her wear the dress around Disney World and weather the stares of curious onlookers. 

Someday she’ll think it was cool and creative and fun, and maybe someday she’ll even do something similar with her own children, should she choose to have any. But at the very least, she’ll appreciate the hard work we both put into this project…hopefully while I’m still around. 😉 

Happiest holiday wishes to you and yours! 

Brooklyn Bridge 2018
Chinatown 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Statue of Liberty 2018
Manhattan Skyline 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018

When life gets in the way of writing.

Now that 2018 is wrapping up, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As far as years go, it’s been as fast as any other and reasonably productive in terms of writing (I’ll have one more book out around Thanksgiving, and I’ve got two others actively in the works). But it’s been a year that reminded me of where I am in life. It hit me in the face with the news that yes, I am forty-three. I’ve got two aging parents with different ailments. My only child is about to turn fifteen. None of my current students were born before the twenty-first century and none of them seem to know who The Golden Girls are. It’s been…topsy-turvy.

I had lots of plans for my writing projects this year. I always do. I took my computer with me to the U.K. for the month of July, prepared to both care for my father, who has Parkinson’s, and to write in my spare time. But I underestimated the amount of work it takes (emotional and physical) to truly put in quality time with someone who is almost totally reliant on others, and I don’t know that I even opened my computer once. But it was a glorious month nonetheless. I got to take long, slow walks with my dad along the river that winds through the property where he lives, and we spent countless hours listening to the songs he used to play for me on his guitar (“Catch the Wind” by Donovan and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals). As I tucked him in each night, I’d kneel next to his bed and talk to him for a long time, just laughing about jokes we have together and reminiscing about everything.

At one point, he was searching for something in his nightstand (when a person has dementia, you often don’t know what they’re looking for and sometimes, neither do they) and he came up with a journal. As he can’t really write anymore, I knew that the pages were filled with thoughts he must have jotted down when he was first diagnosed. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages, watching as his distinctive handwriting changed and sloped with the progression of the disease. I saw that there were pages and pages of detailed phone messages–as if he’d written down what he would say in case someone’s voicemail picked up when he called them: “Hi, Steph. It’s Dad. I’m sorry I missed you. I’ll call you later. I love you.” And his thoughts about having Parkinson’s: “It’s like I still have 10,000 messages floating through my brain, but only about ten messengers to deliver them.”

It was a challenging and beautiful month, and I had talks with him that reminded me of the old days. There were times when I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about things, and I don’t care if you have Parkinson’s. I just need you to be my dad.” And of course–as he always has–he listened. He patted my back in the halting, measured way he has now. He found the words and put them together and offered them to me as best he could, offering advice and consolation. And it was wonderful.

Those will be memories I take with me to the end. I have no regrets about not writing this summer.

I came home and got into a minor car accident right on the heels of that trip, then ended up in bed for a week with an MS flare-up. I normally give little thought to my own health condition, but when MS knocks you on your ass, it says, “Hey! Psst–hey, you. Climb into bed. I’m about to hit you with a wave of fatigue that feels like nothing you’ve ever known.” And it did. You’d think that a week in bed might equal thousands of words written in a story, but it doesn’t. The days pass in a blur of naps and food that people bring you and take away, and then eventually you emerge from the fog and you’re ready to put your feet on the floor again and face the world.

School had barely gotten going this fall (delayed by a teacher’s strike that set us back to mid-September), when my mother suffered a medical emergency while in Reno. She’d driven there to care for my godmother–her best friend of 40+ years–who had been diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Unfortunately, my mom had driven herself down there and was unable to drive home, so my brother and I booked a last-minute flight and went down there to get her. What resulted was a totally unplanned week with just my mom and my brother (something I haven’t had since the three of us went to Disneyworld together in about 1994). There were serious things to talk about and more than 500 miles for us to travel together with me in the backseat of a Subaru listening to my brother’s wacky music (a combination of alt-folk-country stuff that makes me gag, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Prince–my mom asking us, “But why did this guy want to put Kim in the trunk?” about Eminem is a definite highlight for me). The trip was draining and challenging and eye-opening in terms of my brother and I realizing that our parents both have needs that are escalating rapidly, but it was an unexpected gift to get to run around “The Biggest Little City in the World” with my brother, eating sushi while the chef coaxed fire from oil on the grill, running into little metaphysical shops to buy crystals and dream catchers, racing each other up and down the stairs in casinos, and brushing our teeth next to each other in our shared hotel room like we were a couple of kids again.

As it turned out, my stubborn Jewish godmother had opted not to tell us when she’d come up to visit in June that she was already battling cancer, so by the time she was hospitalized in the fall it had metastasized and spread everywhere. There was no turning back. Being able to see her in Reno (as she and my mom were in the same hospital, only in different wings) was a gift. At one point she was only eating through a tube, but she really wanted a Whopper from Burger King, so I brought it to her even though I figured she’d never be able to eat it. Unfortunately, by the time I got there she’d been readmitted to the ICU and was having trouble breathing, but she told me in a stage whisper to hide the cheeseburger in her bag for later, which I obviously did. The fact that we were in cahoots over something as silly as a Whopper while she struggled to catch her breath will be something that makes me smile forever. She was a huge, mythical figure in my life–a gorgeous, successful journalist with a long history of traveling the world to report the news–and the first person to really tell me to roll up my sleeves and write. She mailed a book to me when I was living in Miami twenty years ago (Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”) with the inscription “For my dearest Stephanie–Let’s check out this one and talk. Love, Aunt Beverly.” She read my books and sent me Hanukkah gifts, gave me advice on situations with all of her love and wisdom, and laughed every time I said “Oy vey!” She died on Halloween just before midnight. I already feel the loss of having her in my life.

So now, here we are, fast approaching Thanksgiving. I’ve got another book in the Christmas Key series ready to release in the next few weeks, and two other projects that I’m chipping away at. Sometimes life gets in the way of writing and that’s okay, but sometimes writing is there as an escape when life gets to be too much. It’s a gift to be able to put my fingers to the keyboard and disappear into a world of my own creation–a place where my crazy, creative mind can roam free and invent people and things that amuse or entertain me. And it’s a huge bonus that other people are willing to come along for the ride.

As 2018 winds down I can say that I’m really grateful for all of it: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, and the gift of the written word. Life is challenging. And beautiful.

The magic of instant friendship.

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I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

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And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

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“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s truly my favorite time of the year, and not just because I love Christmas (but I love Christmas–I really do! And I’m a huge dork about it. Anyone want to come over to my house and listen to Wham! sing “Last Christmas” for the 431st time this season?) It’s also my favorite time of the year because by December I’ve spent about six months planning and envisioning, researching and dreaming, and I finally get to zip Holly into my wedding dress for our annual birthday photos.

Like all good ideas, this one was borrowed and adapted, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I know I’m not alone in wanting to document the passing of time by doing a sentimental yearly photograph. I actually got the idea from a parenting magazine back when I still had a newborn. There was a short article about a lady who had taken her own mother’s gaudy 1960s bathing suit (a boxy affair covered in loud floral print and with cone-shaped pleats on the bust) and posed her daughter for a picture each year on her birthday wearing the bathing suit. She took the photos in front of the same wall, and the progression from a barely-standing toddler draped in this bathing suit, to a lovely eighteen-year-old who actually filled the suit out, was really very charming and sweet. I flipped the page and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward to my own daughter’s third birthday. The lady with the bathing suit popped into my head, and I thought, “That would be cute to do with Holly, only in my wedding dress instead of a bathing suit.” So I pulled the pink tulle over her soft blonde baby head, and eased her little arms through the dress. I didn’t have a plan at that point–just the idea of seeing the progress of her growth each year by using my dress as a measuring stick–so I sat her in front of our oak sleigh bed and snapped a few pictures. They were sweet and simple, done with a point-and-shoot camera. I packed the dress away and planned to do it again the next year.

And I did. And the year after that, and the one after that…and then, this year, we set out to do it for the tenth year. Those early birthday shots were pictures of her doing whatever she felt like doing: posing or just standing, the sweetness of her baby face (3rd birthday), or the funny way her missing front tooth juxtaposed against the wedding dress (6th birthday), and even the year we just put the dress on over her rain boots and play clothes and went to the park in our neighborhood to play on the swings (8th birthday), acting as the backdrop for our “wedding dress pictures,” as we’d come to call them.

But then I started thinking of the potential and of all the fun we could have as we carried this on through her 18th birthday. We went up to Timberline Lodge on her 9th birthday (the day after Christmas) and got her posing in the dress with the snow falling outside the windows of the warm lodge. The next year we went to Astoria on a gorgeous, crystal-clear winter day and let her take a handful of colorful balloons all around town. For her 11th birthday we went to Disneyworld, and I got shots of her in all of the parks and on South Beach. This year we flew to L.A. and did Disneyland, then followed it up with a real “L.A. day” (I called it the, “If Holly Went to Hollywood, What Would Holly Do?” year). We got shots with the fabled Hollywood sign behind her, some on the Walk of Fame, and then we ended the day at the Santa Monica pier just as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, where I think we got some of our best photos to date.

It makes me really happy every year to dream up new locations and ideas, and I spent a fair amount of time this fall googling from which street and which neighborhood we could see the Hollywood sign (answer: 5th and Windsor in Hancock Park–a beautiful and quiet neighborhood lined with amazing houses and giant palms), and picturing my baby with her hands in Marilyn Monroe’s hand prints, so it was pretty awesome when it all came together. We had amazing weather the last day of our trip, and there wasn’t even a wisp of smog hanging over the hills. I love watching the years fall away through the lens of this fun tradition, and I’m pretty amazed at how far this $50 dress has traveled. It started on a beach on Maui when we got married, it’s seen snow, flown more miles than a lot of people do, and just in the past two years I’ve shaken sand out of it from both coasts. I’m already nostalgic for the years gone by, but I can’t wait for her next birthday…I’m already dreaming of getting my next shot.

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