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Surviving a Holiday Breakdown

When tasks at home and violence outside of it become just too much.

If your holiday season’s been filled with joy and relaxation, I sincerely congratulate you as I take yet another Advil while writing this column. But, if you’re anything like me, relieved to have survived the holidays (so far), settle in for a story you just might identify with. Please take me at my word when I say I’m eternally grateful for the blessings in my life … but there comes a time when the convergence of these blessings (and their various dynamics) drag me to my wits’ end.

My mother has a saying that my sisters and I lovingly tease her about. Whenever things feel overwhelming, she’ll say, “It’s just too much.” I’m here to say, I’ve officially become my mother, because that’s how the holidays felt this year.

I should have seen my holiday breakdown coming, but I just couldn’t find the time. As the 2012 Presidential election ended on Nov. 6, my harrowing holiday season began:

--one son’s birthday on November 12th

--my serious (and failed) battle against the seasonal flu

--another son’s medical challenges

--Thanksgiving

--a seemingly never-ending backyard project (which began in March), including a multitude of strangers in and out of the house at various and unannounced times, often leaving toilet seats up and my microwave splattered with their food.

--ongoing gun violence in my town and around the country

--my daughter’s birthday on December 23rd

--Christmas Eve dinner – and please tell me why I decided to make 5 Cornish hens when

a) the cookbooks were moved due to the construction project

b) dust still covered the kitchen

c) none of the presents had been wrapped and

d) I was already exhausted.

Toss in the regular stuff the kids do, including dance classes, orthodontist appointments, music lessons, hanging out with friends and studying for exams … plus grocery shopping, bathing (frequently eliminated from my to-do list), walking a neighbors’ dog … you get the picture. I found it hard to make time for many things, including sending out Christmas cards, getting to all the holiday parties I’d RSVPd to, and, not the least of which, keeping that holiday spirit.

In my mother’s words, “It’s just too much.”

During my moments of feeling overwhelmed, I’d stop and berate myself, thinking of all the families who struggle to make ends meet (I know far too many) and all the parents who’ve lost a child to shooters’ bullets (far, far too many). I’d take a deep breath, count my lucky stars, and carry on.

Until, it seems, when my holiday breakdown occurred.

I’d made a massive pot of homemade minestrone soup for my family – according to them it was the best they’d ever had (not bad for an Irish/Norwegian/Polish girl like me). Before I went to bed, I asked my two oldest kids to work together to put the leftovers in the fridge.

That never happened.

The next morning I woke up to the pungent aroma of cabbage in the kitchen. The typical before-school-morning-madness ensued, so the pot stood sentry on the stove, waiting for me to dispose of the contents I’d worked so hard to blend.

But I’d had enough.

I decided I’d let my kids dispose of the soup when they got home from school. Sure enough, when my 15-year-old walked into the kitchen with a friend around 4pm, he covered his nose and mouth with his hand.

“What is that smell?” he coughed.

I hid my vindictive smile. All day long I’d worked in the house cleaning the dust from the construction workers, picking up wet towels left on doorknobs, and trying to re-boot the damn Comcast Wi-Fi connection – all while tolerating that smell.

“It’s the soup I’d asked you and your sister to put away last night,” I said. “And now I need you to throw it away.”

There was so much of that amazing minestrone with its big chunks of cabbage and carrots and celery and onion that I couldn’t possibly pour it down the sink. At one point I’d considered flushing it down the toilet, but common sense told me it had to go in the trash.

My son and I each took a handle of the stainless steel pot and carried it out to the alley. Problem was, one of our neighbors has a “thing” about the trashcans in the alley: if they overflow, if the contents attract squirrels, if they’re left too close to his house … so, simply pouring the soup into a trashcan wasn’t an easy option.

“What are we going to do?” my son asked.

“Well,” I began, “maybe we should just pour it down the sewer.” I pointed to the cast iron sewer grate in the middle of our alley.

“Good idea,” my son said, dragging his handle (and me) away from the trashcans toward the sewer.

Then my common sense took over.

“Hang on,” I said, looking at my cranky neighbor’s windows. “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to dump soup in the sewer. Look at the grates … they’re not wide enough to let it all pour through. There’ll be soup chunks all over the alley…”

But before I could stop him, he’d put the pot on the cement and took hold of the sewer grate.

“This isn’t a good idea,” I said. “I think we should just dump it in the trashcan. It’s not worth taking the lid off.” I looked around for cars or children. This is such a bad idea.

As he dragged the lid away from the sewer opening, I put my side of the pot down on the cement and – I even yelled. But it was too late. I stared into the gaping hole in the ground, wide enough to swallow all 33 Chilean miners and their mistresses gathered in huddle formation.

“I said NO!”

Then I looked up at my cranky neighbor’s back door and saw what I feared most. A silhouette of a man holding a cordless phone.

“See?” I spat at my son. “He’s probably calling the police!”

“Sorry!” my son said in the twilight, attempting to drag the sewer grate back over the hole. No surprise: it was nearly impossible to lift. “What should we do now?” 

“Just pour the soup down into the sewer,” I hissed, noticing a woman approaching with her dog.

“Everything okay?” she asked, concerned.

“Oh, we’re good,” I smiled, whacking my son on the arm. “Just dumping some soup that he was supposed to put away last night …” I said, trying to justify our delinquency. Her confusion was clear.

“It was minestrone soup,” I said, desperate for understanding. “Lots of cabbage.”

“Ahhhh,” she said with a crinkled nose. “I get it now. Good luck.” She shook her head laughing as we wrestled the sewer grate over the hole.

Sweating from physical and emotional exertion, I glared at my son and headed toward our house. 

“Oh,” he said. “Can we go to the store? I need some pins.”

“For WHAT?” I asked.

“A bridge-building project for school,” he said, catching up to me on the sidewalk. The grouchy neighbor stood on his front porch glaring at us, but I focused on the pins.

“What kind of pins?” I huffed.

“Anything but safety pins,” he said.

A question like this, posed to any parent at dinnertime, is just too much. I felt my blood boil, then tried to tamp down the frustration. At least I have my son, I thought. Morbid but true. Why can’t I be more grateful?

I stomped to the car, grinding my teeth. My son attempts to sit in the passenger seat but it’s covered in papers and dry cleaning to be dropped off and items I’ve “recovered” from the back of my minivan, including headphones, backpacks and an errant mitten. My son begrudgingly sits in the back seat, but I knew what he was thinking: Why is the car always such a mess?

We walked into the Jewel-Osco and guess what? No straight pins…but lots of safety pins.

My son rolled his eyes.

“Well,” I snapped, huffing down the dairy aisle and grabbing a gallon of milk, “you’ll have to go to the fabric store.”

“What time do they close?” he asked. “My project’s due in two days.”

I fought the urge to scream, “GOOGLE IT ON THE PHONE WE PAY A MONTHLY FEE FOR!” but I scrunched my lips together and tried to find the shortest checkout line.

We stood in silence, waiting our turn to check out. And then the moment arrived.

“Mom?” my son asked. “What’s for dinner?”

“I have no idea,” I said in a monotone, not looking at him.

My son is a great kid. He’s my first-born and he’s funny and mature and smart and wiser than his years. But he’s human … and he was hungry and probably embarrassed about the soup debacle … not to mention annoyed that he hadn’t paid attention to what kind of pins he needed for his bridge project. I just wish I’d remembered all these things when he said, almost under his breath, “Mom, the house is a dump. What do you do all day?” 

WWWWWHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTTTTTT?

“Welcome to Jewel-Osco, Ma’am,” the cashier chirped. “Find everything you’re looking for?”

A wild gush of tears poured down my face as I tried to run my debit card through the reader. “Yes,” I said, wiping them away.

“Mom?” my son asked. I heard the shock in his voice but I couldn’t look at him.

“That’ll be $3.51,” the cashier said. “Would you like a bag for your milk?”

“Mom?” my son said with urgency. “I’m sorry.”

“No bag. Thank you.” I grab the handle and fly through the automatic doors, past the Salvation Army bell ringer and the beggar with dreadlocks who shouts, “Nice smile, Mom!”

“Mom!” my son says in the parking lot. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

But it was too late. By now I’m sobbing. I’m angry and tired and frustrated and overwhelmed and wondering how anyone holds it together at Christmas when the world is so full of violence and danger and unpredictability and who even cares about the sewer grate or the ungrateful comment from a child because at least I have my child and why can’t I hold it together like everyone else?

“Mom?” my son says from the back seat, “I’m so sorry.”

“Forget it,” I say. My eyes are now puffy and I need a tissue, but someone crushed the box while stepping in (or out) of the back of the minivan so just forget it.

We pull up to the front of the house and, as I put the car in park, I see the police car and my heart stops.

The officer walks up to my driver’s side window as I'm rolling it down. I’m still sniffling from the verbal assault in the grocery store.

“Is this your residence?” the officer asks, looking into the car. The piles of detritus covering my front seat horrify me. I want to scream, “I am NOT a hoarder!” Instead, I answer his question.

“Yes, I live here,” I say. Oh my God. What happened? Where are my other two kids?

The officer begins slowly. “We received a call from your neighbor,” he says, pointing to Mr. Grouchy’s porch near the alleyway. “He informed us that someone from your residence was dumping hazardous materials into the Evanston sewer system.”

And that’s when I lose it. I start laughing and crying and dripping all over myself. The officer nervously aims his flashlight into my front seat.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” he asks.

I look at him and wonder where to begin. I wonder if he’s been one of the officers who’ve answered a call recently about shots fired upon Daejae Coleman or Justin Murray or this unnamed victim or Javar Bamberg. I wonder if I should tell him how I’ve . I wonder if he has teenage kids, or if his wife ever loses it at the end of the day. I wonder if their house smells like mulled spices and Christmas trees and gingerbread cookies or if it ever smells – like mine – of cabbage.

The officer takes a step closer to my window. “Would you like me to call someone?” he asks.

“No,” I say, regaining my composure. “It’s just been ... I can’t even begin to tell you how awful ...” I'm not just talking about my day. Or the holidays. I'm talking about how scared I am that the violence won't end.

He peers into the back seat and speaks directly to my boy. “Young man, do you feel safe?”

I want to howl. What a loaded question! Does he feel safe in Evanston when his classmates are shot blocks from the school? Does he feel safe when there are shooters aiming into houses or bursting into schools? I look into the backseat, my bloodshot eyes meeting my son’s, telling him with my expression alone that I love him but that so help me God, the next time you don’t put the soup away when I ask, the police will hunt us down like this. His expression says I love you too and please trust me -- this will not happen again.

“I’m good,” my son says to the officer, who then turns back to me.

“So, were you, in fact, pouring something into the sewer?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say, my face tight from dried tears. “It was soup we left out overnight. Minestrone soup with cabbage. It smelled so bad and my neighbor’s very particular about what goes into the garbage cans near his house, so…”

“Ma’am,” the officer says, resting his arms on my window frame. "I don’t want you to worry about this. People dump far worse things in sewers than soup.”

I take a deep breath. He understands this is more than just a call from a cranky neighbor ... more than just a stressed-out-mom of a teenager ... more than just a holiday breakdown. He understands that shootings are not the only part of the job he handles. And I see it in his eyes that my problem is the kind he doesn't mind handling.

“And son,” he says, aiming his words toward my teenager. “You take care of your mom. You two have a good night, now.”

Happy New Year, and may 2013 be a safer one -- in every way -- for all.

Heather K December 31, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Oh, Christine. This article has me in tears. This could be me any day. Thanks for writing it.

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