tears

The family was gathering for Thanksgiving, oh so many years ago, when my beloved elderly aunt called from Florida. Her long-planned flight to join us was cancelled in deference to a storm and she didn’t see the sense in trying to reschedule; she’d stay safely home raise a glass to us on the day.

My little niece L. burst out “But what about her turkey?” She didn’t mean a plate overflowing with meat and gravy and stuffing. She meant a piece of paper on which L. had traced out her hand, then lavishly illustrated it in marker, adding feet and feathers and a landscape of spiky green grass and, incongruously, a wide-brimmed cockel hat with shiny buckle jauntily posed on the turkey’s head. She’d drawn one for each of the diners expected on Thursday and written their names on each picture.

“We’ll mail it to her,” the grown-ups assured her. And on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my father (L.’s grandfather) and I went out to do a last errand and took L. with us. We stopped at a mailbox and held L.’s hand as she strained up to drop the stamped envelope into the box.

“Aunt P. will love getting this, L.,” I murmured.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. It was sweet of you to draw it for her, and to send it to her. It will be such a good surprise!”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah! Imagine her opening her mailbox to find that envelope in it, and opening it to see your picture! She’ll be so touched you thought of her.”

L. screwed up her face in serious thought, picturing Aunt P. at some imagined mailbox. Then her eyes lit up. “Will she CRY?!?”

Over smothered laughter (and not-so-smothered laughter from my father, ahead of us), I said “… I think she might, a little bit.”

GOOD.”

I’ve been telling this story, now and again, for a dozen years – because L.’s question gets to the heart of what we are often asking ourselves about gestures of kindness and consideration. Is this a big gesture? Is this a small gesture? Will it make a mark in the heart of the beloved? How can we know what word or gesture makes a difference until it does – or it doesn’t?

Aunt P. is gone. L. is a high-spirited, talented young woman at a college halfway across the country from her family. And I am a writer who just finished a film essay about Mother’s Day – a film essay that made me tear up a bit when I wrote it, and again when I proof-read it.

And I understand L.’s question better than ever. Because when I wiped away the trickle of tears, I thought with great satisfaction “Will this make them CRY?” and “Yeah, I think it will.”

GOOD.”

phrasing

D: That’s Randolph Scott on the right.
E: That’s Randolph Scott? I never recognize him. It’s a mental block. I always think of him as a villainous type.
D: He is the villain in this.
E: I mean look like a villain. He looks so harmless. He looks like half of Gary Cooper.
D: Aw.
E: You know what I mean! He looks like if Gary Cooper and Ralph Bellamy got together to make a, a, a second banana.
E: … that sounded so dirty!

that’s just my face

We join this conversation in progress:

The Fella: Is there anything I can do to help?
Elsa: Naw, I’m fine, just trying to write [thing], get it sorted out in my head. There’s no way to help.
The Fella: Would some chocolate help?
Elsa: … yeeeeeeEEEEEESSSSS. [as he walks to the kitchen] Was I making an “I wish I had chocolate” face? Do I have an “I wish I had chocolate” face? … is that just my face?
The Fella: Your face has elements of that in it, yes.

cookie cutters

Let me tell you about my cookie cutters.

Memory is a tricky thing, so bear with me. I was small when these memories formed, and at the distance of decades, it’s hard to tell the difference between true memory, corroborated reconstructions, and childhood imagination.

But I remember the cookies. I’m certain the cookies were exactly as I describe.

My Uncle B and Aunt M (really my father’s much older uncle and aunt, and rather terrifying in demeanor and voice) gave the same gift each year: a homemade cookie cutter shaped out of an old tin can and a tin or box of cookies made from their own collection of cutters. Uncle B made the cutters and Aunt M made the cookies, every year until I turned seven and we moved away.

Their cookies are among my earliest memories, and certainly my very first memories of Christmas. They were rolled vellum-thin, baked ’til they were just tinged with brown at the edges, and decorated with sparse perfection, a dragée here and a sprinkle of colored sugar there, just enough to lend some details to their shapes. The first one I remember is a whole train of sugar cookies – a locomotive, a string of different cars, and a caboose. I think (but I can’t rely on such an early memory) that there might have been a puff of smoke riding jauntily atop the train.

My family accumulated quite a collection of perfectly turned, finely detailed cookie cutters from this unlikely and intimidating source. My mother passed some of them on to me over the years – when I moved into my first apartment, when she moved to a new home, when I baked Christmas cookies in her new kitchen.

One Christmas over a decade ago, I pulled out my cookie cutters and baked and shaped and frosted cookies. And then, overcome with memory, I washed my hands and sat down at the kitchen table, adrift in the faintly sweet scent of sugar and butter, and I wrote a letter to my Uncle B. It was my first letter to him since Aunt M had died a few years ago, and the second letter I’d ever sent him, excepting my childish scrawl on the thank-you letters we’d send for those cookie gifts.

I wrote about using his cookie cutters that day, how these cutters had always symbolized Christmas to me, and of my fond and formative memories of their cookies. I thanked him both for the long-ago cookies and for the cutters, and I let him know they had been long and well loved.

He didn’t write back, not surprisingly. My family isn’t close-knit, and I was one of a swarm of great-nieces and great-nephews. He probably had little idea who I was, probably couldn’t pick me out of a group as a child or an adult.

In fact, I found out this was more-or-less true a few years later; he could only identify me by my remarkable resemblance to my mother. At the reception after a family funeral, Uncle B walked up to me and my sister, looked at my face, and announced imperiously “You must be one of [_____]‘s daughters!” I told him he was right, and I told him my name and my sister’s.

His stern craggy face washed over with softness. “You’re the one who bakes cookies,” he said with wonder, and this man – who’d rarely smiled at me and never hugged me or even shaken my hand – pulled up a chair and sat down knee-to-knee with me, his hand reaching out gently over and over but never quite touching me, and talked. And talked. And talked. All his hardness smoothed away; he was full of memories himself, and he found me to share them with. When it was time to leave, he hugged me. And then he did it again.

I’m grateful whenever I have a chance to revisit that story. It’s a potent reminder that those small thanks are always worth sending, because you never know how meaningful they may be to the person you’re thanking. It’s a reminder to be grateful, to be mindful, to be kinder than necessary. It’s a reminder to keep trying – and failing, but trying! – to be my best self.

[This story is cross-posted to Metafilter.]

things I did not scream on the sidewalk

“SIDEWALKS ARE THREE PEOPLE WIDE. DO NOT WALK THREE ABREAST!” – to the obvious tourist group dawdling their way down a busy downtown sidewalk in front of me. I also didn’t bother with a curt “excuse me” and a bustling break through their passage-clogging cluster; just as I was about to, I spotted a young woman sporting a mohawk walking toward us and thought “I bet he’ll step sharply out of her way.” And indeed he did.

“SHE DOES NOT EXIST TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOU!” – to the man from that same tourist group, who waited until Mohawk Woman was just past him, still well within earshot, then dropped a dry “Very attractive” to his female companions. For the first sixty seconds after not-screaming, I was proud of my restraint; for the next 24 hours and counting, I wish I had let ‘er rip, and maybe jammed a “FUCKING!” in there somewhere.

“I DO NOT NEED YOUR HELP!” – to the dude who approached the crosswalk where I waited, gestured at the thinning traffic, stepped out into the street against the light, then looked over his shoulder to see if I was following.

“SO MANY ELECTRODES!” – to the nurse smoking outside the hospital, as we both glanced up from a distasteful survey of the littered street.

thing I did yell on the phone today, for no explicable reason:

“DUUUUUUUUDE!” – in greeting to my sister, who started laughing so hard that I started laughing, too, delaying our conversation by a good two minutes.

overlapping

Elsa: I’m about to learn a new word!
The Fella: What is it?
Elsa: It’s from this review I’m reading: imbricate.
The Fella: Embercate?
Elsa: Im-bric-ate. It means… to arrange scales, sepals — ooop, I’m about to learn two new words!
The Fella: I love you.
Elsa: To arrange in an overlapping fashion, like petals, scales, or roof tiles. I love you too!

ducks

“Hey, I got quoted in The Atlantic.”

“What?”

“I’m reading an Atlantic article about an AskMe thread, and they quoted me… OH WHOA, they blockquoted me.”

It was a good thread: full of compassion, laughter, and condolences. MeFi member dmd (identified in The Atlantic as Daniel Drucker) posted this question: “My father passed away this morning. I’m going through his file, and I came across JOKES.TXT … which contains only the punchlines. Can the Mind please tell me the jokes?”

He included the list of punchlines, and one by one, community members popped in to offer their sympathy and answer the question. (It’s worth pointing out that MeFi guidelines require AskMe responses to answer the question above all things; a response that doesn’t answer the question is promptly deleted. In a condolence thread, it’s possible that a response offering only condolences miiiight stand, but it’s by no means certain.)

By the time I saw that thread, someone had already explained the punchline about the ducks, but I was able to add a suggestion, and a memory of my own:

O9scar outlines the riddle above, but it’s worth mentioning that this one works best deployed not as a joke but as a casual bit of trivia tossed off when you see a V of birds in formation.

Person 1 [points to birds]: Hey, y’know when you see birds flying in V-formation? And sometimes one side of the V is longer than the other? You know why that is?
Person 2: No, why?
Person 1: More birds on that side.

If you do it casually enough and your friends are sufficiently curious about random subjects, you may even be able to use it on the same person more than once. I caught my own much-missed father with that gag several times. My sorrow for your loss, and thank you for that happy memory.

As MeFi member HotToddy (quoted in the Atlantic‘s closing paragraph) says in the MetaTalk appreciation of that thread, “What an amazing thing, your dad inadvertently arranging for your friends to tell you jokes all day long on the day he dies.”

My own father would have loved to be involved in this discussion — and now he is, through my memories and my story. I love you, Dad.

fancy

My brother-in-law J. had, among his collection of tin toys and keepsakes, a can of… peanut brittle. Uh-huh. A faded, peeling, scratched-up old can, smelling strongly of basement mildew, promisingly labelled peanut brittle.

But when you opened it, did you find delicious peanut brittle, as the label indicated? You did not! When you twisted and pried the stubborn lid from the tarnished old can, HORRIBLE SNAKES would fly forth!

And I mean HORRIBLE SNAKES: musty old fabric, worn away with time, here and there the sharp spikes of the spring ends poking through. Even if they didn’t scratch you when they sprang out, trying to cram them back into the can was a tetanus-tempting chore.

So one Christmas, I bought J. a new set of Snakes in a Can. (Note: I couldn’t find peanut brittle, but apparently the Snake Nut Can company is still doing booming business; I was able to find one immediately at the toy shop across the street from my apartment.)

When I wrapped my Christmas gifts at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, J.’s daughter A., then not quite six, wandered in to help. I showed her my gift for her dad and asked her advice: should I leave the can in its packaging so J. would know it was a joke can?

Or… should I remove the wrapping so he would think it was a can of fancy nuts?

A.’s little mouth twisted in delight. Unwrap it! Take it out of its packaging! Let him open it all unawares! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS! He’ll never know! Y’know why? Because it doesn’t say peanut brittle!

She even helped me take off the cardboard-and-plastic packaging and wrap up the tin of FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS prettily in tissue and ribbon. When we exchanged gifts the next day, I said “Oh, J., I have something for you,” and asked A. to fetch it from under the tree and deliver it, which she did, snickering and flicking thrilled, guilty looks at me the entire time.

J. put on his best poker face, accepting the present and unwrapping it nonchalantly, taking his sweet time and sparing me only one keen glance as he unwound the ribbon.

A. stood by, hopping from foot to foot, choking back her guffaws. Once, she almost fell over.

And then: “Oh! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS. Mmm. I love these, thanks. I think I’ll open them… right now.” J. leaned in toward his little daughter.

She took a huuuuuuge step back.

J. and I both almost burst out laughing. But we managed to hold it in…

… unlike the snakes, which sprang out into the room as A. and J. and everyone else started laughing. “Oh, snakes! YOU GOT ME!”

It was a good Christmas.