Every year, the holidays sneak up on me and whack me up side the head. I’m not talking about the “ohmygod I haven’t done all my shopping” angst. I’m talking about the “oh, my family isn’t a reflection of a Norman Rockwell painting” chagrin. Remember when you were little and the holidays were magical? I remember that so well! And I wish those times were not innocence lost. But the truth is that my family is quite the dysfunctional crew and in my branch of the family tree, some bad things happened during Christmas breaks. In recent years, I have tried to put the holy back in the holiday. Some years, I get it more right than others. But every year, the precious, pure spirits of my girls help me find the way.
What follows is a post I wrote two years ago when I was in a dark place, reliving moments from years past that I’d really rather not think about. My dogs helped me see the light.
I dropped off my foster dog, Rose, last weekend so she could interview a new family, a potential forever home. When she arrived at my house, she was enthusiastic, but stressed. She’d had a rough few weeks, being abandoned at a kill shelter when she was about to give birth, then ending up on the streets for three weeks after a thunderstorm scared her and she escaped her foster family’s fenced yard. My dogs, Chassie and Ginny, were incredibly patient with her, and being puppies themselves, managed to wear down her defenses with all their wags and kisses and exuberant playfulness. In the span of three short weeks, a metamorphosis took place: a tense, somewhat shy dog who ferociously guarded her toys became a happy, playful, loving dog who happily shared her toys. Today, she’s romping in her new backyard in the company of one of her puppies. She has her own 10-year-old boy to throw the tennis ball and rough-house with her. She has a mom and dad to take care of her. She is loved. She is happy.
Rose’s story reminds me of B’Elanna’s. She was found roaming the streets, fur matted to her skin, scrawny from surviving on whatever scraps she could find. She tried to bite the people who found her, so animal control contacted a rescue group, hoping they would be able to find her a home. When I brought her home, she was terrified of everything. Every move I made scared her. She didn’t want to be petted, held, or played with. She ignored toys. She hid in the back of my closet and refused to come out. She tried to bite me several times. A month later, she was a happy-go-lucky pup who loved to jump up in my lap and give me puppy hugs and kisses and who rolled around on the ground with her toys like they were the best things she’d ever seen.
Today, Chassie and Ginny were playing in the backyard when I heard an awful yelping and then angry growling. They aren’t usually grumpy with each other, so I jumped out of my chair and ran outside. Ginny had been tugging on Chassie’s collar, as she often does, and had gotten the collar twisted so tightly around her lower jaw that she couldn’t move – and Chassie was choking. At first, the girls struggled, pulling against each other, trying desperately to run away, which caused Ginny more pain and cut off Chassie’s air supply even further. I began talking to them in my best stay-calm-everything’s-okay voice while I tried to figure out how the collar was twisted. I rubbed Chassie’s neck, assuring her that she could breathe. As I worked, they both relaxed. When I figured out how it was twisted, I gently nudged Chassie and turned her in two complete circles. She didn’t resist in any way. Ginny stood completely still. No jerking, no freaking out. They knew I would figure it out. I told them they were okay, so they were. They trusted me completely.
Eleven months ago, someone found these girls on the side of the road. They were babies; they were starving. Some person did that to them, but less than a year later, they trust another person completely. They don’t worry that I will let them down. They don’t wonder if I love them as much as they love me. They don’t question my motives. They just love, trust. I want to be more like my dogs.
If only people were that resilient, that quick to trust again. If only we could compartmentalize our pasts, leave them in the past where they belong. If only we could love completely, unwaveringly, even though we’ve been hurt, betrayed, battered, and bruised. If only we would let our hearts heal. I say “if only” but the truth is that we are that resilient, we can learn to trust and love again. Some things just take a little more time.
A dark cloud always hangs over the holidays for me. I want to be 10 years old again, walking into Grandma and Granddad’s house on Christmas day, the smell of turkey, noodles, yeast rolls, and pumpkin pie in the air. Everyone was all smiles, happy to see each other. Or, at least it looked that way to me. We snacked on zucchini bread, then gorged ourselves on mashed potatoes, noodles, turkey, and enough bread to properly sop up all of the gravy. Uncle Danny played Santa, handing out gifts after lunch. In a few short minutes, wrapping paper completely covered the living room floor and everyone held a perfect gift. Football and dessert followed – Grandma always made pumpkin, mincemeat, apple, and cherry pies – then the adults would play cards or dominoes while we kids played games.
My Grandma and Granddad have been gone for a long time now, and after they passed away, our clan stopped getting together regularly. As my cousins and I grew older and moved away from home, it became more difficult to gather everyone together, and a couple of divorces didn’t make things any easier. Turns out, my dad and his brothers and sister weren’t really crazy about each other, and probably just gathered to appease their mother. My aunts and uncles are grandparents themselves now, and are cultivating their own traditions with their children…which is what my little corner of the clan would be doing except that my brother lives on the other side of the country and personal finances don’t often allow him to travel this way or us to travel that way. Reality kinda sucks sometimes.
And that reality reminds me of Christmas break, 1979, when an argument between my dad and my brother went terribly wrong and they ended up outside, slipping and sliding on the icy front yard, beating the daylights out of each other. My 15-year-old brother held his own against our father so well that they finally called a truce, came inside, and drank shots of Crown Royal together…because, you know, that’s what “real men” do. And that makes me think of all the other crimes my father committed against his family and that so many people knew and did nothing to stop him. And then I sink into an abyss of memories that haunt me, in spite of the fact that today, I’m okay. I live in the midst of incredible blessings. I have so much to be thankful for, including positive memories about the same father who hurt us all so much. I just haven’t mastered the art of letting it all go like my dogs have. But I’m trying. Because like the song says, it’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going.