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As soon as the lights dim and the first notes of “Silent Night” are played, the tears start flowing. I can never sing the first verse because I’m crying. Usually I make it back in time to join the shepherds as they quake. Is it the song itself? The passing of the flame from candle to candle along with whispered wishes for peace or Merry Christmas? Or is it simply the weight of decades of Christmases past reenacting this particular tradition in different churches, surrounded by different people, but always with family beside me? No matter how I’ve been feeling throughout the day on Christmas Eve, “Silent Night” always undoes me.

Tonight especially I’ve been thinking about FG, and missing her fiercely. I keep a bottle of her signature perfume–Charlie–in the back of a drawer and I pulled it out tonight to put some on my wrists before church. I wore one of her scarves and worried it between my fingers during the service. It’s funny because I don’t recall her actually coming to church with me on Christmas Eve, but everything else about her was Christmas to me.

When I was small and we visited High Point at Christmastime, she would find a night to drive me around to look at the lights. When I was a bit older, she would invite me to come with her to do last minute shopping–even on Christmas Eve–at Westchester Mall or some other venue that was equally alluring to me at that age. But she didn’t do everything last minute. She would always have prepared sausage balls and cheese rings and trash and a million kinds of cookies before we arrived. In more recent years, when we didn’t see her for Christmas anymore, she would mail big boxes to my parents’ house filled with gallon-sized ziploc bags filled with treats.

As an adult I’ve tried many times to make her and my Nana’s creations, with varying amounts of success. For years I loved cooking something from the family cookbook not only to enjoy the recipe and share it with my family and friends, but because it gave me an excuse to call FG to ask for clarification about the ingredients or directions. She was the keeper of kitchen secrets. Our family recipes are incredibly tasty and maddeningly vague. Many of my favorites call for a package of one ingredient or a box of another, rather than any measurement you could reliably replicate. The times and temperatures are often equally mysterious. There’s a lot implied in the recipes, like you’ll know when it’s soft enough or hard enough or moist enough or just right. There’s also the matter of my family’s dairy allergies, and substituting ingredients as best I can. Although FG didn’t attempt to bake with non-dairy milk or butter or cheese, she could usually provide some sort of guidance, and would always patiently walk me through whatever I was trying to do, explaining on the phone what it should be looking like at each step.

Now my cousin Melissa is willing and ready to solve recipe dilemmas as best she can, since she made all these same foods alongside her mom for many years. I am grateful, and I know she’s happy to help. Now my daughter has taken it upon herself to tackle the recipes, and surprise the family with FG’s treats. She calls on me to help, and I text Melissa when things aren’t going quite as expected. I wish I could send FG the pictures of what we’ve made. I wish I could call her to tell her the funny stories of our failures and hear her laugh and say, “Bless your heart!” I wish I could share with her a taste of everything to see her enjoy it.

The Christmas Eve service ended hours ago, and the food is all finished, covered in foil or divided into plastic containers to distribute tomorrow. The presents are wrapped. We didn’t go to the mall today, but we did go to Target and I felt the thrill of the last minute details. Everyone else is asleep. FG would always be up later than everyone or wake earlier than everyone to get whatever done that needed to be done. She might snooze in the recliner between tasks, but she would always make sure everyone she loved had plenty of their favorite everything to eat. I can’t claim to do the same, but I do what I can. I wish that tomorrow morning I could see her, or at least call her. Ask her how she’s doing and hear her say “hunky and dory!” one more time. For now, I can smell her perfume on me and know how much of her I carry on. Merry Christmas, FG. I love you.

1. Strong pelvic floor muscles

2. A bespoke suit. Or a bespoke dress. Or a bespoke outfit or any sort. The word bespoke is really cool to say and I love the idea of someone taking my measurements and making something that’s just for me.

3. Never having to enter a password or retrieve a password or reset a password ever again. Ever.

4. Migraine meds that always work. Asking for an end to migraines would be too greedy, obviously.

5. Insurance companies that always cover everything without first denying your claim or pretending you don’t have coverage that you know you do or deciding they know more about your health than you and your doctor do. Excellent health insurance for everyone. That includes vision and dental because eyes and teeth are actually parts of your body.

6. One remote that enables you to find and watch all of the shows you have access to through any device or streaming service, which you can operate entirely on your own without asking your kids or husband for help. And the remote never gets lost. If it falls between the sofa cushions, some mechanism ejects it automatically and returns it to the coffee table.

7. 500 more square feet of house. I know it would be too much to ask to have a new house, but I would love just a bit more space so I could have a room of my own in which to work or read or meditate or hide. A room with a door. That no one else claims as their own. Or leaves their crap in. Ha! Even if I had such a room other people’s stuff would inevitably end up there. That is the way of the world.

8. Bras whose hooks never get bent or stab you, and are always easy to take on and off, and that fit well and are flattering. And that you don’t have to shop for! Bespoke bras.

9. Moisturizer that is appropriate for my skin type. That I don’t have to shop for. Bespoke moisturizer!

10. A family pet whose species my family can agree on adopting. And who comes with free food and meds and fully paid vet bills for at least the first year. A pet that everyone will love to snuggle. Although I would prefer to snuggle babies from time to time. But I’m pretty sure the family will not agree to adopt any babies.

People keep asking what I want for Christmas. This is probably too much to ask, especially with Christmas the day after tomorrow. So I’d be happy with some soft, warm socks. Or chocolate chip cookies. Or a hug. I’m easy to please.

When you tie-dye a t-shirt, they tell you to keep it in the plastic bag for at least 24 hours, or several days more, to allow the dye to soak into the fabric so the colors of your shirt will be vibrant. What they don’t tell you is that after those first several days have come and gone and you’ve more or less forgotten about the tie-dying because you’re home from family camp and fully transitioned into school year mode, your wet shirt, which has been scrunched or twisted up and secured with rubber bands and enclosed in a sealed ziploc bag, will become fertile ground for colonies of mold. Or possibly mildew. I am honestly not sure of the difference, when it comes to gross spots growing on something I was planning to put on my body. Either way, when you remember to take the shirts out of their bags and start the chiropractic appointment-inducing process of rinsing them out in the bathtub, and you see the grayish brownish spots clustered across the shirts, you make a face that indicates an unpleasant mixture of disappointment, frustration, and disgust.

Yuck.

Your research reveals that a possible remedy could be soaking the shirts in vinegar. Although in your gut you feel like they’re too far gone, you have to try. Surprisingly, three different stores you visit are completely out of white vinegar. Finally, you order some online from Target, in one of your midnight shopping sprees where you make other exciting purchases such as frozen burritos, saltines, maxi pads, paper towels, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. You are living the high life.

Because that’s the way you roll, it takes a few more weeks for you to actually soak the shirts, although they have been rinsed and are dryish and you are pretty sure no longer nurturing the fungus (if it even is fungus?) besmirching them. You’re just feeling kind of defeated by them. The giant jug of vinegar sits in the hallway, mocking your bad decision making and poor time management skills.

As time passes, you think a lot about preschool. One of the many mantras at your kids’ amazing cooperative preschool was “process, not product.” Emphasis on the kids doing whatever they wanted to do with the materials put in front of them — or that they unearthed while playing in the mud garden or tromping through the woods — rather than the ultimate creation of something recognizable or a specific end goal. This is a good rule of thumb for life with little ones, as products rarely–if ever–turn out as expected. Also a good thing for adults to remember, although we are usually held to the standard of producing some kind of acceptable end result. And process is how you learn. Process is the journey. Process is the sensory experience of getting your hands dirty–or stained with dye in the arts and crafts cabin at camp. You recall the peaceful hour spent with your nine-year-old carefully choosing tie-dye patterns, helping them rubber band the shirts, and finding exactly the right color combinations. You each made a shirt or two and a couple bandanas. The bandanas are easy but not quite as satisfying as a result.

If you’re being truthful, each of you already has several tie-dye shirts in your drawers, that you made at previous family camps or on summer vacations during the pandemic. So you’ve enjoyed the process many times before, and even managed to make some decent shirts.

Now that you have soaked the shirts (and stunk up the house with the aroma of vinegar) and washed the shirts and dried the shirts, you discover that three of the shirts still have enough remaining mold (or mildew!?) stains to make them unwearable. Somehow one shirt emerged unscathed, as well as two bandanas.

You wonder if there is anything useful to do with the rejected shirts. You already have enough dust rags for a squadron of Cinderellas. You fleetingly imagine cutting up sections of the shirts that aren’t stained and sewing them into something else. But what? A doll-sized blanket? Plus, you can’t sew. You think of your friend who can sew and wonder what she would do. In addition to sewing, she is an expert at tie-dying, and you’re certain she would never have made the mistake of allowing tie-dyed t-shirts to languish in their baggies until they grow things. But her kids attended that same preschool, and you know she would appreciate your “process not product” attempt at consolation.

Lately I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Somehow more than what I expect from myself, as if I am more than human. My new mantra, although I am many decades out of preschool, is process, not product. I am still learning.

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