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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Oh, What a Night !

In theory, New Year’s Eve was made just for me. It has all the elements of a perfect holiday. After all, I love to be with people. I love to overindulge and I love to fill my life with new rules.

But, in reality, it ranks pretty low on the good times scale for me. It's just too much work and too much pressure.

Ever since I was old enough to go out, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect New Year’s Eve celebration.  High school years were spent driving in circles through Flourtown and Wyndmoor and Oreland, five or six of us crammed into Patty (aka Penny’s) tan Corvair, looking for parties that never materialized. During college, I rang in the New Year in Lititz with my roommate Betsy (same name, different hair color) at parties in her parent's basement. In later years, we'd hang out at her twin sister Pam's house where I'd wake up on the living room floor, face-to-face with new-found friends. One year I recall driving my Ford Pinto out to Brownstown or Blue Ball, or some other Amish suburb, with Ann Rodgers, partner-in-crime, to celebrate with the funnest guy ever, the inimitable Paul Franze.

I toasted 1985 in Moscow (as in the USSR) with my sister Susan in sub-zero temperatures, warmed only by bounteous bottles of vodka. I threw my own party in 2006 when we moved to our new and improved party house, but everyone brought their nasty children, so that was the end of that.

I spent way too many New Year’s Eves running to the Ladies’ Room at 11:55 pm so I wouldn’t be the one left standing solo without someone to kiss. I spent too many New Year’s Days wishing I hadn’t done or said or ate what I did or said or ate. I spent too much of my life looking for the perfect party when watching Taylor Swift on TV in Times Square would suit me just fine. But, it’s New Year’s and I have to go out.

I’m getting better though. For the past several years, I’ve succumbed to my age and simply spend the night with our fun-loving friends Jean and Tom and Gary and Michelle. Sometimes we have guest appearances, but it’s basically become the six of us, usually at Jean’s house. After all, she’s proven to be the perfect party host.

After spending a particularly raucous Christmas Day with the aforementioned, I actually suggested skipping New Year’s all together this year. I couldn’t imagine putting another morsel of food or shot of alcohol into my bursting-at-the-seams body and soul. Jean entertained the idea, and we hemmed and hawed, admitting that her husband would be just as happy to sit in the recliner alone with a bottle of Bud. But, in the end we felt bad for poor Gary and Michelle. How could we possibly leave them all alone? And so, we will do tonight what the rest of the world is prone to do, and toast in the New Year with too much food and too many drinks.

Meanwhile, my daughter, Molly, will “ascend to the peak of sophisticated revelry” at the Gansevoort Hotel in Manhattan where she will drink and dance the night away with other carefree college graduates with credit cards. I’m sure she’ll position herself to get the first kiss of the year from an incredibly handsome eligible bachelor. And for the first five minutes of 2015, she will truly believe that he is “the one.”

When I ask the stupid questions, I'll get the equally stupid answers. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll find somewhere to sleep. Or I’ll just take the bus home. Alone. At 4 am."

Max, who has been 21 for 96 hours, has yet to disclose what he will be doing tonight. "Don’t worry, Mom. I’m not stupid enough to drive on New Year’s Eve."

And, Leo never discloses what he is doing. "Don’t worry, Mom. I would never have people over on New Year’s Eve."

Good. Then neither of them should mind that the liquor is locked up and the car keys hidden. 

Tonight, as 2014 comes to a close and my kids go off in search of the perfect place to be, I can only hope they find it. I hope two out of three of them will text me at midnight (one will undoubtedly forget and blame it on poor reception). I hope that when they roll out of bed sometime tomorrow afternoon that they will be happy with where they've been and what they've done. But most of all, I hope that they, and all their friends out there, call an Uber if they have to. 

After all, you never know. The driver may be single.

                        Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Onslaught of the Offspring

It all began when I yelled at my dog. Now, everyone knows I'm not particularly fond of my dog, but I’m also the first to admit he’s not bad as dogs go. He’s well-behaved, eager-to-please and wants only two things out of life. Food and love. I can give him half of what he needs.

He has this annoying habit of looking at me. I’ll be in the kitchen slicing my spouse’s shrubbery and he sits ten feet away, looking at me. I know what’s going on in his simple little mind. He actually thinks that I am going to slip up and give him some people food. And I’ll admit, sometimes I think about it.

“Want a nice hot pepper, Griffey?”

I have trained him not to come close when I’m cooking, cleaning or carrying groceries in from the store. And he doesn’t. But I know what he’s thinking. If he plays his cards right, he might get a little love from me.

And that makes me feel guilty. 

On Monday night as I was busily baking my batches of Christmas cookies and candy, (a third of the goodies go out -- to the hairdresser, the mail carrier, the trash collector and two-thirds stay right within reach to perpetuate the sickenly-sweet sugar high that finally comes to a crashing halt five pounds later on New Year’s Day.)

Griffey, perched across the room made no move to scarf up the cranberry and white chocolate cookie batter that splattered on the floor. He just looked at me. And that’s when I flipped.

“OK. Outside with you! Now!”

I flung open the back door and ousted him into the cold. I picked up the cookie batter off the dog-haired kitchen floor and plopped it right into my mouth.

And that’s when I paused.

There I was, all alone in the house. The boys were busy taking finals at their respective colleges and Molly was safely inside her Teach for America bubble of a life in New Orleans. My spouse was chasing down stories about trucking accidents and I was living the dream.

I was alone.

There were no little kids pulling on my apron strings, no one asking for food, no one demanding my attention. Just me.

And the dog.

Surely the dog couldn’t be causing me that much anxiety. After all, I had survived life with a three, five and seven year-old. And a dog. And then a thirteen, fifteen and seventeen year-old.  And a dog.

Had I really gotten that old and fragile that I couldn’t even handle one dependent mammal at a time, and one who didn’t talk back, one who didn’t ask for money, one who didn’t drive, or leave her shoes all over the house or bumble his way through pre-calculus? I didn’t have to worry about Griffey’s future, his grades, his safety, his girlfriends, his manners. And yet, that old familiar stressed-out flip-out came spewing out of me just as if one of my kids had thrown a baseball through a window, forgotten poster board for the year-end project or scraped the side of the car on the guardrail on Route 4 and never thought it was worth telling me about.

A burned batch of fudge later, I realized my reaction had nothing to do with the dog.

It was the anticipation of the imminent onslaught of the offspring.

They are arriving in shifts which makes it easier on my shattered nerves. But they are staying for a long time. Leo is home for 34 days. Max is home for 25. And dear Molly, bless her heart, will only be here for 13. Yes, I counted.

My kids are old. They are independent creatures. They come and go as they please. But they are still here. Looking at me.

Just like the dog.

But unlike the dog, they will bring their dirty laundry, both literal and figurative.  They will steal my tweezers. And snatch their brother’s sweatpants. They will take long showers and leave me no hot water. They will go out on New Year’s Eve and make me worry until they get home. Or worse, they’ll ask if they can have the party at our house. They will need money for gas. And clothes. And tuition. And rent. They will devour everything in the house and still say there’s nothing to eat. They will roll their eyes about anything resembling a family dinner and weasel their way out of church on Christmas Eve. They will use their bedroom floor as a bureau and the basement as a brewery. They will fight over the car and fight over the Kardashians. They will leave their long, long hair wrapped around the bathtub drain and their short, short whiskers peppered in the bathroom sink. They will go to bed late and sleep even later and look to me for protection when the father says, “Get a job!” They will parade people in and out of the house, some of whom will be asleep on the couch in the morning. In a moment of weakness, they will confide in me, telling me about their friends, or lack of; their loves or lack of; their jobs or lack of; their dreams or lack of. And I will fester and fret and hurt and hope, half-wishing they hadn’t opened up to me.

And then, one-by-one, they’ll go back to New Orleans and Los Angeles and Piscataway. I’ll wash the sheets, pick up the stray socks, empty the water bottles and get a good night’s sleep.

Griffey will sit on the kitchen floor and look at me. I'll reflect back on the Christmas chaos and start counting the days until summer vacation with a muddle of joy and dread. And I'll pat the dog, toss him a biscuit and wonder who ever came up with this crazy concept called unconditional love.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Last Christmas Card

"Hey, where’s my Christmas picture?" my friend Laura asked in an e-mail on December 20, 2006.

Laura is a keeper of e-mails and other fond memories and recently re-sent me our eight year-old electronic conversation. While I don't remember all the details of that specific day, it was so typical of my former life that I don't for a minute question it's authenticity.

Molly was 14, Max was 12 and Leo was 10 years-old. I no longer had to tie their shoes or pour their juice, but I still had to cook their meals and wash their clothes. I didn't have to read them bedtime stories, but I still had to monitor their homework. I could finally leave them home alone, but when I was home, they still didn't leave me alone. The physically demanding years had passed and I was on to the emotional challenges that only adolescents and teenagers can incite.

And so, here is how I responded to Laura's question eight years ago.

 Where's my Christmas picture
 "It’s coming," I wrote. "We had a big fiasco about it. I was so overwhelmed (what else is new?) with hosting the All Girls’ Annual Christmas Party last weekend, then shopping, having 3-6 extra kids here every day after school, sports, writing the church Christmas pageant, directing it, acting in it and then buying and decorating a tree, jumping into the car and driving to Philadelphia for yet another party on Sunday.

I have a friend who is dying of lymphoma and I have more or less adopted his two younger kids so the mother can work when she can and care for him. He just got out of the hospital yesterday after seven weeks which makes me nervous cause I’m afraid he’s going to get a fever and have to go back in before Christmas. The kids are a major handful. The boy is 11 going on 40 (he’s good friends with Leo). The girl will be 9 the day after Christmas and is simply adorable and I love her madly but she does need quite a bit of loving attention (though what can you expect, her father’s been sick for five years).

Anyway, I say to spouse, “Spouse, how about it we do something really radical this year and send out cards without photos?”

I got some sort of grumble in response, so took that as an assent and proceeded to buy actual Christmas cards for the first time in 14 years. I signed and sealed about half of them on Tuesday night and when aforementioned spouse saw them sitting on my desk said, “I thought we agreed we were going to send out pictures.”

“We have no picture. There’s no way we’ll get them out in time,” I say.

“I’ll come home from work early tomorrow and take the picture,” he counters.

“Fine,” I pout and give him Wednesday night as a deadline, knowing they won't make it for Christmas no matter what we do.

Also knowing that he won’t get home early from work, I assemble the offspring on the front porch to take the picture. Kids are rolling their eyes, I’m screaming, “Why do you have to fight about this EVERY SINGLE YEAR?”  Neighbors are gawking.

Koree, a semi-permanent fixture in our house, impales himself on our fence while playing basketball. His brother Kris keeps coming to me to saying Koree’s hurt, Koree's hurt. I think he’s faking it because he and Leo had a fight.

I move the children inside when Leo refuses to smile because he hates Koree who is his inseparable best friend. Meanwhile, Molly says the picture won’t work anyway because we have no attachment for the computer. I have no idea what's she's talking about, having never touched the digital camera in my life.

Koree comes in crying and can’t open his eye. I grab a bag of frozen peas and put him on the couch.

I line up my three in front of the fireplace for seven more pictures, all of which are nixed by Molly.

Jaelin calls from outside that he’s hungry and asks if we are still getting pizza.

“ONLY IF THESE KIDS COOPERATE!” I scream with an added, “You’re scared of me, aren’t you?”

I note that Anthony (son of the aforementioned sick father) is holding a tape recorder. I tell him he better erase every single thing he’s recorded or his parents will never let him come to my house again.

Finally, I take a picture in front of the piano. Decent, but not great. I order the pizza and drag Molly with me to CVS. I had no idea you could get pictures printed up instantly! You know how many years I took pictures, got them developed and had to redo the entire card? These kiosks even take out the red eye! It’s so quick, but because I ordered 80 cards and was so enthralled with the machine, it took a full 20 minutes before we were off to get the now-cold pizza.

Got home. Koree had risen from the couch and the peas were strewn across the hardwood floor.

“My mom called. We have Riverside tonight.”  (That’s where they play basketball – at Riverside Church in Manhattan).

Practice starts at 6 o’clock and it’s now 5:30 and I’ve just walked in the door with the pizza. I have forgotten all about practice.

I call the mother of Koree and tell her there’s no way I can get them into the city and she’ll have to drive. She barrels over and loads Max, Leo, Kris and Koree into the car, all with greasy pizza in their hands.

Anthony and his sister Christina were picked up by someone, somehow in the chaos. Jaelin can’t find his cell phone and is now in tears. His mother calls my cell phone which has horrible reception in the house and says she’s on her way. We scramble to find the phone and it was recovered.

All the children were now gone except for meek (in a good moment) little Molly. Kris and Koree’s mother calls and says there was no Riverside practice for the little ones after all, so she’ll bring them home, but I'll have to go pick up the older ones at 8 pm. Which I did, and sat outside until 8:36 because practice ran late.

Came home, finished the cards, stamped them and will be dropping them in the mailbox this morning." 
This year, after Thanksgiving dinner, my kids assembled themselves on my sister's couch. What a perfect opportunity to revive the Christmas picture tradition, I said. And as I started snapping, it became abundantly clear that 2006 will live in infamy as the last year a Voreacos Christmas picture was ever sent.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Toilet Bowl

Nearly 50 Thanksgivings ago, Mr. Sommerville, father of my first and finest friend Margaret, organized a friendly football game in front of his house on Woods Road. It was quickly decreed an annual tradition to be ever after known as The Toilet Bowl. Every year The Seat of Power, a white toilet seat attached to the base of a discarded golf trophy, is proudly presented to the game’s MVP, his or her name adhered to the seat for all of eternity. What was once a simple neighborhood game to entertain the kids, or perhaps a ploy to keep us out of the kitchen while our mothers basted the bird, The Toilet Bowl has taken on a life of its own. Friends, lovers and other strangers have all handled the pigskin, cheered on the sidelines, shivered in the snow and shed sweatshirts on the rare 70-degree turkey days. A post-game wrap-up in the form of food always follows. It started as cold cuts and Charlie Chips potato chips at Sommerville's then morphed into chili and chocolate chip cookies at my sister Nancy's house and is now at Schaeffer’s, right where it belongs. It's a final place for friends to gather together on Thanksgiving morning before filtering off to respective family functions.

The Toilet Bowl has endured for decades, surviving the turnover of the neighborhood and the varying degrees of heartbreak we suffered when our idyllic childhoods came screeching to a halt as parents sold our birthrights out from under us. New neighbors, who are not so new anymore, have moved onto Woods Road. And while they may hold the deed to their homes, to us, they'll always be the people who moved into The Sommerville’s House, The Hunsicker’s House, The Gallagher’s House or The Wert’s House. Our childhood memories are strong and happy and it would take far more than a blog to capture their true essence.

There is one house on Woods Road that has stayed the same. Upon leaving this world, Mr. and Mrs. Schaeffer bequeathed their humble abode to their favorite son. In return, he promised to uphold an open door policy, providing all family, friends and neighbors a home base for the rest of their lives.

And so, the Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving tradition was born. It began simply enough – a few of us twenty-somethings sitting around the Schaeffer’s kitchen table reconnecting and reminiscing as we sipped Rolling Rocks and scarfed down onion dip. Eventually we got jobs. We got married. We had babies. We moved across the country. But on Thanksgiving Eve, we came back, year after year.

Twenty-three years ago, a potential blip by the name of Richard entered the world just a few days before Thanksgiving. No one thought twice about it; we knew the party would go on. After all, this was the Schaeffer's third child and mother Nancy had long ago perfected the fine art of holding a newborn in one arm and serving Pigs-in-a-Blanket in the other, while toddlers nipped at her heels.

More years passed. More of us had children. Some of us brought our kids to the party and let them run amok until they ran out of steam. Some of us were wiser, leaving them at home with our spouses who would single-handedly feed, bathe, dress and transport three of them from North Jersey to Pennsylvania in time for The Toilet Bowl kick-off Thursday morning. And the wisest of us never reproduced at all.

Despite where we were in our lives, the Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving Party at the Schaeffer’s was an excuse for ten, or twenty or more of us to get together. Over time, more and more friends and neighbors and their offspring have joined the party, blurring the lines between founding fathers and new-found friends.

The kids grew into people. They went to college. They came home from college. They came to the party. They stayed at the party. And somewhere along the line, they trumped as at our own game. They outnumbered us. They out-drank us. They outlasted us.

But they never ousted us.

This year, the 30th annual Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving Party was perhaps the best of the bunch. My sister Emily and I were a little late arriving. Debby, her college roommate, was joining us for Thanksgiving and her train from New York City was delayed. By the time we got to Schaeffer's about 8:30, the house was already full, the food and spirits flowing. The house was alive with celebration. Jarrett and Hayley had recently gotten engaged. Kit and her family were home from Seattle, though sadly, not for good. From room to room, young to old, there was no disguising that familiar home-for-the-holidays, good-time feeling.

When I was a twenty-something kid, I know I wasn't hanging out with fifty-something parents. Sure, Mrs. Bergman may have slipped us the occasional whiskey and Diet Coke before we went off to The Depot, but it was certainly not the norm. On the rare occasions when I had to socialize with my parents' friends, I'd exchange pleasantries, ending the encounter right after the inevitable "Where are you working now?" question. 

But, these kids are different. They actually seem to enjoy being with us. On Wednesday night they didn't avoid us, rather chatted us up, telling tales of Penn State and St. Lawrence and Temple. They shared stories about their lives in the Air Force, the Army, the music world and the computer world. They told us about their new jobs at MoMA and their not-so-new jobs in speech pathology. They talked to us like they cared what we thought and made us believe we were still just as much fun as we were thirty years ago.

Taylor chose the tunes, swinging us from arm to arm as we belted out She's A Brick House and Dancing Queen and Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Baby. Kyle bailed early, but Will kept our glasses full. And Kelly, my long-time favorite, gave us a glimpse of what the future would hold.

Kelly was the first in the group to become a mother. Naturally, her adorable 16 month-old son attended the party, scooting across the kitchen floor, charming the guests until he grew weary of the shenanigans. And when he was done, he conked out in an empty room upstairs, just as dozens of kids had done dozens of times before.

And so it began, the first of the next generation of fun.

Meanwhile, down on the dance floor, our generation is reaching the top of the food chain. All but the luckiest of us have lost both parents. We're losing hair and replacing hips. Battling demons and conquering diseases. Retiring from jobs we've loved and quitting jobs we've despised. We've lived our lives, running households, building businesses, caring for the sick and traveling the world.

We've learned our lessons the old-fashioned way. We are old and achy enough to know we can no longer fall asleep on the Schaeffer's couch and toast Thanksgiving morning with a hair of the dog that bit us.

But the kids can.

And they will. Until they can't.

And then their kids will.

As for me, I can only hope that 20, 30 or 50 years from now, I'll still be rocking. Maybe I'll be in a chair in the corner holding Jarrett and Hayley's baby's baby. Or stumbling to the kitchen with my walker, searching for that nice young man who gave me a spoonful of chocolate to help wash my peppermint liqueur nightcap down all those years ago. Or maybe I won't even know where I am.

But I'll be there, one way or another.
After all, we got this party started.