Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” May Sarton
“Mom…you didn’t get anything from Santa,” my then four-year old said sadly two years ago on Christmas morning as she sat on the wrapping paper littered living room floor.
I had been watching her excitedly open her stack of presents, but when there are two people in a family- one child and one adult- the dynamics are different. It is challenging and requires a very deliberate effort to keep enforcing the fact that you are a grown-up and she is a child. Somehow the one-on-one dynamic implies equality if you’re not careful. You do things together. Share the same food. Watch the same shows. Listen to the same music. There’s no, “Go play with your sister,” or “You kids sit and eat here while mom and dad clean up.” It’s just the two of us seven full days a week.
So, I understood why she was surprised I hadn’t gotten any presents. She’s an incredibly generous soul and won’t really enjoy a delicious treat unless I also have some. I tell her she’s like a Korean or Italian grandmother literally pushing food in my mouth sometimes because “It’s sooo good, you have to try some!” She felt the same way opening up all of her presents.
So, the next year, when she was five, Santa brought me presents. Three presents. A book light so I could read at night if I was sitting by her bed waiting for her to fall asleep- something I’d been wanting. A small sketching set I found at a store like TJ Maxx or Marshalls and was attracted to even though I’d never sketched. (This was the seed of the sketching class I later took that summer) And finally, Santa brought me one of those lovely chunky bib necklaces with dripping smokey peach colored jewels and the slightest hint of iridescence. My presents were wrapped under the tree just like Audrey’s. She watched eagerly and sweetly as I opened each one. “It’s beaaauutiful!” she said touching the necklace gently. This past year, Santa also got me a few nice things including another sparkly necklace. And to this day, she remembers exactly which items were from Santa. If I wear the chunky necklace, I usually get a few compliments to which I have to be careful to respond in front of her, “Thanks, Santa got it for me,” rather than, “I got it for myself for Christmas.”
With my husband, the one who would typically buy me things and take me places, gone- I’ve had to adapt in the past few years. I’ve realized that if I don’t do certain things for myself, no one else will. In grief work, they call that integrating. The things that he brought to my life, to Audrey’s- I try to continue bringing myself. And I think this truth is something one also learns with age. When you’re younger, you have high expectations for how others will celebrate you. Will they decorate your locker for your birthday in high school? Will your parents paint your room the way you’re hoping they will as a surprise? And then you date and fall in love and marry and have high expectations of your husband. What will he get me for Christmas? Will he surprise me by putting together the baby’s crib while I’m at my baby shower? (Yes, he did). It happens in your career too. Will someone notice my writing and come asking me to write a book? The truth is, if you wait for that- you may be waiting a long time. You’ll probably have to submit many, many proposals and queries and accept many rejections while you strive for that external recognition.
Part of growing older though, is realizing that no one knows you or what you like/enjoy better than yourself. So you find ways to celebrate and take some of the pressure off those around you.
This past year, a young widow I had befriended was going to celebrate her first Christmas without her husband. She had integrated him into their holiday decorations and gifts for the kids, but she was talking about how he would always get her something pretty. Then I told her about how Santa buys me three presents and encouraged her to do the same. She did, and she spread the advice to another newly widowed young woman in her circle.
I’ve had to do some tough things the past few years, and no one’s really been there or able to say, “Wow, good job. That must’ve been hard, but you did it.” A lot of these things were not on public display. But I’ve learned to congratulate myself. When I finally went back and sorted through digital photos from the second year of Audrey’s life- the year her father died- and created a beautiful album– I included a gift note on the Shutterfly site so that when I received the album, the first thing I saw was “You did it!” Those gift note options are actually pretty great, and I use them often now. I order a few new things to freshen up my kitchen the other day from Anthropologie after I’ve spent days cleaning it top to bottom. I’ve been in survival mode for so long that making things look “pretty” seemed superficial, but I’m craving beauty and order. I have bought miniature succulents and place them on a pretty tray on the bay window above my kitchen sink. I buy pretty glass bottles for soap and dishwashing liquid, and one of those pricey gel mats to stand on while I wash the dishes every night. When my colorful new Anthropologie dish towels and linen and lace oven mitt arrive, they will come with a gift note: “Enjoy your clean kitchen! You deserve it!”
The first birthday I celebrated after Dan died, people wanted to give me support. A coworker of his gave me a gift card to NYC’s Mandarin Oriental’s spa. I had a great massage followed by a walk up Central Park West to a restaurant where probably twenty friends from all different circles joined me for a dinner organized by another friend. But the second, third, and fourth birthdays have been quieter. I’ve gone out to eat with my parents for dinner at night. Last year I asked them to read to Audrey upstairs in Barnes and Noble so I could get a coffee and walk around looking at books for my birthday. But this year, I decided to take Audrey to see the cherry blossoms in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and stay with friends. It would be my first time back in our old Park Slope neighborhood. I visited a small jewelry shop with beautiful things made my local artisans where he’d sometimes buy me things. And I bought Audrey a charm necklace with the letter A stamped on it, and some lovely three dimensional cube earrings for myself for my birthday. I decided to keep her home from school on Monday, my birthday, and take her to the Plaza for afternoon tea before coming home- something we’d tried to do for her birthday in September but been unable to because they were closed for renovation. After a delicious breakfast at our friend’s place downtown, we got dressed up and headed to the Plaza. (stopping for the obligatory stroll through the American Girl store on the way). “I like your earrings- those are so cool!” the young hostess at the Plaza said to me as she checked our coats. “Thanks- I just got them for myself,” I said. And then we enjoyed a delicious tea and cakes and finger sandwiches sitting amongst the Palm trees and orchids.
Later, when I got home, I found one package waiting for me from a very steadfast friend whose presentation in packages is always a delight. In this package, she’d colorfully wrapped lots of little presents and put titles on them like, “Something whimsical,” or “Something that’ll come in handy.” In her card she suggested I open one each day of my “birthday week” to extend the celebration. And she closed the note with something a friend had told her, “As we get older, we have to make our own magic.” This is true. It can look as fancy as the Plaza or as simple as writing yourself a congratulatory gift note. It can be a small gift under the Christmas tree that starts you off on a new creative endeavor or it can mean continuing to practice the art of writing and risking rejection to get it out there. It’s taken me 39 years and the loss of my dear husband to learn it. You’re allowed. Make your own magic. It may just be the best kind.