2016 – a Kidney Stone of a Year

This is the first day of 2017, and I say, thank gods!

2016 was a kidney stone of a year. Yeah, it finally passed, but – Ow!! At times it seemed as if everyone who’d ever had their names in the paper for anything was on a list, and the guy with the sickle was collecting. And I’m still not ready to talk about the election.

So I’m delighted to see the new year in, though there’s really no reason to think it’ll be a whit better. But before I start looking ahead, I want to take a quick look back at the personal parts of the old year, which from that perspective had some great highlights.

Tori and I had a couple of great road trips. The long one took us to Virginia for the Blackbeard Festival, with stops in Jamestown, Yorktown and Harpers Ferry, and up to Maryland to see our niece, Jenny, then on to Pennsylvania for a book signing, and down to Baltimore for a book event (and a very, very disappointing dinner at the Silver Queen Cafe. If I never go back it’ll be too soon.) Then down to Knoxville for a couple of days with our friends Robyn and Dan and a couple more book events and then home. Our second trip was on the Talk Like a Pirate Day weekend, when we headed out to Cedar Key, Florida, the little town with the giant heart, for the Cedar Key Pirate Festival, followed by a drive home for the holiday itself and an appearance at the local Barnes & Noble.

Along the way, we met some great people who I now count as friends.

Besides the events themselves, it was just great to spend so much time with Tori, just the two of us. Max is getting ready for college (another highlight of the year, he’s near the top of his senior class and has been accepted at the University of New Orleans where he’ll study jazz guitar or computers are both.) That certainly suggests that we’ll have more time together – just the two of us – than we ever had before. Since the day we met we haven’t had a whole lot of that, we both had kids when we met, and then had a bunch more right away. So, while we miss the kids who are out making their own way, we have to admit the idea of being a couple is kind of enticing.

We also got some news Saturday that makes us even more excited about the new year, but I can’t talk about that quite yet. It’s not my news, and I have promised to wait a couple of weeks.

Speaking of the kids, Millie and her boyfriend, Kevin, spending the Christmas weekend with us was a treat. It also brought one of my favorite moments of the holiday, maybe of the year. A little thing, but sometimes those are the biggest.

I have used a coffee grinder for most of the last 27 years, but when we moved from the island in 2012, our latest coffee grinder did not make the move with us. So I’ve been buying ground coffee for four years. This Christmas Tori got me a new grinder and a pound of beans. As I opened it up, it opened a channel to a memory for Millie and Kate.

“Oh, yeah,” Millie said. “Every morning when I was lying in bed I’d hear the coffee grinder in the kitchen and know it was almost time for you to come wake me up.” “Yeah,” Kate said, “I remember that.”

You never know what’s going to spark a memory for your kids. You hope it’s something important, some way you’ve shaped their lives, or something fun, vacations to the coast or reading all the Harry Potter books out loud together.

But sometimes it’s going to be something as simple and homey as the whir of the coffee grinder from the kitchen stirring them from sleep, signaling that their day is about to start. A sound you associate with the comfort of sleep and the comfort of family life.

And of all the things that happened in 2016, that was the one that got me a little misty.

Monday I’ll talk about resolutions (spoiler alert, I’m not making any. I’m making something better, instead.) But for now, so long 2016. You were pretty awful, but you still brought us some light from time to time. It’s just a question of what you’re looking for, and where you look.

The Story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas

Gather round, boys and girls, and I’ll tell you all the story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas. STOP RIGHT THERE! I told you to sit down.

YOU – Will this be a loooong story, John?

ME – It sure will, and it’ll get even longer if you keep interrupting! Now stop fidgeting, pour me a little more of that egg nog – Don’t be stingy with the brandy! – and settle back. Alright then.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1960s, when Tori was just a wee slip of a girl, she and her mother and father and brother moved to the Philippines. Her mother, Janet, wanted to keep all the traditions of Christmas for the kids, but the Philippines were on the other side of the world and they didn’t have a lot of the things the family was accustomed to, including no Christmas trees with twinkly lights and glass balls and candy cane ornaments and what not. So Janet had to improvise.

She got something to decorate – Tori was a wee sprat at the time and today doesn’t recall if it was a palm tree or just a stick or what. But it was enough for Janet to decorate with local capiz shells and angels and – this is the important part – a collection of cheap plastic animals – chickens, goats, sheep, fish and a cow. Christmas was saved!

Fast forward about 20 years. That wee slip of a girl had grown into a beautiful, vivacious woman who I had the good sense to marry just as quick as I could convince her to say yes. (And that took some doin’, but that’s a different story.) We were living in Oregon, and we still had the shells from the Philippines, and fish and the angels – and the cow. It was a little the worse for wear, the garish paint had mostly chipped off and it had lost a leg (rear, right side, I believe) but we hung it on the tree every year, a tribute to family and memories and good times.

And one year – late 1990s or early 2000s – we were decorating the tree and one of the kids – Ben? – picked up the cow and asked, “Why are we putting a cow on the Christmas tree? And why does it only have three legs?”

We could have told him the real story – it’s a good story – but we’d already told it once or twice. Besides, what fun is that? What’s the point of having kids if you can’t fill their heads with harmless nonsense?

So on the spot, Tori and I made up a whole involved story about the cow being in the manger and witnessing the birth of baby Jesus. “’The cattle are lowing,’” we reminded them, from the song. “’The poor baby wakes.’ But what if the cattle weren’t lowing. Maybe the poor baby wouldn’t have woken up, so the cow saved the baby’s life.”

“But why does it only have three legs?” we were asked.

“Well,” we said, thinking fast. “It was a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then Mary had to give birth and that’s hard work, so they were tired and hungry. So the cow gave up its leg so they could have something to eat.”

We even made up a song to go with it. Join in, kids, you know the tune and the words are easy.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

You sacrificed your leg so that,

Jesus could have, his breakfast

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

Ah, good times. A few years later, when Ben moved to New York, we even recorded the song and sent it to him.

We still have the cow, of course, although it’s not currently on the tree. It’s in the box of Christmas stuff in our storage shed in Albany, Or., where it’s been since we moved in July 2008. (Yes, we still have the storage shed on which we pay monthly rent. It makes sense, but that’s another story. Get me more egg nog and I’ll finish this up.)

So fast forward again. Couple of days ago Ben was part of a live webcast for a series he’s in (These People, very funny, check it out online.) It was their Christmas special. Afterwards, the cast stayed on camera while the audience asked questions, and one of the questions was, “What are some of your special Christmas memories?”

There was a moment of silence, then Ben finally said, “When I was a kid we used to hang a three-legged cow on the tree, it was supposed to be the sacred Cow of Christmas or something. We even had a song about it.” One of the other cast members asked, “Do you remember the song?” Ben denied it. There was no way he was going to be coaxed into singing that on-camera. But I don’t believe him for a second. I’m sure he remembers the song.

But more importantly, out of all the Christmas memories he could have shared, that was the one his mind jumped to. It was pretty special. And it went all the way back to Janet trying to make the holidays special for her family, half a world away. It made the holiday for us. I get a little teary just thinking about it. But that might just be the egg nog.

Merry Christmas from the Baurs.