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Two Kitchens

March 3, 2013

Two Kitchens

 

 

My Mutha, Mary Lou, a grand dame of our town, the President of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and the past-President of the Magnolia Garden Club, and I were baking a chocolate sheet cake in the messy kitchen of our home, a big turn of the century home on a busy street in Vicksburg.

 

Because we had not even considered the appropriateness of cleaning the kitchen before we started the cake, the counters were completely filled with food and utensils from breakfast.  Much of the stuff on the counters were caked with leftover food from breakfast; a heavy cast iron skillet with hardened bacon grease on the stove, a crockery bowl with Bisquick pancake mix congealing in the sink, the butter dish with a leftover stick of butter softening by the minute as the heat rose on that summer morning in Mississippi.

 

Mutha turned to me when I complained of the lack of counter space and said, “Khaki, relax, just pull out the silverware drawer and put your cake pan on top of that open drawer if you need more counter space.”  I put the cookie sheet down inside the drawer and proceeded to grease and flour it in preparation for pouring the cake mix.  My Mutha was nothing if she was not the mother of invention, the lazy person’s guide to entertaining with her three easy steps to everything.  She always focused on the people and making them feel welcome in our home.  This was opposed to being concerned with having a clean and orderly household, a semi-sanitary kitchen, or even enough food to serve her guests.

 

Halfway into this cake baking event, Mutha pulled out the powder sugar canister from its perch in the over stuffed panty and realized that we needed two cups of confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar for the icing and we had none.  Not even one tablespoon in an empty bag in the bottom of the canister.

 

The metal canisters with the black tops that fit so snuggly a child could barely pry them open had been washed once or twice in my Mutha’s kitchen over the years that we had lived in that house but had not always been dried properly.  Certainly no attention had ever been given to the proper care and maintenance of the metal canisters in my Mutha’s kitchen.  Our maid, Lucille Scott, did her level best to hold that household together but even with all of her effort, the canisters got zero attention.

 

As a result, that morning, no one knew in advance that the canister was empty nor would we have wanted to use the last few tablespoons exposed in the bottom of that rusty canister, even if it had contained a bit of powdered sugar.

 

I knew instinctively what to do.  You see, I had formed by the age of six or seven, resilience and a level of innovativeness and competence, really a take charge attitude, which would have been the envy of a Marine Corp division.  Living with my Mutha, the Auntie Mame, of our little town, one learned to ‘dance’ with whatever occurred.

 

Without conferring with Mutha or even saying a word, I ran out the front door, down the sidewalk to our neighbor, Laura Gucherau’s driveway that ran parallel to our driveway, down her driveway and up her back steps to knock on her back door.

 

Without calling by telephone or even stopping to think, I routinely performed this drill.  Sometimes I knocked and asked for a tray of ice for more high balls.  Sometimes it was a stick of butter or a cup of sugar or any number of missing ingredients that were desperately needed to finish a meal or a boxed cake mix.

 

We always thought of Laura as first, always being at home and second, as always being willing and able to open the back door to receive me.  Most importantly, we perceived Laura to be happy to provide whatever ingredients were missing, even if I arrived twice in the same day or three or four times in the same week.

 

As I hit the back door that day and stepped into Laura’s ‘neat as a pin’ kitchen, Laura said, “Khaki, what in the world would they do over there without you?”

 

 

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What’s Possible for the Little Ones?

March 3, 2013

When I was about 7 years old, I looked around my house and I looked into the smiling beautiful faces of two babies and a 3-year-old toddler and I was awestruck with the possibilities.

I could see these three little ones having great little lives where they were cared for, dressed appropriately every day, not just for Sundays and parties, where they had their stories’ heard, where they felt listened to and had their experiences validated. Things that had not happened for me frequently enough or recently enough for me. I was already aware of these missing components of my own life, even at 7 years old.

I wanted so much for each of them. They were so little and cute. Their eyes were wide with anticipation and their faces were filled with hope and love. I could see, almost like a movie playing in my head, how their lives could be; how they could be cared for, listened to. How they could have an experience of being loved. I imagined them getting their needs met in ways that I, at this point in the life of our family, could barely remember having been met for me.

John was only 3 and half years old and, being the middle child in a family of five, was the most reserved and shy. He didn’t express any needs and never asked for anything, except from our Grandmother, Grandma Jean. He was her favorite because he was named John F. Halpin, IV and she had been married to John F. Halpin, Jr. She doted on John. Although she was a recluse, she would order anything from the Spiegel catalogue that he wanted, including cowboy boots for a 4-year-old. John became very self-sufficient at a very early age; if he was hungry he would peel an orange to eat. He realized early on that he needed to manage his own food sources and, given that he was too young to do much food preparation or use knives, he learned to peel oranges. By the time he was 10 years old, he could peel and consume an entire bag of oranges in one sitting.

Willie had the face of an angel. His dark complexion, soft curly brown hair and big beautiful brown eyes were breathtaking. He was born with a lot of allergic reactions so he didn’t really thrive as an infant or toddler. He was really small until he started the 2nd grade. He got spoiled because he was so sickly. He was such a handful for our parents because he would often feel bad with migraine like headaches from his allergies but not be able to express how bad he really felt. Instead, he would act out and throw temper tantrums. He would routinely, at the age of 3, insert the key into the ignition of one of our two Volkswagen buses and break they key off. Instead of questioning how a three-year old would even be able to figure out this ‘trick’ or why a 3-year-old could be so desperate for attention, my parents just wrung their hands and spent 6-8 hours getting all kinds of friends and neighbors involved in extricating the half of the key from the ignition. This was often done, in the end, by Willie himself with used chewing gum.

Lucy was a beautiful baby and toddler with soft blond, wispy hair who was always up for an adventure. She would go anywhere and do anything with her older siblings and her Mutha. She often spoke her mind to of us or anyone else who would listen. She was about two years old when a very large golfer from out-of-town who was at the Vicksburg Country Club for a tournament, bent over one day at the swimming pool to pat her on the head and admire her great smile. She smiled brightly and remarked, “You sure are fat” to the golfer who backed away sheepishly.

Seeing how special these three young children were and how much of a gap there would be in their lives around care, attention, affection and even food and safety, I stepped boldly in at 7 years old to fill the gap. I confidently assumed that this movie that was being played in my head could be written, directed, and produced magnificently by me even though I had no authority, resources, or accountability.

Background – In Charge

March 3, 2013

Draft as of March 30, 2007

 

 

In Charge

I was standing in the Dining Room of our home, a large, turn of the century, sturdy house with a wide front porch that ran the width of the two-story house.  This house had a living room, big enough for a basketball game that extended the entire depth of the house, a large dining room, a breakfast room, a large kitchen, a laundry room and bathroom all on the first floor.  We had 4 bedrooms, a bath and a large hall on the second floor and a basement that had been partially converted to a rumpus room.

 

I lived in a small town in Mississippi in a family that, at that time, had been attending Mass at the same Catholic Church for six generations.  This was the Catholic Church, Pre-Vatican II that encouraged young Catholic to only marry other Catholics and forbid them to use any form of birth control.  This was the same Catholic Church that did not require any level of emotional maturity before being married ‘in the Church’ or before baptizing these young couples’ babies.  The same Priest married my parents and then baptized 5 babies in 8 years without any consideration, or even a thought, about how those babies would be cared for.

 

I spent every Friday night with my Granny.  If I was 7 years old, she would have been 61 which meant that she was still working full-time as quality control supervisor in the County Welfare Department.  I created a haven for myself in her home.  Those Friday nights and Saturday mornings gave me an experience of being nurtured with a special bath-time, bedtime stories and a big Southern breakfast.   This oasis provided a respite for me of peace and order, away from the commotion that reigned in my home with two parents, two little brothers, an older sister and a baby-sister.

 

One Saturday morning, after arriving from Granny’s house a block away, standing in our Dining Room around noon, on a day when our cleaning lady (we called her our Maid back then), Lucille Scott, would not have been working, I surveyed the situation.  I was barely able to see over the top of the dining room table, but I could sense the disorder, clutter and the totally unsanitary kitchen and breakfast room.  I knew intuitively from my Mutha’s sarcasm and negativity, that my Dad had been raging before he left for ‘the office’ that morning.  He was probably raging about the condition of the house, the garage, the backyard, really any one of the many possible opportunities for more order and cleanliness in and around our home.  While we were perceived to be upper middle class because of my father’s profession as a CPA and our family history in Vicksburg, we really lived in a state what could best be described as schizophrenic.  We had beautiful china and silver that we used often to entertain.  Our home was filled with family antiques that prior to my Mutha, had been lovingly restored and maintained.   We attended Catholic Schools and belonged to the Country Club.  But beneath that veneer of respectability, there was a wide deep current running through of neglect and abandonment of the home, the yard and on most days, the children.

 

I was standing in that dining room, with my hands on my hips, at 7 years old and I declared out loud, “Someone has got to make a few decisions around here”!

Introduction

March 3, 2013

 

Introduction

August 3, 2007

 

 

Studies show that your birth order in the family determines a great deal about who you are in life and in your career.  I have not done any formal analysis of this belief but, in examining my own life and the lives of my loved ones, I can see a number of patterns and trends.  Many of these patterns and trends are disturbing and some are even horrifying.

 

What I know for sure is that we all have ‘issues’.  The question is, are we working on our issues?  For those of us who were either first-born in a large family, or, like me, took over the role of the first-born oldest child at an early age, we really have issues to work on.  And many of these issues are not pretty.

 

Yes, our homes are impeccable, we have well-organized closets and lives and we have lots of disposable income that we primarily spend on other people, but we do, in fact, it’s true, have issues.  These issues manifest themselves in a thousand ways every day.  We do not get to take a vacation from our issues.

 

For some first borns, the issue of control can drive them.  Whether it is the need to control where the Kleenex box is placed on the bathroom vanity, how the kitchen towels are managed so as to separate and distinguish between the towels for hands, dishes and counter-tops, or when we pick out educational programs and entire career paths for our children based on what we believe is best from an economic and personality perspective, we like to be in charge and have our directives followed, to a ‘t’.

 

Some first borns have issues they take into the workplace.  My sister and I are both examples of this, and we have many, many issues that manifest themselves in the workplace definitely on a routine basis and our spouses say, on a predictable basis.  Harley and I are both entrepreneurs which is another name for the mentally ill.

 

She is a Realtor in a small town in Mississippi and has amassed a successful real estate business that enjoys quite a monopoly in a small town that has actually lost population in the past 50 years.  “Harley” is synonymous with residential real estate in Vicksburg like “Ebby”, is in Dallas.  Ebby Halliday has been the grand dame of real estate in the affluent parts of Dallas for over 50 years.  Harley has that same reputation and name recognition in Vicksburg; minus the affluent part and for a short 25 years in Vicksburg.

 

Harley is not so successful because of her smarts, but she is really, really smart.  Nor is she so successful because she is a strategic business owner because she’s often not strategic at all.  Harley is so successful because of her ability to assume responsibility – often for things that a Realtor is not responsible for; like repairs needed to sell a house, a packaging deal with a variety of diverse funding sources or working with first time homebuyers in rural Mississippi who are not actually eligible to buy a home if it weren’t for Harley’s creative financing approaches.

 

Often, first borns take responsibility for their siblings’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being.  In our cases, Harley and I have taken responsibility for our nieces’ and nephews’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being, but that is another story.

 

Sometimes we never outgrow these roles.  Our ‘issues’ arise when we continue to take responsibility for these same things once we are adults or even well into middle-age.  We get ourselves into all kinds of chaotic and confusing situations, many of them resembling an episode of “I Love Lucy” because we simply cannot separate ourselves and our own needs and preferences from the needs of our younger siblings, other loved ones, our customers, clients & employees, or even perfect strangers.

 

Our younger siblings most likely do not, in any way, shape or form, have that same degree of sensitivity, some have called it co-dependence that we display daily.  They can frankly care less if we maintain a program of self-care in order to nurture ourselves when we are spending time with them.  Their focus is on their own needs and preferences because of 40 to 60-year-old patterns with us.  Their expectations are, that we too, will have that same focus; their needs and preferences, rather than our needs and preferences.

 

As first borns, we have a degree of empathy that is unparalleled.  In our family, Harley and I have empathy towards our siblings that we and our siblings rarely, if ever, experienced from our own parents.  I think this occurs in all families but I’m not certain.  As young children through young adulthood, we shared responsibility for ‘the little ones’; our two younger brothers and our baby sister.  Even though there is only 8 years difference between Harley’s age and Lucy’s age (the oldest and youngest in our family of 5), we were the most loving, affectionate and attentive parents that Lucy had, at least until we went away to college and then after Harley returned.  (I was able to escape permanently but that’s another story).  Lucy describes the day that I left, in August 1977, when she was 11 years old as one of the darkest days of her life.  But that’s another story.

 

The good thing about first-born is that it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child.  Even the parents who are well-suited to parenting need and deserve back up support from family members, friends and neighbors.

 

Where our issues arise is when we never move out of those roles with our siblings or when we replicate those experiences with other people; spouses, friends, co-workers, clients and employees.  That’s when the trouble begins.

 

That’s where my troubles began and where my issues continue to rise up on a daily and weekly basis.  These stories, of how I took responsibility for things as a child that I was absolutely not responsible for, are many.  I also have an equal number of stories about my life over my entire career and even today where I continue to take responsibility for things that I can absolutely not be responsible for with my clients.  I have no authority, resources, or accountability for resolving their organizational or individual challenges.  Reflecting on these funny stories of my early childhood helps me see more clearly the appropriate role and proper boundaries for me to have now with my clients. At 7 years old, I started taking responsibility for things that I was not responsible for, nor had the authority, accountability or resources to deliver on.  That pattern plays it out with my clients regularly.  One said to me at one point, “Katharine, sometimes I think you want more for me than I want for myself”!  That was a kick in the stomach.

 

However, just because I’ve lived this way for 48 years doesn’t mean that I intend to live this way forever!

 

 

 

 

 

Command and Control

March 3, 2013

Command and Control

 

My Mutha and Daddy were not at home on this particular Saturday.  This was not unusual.  Daddy was never at home on Saturday mornings.  He was always ‘at the office’.  There’s really no way to tell where Mutha was.  She could have been volunteering at the Sheltered Acres School, a residential facility for developmentally disabled children (we called them Retarded in the 1960s), or she could have simply been at a Morning Coffee where she and all of her cronies would have gotten dressed to the nines with hats, gloves, high heels and gotten together in someone’s home in order for one of them to be ‘feted’ or for some event to be commemorated.  They rarely had a good reason to justify their endless cycle of Morning Coffees, Bridge Luncheons, Afternoon Teams and Cocktail Parties.

 

I came to the profound insight at 7 years old, that ‘someone has to make a few decisions around here’ because of my own take charge personality, aggressive attitude, my own physical and emotional need for order and structure and most importantly, because of the mess I was seeing in front of me.

 

Our dining room table, my Grandma Jean’s sideboard, our marble top wash stand and most of the seats of the twelve dining room chairs were covered with unopened mail, baby shoes, children’s dirty socks, a hair brush, barettes, homework left incomplete and unattended for a 2nd grader and a 4th grader, lots of baby paraphernalia commingled with the crystal cut glass bowl that had been a family piece for six generations that was always strategically placed in the center of the dining room table between the two sterling silver candelabras and on top of  silver mirrored tray with little feet that Mutha constantly referred to by some French name that was completely meaningless to everyone else.

 

All available surfaces were completely covered with all of this stuff, accumulated over a period of days, weeks and months.

 

The hard wood floor at one end of the living room was completely trashed with various shoes haphazardly kicked around.  There were at least two pairs belonging to my Mutha, and each one of us five children.  They were all left in the middle of the floor where we had kicked them off as we came through the front door and small foyer.

 

Our book satchels were overflowing with books and papers.  Our lunch boxes were there having never been emptied from the day before with that interesting aroma of left over banana peels and tin.  The ash trays were overflowing with cigarette butts.  Coats and mittens were dropped on the floor or hanging on the backs of the dining room chairs, causing the chairs to sit precariously ready to tip over if a small child bumped into them.  I realized that this disorder, this craziness was not appropriate and I could do something about it.

 

I yelled up the stairs to get my older sister who was all of 8 years old out of her book that she was always buried in.  I got my three younger siblings away from the TV in the basement rumpus room where they had been glued to the Saturday morning cartoons for hours.  I lined everyone up and started barking orders as best as a 7 year old drill sergeant is capable of barking orders.

 

I directed two people to clean up the kitchen and two to work on the downstairs bathroom and laundry room (which were always scary places).  I announced that I would clean up the living room.  I scurried to bring order to the living room, make all of the beds upstairs and then I gave myself permission to lounge on the sofa in a pose that I often saw my Daddy strike, usually at least two times every day; at lunch and before and after dinner (which meant that this was he positioned himself during waking hours at home).  When my siblings, ages 3 through 8 realized that I was no longer hard at work like they were, they came in to protest the unfairness of being bossed around by me, when they perceived I wasn’t doing my share.

 

I announced, “I don’t do domestic work”.

 

Even though I often worked tirelessly to clean and organize all the rooms of our home, something happened inside of me that day when I experienced the power of mobilizing  the forces of my four siblings.  I honestly believed, in that moment, that my talents were better utilized in providing the directions rather than rolling up my sleeves to do some of the work.

 

A fire was ignited that burns to this day.  I got the volume turned up too high on my gifts, almost like a radio sqwaking so loudly that you can no longer hear the music.  My gift has always been to see what is possible for others.  That day, I saw that it was, in fact, possible to have a clean orderly house, even on the week-ends.  As a result of this awareness, I started taking responsibility for things that I absolutely, at 7 years old, was not responsible for.  I felt a sense of power and control.  I felt a sense of accomplishment.  I loved the new-found order and cleanliness.  I really loved feeling more competent than my parents at bringing order to chaos.

 

To this day, over 40 years later, my siblings remind me of this experience and worse, they tell their children this story over and over.  They all laugh and laugh and laugh, like it’s the funniest thing they ever experienced.

 

 

Camping with The Halpins

March 20, 2010

Camping with The Halpins

As Bonnie and I wrap up two weeks in Cabo San Lucas enjoying the waves and the whales from our patio, I got pensive thinking about how far the quality of my vacations has come.

Family vacations, even in the best of families, can be trying experiences. If the parents were well equipped to have children, and if they had a reasonable number of children, like 2 or 3, and if they tended to be pretty well-organized and adult-like, then their family vacations would most likely go off without unnecessary stress, chaos or problems.

We had some friends as children, the Levys. Their dad was a college professor in Connecticut and they came to Vicksburg for the entire summer and two weeks at Christmas every year. We spent a lot of time with them at their Grandmother’s big Victorian mansion with a cook, 2 parents, a grandmother and a great Aunt Rose to supervise us. Their dad spent the entire summer measuring their luggage and configuring the best approach to getting all of their luggage, there were 5 of them total, into the trunk of their 4-door sedan that they drove back and forth from Connecticut to Mississippi.

My dad did not put that much thought into our vacations that’s for sure. He loved to travel because he got to meet new people who had never heard his stories. He liked being in nature, as long as he didn’t have to cut the grass or trim the shrubs. He was also very cheap and once he realized that the 7 of us were too many to fit into one Holiday Inn room, he decided that the thing to do was to buy a camper. Of course, because he was so cheap, he didn’t buy a normal travel trailer. No…he bought a pop-up camper that theoretically slept 8 people. If these campers do in fact sleep 8 people, you better make sure that 2 of them are small children or dwarfs.

I was in about the 7th grade. I had a best friend and since my older sister, Harley, did not have just one best friend, I got to invite my friend, Kelly Ivey, to travel with us sometimes. She made several trips with us. We went to various State Parks around Mississippi and once our Mutha was comfortable driving our station wagon and pulling this pop up camper, we trekked off as for as Panama City and Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Our trips were highly irregular and unique, to say the least. First of all, my Mutha could not back up the station wagon with the trailer attached. Therefore, at every KOA Campground, she’d have to first find a place to park where she didn’t have to back up then go in and have a lengthy conversation with the Manager about securing a space where she could literally ‘pull through’ into the camp ground space, detach the trailer and then move the Station Wagon. There was no way she felt comfortable any other way. Sometimes, we’d arrive late in the evening (due to our lack of planning and general dis-organization) so there would not be an available space at a tip of a triangular shaped Campground. At those times, the Manager of the Campground would have to leave his dinner and family time and back our camper into the only available rental space.

Once we parked the camper, there were a number of mechanical and technical issues to deal with in order to ensure that the camper didn’t lean in one direction or the other or become unsteady once all 7or 8 of us were tucked in for the night. These issues included lowering 4 legs from the corners in order to ‘level’ the camper and unhitching the top, popping it up and securing the corners of the tent structure so that no one was crushed inside the camper inadvertently.

You can imagine that these were important tasks and should be done by someone with a high degree of mechanical ability and a sense of the importance of doing complete and thorough work.

The only one in our family who had this ability was Willie, my baby brother. If I was in the 7th grade, Willie was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. He’d been in charge of all mechanical functions at home for some time. It’s just that he was such a little fellow at this time, really just a runt of a kid. It was so amusing for the other camp ground occupants to be watching as 3 older kids and 2 parents took their directions and orders from Willie as he orchestrated the entire operation.

It really is misleading to think that there were 2 parents involved in this operation. As soon as the car stopped at the front desk, Jack was out of the car, lighting his pipe and sauntering around the entire campground introducing himself to the other campers. We might not see him again for hours; he’d be so busy entertaining folks from all over the US with his stories about Vicksburg and all the characters that lived there.

One story that was one of his favorites was about an Italian woman who’s family owned a prominent restaurant and dress shop. This woman, a spinster sister, never did anything but cut the grass on her riding lawn more at their ‘place’ on Eagle Lake. She went to Europe one time and when she returned to Vicksburg, someone asked her if she’d seen the Pope. What they meant was had she been able to secure access to an audience with thousands of other people or had she been in the Square when he came out on his balcony once or twice a week to greet the tourists. What this woman reported, in her broken English, was that she and the Pope had actually met privately and he asked her where she was from by saying, “Girl, where you from?” Jack loved to tell this story and no matter how many times in one day he would tell this same story, he would laugh and laugh as if this was the very first time he had ever told the story.

He had lots of other stories about Crazy Bonelli, a woman in Vicksburg who sent her dog to the Grocery Store with a basket, a note and the cash to buy her groceries and left, as a tip for her paper boy, a banana peel.

Once Willie had secured the pop up part of the pop up trailer, Mutha started to prepare our supper on the campground grill. We were just not trustworthy enough to travel with our own grill; it would not have been safe. She rarely tried to clean these grills but would load them up with charcoal briquettes, douse them with the lighter fluid type material and throw a match into the fire. We’d have BBQ chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, whatever appealed to her. However, regardless of what she prepared, everything always had a thin coat of sand on it, whether we were in a State Park in MS or a KOA Campground on the beach in Florida, everything was sandy. Every piece of meat always had a nice charred taste too. And every bite involved battling a mosquito. Some of these mosqitos were the size of small birds. We would be overwhelmed by the mosquitos and dealing with our bites.

Getting 7 or 8 people into the camper, into their respective beds, and asleep was no small thing. Jack like to travel with a little travel size TV and would keep that on late at night. We’d all have to trek off into the night at various time to use the campground bathrooms. Once one person had to get up, it was a domino effect, everyone had to move over, move sideways, or stand up to let that person our of the camper.

Since there was so much of a ‘hassle factor’ in getting to a campground, getting parked, and getting the camper set up, you would think that we would have stayed put. That was not the case. Jack and Mary Lou would plan trips that did not factor in this hassel factor. We’d be 3 days in one campground, 2 days in another campground and then 1-2 nights in a final campground on the way home. It was ghastly.

Not one of us, regardless of our spouses’ interests or our love of nature, has ever been interested in camping as an adult. We shudder to think about recreating these bad memories, even in our minds.

We have a policy. We either can afford to travel well or we stay home. There is nothing in between for the 5 of us.

Christmas Chaos at the House of Halpin

December 12, 2009

Christmas Chaos at the

House of Halpin

It’s Christmas Eve, around 3 in the afternoon.  It’s cold and rainy outside.  We are all supposed to be bathed and dressed soon in our new Christmas outfits.  New dresses for me and my older sister, Harley.  Little suits with short pants and peter pan collars on their shirts for our two younger brothers, Willie and John Francis.  Our baby sister, Lucy, will be dressed in a red velvet dress with white lacey leotards and little soft sole black patent leather mary-janes.

The only hitch with Lucy’s outfit is that Mutha has a bad feeling about the leotards.  She’s worried because she never bought new ones for Lucy and the only pair we can locate were found in the dirty clothes hamper a few minutes ago.

Our plan, if you can call it that, is to attend the 5:30 pm Children’s Mass, then visit my Daddy’s Aunt.  Aunt Katie lives with Jack’s cousin, Wilhelmina and her husband, Ralph.  They’ve all lived together since the big tornado in ’56 demolished the Halpin Family Home.  Aunt Katie was a widow in ’56 and she and her two never married sisters and Wilhelmina and Ralph living with her in that big house together.  When the home was destroyed the five of them moved into a 1,200 square foot new home in the suburb of Katyville which is now in the heart of Vicksburg, one block from the major thoroughfare, Mission 66.  But…I digress.

We go to Aunt Katie’s house every Christmas Eve after Mass. It’s a tradition.  The problem is that Ralph’s entire family of about 15 people are there at the same time celebrating their primary Christmas and gift exchange while consuming very large amounts of beer and alcohol.

To say that two free-spirited, fun-loving, story-telling Vicksburgers and their five little children can be lost in the chaos is really saying something.  But at Ralph and Wilhelmina’s on Christmas Eve it is true.  We stuff ourselves on deviled eggs and roasted pecans and just watch the revelry with wide-eyes.

Since it’s already late in the afternoon and no one has had a nap, we are all feeling a bit cranky.  I suspect there might be at least one or two other reasons that I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

I’m realizing that Mutha went to the grocery store yesterday, loading up on all the food for our Christmas Dinner for 25 people but none of the groceries were actually put away in the kitchen cabinets or refrigerator.  Mutha has spent the past 10 days doing nothing but making pepper jelly to give away as gifts.  We spent the entire morning, all 7 of us in our Volkswagen Bus, delivering these ‘gifts’ to family and friends.  She put the jelly in little baby food jars with homemade labels that say “Christmas Greetings from the House of Halpin”.

Jack and Mary Lou, our Mutha and Daddy, love to host big holiday gatherings at our home.  They ‘say’ the reason is they want to include those who might otherwise be alone on Christmas Day.  These guests are in addition to the 7 of us, two grandmothers, an aunt and an uncle, one more aunt who is a deer hunting widow every Christmas and my Dad’s brother-in-law, Uncle Joe, who is the widower of his oldest sister, our Aunt Dot.  We always include our parish priest and any number of spinsters who have been family friends for generations.  Most people buy this justification.  I do not.  I imagine there is another reason entirely.  I think they like to entertain at Christmas, for our birthday parties, cook-outs, really any time at all because they love being with other people.  They both thrive on connections with others.  The bottom line is they love to host big gatherings because they love to entertain a large crowd with their stories; one after another, each of them competing against the other for center stage.

The primary reason I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed is that there are at least 20 brown paper grocery bags, many filled with perishables, languishing around the floor in the kitchen, the breakfast room, the laundry room and even the pantry that serves as a hallway to our rumpus room in the basement.  (We always called it the den but it was clearly a rumpus room).

I’m busy transferring a load of laundry; socks, underwear and Lucy’s white leotards from the washing machine into the dryer and I find myself tripping over grocery bags in the laundry room.  I am all of 7 years old.

I ask myself, “Won’t this parsley be too wilted to be used tomorrow to garnish the turkey platter?  It’s perched here on top of this grocery bag in this hot, humid laundry room.”

I get back to my laundry duties, hoping Lucy’s leotards will be dry before we have to leave.  I can remember many many times when the entire family is loaded in the station wagon while someone stands, half-dressed, in front of the clothes dryer.  We all wait while that one person watches one lone article of clothing cycle around and around in the dryer while we pray that it gets at least dry enough to wear.  Even if it’s still damp in places like the crotch or around the waist, that person will be relieved to finally put it on and complete their ensemble.  I can remember my own damp clothes as I try diligently to get Lucy’s leotard washed and dried on Christmas Eve.

It’s now 5:25 and we should have left the house 10 minutes ago.  At this rate we will all have to trample in and make a big spectacle of ourselves marching down the center aisle of our downtown Church looking for an entire empty pew to house all 7 of us.  Our Granny will be in her space in the middle of the Church and she will be mortified to see us arrive so late.

At least Lucy is dressed and ready to go in her little baby carry-all.  I’m relieved to see that while I was managing the laundry and getting everyone else dressed, Harley was able to put away most of the perishables.  This sight gives me a tremendous sense of relief!

As we parade out to the 9-passenger Dodge station wagon for the 5 minute drive downtown I feel better but I find myself mentally noting all the chores that still need to be accomplished.  We will get to open our Christmas presents when we get home from Aunt Katie’s house, then we’ll get the little ones to bed.

Once the little ones are asleep, Mutha, Harley and I will get busy arranging all the toys from Santa Clause.  I have no idea how Harley and I came to be playing Santa and ages 7 and 8 but parts of it did create some fun memories with our Mutha. I suspect these roles at this young age influenced our inability to play with toys too.  We were always little grown-ups.

In the morning, Harley and I will race around after the Santa Clause experience and do a mad dash to clean the entire house, or at least the 1,500 square feet on the first floor. Cleaning the entire house involves a tremendous amount of clearing away stuff.  We typically accomplish this by opening the top drawer of every conceivable piece of furniture, all antique chests in the living room, the buffet in the dining room and even a small chest in a downstairs bathroom.  Some of these pieces of furniture have so much mail, report cards, homework, pacifiers and baby shoes on top that things have fallen on the floor.  A banana peel would not be unusual to find in these rat’s nests.  Harley and I run through the house, opening the top drawers of these pieces of furniture, sweeping our little arms across the tops of the furniture and pushing everything, even the banana peels, into those top drawers.  The house is looking better but we pray that no one has to open one of those drawers.  There is just now way to know how much time and effort would be required to get the drawer closed again.

Cleaning the entire house on Christmas morning also involves polishing silver platters and trays, one large enough for a 25 pound turkey, serving pieces and the flatware for 30.  We have to set the table, in accordance with Granny’s strict table-setting guidelines, with Mutha’s china and crystal while entertaining our guests and serving high-balls.

Jack will be in the living room, poised on the sofa in a half-sitting, half-lying-down position holding court and telling stories.  Mutha will be in the kitchen miraculously pulling together a phenomenal meal of a 25 pound roasted turkey, Pepperidge farm dressing, Spinach Madeline, corn pudding, rolls, green mountain congealed salad and tons of cans of congealed cranberry sauce.  She doesn’t have to make dessert.  Granny always makes Charlotte Rouse, a mousse like confection surrounded by lady-fingers.  Granny will be barking orders to me and Harley about any number of finishing touches need in the preparation for this fine meal.  The three little ones, ages 1, 2 and 3, will be crawling around on the floor, under the dining room table, unsupervised playing with their new toys, especially the ones with lots of small pieces.

Everyone in the world reports needing a nap on Christmas afternoon after the big turkey dinner.  However, no one needs that nap more than me and Harley.  We fall into our little beds, both physically and emotionally exhausted from the past 24 hours of chaos, confusion and commotion.

If you ever plan to entertain, make sure you invite me and Harley earlier that day.  We can whip together a party in an amazing way.  We are phenomenal workers who can clean, organize and decorate with little direction, no help, no resources, no sleep and no support.  We can accomplish all of this while the guests are arriving and we are mixing their high balls.

We have always been able to do this in record time and make it look like we are having fun, even when it’s not our party, it wasn’t our idea and we would have been better served learning how to play with toys.