“Joni, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but I’ve got an accepted offer on the Blue Lake cottage.” I’d been dreading telling my daughter, but when the time came I blurted it out. I could tell from her face that it was painful news. “I’m very sorry.”
“No, that’s great, dad. Did you get a decent price?” asked Joni, who was always so mature and un-selfish, like her mother.
“Considering the Great Recession and all, I guess so. Didn’t totally lose all of our equity.” Just most of it, I knew, and that included almost all of my late wife Angie’s retirement savings. She’d insisted that we cash it out to give the girls the summer lake house she’d had growing up. I continued, “Lucky thing to sell at all—it’s an English professor and her husband—she’s very interested in the poet Nadine Schmeckpeper, and wants to have a place on her lake.”
“That’s amazing luck! When’s the closing?”
“March 15th. Before then, I’m hoping we can all go cross country skiing up there. Maybe when Emma gets back from Mexico.”
“Sure, I’d love that.”
We both knew it was a pretty scrawny bone I was throwing her.
“I’m sorry we have to sell it. The house was meant to be for you and Emma.”
For all of her worries about money, Angie hadn’t been well insured. She’d switched from being a state worker with a pension to an independent consultant and we’d cashed out her retirement stake to buy the lake house ten years ago. It had seemed like a viable plan at the time, but instead of appreciating, the lake property had sunk like a stone in 2008 after skipping around a bit the first few years.
And, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had put a serious dent in my own earning power as a Madison teacher. It was the same story everywhere — even middle class professionals were now vulnerable to regular annual reductions in earning power. America seemed to be slowly rotting from the greed and indifference of its wealthy masters — a place of crumbling sewers and declining prospects for the less privileged students I’d spent my teaching career trying to lift up.
The radio station was even playing Blue Christmas, by Elvis Presley.
“Very appropriate for the Christmas of 2013!” Joni noted.
“I’ll say!” I replied trying to sound cheerful and carefree, but I felt especially blue, like such a failure as a father, having to sell the family lake house that had meant so much to Angie and our girls. Trying to change the subject, I dramatically picked up that day’s mail. “I’m not sure what offends me more, the braggy Christmas letters or the shtick-laden ones that try too hard to be funny — especially if they refer to their own past Christmas letters using the same shtick. I guess that’s worse — though I suppose the braggy ones are morally more offensive.”
“Why do either of them offend you?” Joni asked, suddenly serious. “What do they offend?”
“Um, well —” I was straining to come up with something, but I knew perfectly well that I was just being a crab and venting all of my various frustrations. “Maybe my idea of good taste?”
“Well I get that — Tom’s annual funny letter is pretty dreadful, and it’s always pretty much the same joke —”
“That’s the shtick part.”
“He’s definitely used that one joke before.” A couple of years ago, Joni had taken my side in the great Christmas letter debate, but that was then.
“You mean — where you think he’s bragging about his salary, but it’s really the number of miles on his car?”
Joni nodded dubiously. She didn’t want to join my Christmas cynics club.
“It was kind of funny the first time,” I said, trying to offer a truce.
Joni was having none of it. “But it’s not even close to offensive though,” she said. “People are just doing their best to be cheerful and to tell others about their lives. Maybe you’re just a Scrooge.”
“Of course, I’m a Scrooge! But only as it relates to Christmas or Holiday Letters. I just find it a little unsettling that Sandra secretly wants to be Erma Bombeck, or that Badger Bob needs to tell me about little Barry’s success in AP Chemistry.”
“Sandra’s letter wasn’t that bad — why are you such a snot at Christmas? And who the hell is Erma Bombeck?”
“I’m so glad you’ve never heard of her! May her cornball shtick rest in peace,” I replied snottily. “But Sandra did her proud with that ‘would the hair on his chest stop growing if her husband asked for directions?’ She may have even stolen that from dear old Erma.”
“You never bragged about my 5 in AP chemistry?” Joni teased. “What kind of a father are you?” Truce accepted, at last.
“A snotty, Scrooge-like one. Are you sure you won’t go to the office party with me?”
“No, dad. I can’t be your date just because mom’s not around.”
“I know. I know. I’m just dreading it.”
When Joni went upstairs into her room, I re-read a couple of the Christmas and holiday letters. Sandra’s annual offering was a mostly fond recounting of some great retro Battles of the Sexes, which featured the cluelessness of her husband Jake. Had he really bought her a jigsaw for Christmas last year, or was that hyperbole? Did he really drive for hours in circles rather than admit he was lost — was that even possible any more in the era of Google Maps? And, if so, why did Sandra stay with him, year after year? If not, what truth was she trying to convey through her tired jokes and exaggerated rhetoric? That she was lonely living with her conventional husband and three equally clueless sons? Or did it only strike me as such a waste of precious time — a silly rhetorical battle amid serious struggle — because I was so down myself?
On the way to Principal Beth Peterman’s house, I realized that this was the second staff holiday party that I was attending alone — and with the express intention of putting in a polite appearance and heading home. Last year, Angie had been ill, sick to her stomach at the last minute. After helping her back into bed and lying with her quietly for a half hour or so, she’d prevailed upon me to deliver the dessert that she’d spent the afternoon preparing.
Her struggle with cancer had lasted six years, and she’d fought like a warrior until one day, with all hope of keeping it at bay lost, she said, “I can’t do this anymore, Graham.” Her voice had been hoarse from coughing and throwing up. “It’s not a battle I can win.”
She was gone by the end of March.
Beth’s longtime partner, Sally, greeted me with a warm hug and took the tray of slightly misshapen cookies Joni and I had teamed up on. “Angie’s recipe, but not her execution, I’m afraid.”
“They’re lovely, Graham!” said Beth, darting to the door to admit another guest.
The first conversational group to ensnare me included the guy we all called Badger Bob, more than a little sarcastically. His Christmas letter had not only bragged of his son’s mastery of chemistry — the poor kid was named after University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez — but also featured his detailed comments about next year’s football recruiting class.
The mostly male group around Bob was fiercely debating whether or not this year’s Rose Bowl was worth attending. Bob took the affirmative. One of the younger science teachers, Nate Vinson, vigorously took the negative. I looked for a graceful way to exit. As an undergraduate in 1979, I’d come upon a drunken group of pre-game tailgaters stumbling around outside Union South at ten o’clock on a beautiful fall morning. The sight and sounds of those loud fifty-something men in their prissy red sweaters had imprinted an image in my brain of what I emphatically did not want to be when I grew up. It still held.
I silently slid on to the next group, which included Susan, the locally famous “foodie blogger.” Unsurprisingly, the subject here was food. Her holiday update — cross-posted on her blog and Twitter via link — had disclosed that she was hosting a Prix Fixe Ten Course New Year’s Eve dinner. The group around her discussed the many benefits of local and organic foods, and the usual opinions were expressed.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with any of it, but the conversation just seemed a little tired.
I’d lived in countries where most foods were local and organic; it seemed like a matter of commonsense rather than personal identity. I’d given up reading my old friend’s blog when she’s described her much-photographed and gnarled garden carrots as luminous. Curmudgeon that I was becoming, I believed that food provided sustenance not light.
In my best Anthony Bourdain voice, I noted that a couple of her hors’ d’oeuvres were ‘amazingly flavorful!’ “Kudos!” I added quickly before moving on.
I spotted another solitary straggler: a fifty-something female newcomer about my own age. I approached her, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Marina. She was a Women’s Studies professor in Milwaukee, and she was there on a date with my most sexist colleague, Doug Flaherty. For the past five years, I’d tried to steer clear of him after testifying against him in a sexual harassment case.
“Wait, you teach Women’s Studies, and you’re here with Doug?” The irony was too rich after that second glass of wine.
“Yes, and that obviously surprises and amuses you.” She looked both tough and vulnerable.
“Sorry, no — nothing surprises me anymore. How were the roads from Milwaukee?”
“Nice try. Is it because he has a rather crude sense of humor? Feminists aren’t all prudes, you know.”
“Of course not, and thank evolution for that, from my perspective as a male of the species.” Did I have any obligation to tell her that two harassment cases had been filed against Doug? That he would indiscriminately talk about his sexual conquests in the break room? “It’s awkward. I see him every day.”
“There is more then?” She looked directly in my eyes, pleading. Hers were cocoa-brown and a little sad. “Please —”
“Look, my personal opinion is that the guy’s a pig. He’s had two sexual harassment cases filed against him since I’ve known him, and the second one settled in the middle five figures. But I guess people can change.”
Her proud sharp face cringed at this news, at her misjudgment. “Thank you, you’re a pal. Here he comes by the way.”
“Ah, so you two have met,” the usually glib Doug looked and sounded a little unsettled. “Happy holidays, Graham — I’m sure it’s not an easy time for you. Graham lost his wife this past spring.”
Talk about trying to change the subject! I nodded indifferently. “Thanks, same to you.”
“Doug, will you be a dear and get me another glass of that Malbec?”
As soon as he’d left, Marina leaned over and said, “If you want to talk more, meet me at the piano bar at the Edgewater Hotel at 11:30 tonight. And thanks again.”
I went to refresh my own wine glass, and then drifted into another conversational group — this one discussing a popular, but apparently badly-written, sexually explicit novel about S & M. I smiled and nodded at the naughty bits, but mostly thought about whether or not I was going to go to the Edgewater later that night.
I liked talking to Marina, but Angie and I’d had our wedding reception in that hotel 25 years ago, so it seemed inappropriate. Still, there I was, at 11:15 sharp — driving downtown to the venerable, and recently controversial, old hotel on Lake Mendota. I wasn’t ready for a new romance, but something inside me was quickening nonetheless.
I was so tired of the same old conversations and my bitter or ironic reactions to them; I was sick of grief and financial worries and feeling like the whole burden of keeping a family together was upon me. Parking my car in the underground garage and making my way to the elevator to the lobby, I realized how ready I was for something new — whatever it was.
In the bar, by herself, waiting for me, was Marina in all of her sophisticated fifty-something newness. Her features had a sharpness to them that gave her countenance an almost aggressive look, but her smile in greeting me changed it into the face of a milder, different person.
“You made it!” she exclaimed.
“You seem surprised.”
“Yes, but pleasantly so. I didn’t get a chance to tell you this before, but I’ve lost a spouse, too.” She wasn’t aggressive; she was sad.
“I’m sorry.” How quick I was to judge!
“So, I knew it could go either way.”
“I debated a little, but I was determined to come. I liked talking to you. When did you lose your partner?”
“Six years ago, right around this time of the year. That’s why I appreciate some company, apparently even that of scoundrels. Tom had a heart attack and died instantly.”
“That’s horrible. Six years is about how long Angie’s illness lasted.” I took her hand from across the little table, and we just looked at each other, acknowledging the distance between what we could say and what we felt. “At least I had time to see it coming. I saw some sadness in your brown eyes, and that’s why I told you about Flaherty.”
“Was Doug really that bad? I even searched circuit court records, and supposedly the Internet Dating site we met on did, too.”
“Trust me. You can do better. How did it go, ditching Doug?”
“I’m not sure, but he went home, at least for now.”
“I’m glad he did, and I appreciate the company, too.”
“I’d already seen some of that side that you described. But I didn’t think it was anything worse than the usual male crudeness.”
I told her about the two cases. About how the victim of the second case was a first-year teacher only a couple of years older than my daughter. She’d come to me to show me some of the sexually suggestive emails he’d been sending her. Her fingers were bleeding. She’d been chewing her nails from worry. She’d asked me to ask him to stop, which I did, but he persisted for another six months until she went to the superintendent’s office. I spoke to the investigator on her behalf. After that, I hadn’t really spoken to Doug until tonight.
“Sounds like a first-class pig alright.” Marina thanked me again and we moved on to other topics. “How old are your kids?”
“Emma is 19 and doing a year abroad in Mexico and Joni is 22 and just graduated from the University of Minnesota. Do you have children?”
“No, but not for want of trying. When I was forty — thirteen years ago, since we’re being so honest —”
“We’re contemporaries, I’m 55.”
“Thought we might be. When I was 40, I had two miscarriages. We’d just decided to adopt right before Tom’s heart attack, but I didn’t have it in me after he was gone.” Her eyes had gotten moist. “How’re your girls doing?”
“The holidays are hard.” I didn’t like seeing her so sad. It made me think of my girls.
“Still are for me, which is why I was at your boring office party tonight.” We both chuckled.
“I feel all of this pressure with the girls to make everything like it used to be, but of course, it’s not.”
She took my hand. “I hear you. But you know — don’t take this the wrong way —”
“Go ahead, please.”
“Another way to think about it is that you’re lucky to have each other to share that grief.”
“Thank you, that is a new take on it.”
She told me about her job and her students at UW-Milwaukee, and I told her about my East High school students, many of who wound up at UWM. We both liked our students but sometimes felt exhausted by our jobs and having the same colleagues to interact with over many years. She introduced me to the phrase late-career boredom.
I told her about the conversational groups at the office party and my feeling that popular culture seemed to offer so little when one was feeling down or disconnected. “In this case, sports, food, or badly-written, kinky sex.”
Marina had a nice laugh.
“Speaking of the latter, I’m sure you know that I’m not going to invite you up to my room, but I would like your phone number and e-mail address.”
“I’m sure you know that I wouldn’t have gone up anyway, but talking on the phone or by e-mail would be nice.”
“And maybe breakfast tomorrow?”
“That might work, and now I have your phone number.”
“Use it any time. In the meantime,” she said brightly, “I’ll buy you one more glass of wine.” With any tension about where the evening was headed, resolved, Marina and I started to have fun. “It’s not like all of these perfect couples are all so freaking happy anyway,” Marina said.
We started observing the other couples around the bar interact — there were lots of 30, 40 and 50-something couples there — some of them so grim. No eye contact, no conversation, and seemingly no reactions to any sporadic efforts to engage.
“You wonder how some of them make it through an evening, much less their whole lives!” I noted how happy Marina looked making this observation.
Near the big window looking out over the lake, there was a woman who was kind of smiling and nodding at us. I think she knew we were talking about everybody. Poor thing, her husband must have been returning from a Thorazine injection, or maybe electro-shock therapy. He looked dour and forbidding.
“Look at them,” I said nodding toward the couple. “It seems sad, or maybe opposites really do attract.”
“The lively people and especially the lively couples really stand out,” Marina said, holding up her wine glass for me to clink.
“To lively people who don’t totally regret life!”
When I got home that night, Joni was already asleep. I went on the computer, planning to send Marina an e-mail telling her how much I’d enjoyed meeting her. Before I did, I noticed a recent file marked Holiday Letter, and I clicked it open.
It wasn’t one of Angie’s old holiday letters, as I’d expected. It was from this year and had been written by Joni. It had every aspect of the letters that I’d so blithely criticized when I’d told her about selling the Blue Lake house, and it was dated a week before that conversation. There were several heartfelt references to her mom’s past letters, and a couple of self-consciously awkward attempts at humor in just the first few paragraphs.
But it was the bragging part that really made me feel terrible. She noted that Holiday or Christmas letters have become one of the few socially acceptable spaces available for displaying pride about one’s family members, and said she thought it was a custom worth preserving.
Joni praised first her sister, Emma: “…presently in Oaxaca, Mexico doing an undergraduate research paper on President Benito Juarez. She was very close to her mom, and she took her death very hard. But, like her mother before her, she ‘has a lot of dog in her’ and is going forward with her life — as mom would want her to.”
And then me and the three of us: “My father has been very brave and exceedingly kind to both of us. He’d hoped to retire but that hope was dashed, too, when mom died. But he still has his sense of humor, and still loves his East High students. If the subject should ever come up, remind him that it’s not his sole responsibility to keep our family together. Our family survives and will no doubt enjoy happier times in the future, but this year we will mostly miss our mom.”
After absorbing the recognition that I’d been an ass that afternoon, and marveling at my daughter’s delicacy, tact and decency (all so much like her mother!), I felt some surge of hope — a balm in my lonely Gilead. Our family survives, and it was Joni, not gloomy Graham, who was sustaining it!
Full of energy, I went online. I was thrilled to see that I already had two e-mails from Marina. The first noted that Doug had shown up, pounding on her door and demanding to know why she’d ditched him. He’d finally left when she threatened to call the police. I responded briefly to the first one, telling her to be careful with Flaherty, who’d also stalked the first woman he’d hassled.
Her second email told me what a great guy I was, but I begged to disagree. I told her briefly about Joni’s letter and what an ass I’d been about holiday letters, and that I didn’t mean to knock either organic food, nor my friend Susan the foodie blogger — who’d brought the girls and me delicious meals after Angie had passed.
Finally, I said that while I hoped that we could become friends, I couldn’t make it for breakfast the next morning because I wanted to take Joni out instead. Maybe she’d even want to go out to that little diner we both loved on the way up to Blue Lake. I told her that like light, sustenance, too, had its place.