A Very Bluemel Christmas

Bluemel Christmas

In 2013, my then-25 and 33 year-old paternal cousins, female and male respectively, got into a holiday tiff that devolved into a food fight. My sister’s delicious cupcakes were the weapon of choice as the siblings angrily ground frosting into each other’s skulls. Alcohol may have been involved.

Except for the baked goods, there was only one casualty of the melee – a brand new pair of jeans from The Gap. I was wearing these when I had the misfortune to get caught in their Tasmanian Devil-like cloud of rage. I planted my left foot in order to pivot and move in the opposite direction. Male cousin dropped his considerably larger hoof on top of mine, and as I turned my knee, I heard the sickening tear of denim. In all the confusion, Jenny wasn’t aware until much later that my wardrobe was damaged. I believe her laughter was devoid of sympathy.

Last year, when I was 36, I took a proactive approach to the extended family Christmas. I was dating a 23 year-old gentleman at the time, and though the lark was invigorating and prepped me in many ways for my current relationship, it would be a waste of breath to try having an adult conversation with my uncles. Two of my father’s four brothers have never met a low-hanging joke they didn’t find worthy of repeating – loudly and often. I calculated that if I owned the unusualness of the situation, making a few cracks at my own expense, they’d quickly move on. Huge mistake. The cradle robbing puns flew fast and furiously. I drank at least three bottle of red wine to match the shamed ruddiness of my cheeks before going home to pass out.

Bob and I have been together for a year this coming February, and have cohabitated for almost six months. He has met nearly all of my friends and spent time getting acquainted with immediate family – particularly Jenny, Max and the girls. But somehow we’ve kept missing the Wisconsin contingency.

Although my dad has been out of our lives for some years, his five siblings, many of their children and the smallest generation of Bluemels remain a vibrant, silly support network. I spent too much time nursing anger and resentment at their collective failure to intervene during our childhood crisis years. I know now that my father’s mental illness, combined with my mother’s sociopathology, offered no easy course of action. Everyone did the best they could with their own families to manage. As Jenny and I grew into adults, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that our presence came first. That we deserved to know it. As my father descended further into madness and strange behavior, extended family gatherings opened wider to my sister and I.

This Friday afternoon, Christmas Day, the private world of love, acceptance and contentment I enjoy with Bob, a world that I have shared with my sibling and her tribe, will finally collide with the extended clan. My partner is a relatively quiet man in a crowded room, and my family is rife with big, noisy personalities. I wasn’t grown in a cabbage patch, you know? The volume and verbosity run through the blood. There was a period this year when I wondered if Bob would be overwhelmed by the meeting.

Somehow Bob never seems to tire of me – my voice, rebellious and open approach to life, wild ideas, ambition, clumsiness, aversion to food preparation. A couple of months ago, after we drank way too much free hooch at the open bar of a friend’s wedding, he leaned over and whispered in my ear: “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” I found that a rather fatalist remark on an otherwise fun evening and pressed him to explain. Because for me this is forever.

My boyfriend intoxicatedly clarified that “when” meant any future moment when I’m not at his side – like on a bathroom break. I’m with someone who wants me around. The inner child with abandonment issues revels in that certainty like a warm pair of sheets fresh from the dryer.

So I’m not worried about Christmas. Bob loves beer and sports – two perennially popular topics at the holiday dinner table. And there’s always the unity offered by taking the piss out of me. Although I haven’t always enjoyed the thought, the Bluemels are a huge piece of who I am. And for the first time in a romantic relationship, there are no parts I wish to hide from my significant other. There’s nothing I fear losing.

Bob will listen and observe, answer questions when asked and I suspect he’ll find a soft spot for my uncles’ one-liners. He’s no stranger to corny, terrible puns. But if he finds a new pair of jeans under the tree Christmas morning, he’s been advised to leave them at home.


This Holiday Season, Spring Comes Early for Chicago Cub Fans


“It’s a season of comfort and unreserved giving for Cubs fans. At the time of this post, the thermometer registers an unseasonably terrific 59 degrees Fahrenheit – two days before Christmas. Throw in intermittent pouring rain and if one closes their eyes to the encroaching late afternoon darkness, it feels an awful lot like spring.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

Holiday Conflict Resolution (November 28, 2014)

Growing up in an unstable home, the holidays produced conflicting feelings. On the one hand, a special, universal break from the norm, the community bonding over rituals, was thoroughly enjoyable. All of the hoopla was neat, and no matter to what faith (or lack thereof) my friends and acquaintances adhered, Halloween through January first was exciting. A frenzy of candy and goodies, toy commercials, visits to the mall, pageant rehearsals and energetic speculation.

At the same time, the order and structure afforded by the school year and regular activities were a reason to be away from home, as well as a refreshing oasis of predictability in an otherwise chaotic world. In that way, the holiday season was scary. There were long breaks from routine, time that felt extended by a child’s lack of perspective. Long stretches when my sister and I were subject to the moody whims and neglectful care of our troubled parents. Tensions simmering and erupting from too much togetherness and lots of other influences I couldn’t yet understand.

The first time I ruined Christmas, I was shaken awake by my red-faced mother at 8 am on a Sunday morning. She was smoking her standard Virginia Slim Ultra Light, blowing the carcinogens in my 10 year-old face as ashes scattered on top of the newspaper piles surrounding the twin bed. My father a hoarder. My mom a chain smoker. In literal and metaphorical ways, our house was a combustion waiting to happen.

As Gloria shook my groggy form, she yelled. I cried. I’d deliberately sabotaged everyone’s holiday by informing an eight year-old Jenny that Santa Claus was just a figment. I remembered the conversation of the day before well. I’d just been sloppy. I was kind of shocked we’d made it to eight with her faith still intact. She was upset, but I consoled her and shook it off. We’d had a good run, right (it was always “we” when it came to my baby sister and I)? How could I explain? I hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.

Moments prior I’d been dead asleep, and I was 10. I didn’t have words accessible to try to for balance and calm. Instead I was hysterical and ashamed. I’d disappointed my mother and I knew over a week ahead of time that Christmas morning would be awful. No more Santa ritual and I couldn’t fix it. Constant needling about what I’d done at best, silence and knowing, angry glares at worst. Jenny would be made to know it was my fault. I had to sit in the penalty box.

I couldn’t wait to go back to school. No one seemed to know how bad and unlovable I was there. I got good grades. I had friends. I was involved in everything. I was a Lutheran parochial school star.

Seven years later, at 17 years old, neurotically preparing for an independent future, holiday isolation took a young adult turn. By this time my parents had separated, and added to a long list of supremely terrible parenting decisions by splitting custody of my sister and I. Gregg kept me. Gloria took Jenny. It wasn’t even like there was a fight about it. It was somehow understood that this is how it should be.

I got to stay in the unheated family manor, sleeping on piles of trash and getting up every morning at 4 am to go my grandmother’s for a shower before school – because my mother didn’t really want me, and I was afraid my father wouldn’t survive if I left. Meanwhile Jenny relocated to our grandmother’s apartment with mom and enjoyed the clean, privileged world of an only child. I was bitter and relieved for her at the same time. What would happen to daddy next year when I wasn’t around?

As it turned out, my anxiety was needless. Gregg wrote me off entirely that Christmas after finding out I’d lost my virginity to a long-time, super wonderful high school sweetheart. I didn’t get how, but it was clear this was an act of personal aggression against my father. I was a liar, a slut and yes once again, a crusher of holiday dreams. I remember sitting in my grandfather’s old bedroom, secluded and weeping while my estranged parents found something over which to bond in front of Nanni’s Christmas tree. Their oldest child was lost of course, but at least they had one good one left. Becky was destined to be a huge, rogue disappointment.

When you live on the edge of people’s shifting morals and expectations, the pressure and strain is internalized. You grow to hate the holidays because you feel segregated from the warmth and love of the season. You’ve heard for so long that this supposedly special time of year brings out the worst in you, that you start to believe it. By choice you tell yourself, you’ll spend holidays alone, watching movies and drinking wine. Because lonely quiet is better than roaring failure. If you don’t try, you can’t make any more mistakes.

And then finally, after years of therapy, hard internal work and healthier relationship decision making, all the ugliness falls away. You are the grown atheist woman freely dancing around a spotless apartment, in front of a lit Christmas tree. The name on the mailbox is yours. Period. There’s a glass of champagne in your hand and you’re bopping to the sounds of a Frank Sinatra Pandora holiday station. You’ve just returned from a miraculous, symbiotic Thanksgiving Day with that beautiful baby sister, the in-law that’s become a real brother, and the two nieces who fill the heart to bursting.

Those two voices of shame you used to hear in your head during the holidays, the ones that self-selected themselves out of your life, are finally silent.

Seasonal Attitude Disorder (December 12, 2012)

Seasonal Attitude Disorder


I am really trying to be enthusiastic about the holidays this year. On November 30, 2011 Eddie and I signed our final divorce papers and I was just emerging from a bout with cervical cancer. The complicated and conflicting emotions involved included being grateful for my life while wondering what on earth I was going to do with the rest of it. I was at a loss and that pretty much sapped my close-of-2011 energy. I was lonely, depressed, afraid and reclusive. I sat out December altogether and spent a low-key New Year’s Eve with close friends.

2012 has had its ups and downs but by and large, I am healthier and more whole than I can ever remember. The cancer is in remission, memories of an unhappy marriage began to recede and occupy their rightful, proportionate place. I grew professionally as I settled into a day job as the head writer for a housewares company, formulated new and interesting friendships, even took a couple shots at romance again. As the record currently stands, these forays into attachment did not end happily, but there was a time I believed I could never risk my heart. So there’s a simple pride in having put myself out there.

More than five weeks ago, as regular readers of this blog are aware, L’il Red (my beloved bike) and I were involved in a somewhat hellacious accident involving an unwise yellow-light decision and a moving SUV. I was thrown from the bicycle, landing squarely on my tailbone and sacrum (the base of the spine) in the process. Both of these bones are fractured but despite the weeks of discomfort behind me as well as the months of recovery ahead, I know it could have been much worse.

And dammit, I like to think of myself as a tough gal but continuous pain, drug side effects and the limiting of my range of motion are conspiring to upend this self-image. I hurt without medication. I struggle to eat and sleep when taking it. And no matter the state of physical discomfort, the holiday season is here to make me feel more pathetic and alone than I might otherwise. It’s frustrating because I was bloody determined not to be a humbug this year.

I have a pre-lit Christmas tree in my living room, a gift from the most recent boyfriend. When I find myself in the throes of pain, or sleepless from its relief, I turn on the four foot tall symbol of holiday cheer. Admittedly is is tougher to scowl when surrounded by glittering lights, but this kind of reminds me of those lamps doctors recommend to patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The light takes the edge off but it’s no real substitute for the sun you know? Likewise the flickering tannenbaum brings a fleeting comfort but it doesn’t replace the real sense of belonging, togetherness and celebration that the holiday season portends, and for which I yearn.

I’m writing about these feelings because I wish to master them. Know thine enemy and all that. I feel myself slipping into the usual Christmas despondency and the hope is that by recognizing it, I can hold it at bay. Growing up the eldest child of abusive and neglectful parents, the 12 Days of Christmas usually involved a rundown of why I didn’t deserve the blessings bestowed and what I had done to disappoint my progenitors throughout the calendar year. I am 34 years-old now. I don’t need or deserve to hear these voices this year – from my lips or anyone else’s.

My Christmas Traditions (December 22, 2010)

A few days ago, my Aunt Diane, a woman who has been like a mother to my sister and I, sought to clarify my positions on holiday celebrations. While she rejoices in the diversity of our extended family, she wanted to be sure that Jen and I were not feeling left out of any of the seasonal fun. She is well aware that I was born and raised as a Lutheran. For nine years, I did the whole parochial grade school pilgrimage: learning how to recite the books of the Old Testament in order (a skill I only display now as a cocktail party parlor trick), memorizing Bible verses, and making my formal confirmation at age 13, as an 8th grade student.

However, less than a year after my confirmation, the Christian God and I had a falling out. Or rather I should say, I had my own scientific/spiritual awakening. While I always understood intuitively that the Bible should not be taken literally, I was really hung up on the Jesus arc. I believed he existed, owned that he was a charismatic man, and that his crucifixion was a great tragedy. But son of God? Nah – I think I was with the Jews on that one. For that matter, over time, I began to question the existence of the Big Guy himself.

In 2007, I converted to Hinduism as part of the marriage rituals I underwent with my husband Eddie. I studied up as much as I could before we walked down the aisle (or pranced around the fire), and while there is much to like about the religion’s basic tenets of hard work and refraining from harm to living creatures, I couldn’t quite get behind the Hindu god/goddess hierarchy. Like Greek or Roman mythology, the characters made for a great study, but I was never able to accept them as real entities who had an effect on my day to day life. This is a source of real disappointment to my in-laws, but they appreciate my participation in various rites nonetheless.

For the last nine years, my sister Jen and I have formed our own loosely dogmatic Christian-Muslim-Hindu coalition. Jen is married to a wonderful man with a strong Islamic faith, and though she herself never converted, the religion is a big part of her daily family life. Thus I have had my own opportunities for exposure and learning.

All of this background cements my Aunt’s need to figure out how exactly I celebrate Christmas. What does it mean for me personally, as a religious skeptic? Though I was born Lutheran, converted to Hinduism, and once considered myself an agnostic, the latter classification was really just a waffle on my part. The truth is that I am much closer as a an adult to atheism, but was afraid to say it out loud, on the off chance that my Lord actually did exist and would condemn me to the flames of Hell for non-belief. Also, I hate the word “atheist.” It sounds so evil. If George Carlin were alive, I ask for his help in devoting a softer, more PC term for my group, something like “the godly challenged.”

But for an increasing number of American families, Christmas is about much more than celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, and my clan is no different. In my living room right now sits a small, sparkling, real live Christmas tree. This tree is bedecked with lights and a big, red glittery star – selected and setup by my firmly Hindu better half as an afternoon surprise for me. On Saturday morning, we will attend a traditional holiday mass at a church near our home – again at Eddie’s request. He has been watching all sorts of Jesus-themed shows on the History Channel the last two weeks and wants to view the Western rites up close. While this plan stems from intellectual curiosity more than devotion, we are still choosing to participate.

In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am not one of the godless who feels superior to others, one of the smug who cosmically “gets it.” In fact the opposite is true. I often feel wistfully left out, wishing with all my might that I could believe in something, anything. I spend a fair amount of my waking life tearing myself apart with questions, regret and sorrow (another family Christmas tradition). But then I look at my mother-in-law, a woman who sleeps well at night believing that her fate and everything associated with it “is in God’s hands,” and I feel jealous. I am not cynical about religion. Yes, it has been used for evil purposes throughout history, manipulated by the powerful to screw the meek, but aside from that, on an individual level, religious faith is a beautiful thing, from what I can see, a real source of comfort to those who genuinely accept.

I yearn to be part of that club, but somehow my dubious psyche can’t take the leap. I want there to more than simple ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I want to believe that there is something beyond this complicated, painful life but everytime I think it out, I come up short.

My Aunt, like my mother-in-law, wishes this were not so. She asked abut my positions then because she empathizes with the emptiness she thinks I must necessarily experience at this time of year, as one who sits outside the circle. But as I explained to her, all metaphysical questioning aside, I do feel a part of the season. The end of a calendar year, and the celebrations that come along with it, are an opportunity to count your blessings and reflect, to clear away the exhaustion of another annum and prepare to start fresh. I am so down with that. Ditto the gift giving, family togetherness and the overeating that goes with it. I adore the cartoon Christmas specials (stop motion Rudolph! Linus’ parable of the modest Christmas tree!), the first snowfall (though I wish it could also be the last) and the caroling. Not having a religion doesn’t mean I am immune to joy.

It’s a wonderful life. I just haven’t located an explanation for it yet that works for me. Looking for one is my own Christmas ritual.