The bat in Grandma’s Hair…a Christmas Story

My kids don’t have any Christmas memories that don’t involve my mom. She had been at our house every Christmas since 1999, and before then we had been together pretty much every Christmas in one house or another. But since my mom passed away (those words are never going to seem real) in August, we are going to spend our first Christmas without her. ugh.

There are so many Christmas traditions that include her…making lists and menus, preparing appetizers on Christmas eve, constructing sticky gingerbread houses out of graham crackers and a dozen different kinds of candy. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about all the things we are supposed to be doing with her this season that we can’t do.

But when I get really sad, I can almost hear her telling me that it’s OK. And I know that she never would want us to mope on Christmas. So I tried to think of the best Grandma Donna story, the one that epitomized all the amazing holiday memories we shared together. To be honest, it all blurs together into a big cozy, comforting memory of her presence. I realized that the holiday memory that stands out the most doesn’t exactly include cookies or gifts….

….my mom always slept in the living room on the couch when she visited our house. It was where she wanted to be. My kids would usually make their way downstairs before I woke up, and they would be helping her make pancakes by the time I meandered to the kitchen.

One Christmas Eve morning before anyone was awake, my husband Gary’s cell phone rang on our bedside stand. Usually a call at 5am means bad news, so Gary anxiously picked up his phone and checked the caller ID.

“Um. It’s your mom.” Calling from downstairs….? “Hello?”

“Hi Gary,” she whispered. “It’s Donna.”

“Hi,” he said quizzically. “Are you still here?”

“Yes. I think there’s a bat in your living room.” She said it calmly, out of character for someone who is terrified of rodents and all things small and furry.

Gary’s head dropped. “OK. I’ll be right down.” Our old house has had more than our share of flying vermin, and the task of bat-catching has always fallen to Gary. Sexist or not, as long as there is still gender inequality in the world, I will claim that this nasty job is his.

He pulled on a hooded sweatshirt and slunk downstairs. Gary found my mom, usually a rather proud and dignified grandma, huddled under her blanket in the living room while the bat must have found a perch out of sight.

“Why don’t you come out here,” he said from the dining room. She was afraid to move for a few moments. Eventually, she crouched and half crawled out of the room like she was ducking under a helicopter M*A*S*H style. Finally free in the dining room, she explained that she had gotten up to use the bathroom, and she felt the chain from the ceiling fan brush her hair. Then she remembered that ceiling fan didn’t have a chain, and she realized in horror that the whooshing sound she heard was the bat’s wings as it brushed by her head.

My mom and I shuddered and cowered in the safety of the dining room. My son, Sam, who was about 7 years old at the time, was the next one awake. He huddled with my mom and me while Gary carefully poked around the living room.

Gary finally found the vermin hanging upside down on a curtain rod. He opened the sliding glass deck door and hoped that the cold air would make the bat sluggish, or even better, it would decide to just fly out. The rest of us went about our business for a while. My mom made pancakes with Sam as she always did, after washing her hands like she was scrubbing for surgery.

After about an hour, my daughter Gracie, age 3 at the time, came downstairs. Sam, always her protector, put his arm around her and filled her in. “Gracie, there’s a bat in the living room. But don’t worry. It’s just a regular bat. It’s not the kind that sucks your blood.” Gracie nodded seriously. At that, my mom dissolved into hysterical laughter–silent, tears running down her face, full body shaking hysterics.

The rest of us didn’t really get the joke, but watching her come unglued like that was so much fun.

It’s not a memory that has anything to do with Christmas or cookies, decorating or gifts. But it makes me smile, and hurt, but mostly smile every time I think about it. And it reminded me that it’s the regular stuff that matters the most. The big days, the holidays, the events are important. But it’s the everyday moments that stand out to me. The way my mom got that happy grin when we made our list of special foods for Christmas Eve. The feeling of seeing my kids curled up with her reading books on the couch. Talking politics and hearing her opinions in intelligent detail about a dozen different current topics.

So this Christmas, we will do our best to appreciate the moments in between the big stuff, because I know that’s what she would want us to do. And every time I want to cry because she isn’t here, I will try to remember what it felt like to watch her laugh herself silly in my dining room, with my kids, on a Christmas Eve morning not so long ago.

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“What’s a lockdown, mom?”

“What’s a lockdown, mom?” my 6 year old daughter, curious and bright, asked a few months ago.

My social work training tells me to answer children’s questions in simple answers, giving basic information without overwhelming them with more than they are really asking.

“It’s when all of the doors of a building get locked.” I said. Simple, straightforward. Not too scary. Evasive.

“But why do they have to lock the doors?” Her pink-cheeked baby face was serious, her large blue eyes wide.

The correct answer is: To keep people out who may want to hurt you. But does my sweet baby girl who is already anxious about germs and monsters need to know that? That there are people who actually may intend to hurt her?

“To keep everyone in the school safe,” I finally said, and then tried to distract her back to her world of coloring and fruit snacks.

“Safe from what?”

Well isn’t that the question, my precious baby? I have lain awake and ached and cried over all the ways this world could take you away from me. How those swollen lymph nodes in your neck could be from more than a sore throat, or how you could lose control of that princess bike with the flower basket and the training wheels and go careening into our busy street.

And with all of those simple dangers that could grab a hold of you, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that someone could invade your elementary school.

But the school staff had considered it, because we live in a world where these exceedingly rare, horrifying events do happen. So your school, Sunnyside Elementary, conducted a lockdown drill. Your teacher told you to get up from your table, where you learn how to write the alphabet and cut out shapes with blunt-edged scissors, and she had all 24 of you crouch in the corner of the bathroom inside in your classroom in the dark.

“Why is a lockdown in the bathroom. And why did we have to turn the lights off?”

Because if it’s dark and your desks are empty, then somehow you will be safe from a mentally ill shooter with an assault rifle?

I am so sorry, my innocent baby girl, that you live in a world where a lockdown drill exists.

And I hug my kids even tighter today as our country aches with sorrow with the families have experienced this unimaginable tragedy. I hug my kids because I don’t know what else to do. This helpless feeling may evolve into anger and a desperate need to prevent this horror from ever happening again. There will continue to be talk about gun control and treating mental illness, and my hope is that these conversations can be respectful, hopeful, and productive.

I will say an extra prayer for those families and hope that they can someday, somehow find some comfort.

And to my 6 year old (now 7), in answer to those questions that I wish she didn’t have to ask, I tried to explain why she had to crouch in the dark in the corner of her kindergarten classroom:

“We do lockdown drills just to practice staying safe. Just like we do fire drills and tornado drills. These things hardly ever happen, so I don’t want you to worry about it. But it’s good for us to know what we would do just in case.”

It was enough information, that day, to quiet her curiosity. And I breathed a shaky sigh of relief that my baby girl got to hold onto her innocence a little longer.

To give is a blessing. To receive makes me really really uncomfortable

                We come into this world as takers.   Gimme food, pick me up, make me happy.   Nobody blames a 2 year old for being who he is–selfish.   Toddlers can’t provide for themselves, so selfishness equals survival.  

                Some of us never evolve beyond the toddler stage, and remain takers, i.e. great big babies.    Maybe it’s survival, but more likely it’s stunted development and inability to think past one’s own needs.

                But most of us do mature, and we develop generosity and selflessness.    I daresay that there’s a piece of generosity that is about the giver.  It feels good to share, and it is reassuring to have the ability to share.  it’s proof that my life is going well enough that there’s room to give.    

                Giving can make us feel proud, but receiving can activate my pride.   To be a receiver must imply that I have a need.   What’s worse, a need I can’t meet for myself.  

                Life circumstances can set us up to be receivers–poverty, illness, disability, age, trauma, loss.   In my novel, unprotected, the main character Amanda grew up in poverty and chaos, so she was a taker.  She had no choice.  One scene in unprotected describes Amanda’s worst childhood Christmas.  Amanda and her mother were poor, alone, and lonely.   They were unable to even afford a meal, so they had Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen, and Amanda was embarrassed to receive a donated gift with a tag that read, “school age girl”.  

                I thought of this scene as I wrapped the gifts I had purchased for “Christmas Project” recipients at my church.    My kids were proud that they could help a family that didn’t have enough money to buy the gifts, but I also thought about the family who would be receiving the mittens, outfit, and princess toys we had purchased.  What would it feel like to have these handpicked gifts delivered a few days before Christmas.   Would the recipients be grateful?   Probably.     But I’m guessing there may be some shame, pride, or anger mixed in.    

                Humans crave balance, and so we reciprocate.   Without giving back, the imbalance can be intolerable.   Consider the discomfort that comes from receiving a Christmas gift from someone for whom you have nothing.    Many people feel the burning need to go out and get a gift in return, and will squirm until they do.  The rule of reciprocity says that we need to give back, equally and immediately. 

                So when someone is sick, or poor, or living in another circumstance that doesn’t allow reciprocity, receiving those generous gifts can come at a price, and usually the currency is pride. 

                When I am being generous (and I could stand to be a lot more giving), I try to remember what it feels like to be on the other side.    Sometimes I give anonymously so there’s no one to thank, and other times I leave room to reciprocate.   I have also tried to be a more gracious receiver, and tolerate the experience of accepting a gift without needing to balance it out.   

                And in the spirit of generosity and giving back, unprotected will be available from Dec. 26-30 as a free download at amazon.com.    Details to follow in the coming weeks.   In the meantime, please find unprotected at Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing, Cover to Cover in Brookings, various Barnes and Noble stores, and at amazon.com.  Thank you for your support! 

So you wanna be a social worker?

Recently someone commented on my website asking for information on what it is like to be a social worker. I have been asked this many times, so here are some things to ask yourself if you are considering a career in social work:
*How will I handle dealing with people’s tragedy, trauma, and pain on a daily basis? It’s the hardest part of the job, by far, and people need to be prepared to witness pain and not get knocked over by it.  I have had clients who were in neonatal or pediatric intensive care, and I was so overwhelmed by the sadness of that could barely concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. Babies with wires connected all over their bodies, parents who looked like zombies, bald toddlers… But the social workers on those units were relaxed and professional. I said to a NICU social worker, “I don’t know how you do your job!” She said the same thing to me, and we both realized we were just used to the pain.
*Do I want to make a decent, but limited, income that will increase in small fixed increments and will likely max out?     Many social workers are employed by non-profit agencies or the government. While the income is usually adequate, social workers don’t get rich from being social workers.
*Can I think on my feet? It’s 5:00pm and you are doing an assessment with a dad who spanked his son with a belt. It’s getting ugly. His son says he’s not putting up with his dad’s BS anymore. Dad says he’s not putting up with his son’s disrespect anymore. They are both agitated and you wonder what’s going to happen when you walk out the door. Can you problem-solve with dad and son so that he will be safe when you leave? Can you figure out what to do if you can’t assure the boy’s safety at home? Do you want to be the one in the hot seat?
*Am I comfortable being honest and direct? Sometimes I have to ask a mom if she has been drinking, or tell a girl that she is never going home again. Can I look someone in the face and tell them that I am going to file a petition to terminate their parental rights, and I can I do it with compassion, firmness and respect?
*Can I handle an unpredictable schedule? I can plan that my day will be spent at my desk writing a report that is due by 4:00, and then a crisis happens with a family on my caseload and I have to drop everything and go. The variety keeps the job interesting, but the lack of control can make a person crazy.
*How do I manage my own stress? Part of my job is taking care of myself so that the sad days don’t burn me out. It’s my job to tell my co-workers if I need help, or if I’m overwhelmed with the workload.
And if you need any more insight on being a social worker, how about reading a novel that is based in a child protection agency? unprotected can be found on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and in select local books stores.