Christmas, chaos and time well spent

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in “Christmas in Connecticut”

“Christmas in Connecticut” has been my favorite holiday movie for many years. Just ask any of my children, two of whom refuse to watch it yet another time. Filmed in 1945 before the war’s end, Barbara Stanwyck plays a food writer whose column includes details about her life with her husband and baby on their small farm in Connecticut.

The thing is, our writer isn’t married, doesn’t have a baby and lives in an apartment in NYC. She can’t even cook! This doesn’t bother her editor so long as her column generates sales. But when her publisher, a Randolph Hearst-like man, decides to send a wounded veteran to her Connecticut home for Christmas and that he, too, will be joining them,  we’re off to weaving tangled webs of hilarity with a perfectly delightful rom-com ending.

How my life has come to imitate art with regards to my favorite film! I write a column similar to that of Stanwyck’s character, who even breaks up (to all the other characters’ delight) with a man in the same profession as my ex-husband.

But unlike our heroine, I do have the five children about whom I’ve written many times over the past three years. I do live in West Akron, teach at our local university, shop at the Acme and walk my dogs in our parks. However, were my publisher to arrive at my door—well, let’s just hope he doesn’t.

I see mom-blogs with photos of elegant women whose clean children wear crisp outfits while playing in lushly manicured yards or rooms with nary a toy out of place. I get it, these photos are curated and nobody lives like that. But they can leave the rest of us feeling a tad inadequate.

Except for when I’m in the classroom or meeting with students, I work at home. In order to remain productive, I have near-perfect tunnel vision. I heat up coffee without looking at the dishes in the sink, on the counter or the stovetop. I work on my laptop without seeing the piles of documents on my desk or, when I work there, the newspapers strewn across the dining room table.

When I go upstairs, I avoid looking down lest I see the rolling balls of animal fur or, depending upon the bedroom, LEGOS a-scatter, dollies a-jumble or baskets of clean laundry waiting to be folded.

Even though only two of our five kids now live with us full time, they vigorously coordinate with the three dogs and four cats to facilitate entropy. That is, what is orderly is doomed to slide into chaos.

Stanwyck’s character relies on a man she calls Uncle Felix, scene-stealingly played by Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (whose three sisters all died in Nazi concentration camps), for the recipes in her column and her meals. Unlike her, Max and I love to cook. We’re even pretty good at it. But what we often lack is time. Luckily, we have our own version of Uncle Felix.

On Mondays, I begin my hour-long carpool pick up at 3 p.m. From 4:30 to 5:30, Lyra and Leif have back-to-back piano lessons. That’s why most Mondays we eat dinner at our “second kitchen,” a.k.a., Macaroni Grill. And, as opposed to the other nights we’re there, their healthy kids’ meals are free on Mondays and Tuesdays (with each adult entree ordered).

There’s a saying that people go to a restaurant because of the food, but return because of the service. At our second kitchen, which has very little turnover, we know everyone’s name and we are greeted with hugs. Jake’s been working there as long as I’ve lived in Akron. He was just 16 when he first waited on us. Today, 20 years later, he’s the apple of Lyra’s eyes.

Now that the semester has ended, I have time to cook and our second kitchen has seen us only twice in the past two weeks. I am plowing my way through disorderly rooms, closets and cupboards. Scrubbing the fridge and editing the toys are also on my list.  General order is slowly being restored before the whirlwind of the holidays blows it all to smithereens.

The mother of a friend, who also has several children, regularly tells her, “Someday, in the not too distant future, all you will have is a clean home and you’ll want for these days where life is too full to ever have things as clean as you think you want them.”

Kids don’t care if a home looks like it’s out of a Pottery Barn catalog. In fact, they’d prefer it not. When grown, what they’ll remember most fondly are the times spent together, often making the messes.

So pile onto the couch with your loved ones and a plate of cookies and watch one of your favorite movies (you know my recommendation). Who cares if crumbs get between the cushions? That’s what vacuums—and dogs—are for.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 15, 2019.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.


A mother’s college advice: Major in something you love

And so it went on a recent phone call with my son Jules, who is a freshman at Ohio State.

In kindergarten, Jules broke up with his best friend because the boy loved smashing ant hills. As soon as he could read, Jules devoured countless books about ants and their colonies. After he had read every book written by E.O. Wilson, the eminent myrmecologist, or ant expert, Jules sent Wilson a letter along with pen-and-ink sketches.

Max’s mom introduced Jules to birding when he was 9, which he took to like geese to golf courses. He joined the Ohio Young Birders Club and one year they awarded him a scholarship to study shore birds in Delaware with the American Birding Association.

In high school, Jules focused on bees. For two years, he helped do research at the University of Akron on the rusty-patched bumblebee. Once ubiquitous in Ohio, this bee species has declined by 87% in the past 20 years. Jules was part of a UA biology crew that crisscrossed the northern half of Ohio (a crew from Ohio State worked the southern half) looking for the rusty-patched bumblebee. They never found a single one.

I have a son with a degree in English literature and another who’s about to get a dual degree in opera vocal performance and European history. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made much ado of the fact that, with Jules, I also have a scientist in the fold. He chose Ohio State because of its renowned biology programs and was placed in the college’s scholars program, which includes housing with other biology-related majors.

“So, Mama,” Jules said when he called, “so the thing is, and I need you to be OK with it, but I’ve really been thinking about it and, well, so, I think what I want to do is, well, switch majors.”

“OK,” I say, not alarmed. He first enrolled as an environmental science major before quickly switching to ecology, which is similar, but focuses more on the big picture.

“Yeah, so, well,” Jules said while giggling. “Um, yeah. I want to study philosophy.”

“Philosophy? What?”

“Yeah, and when I tell my friends in the dorm, they all think that’s perfect for me.” Ah, the fail-safe feedback of floor mates whom you’ve known for two months.

“OK,” I said in a drawn-out way, inviting more explanation.

“Well, with ecology, so, you see, I really don’t want to do all that math and, yeah.”

“You might want to wait until you take a couple courses in logic before declaring a major in philosophy,” I told him. I loved my first logic course when I studied at OSU many moons ago. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments is valuable. Logic II, however, was more like an algebra class with letters equally this or that or not.

Before calling me, Jules had sought Hugo’s advice on how to break the news. “Praise Jesus and welcome to the family! I always thought you were adopted or a freak for wanting to go into the sciences and all that math,” Hugo told him in the course of an hour-and-a-half phone conversation.

The only high school math course I understood was geometry, which made visual sense. Also, I had Mrs. Conrad, an older woman who was both a teacher and a farmer and wore homemade polyester dresses. She read a poem at the beginning of each class and posted a different quote across the top of the board every week. Mrs. Conrad could have gotten me to enjoy kidney and liver pie.

Not wanting to color their opinions, I’ve never told my children how difficult math was for me. But the jig is up. We’ve all come clean and, thus far, I’ve spawned three men who, like me, love literature, art, music and history — math, not so much.

When applying to colleges, Jules was so set on studying biology that I neglected to give him my elevator speech on picking a major: Few people end up doing for a living whatever it was they studied as an undergrad. Therefore, study something that brings you joy. All I insist upon is that you do, in fact, get a bachelor’s degree.

Other parents approach college differently. Not surprisingly, my first-generation college students at the University of Akron overwhelmingly study computer science, engineering, medicine. Some parents refuse to allow their children to major in things like visual art, music, dance. And if they are paying for it, they have that right.

My kids are paying for their own college educations. I help them whenever I can, but they’ve all worked while in school and taken out loans. Time will tell if my advice on majors is wise, but so far I haven’t had any complaints.

“Thank you, Mama, whew! I feel so much better now,” said Jules when, near the end of our phone call, I gave him my speech. “And, hey, by the way, before I hang up, yeah, so, um, yeah. I got my ear pierced last week.”

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 1, 2019.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.

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