Jewish, Solo and Sans Chinese Food. And Merry on Christmas.

jewish-christmasI have never known what to do on Christmas.

It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.

“We’re Jewish,” I say.

“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”

“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.

When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.

But that was many years ago.

In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.

A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time  — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.

One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.

By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.

In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.

For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.

We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.

A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.

Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.

We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.

This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.

It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.

“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”

Lovely. And yet.

His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.

I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”

“A Writers Retreat.”

The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”

When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.

That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.

I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.

Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”

Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”

It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.

Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.

And Christmas?

I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.

I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.

I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.

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Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 or What and Who I Will Remember in 16 Years

Sixteen years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.
All these years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.

Sixteen years ago, my ex and I took our first overseas trip together – to Spain for the Christmas holiday.

While moving to Madrid is an experience all mine, there are moments when my past and present collide. Strangely, mostly in regards to food.

Walking up Gran Via, I stumble upon the neon sign of Museo Chicote — Madrid’s oldest cocktail bar, a place Hemmingway used to frequent.

I had circled it in our Frommers’ guide and we sought it out upon arrival. Dimly lit and cool in a retro kind of way. They served potato chips with their drinks, scooping them from wooden drawers that looked like library card-catalog files.

Knowing in my bones that I am close to the anonymous third-floor walkup hotel where we stayed for $30 a night – the one with the ridiculously comfortable foam mattress — and having that feeling confirmed when I spy the Nebraska Cafeteria, the name as surprising to me now as it was then.

Shopping for food at El Corte Ingles– like Sears when it carried everything, even houses — but better, higher end.

We picked up smoked salmon, baguettes and wine on our final night in Spain and spread it out for a picnic on our bed at a boutique hotel recently purchased by Best Western. An over-sized room by European standards, with a deep, tiled bathtub and television which ran CNN – creature comforts at the end of 10 days of traveling, most of it while fighting the flu.

It was raining and cold…and truth told, we couldn’t bear to do battle with Spanish restaurants one more time.

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 – sometimes the seemingly simple act of ordering a meal in a country where you do not speak the language is overwhelming.

For the better part of our trip we wandered the streets of Spain until way past hungry, and when we finally decided upon a restaurant, were often baffled. Do we just sit down? Do we wait to be seated? Do we order at the counter? Do we pay now? Do we pay later? Do we ask for the bill?

What do these words mean on the menu?

We pulled out our translator – a charming and antiquated apparatus by today’s standards – and were met with responses like “spoon of the world.” Useless.

Eventually we found our rhythm, often opting to sit at counters and order tapas – pointing to what we wanted rather than risking another menu fiasco.

I had forgotten about this until a little over three weeks ago, when I arrived in Spain and tripped over myself at restaurants – again uncertain whether to sit or be seated, and often disappointed with what I thought I had ordered. Seems Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 also applies to new expats.

I quickly found myself shopping at the CarreFour for yogurt and thinly sliced cured meats, and picking up figs, tomatoes, melon and salad greens at any one of several produce markets on my street. My classmates marveled at my healthy looking salads, fruit, brown rice and chickpeas.

What I didn’t mention was dinner often consisted of gelato, eaten on the street. That at the end of a 10-hour school day, navigating a restaurant – coupled with the cultural norm that it is highly unusual to eat alone here (“A waiter will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her,” a friend of a friend told me.) – was often more than I could take on.

It is both humbling and frustrating to experience and to admit — as are many things about being an immigrant.

And I find myself incongruently grateful when sharing a meal with someone who has lived here longer than me — who knows how to wrangle us a bowl of gazpacho for lunch when it is not on the menu.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those awkward meals my ex and I shared 16 years ago. And how all these years later we remember the beautiful food – a simple tortilla Espanola eaten outside of the train station in Sitges, and a feast of fresh crustaceans in Barcelona on Christmas night – but not the disappointments.

And more than that, we remember the quest — the journey, the experiences, the people. The girls in Santa caps who served us tuna sandwiches. The waiter who rescued my ex when he got locked in the restaurant bathroom, who learned English on a kibbutz in Israel and who pointed this Wandering Jewess to the synagogue across the way after dinner.

The what’s and who’s I imagine I will remember in 16 years.

Further From The Flame Than I Knew

I sometimes have a one-plate rule.  Actually, it’s not even a rule, it’s just how I eat.  Except for when I don’t.  Today is one of those days.

The table at Martha's, post meal.  The pies have been put away, but my copy of "Love, Sex and Astrology" has not.
The table at Martha’s, post meal. The pies have been put away, but my copy of “Love, Sex and Astrology” has not.

It is Christmas and I am at Martha’s house with her son Louie, his girlfriend Katie, Jack and Jonnie.  There is enough food in the kitchen for triple the size of our party.  I have reloaded my plate, even though I have not finished what is on it, adding a second piece of ham and a small spoonful of macaroni and cheese, which I did not try the first time around.  I pile it on top of my salad – greens with roasted root vegetables, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear.

The macaroni is delicious.  Made with sour cream, cream cheese, and cheddar and parmesan cheeses.  I say it is perhaps too rich, and laugh, thinking about those people who say that foods are too rich or too sweet.  No such thing.

Except for when they are.  This is one of those times.

I put my fork down.  My brain wants more but my belly says no.  Or perhaps it is not my belly but some higher-self that is constructed of painful memories.  The higher self that says don’t put your hand on the hot stove.

Trouble is, I’m the type that likes to bring my hand really close to the burner, to see how close I can get, to feel the heat without getting burned.

It is this second plate.  It is the boy I spent the night with several months ago. And, knowing he could not possibly give me what I want, and that once I am physically involved my perception gets blurry, spent a second night with him anyway.

It is my years of vain efforts to try to drink like other people.

The higher self speaks to me.  Passover.  1990-something.  I still live in Detroit and my parents are still married, but they do not live in my childhood home.  Neither do I, which means I am somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.

I am thin for the first time in my life.  Really thin.  I am rigid about my eating and exercise.  The kind of rigid that makes me not all that much fun to eat with.  I feel like I have cracked the code.  That I will never be heavy again.  That I am fixed.  I am mistaken.

My mother has made some sort of gelatinous kosher-for-Passover dessert.  It is an experiment, as is every kosher-for-Passover dessert, where chemistry and good taste are at odds in the never-ending quest to make tasty sweets without flour.

I have one.  Then another.  And another.  They are not even good but I cannot seem to stop myself.  My mother clears the table and brings them into the kitchen and I follow, secretively, wolfing down a few more.  As if anyone is paying attention.

Next I know I am in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor, trying to make myself throw up. But I cannot.  My mother asks if I need to go to the hospital.  I say no because I cannot imagine what they will do to help me.  I lie on the cool tile with my pants unzipped and wait for this feeling to pass.

I tell Martha and Jonnie this story, and that eating too much feels scary.  Which is not to say that I don’t overeat, because I do.  And today is likely to be one of those days.  But I do not eat to sickness and have not in many, many years.  The desire has been taken from me.  It is a miracle.

As is my reaching out to that dear, sweet boy only one more time.  And when the response was tepid, not returning to him, trying to convince him, or myself, that it, that we, could be otherwise.

As is my not trying to drink like other people for more than six years.  Instead, putting down the drink entirely.

I finish my plate.  Slowly.  A bit later I have a sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and one of chocolate pecan pie.  I tell Martha to cut them as wide as her finger and she does.  I am breaking one of my holiday rules.  Kind of.  I do not eat anything not homemade.

The pies come from First Slice – a not-for-profit which sells “subscriptions” for homemade meals and uses the money from those subscriptions to feed the same meals to hungry families in Chicago.  Martha assures me the pies are more homemade than if she made them herself.

I have a second round of slivers.  Am I playing with fire?

Walking home, the streets are freakishly quiet.  I am carrying a bag of leftovers – salad, ham, roasted roots, sweet potatoes – leaving the pies, and the Lindt truffles at my place setting, on Martha’s table.

I feel the snow on my face.  I feel my gut.  Satiated, but not stuffed.  I have “broken” several of my “rules,” and, miraculously, feel further from the flame than ever.

Pajamas of One’s Own, With Apologies to Virginia Woolf

I threw away my ex-husband’s pajama bottoms.

I know…why did I have them in the first place?

The night before I left Seattle, I asked if I might take them with me.  The thin cotton ones, navy, with a drawstring.  Somewhere there is a matching top.  Somewhere.

I turned my ex on to men’s pajamas years ago, as I had been turned on by the man I dated before him.  Mornings I would pad around his house in Berkeley, wearing his pjs while he made us French-press coffee.  I liked to wear his overalls too.

a room of one's ownHe often remarked that I should get my own – of both.  That year for Hanukkah, I bought him a pair of silk pajamas.  Inside the card I wrote, “A room of one’s own.  Pajamas of one’s own.  I promise I won’t touch these.”  Then I opened his gift to me – my own pair of overalls.

We laughed. A sort-of modern twist on O. Henry’s Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi.  Except neither of us had to give something away something we loved, to give something to someone we loved.

I stopped wearing men’s pj bottoms some time ago and had taken to wearing short, boy-short underwear and a wife beater – which was fine when it was just the two of us.  But I was about to go on the road, traveling with my divorce buddy – a man – and staying with friends along the way.  And when I arrived in Chicago, I would be living with a male friend of mine, temporarily.

Modesty, not something I usually subscribe to, grabbed hold of me, and I asked my ex if I could take his bottoms.

He looked at me sorts of sideways and said yes.

gift of the magiI have slept in them every night since.  Loosely tied and rolled down twice at the waist so I don’t trip on them.  They remind me of the pants my friend Tim’s roommate wore when he returned from Thailand, when he cranked the heat to 80 degrees and blasted the soundtrack to The King and I nonstop.

My mom attempted to buy me a new pair when I visited her in Tennessee in the spring.  We picked some up at Target, just bottoms, but I didn’t like how they fit.  Too much bunchy elastic at the waist.  So she returned them for me.  But we agreed I had to stop sleeping in my ex’s.  My best girlfriend Julie and I had the same conversation when I stayed with her this summer.

I’m sure I would have had this conversation many times over if I had shared this with anyone else.  But I didn’t.  I was too ashamed.  I knew it was kind of odd.  Palpably and painfully so, pulling them on after sleeping with someone else.

Ten days ago, I threw them out.  Crumpled them into the kitchen garbage bin, covering them with food scraps so I couldn’t pull them back out – fearful of a George Castanza-éclair-at-the-top-of-the-trash lapse.

A few days later I began sleeping for the first time in more than a year and a half.  Really sleeping.  Through the night, uninterrupted, for more than six hours.  Waking up with the alarm, and longing for more.

Not long after I found myself crush-less, and for the first time in my life, not looking to conjure up a love interest.

I told a friend of mine I didn’t want to talk about the boy I slept with – the one with whom I pulled on the pajamas in question.  The one who isn’t the one, but still takes up some residency in my head and in my heart from time to time.  I told her that talking about him wasn’t helpful.  In fact, it was painful.   So I’d rather not do it.

And then I said no to being fixed up with a man who was recently divorced.  I believe my exact words were, “Are you out of your mind?”  I know the desperate crazy that is his life right now and I don’t want to be a part of it.

My words surprised me.  But they felt like ridiculously good, albeit not-so-sexy, self-care too.  Like sleeping.  Like throwing away pajamas that belonged to my ex-husband.

I’ve returned to sleeping in the short, boy-shorts, but am on the lookout for a new pair of loose, drawstring bottoms.  The kind that feel lived in, or have the potential to, and that are not flannel.  Pajamas devoid of history.  Pajamas of one’s own.

The Last of the Firsts

Dancing in Rwanda last July.
Dancing in Rwanda last July.

I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.

I was wrong.

I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter.  It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.

And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it.  I’m sick.  Sore throat. Heavy eyes.  Headache.  Exhausted.  It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count.  No beach and BBQ to distract me.  I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.

Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year.  I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago.  He was in Seattle, dating another woman.  We were pretty transparent about these things.  At times, painfully so.

But I was coming back to Seattle.  To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin.  To “our life,” altered as it was.

It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.

Labor Day was a blur through tears.   Then his birthday.  Rosh Hashanah.  Yom Kippur.  Our wedding anniversary.  And my birthday.  In quick succession.

Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do.  I didn’t yet have a house.

Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support.  We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.

I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house.  She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.

I don’t recall his birthday or mine.  Or our anniversary.  What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting.  Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.

Halloween passed without fanfare.

Then Thanksgiving hit hard.  I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend.  She also told me that once invited, always invited.

Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California.  Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.

Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months.  We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.”  We were in complete denial that he was gone.

Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP.  We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11.  The airport was spooky quiet.

We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle.  We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same.  The only constant was that we were together.

I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house.  He was noticeably absent.  Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up.  I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone.  He had already gone to bed.

Making risotto.
Making risotto.

I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends.  Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving.  My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do.  I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto.  He would bake.  Christmas Day we would go to a movie.

We were both pretty heartsick.  Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance.  We found comfort talking with one another.

New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house.  I didn’t make it until midnight.

The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass.  My ex rented a house that backed up to a river.  It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors.  We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles.  I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah.  I never used them.

We bickered on the trails.  He was a cross-country skate skier.  I was not.  In our early years together I took a few lessons and  got moderately better.  But I never really got the hang of it.  We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after.  Sometimes both.  It worked.  Until it didn’t.  When I didn’t drink anymore.

That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared.  I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids,  while he skied hard, the way he liked to.

This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another.  They were sad.  We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words.  I blogged about it.

By March it was over.  He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.

I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle.  He joined us.  It didn’t seem unusual at the time.

This year I celebrated twice.  Once at my friend Mary Jo’s.  A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street.  There were 12 of us.  Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests.  My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me.  It didn’t feel so lonely.  Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.

Me and Ernie at the beach.
Me and Ernie at the beach.

Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again.  It didn’t.

June 19 was the anniversary of our first date.  I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.

July 4.  An entire cycle completed.  Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night.  That will be later this month.  I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.

The sun is going down.  It is noisy outside.  I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park.  July 4 felt like a war zone.

I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met.  He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce.  He’s a good hugger.  Nice looking.  I don’t have any feelings about him.  But I’d like to get to know him better.

I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.

I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob.  I read, napped, wrote and napped some more.  I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.

It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone.  Caring for myself.  Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.