It’s Boxing Day. I am laying in the bathtub, my thighs, belly, and breasts floating coolly above the Epsom-salted water. I can’t smell the lavender anymore, but I know it’s there. In an hour or so, I will walk into its leftover cloud and rediscover the quieting herbal aroma. That will be after I’ve dried and dressed and moved on with whatever is going to become of this day. Right now, I’m soaking in brine and trying to get a grip.
“You need to reconcile your receipts,” comes a voice from behind the bathroom door.
If I didn’t recognize my imaginary counselor’s rodent-y timbre, I’d still know it was her from that barge-right-in timing.
“Leave me alone, Critter.” I grump. “I’m in the bath.”
“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” she says, and a chilly draft sweeps across my exposed flesh and raises goose pimples as she lets herself in. “It’s a good thing I’ve got this amazing raccoon dexterity; you forgot to leave the door cracked.”
I wrap my arms around myself and roll my eyes.
“Close the door, you little maniac,” I say. Then, I do a double-take. “What the hell are you wearing?”
Critter hops up onto the kids’ stool to admire herself in the vanity mirror. She turns her head from side to side to get a good look at the transparent green visor, button-down shirt with armbands, and grey pinstriped vest. She tugs on the ends of her tidy black bowtie and grins.
“Not bad, huh?” she says. “Guess what I am!”
“A pest,” I answer. “Whose garbage did you root through to find this getup?”
It’s Critter’s turn to roll her eyes.
“First of all, it’s none of your business where I procure my apparel. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t know. I may have left a bit of a mess in the yard of one of your neighbours.”
I glare at Critter.
“Hey, I’m sorry! It wasn’t my fault; I was just about to start cleaning up, when a huge white dog came out of nowhere, barking like it was armageddon,” she says.
I raise a bullshit-brow. Critter shrugs.
“You wouldn’t be so flippant if I’d been mauled,” she says. “That beast could have bit me in half. Then, who’d be here to set you straight?”
I close my eyes and sigh. Yes, I guess I should be grateful that my imaginary talking raccoon didn’t get eaten by the neighbour’s dog.
Not that that’s possible. But I don’t want to be ungrateful.
Seeing me give up that fight, Critter relaxes.
“Anyway,” she says, “you still haven’t guessed what I am! It actually took four separate trash cans for me to find all the essential pieces.”
“Good god, Critter!” I say, “You didn’t knock over every can on the block, did you?”
Critter looks at me.
“I take the fifth,” she says.
“This is Canada,” I explain. “We don’t have amendments here.”
“Whatever!” Critter shouts. “I don’t care about your stupid judicial system! But I’m pretty pissed you aren’t even trying to guess my costume! I went to a lot of effort, here! This is for your benefit, you ungrateful primate. I’m trying to get you out of that funk. You’re stewing in your own fetid juices. It’s gross. Snap out of it. Come on!”
My jaw flaps open. I shut it. It pops back open. I shut it again. Finally, I find words.
“Did you just tell me to snap out of it?” I say, slowly.
Critter crosses her arms and scowls at me.
“What the hell, Critter?” I say. “I thought you were on my side?”
Critter’s face scrunches harder for a moment, and then she suddenly lets it go. Her brows soften, and her hands fall to her sides.
“Listen,” she says quietly, “I am on your side. I will ALWAYS be on your side. But if you can’t acknowledge that I have needs, too, then we can’t connect, and I can’t help.”
I open my mouth to argue; I want to say, “Isn’t this getting a little out of hand? You’re my imaginary friend, for Christ’s sake?!?” But I don’t. For a third time, I shut my yap without saying anything.
Because even though Critter isn’t real, she’s right.
I can’t expect anyone to support me if I don’t support them back.
I take a huge breath and sink down into the tub until my knees pop up like volcanic mountains, and my sigh turns into a motorboat sputter. I pause there, breathing through my nose, and watch the ripples radiate out from my face. These tiny waves create a disturbance, distorting the water’s surface and blurring the image of my belly button.
Everything I do radiates outward; it rocks boats and slaps shores. I can’t avoid affecting the people around me.
I close my eyes and groan. I think of my stressed-out kids, to whom I have given so little predictability these last weeks. I ache for my elderly grandmas, whom I couldn’t get my shit together to visit before Christmas. I picture my husband, his eyes sad and his mouth slack, because he doesn’t know how to talk to me.
My husband’s face cuts me the most; I am equal parts angry with him because he won’t spit out what he needs to say, and angry with myself for nagging and complaining so much that he can’t. Every time something negative pops out of my mouth, I see my husband pull back, and another brick slides into the wall between us.
I close my eyes.
“Goddamn it,” I whisper.
The wave of regret rolls up from my belly and over my head. It’s so intense, I can’t breathe until it passes.
When it does, I open my eyes and turn back to Critter.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” I say. “You matter to me.”
“I know I do,” she says. She drops off the stool and crawls over to the tub. I reach out and scratch her ears with a pruney hand. Fat droplets slide off my arm onto her head and form clear beads on her fur that catch the light. I pull back my hand.
“I don’t want to get your costume wet,” I say. “You make a magnificent… um… poker dealer.”
“Nope,” she says. “Try again.”
I frown as I concentrate, and look her up and down once more. Green visor… white shirt, vest armbands, bow tie…
“You look like you belong stooped over a table in a stuffy back room, with a feeble lamp and a wall of stacked papers,” I say.
Critter’s face lights up.
“Go on!” she says, clapping her paws.
“Aw, man… it’s on the tip of my tongue…” I say, struggling.
“Hang on!” she blurts and darts out the door. I am just about to shout for her to come back and close it, when she returns, dragging a cloth sack.
She stops, opens the top of the bag, and pushes it down to reveal the mystery within. It is a metal machine of some sort, with numeral buttons and a hand-crank on the side. I notice the paper tape sticking out the top.
“Is that an old fashioned cash register?” I ask.
Critter shakes her head with her hands clasped beneath her chin. She is practically vibrating with excitement.
“Do you give up?” she asks.
“YES!” I say.
“It’s an adding machine! I’m an old-timey accountant!!!” she reveals with as much glee as though it were a twenty-pound pile of fish guts.
“Ooooooh,” I say. “You’re an accountant! With a crazy old adding machine. Did you seriously get this all out of the trash on my street? Holy cow, Critter. That’s pretty good.”
Critter puffs up her chest and beams.
“I’m naturally resourceful,” she says.
“So you are,” I answer.
My water is getting cold, and I want to get out of the tub, but I pause, frowning.
“I’m totally impressed,” I say, “and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I don’t get how this was supposed to cheer me up.”
Critter pads over and pats the top of my head.
“Simple human,” she says. “I am dressed charmingly like an accountant, and have brought along this adding machine, so we can make a reckoning of your Griefmas behaviour.”
My heart sinks.
“Critter,” I say, “my griefmas behaviour was shitty. How is that supposed to cheer me up?”
She rolls her eyes.
“Let me show you,” she says.
She bangs away on the mechanical keys for a few minutes, paws pumping like pistons. Occasionally, she reaches over the crank the crank, then resumes her key-hammering. Finally, all out of breath, she stops, reaches up, and tears off the long curled paper. She passes it to me, and this is what it says:
Laurie’s Griefmas Ledger
(1 point): Published 9 blog posts.
(-0.25 points): Failed to deliver the last 3 promised in the series.
(1.0 point): Ordered enough Santa pictures this year for all interested friends and family.
(1.0 point): Delivered Christmas presents and greetings to 15 people
(-0.25 points) Failed to deliver to 5 people.
(1.0 point): Spent a few minutes each morning cuddling with the girls
(-0.5 points): Lost track of time every morning and had to cancel almost all plans.
(1.0 point): Bundled up the girls to play in the snow and made them hot chocolate.
(-0.5 points): Did not join the girls outside.
(1.0 point): Made sure the girls got to see all their grandparents over the holidays
(-0.5 points): Skipped 4 out of 8 family events.
(1.0 point): Responded to Christmas greetings from a few friends
(-0.75 points): Failed to check in with people who have been left hanging for months.
(1.0 point): Wrote Christmas cards
(-0.75 points): Wrote some epically awkward inscriptions.
(1.0 points): Had two short yoga workouts
(-0.5 points): Gorged enough on holiday treats and leftovers to negate the physical and mental benefits.
(0.0 points): Did not take the girls out to skate, sled, or look at Christmas lights.
(1.0 point): Spent one hour with husband drinking tea from gorgeous new teacups and watching tv
(-0.75 points): Did not finish work early enough to visit with him before he fell asleep on the other 11 nights.
Points Tally: 5.25 out of 10
I re-read the ledger twice, then lay it on the floor and think quietly for a minute.
5.25/10 is a crappy mark. It’s 52.5%. That’s barely a pass… or an outright fail, in some metrics.
Although, I suppose it depends whether it’s graded on a curve. Is Christmastime Adulting marked on a curve? Who marks it, anyway? I don’t think Santa really gives a flying reindeer turd about maternal performance. He’s busy judging the kids.
I wonder what the average mom’s Christmas Correctness score is.
Then, again, maybe I don’t care. Actually, I don’t care at all how other families get through the holidays – whether they create Norman Rockwell, cocoa-by-the-fireside perfection for twelve nights straight, or whether they dine exclusively on pizza and Kraft Dinner, and their children’s eyes shrink noticeably due to overexposure to screen light.
In the end, it doesn’t matter to me one flying fig how the rest of the world moves through Christmas.
I hope there is joy. And I hope that everyone gets some kind of comfort and coming together during the holidays. We all need that, and we all deserve it.
But when it comes to judging, comparing, and setting a standard for proper Christmas celebration, that shit really doesn’t matter to me. At all.
That means, all this guilt I have been laying on myself about failing to live up to Motherly Christmas Duties, is a sham. I don’t genuinely believe that moms NEED to do all that stuff. And that means that I need to give up my hand-wringing over my Martha Stewart inadequacy.
What IS important to me is acknowledging the holidays with my family, reaching out to people that I love, and doing my best to make a little light when the days are short and dark.
And in general, I can honestly say that I did those things. Even if I didn’t accomplish half of what I planned, and made a mess of some of my efforts.
There were presents; there were gatherings, and there were hugs. Epic hugs. Hugs warm enough to last me until spring.
In that respect, it was a wonderful Christmas.
And I wonder, if I can remember this next year, the fact that I sincerely don’t give a shit about what moms are supposed to produce over the holidays, maybe Christmas will come a little easier to me. I wonder if letting go of my self-criticism will make the black hole that surrounds the anniversary of my dad’s death a little less dark and dense.
After all these years, I am still sifting through my holiday grief. Someday, I will separate the sadness of missing dad from the hopeless pain of hating myself for hurting, and feeling like I will never be as good or strong as the rest of the world.
I think the day that I finally see that I’m okay where it counts, will be a very good day.
My thoughts come back into my body, sitting in the cold tub. I pick the paper tape back up. Wet fingerprints are beginning to soak into transparent windows, blurring the ink. The more I look at the ledger, the less sense it makes, and pretty soon, the soggy mess reflects my new certainty: all that shameful accounting is utterly meaningless.
I pass the damp paper back to Critter. She is grinning.
“Did you see what I mean?” she says.
“Yep,” I say. “Thank you Critter. You’re an awesome accountant.”
Critter bows dramatically then comes close. I think she’s going to ask for a hug, and I start to say that I’m too wet, but instead, she reaches past me and dunks the paper tape into the water. She swishes it around until it’s thoroughly soaked. Then, she pulls it out and wrings it, with her remarkably dextrous raccoon hands. Finally, she wads the paper up and tosses it over her shoulder. It lands dead-center on top of the garbage can’s closed lid with a decisive splat.
“Ew,” I say.
“Nothing but net,” says Critter. Then she dusts her hands, pulls the sack back up over the adding machine, and drags it away.
She leaves me to climb out of the stew of my own filth. I stand up, listening to the water swoosh off my body and plunge back into the chilly tub. I lift the stopper with my toes and hear the unabashed gurgles and burps as the drain greedily swallows my sloughed-off skin, stale perspiration, and slicks of dirt-saturated oils.
I turn on the shower and quickly soap my hair and body, imagining a layer of self-hate rinsing off me like a thin black slime.
I look down at the drain and picture a swirl of emotional sludge spiraling around the chrome, dissolving into the clear water around it, diluting until it ceases to matter.
I pop the tap closed, wrap myself in a towel, and move forward, a little lighter, into the day that awaits.
Critter says that if you are keeping a mental list of all of your failings and inadequacies, you might as well put them on paper.
Get your self-directed accusations out where you can see them, and then do whatever accounting you deem necessary to figure out where you stand with yourself.
Critter and I hope that when your wins and fails are tallied, you make the same empowering discovery as we did.
Nothing matters, except what matters.
Take care of yourself, so you can take care of what matters.
And let the rest wash off you.
“And one last thing!” Critter says. “Remember that cosplay can change lives.”