Christmas with chaos, but no jelly

My husband narrowly avoided a “Jelly of the Month Club” situation at work over the holidays.

A couple of weeks before Christmas mail delivery to his Hillyard-area business came to a standstill. A disaster at any time when you depend on getting paid by your customers, so you can pay your employees, but especially concerning over Christmas.

Derek worried that instead of bonuses, he’d have to give his employees memberships to a Jelly of the Month Club just like Clark Griswold received in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

Movie fans know that didn’t end up well for Griswold’s boss.

Equally troubling was the absence of our sons’ Christmas gifts. I’m not an online shopper, so Derek buys gifts the kids put on their Amazon wish lists, while I purchase presents at local stores. He always has the packages delivered to his business because his locked mailbox is more secure than our home curbside box. No mail delivery from USPS meant no packages, either.

When a week passed with nary an envelope in his box, Derek sent an employee to the neighborhood post office to find out what the problem was.

After waiting in a long line of unhappy postal customers, he was able to get a stack of mail, but no packages.

“They’ll come tomorrow,” the harried worker told him.

It seems like many area post offices, the Hillyard branch was critically understaffed and completely overwhelmed.

The packages didn’t arrive the next day. Nor did any mail. Another week went by and Derek went to the post office and picked up a huge stack of mail. The packages?

“They’ll be delivered by Christmas Eve,” the employee assured him.

On Dec. 23, our sons’ gifts arrived (but no mail).

I thought Derek would be relieved, instead, he was sad.

“Your gifts didn’t come,” he said.

I hugged him.

“My birthday’s in February. I bet they’ll be here just in time.”

But the meltdown of mail delivery is no laughing matter. I’m glad Derek was able to pay his bills and his employees, but another customer at the post office was missing needed medication. For those who live on slim margins, the lack of a check can mean no money for rent, utilities or groceries.

As USPS still struggles, another catastrophe loomed. Our son was scheduled to return to Texas via Southwest Airlines on Dec. 29.

On Dec. 27, he woke us with the news that Southwest had canceled his flight and said they couldn’t rebook him until Jan. 13!

His was just one of more than 2,500 flights the airline canceled within four hours that morning. Sam has classes to prepare for and was due back in his office on Thursday. He and Derek found a flight on American Airlines that would get him home on Tuesday.

I couldn’t complain about an extra five days with our youngest, but my heart ached for friends stranded far from home.

Stressful situations like these serve as reminders to check our attitudes. Are we being kind to the airline workers and postal service employees who are on the front line of customer frustration? Are we finding things to be thankful for amid the chaos?

And honestly, a one-year subscription to a Jelly of the Month Club isn’t the worst thing in the world – especially if you’ve stocked up on peanut butter.


Last one out


He never said anything about Texas. I would remember that.

When our youngest son was in fifth grade he informed me that he wouldn’t live in Spokane forever.

“I’m going to live in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York,” he said.

Last week, Sam, 22, moved to Odessa, Texas. He accepted a full-time position at Odessa College to teach English and composition classes. Odessa is 1,767 miles from Spokane.

I would have much preferred he stuck with his fifth-grade plan and moved to Seattle, but Sam has worked hard to become a college professor and his first post-graduate school job is exactly what he envisioned during his long hours of study. It’s just that none of us envisioned it in Texas.

I’m getting a bit of an attitude about that state. Our second son moved to Houston at 21, stayed almost three years, and then moved to Ohio. Thankfully, our other two sons don’t seem inclined to move to the Lone Star State and both have places within a mile of our house.

Of course, I knew this day was coming – eventually, all parents get to enjoy an empty nest. But neither Derek nor I were prepared for how rapidly this last fledgling flew.

Last month, after two Zoom interviews, Sam went to Odessa for an in-person interview and was offered the job immediately. He found an apartment, flew back home and started packing.

He had a lot to pack – mainly books. (Seven boxes full and he left an overflowing bookshelf in his room.)

We shopped and scheduled last-minute dental and eye exams. In hindsight, we should have skipped those because his extensive benefits include 100% health care coverage.

His dad slaved over the aging Oldsmobile that Sam inherited when I got my Ford Escape. Derek needed to ensure it could make the trip across six states, towing a small U-Haul trailer. Then he excitedly mapped out the route he and Sam would take.

We hosted a big family bon voyage party filled with cousins, aunts and uncles, and suddenly we were in our week of lasts.

His last Friday family dinner with his brothers.

Last visit with his Grandma Shirley, 91.

Last back-to-school s’mores night in our backyard gazebo.

Last night in his childhood bed.

Last cuddles with our cats, Thor and Walter. (Well, last cuddle with Walter because Thor ran and hid. Thor hates goodbyes.)

I wasn’t the only one shedding tears.

For 32 years, we’ve had at least one son in our home.

“I’m going to miss having another dude around,” Derek said.

Apparently, our male cats don’t count.

Those lasts aren’t exactly final. Sam will come home for Christmas, and he’s going to meet us in Ohio this summer to visit Alex’s family with us.

But I’ve been through this three times before. Once a kid has a taste of independent living, they don’t want to live in Mom and Dad’s basement anymore. That’s a very healthy thing.

After raising boys for 32 years, Derek and I are ready for the next chapter of our story to unfold. Friends who’ve walked this path before us have all said the same thing.

“You’ll be sad for a few days, and then (here they all grinned) you will love having an empty nest!”

They’re probably right, plus I have something else that comforts me.

All those years ago, when Sam mapped out his life’s plan for me, he was adamant about one thing.

“When I’m done traveling around, and I’m ready to settle down, I’m coming home to Spokane,” he said. “That’s where I want to raise my family.”

I’m counting on it, Sam. I’m counting on it.


I Left My Heart in Houston

Hval 19He leaned his head against the window as the plane powered up for takeoff, and when the ground slipped away, his face split into a familiar grin.

At 21, our son Alex was enjoying his first flight. While it was fun to share the experience with him, my feelings were decidedly mixed. Derek and I were taking him to his new home in Houston.

I’m not a newbie when it comes to kids leaving the nest, but I’ve never had a son fly so far. Alex and his older brother, Ethan, 24, have always lived within a few miles of the family home. Houston is 2,123 miles from Spokane by car. I know. I checked.

The fact that this is the right choice for Alex and a great opportunity for him didn’t dull the ache in my heart. Flying is expensive and time-consuming, and it will probably be a year before we see him again.

The trip wasn’t all gloom and despair. We laughed at the airport when Derek got flagged for special attention by the TSA agent. “Sir, do you have anything in your crotch area?” the agent asked.

Derek looked bewildered. I could see so many possible – but inappropriate – replies flashing through his mind. Alex and I collapsed in a fit of giggles, while Derek calmly endured his pat down. “I’ve had Army physicals,” he said. “That didn’t even come close.”

Soon we were buckled in and on our way. It doesn’t surprise me that this son is the first to move so far from home – I’ve spent many years chasing him. I yelled “Slow down, Alex!” so much he thought Slowdown was his first name.

He’s always been fearless. He never found a tree high enough, a skateboard ramp steep enough, a roller coaster fast enough. Unfortunately, that same fearlessness propelled him headlong into some bad choices, and now at last he’s ready for a fresh start.

While I wish he could have that new beginning closer to me, I’ve supported and encouraged this move. He won’t know the strength of his wings until he tests them.

After a long day of travel we found an Italian restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. We laughed and traded stories and remembrances throughout our meal, trying our best to not make it seem like a last supper.

The next day, we loaded the rental car with all our son’s worldly goods – at least those we could afford to fly out with us, and delivered Alex to his new digs.

We spent some time touring the area, but we all knew we were putting off the inevitable. At last, Alex wrapped his arms around me in a fierce hug. “I love you, Mom,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Derek and I walked to the car and sat there for a long time. Neither of us felt confident enough to navigate a strange city with tear-filled eyes. I turned to my husband, “Can you believe he said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom!’ You’d think after 21 years, he’d know me!”

My husband shook his head. “It’s time to let him go, Cindy.” And with that he started the car. “Let’s go to Galveston!” he said. And we hit the road.

Less than an hour later we were on a ferry watching dolphins play and pelicans swoop in to catch fish in the bay. We took a long walk down acres of sandy white beach. We walked in silence for the most part – each lost in our own memories of our dark-haired boy.

Watching the waves crash and break along the shore soothed our tender hearts. We stood on a jetty for the longest time until the wind picked up and the spray sent droplets our way. I took Derek’s hand. “This was a good idea,” I said. And I didn’t mean just the Galveston outing – I meant our decision to help our son launch into a brave, new life.

We spent the next day in San Antonio. And at each stop from the Alamo, to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium, to the delightful shops and restaurants along the famed Riverwalk, we’d turn to each other and say, “Next year… .” Or “Alex will love this … .”

If baby birds need to fly from their nests to strengthen their wings, then perhaps mommy and daddy birds need to strengthen their hearts by letting their little ones fly.

All I know is my heart didn’t break when our flight took off and circled the sprawling city. How could it? I willingly left a piece of it in Houston, and it will still be there for me next year when I return.

This column appeared in the Spokesman Review, May 15, 2014.