Dad vs curation nation

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, December 7, 2018


They come roaring in, these lists upon lists of gifts upon gifts, 10 best or dozen most useful or most quirky or most coveted. Gifts for the cook, the couple, the bookworm, the humbug, the athlete, the gentleman, the millennial, the techie, the bacon lover, the beef lover, the vegan, the gardener, gifts for every kind of kid and connoisseur and aficionado you can think of, as well as, of course, the zen koan-iest gift curations of all — gifts for persons who have everything.

At some point, usually around the time I’m actually starting to believe that life might be measurably better with a certain thing I don’t yet have, I flash on my father, a bigger than life military man I’ve written about many times before. For whatever reason, and against all odds, Jim Curry, liked Christmas.

He passed away over 30 years ago, so I’m not completely sure he wouldn’t have eventually gone the way of the Grinch, especially given today’s subscriptions boxes and animal adoptions and thematic gifting and blogger posts and celebrity curators like Oprah and Ellen and corporate ones like Amazon and BuzzFeed. He certainly would have put his foot down at the pressure imposed to spend, to splurge, to agonize over what others have pitched as the perfect gifts.

Not to mention the religious aspects of the holiday he was never quite on board with. At the dinner table one night, after a heated argument about religion (me from my perch as a Catholic high school sophomore at a school he’d enrolled me in), he declared he would never set foot in a church again. As a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, he rarely went anyway, but with my mother’s French Catholicism backdropping the raising of the kids, he had always managed to put the suit on for the occasional church wedding and for midnight mass. No more midnight masses. Maybe no more weddings.

So, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why he liked Christmas. He’d grown up relatively poor in the Depression years, a father gone, his mother and grandmother raising him. And yet, he wasn’t a man who wanted much, except for the very best of anything! (This became ever so clear in a pile of letters he wrote to my mother in the 1950s during 10 years’ worth of tours of duty. He was buying suits in Hong Kong he could not afford while she was literally buying bolts of material to make clothes for three kids. )

But at Christmas, all personality rules seemed to be off, and in a beautiful you-never-know-about-people (especially your dad) sort of way, he settled into the season. He might have been done with midnight mass, but he created a memorable tradition of Dad’s Christmas on Cascadia Avenue. Old school, spare and oddly curated — part Charlie Brown, part king-of-the-castle, and all of it commencing with the clearance tree we’d go buy for $1.99 at the local variety store in Seattle and then drill holes into in order to fill it out more (seriously).

Sacred rituals? Excessive tinselizing of said tree (tinsel was made of lead back then). Ornaments that never changed at all, not in 30 years. And, at some point mysteriously slotted into the delicious days before Christmas, he would disappear into his office, a cozy little smile on his face, with the ribbons and scotch tape and the limited assortment of wrapping paper we had back then, and carefully wrap all the presents he’d purchased for the family. It was the bows I remember best, a simple type of little flower bow he would make by wrapping curling ribbon around and around his hand, tying it in the middle and then fanning out all the loops into petals. Every single gift got one. Every year.

Curation for the girls (there were two of us, and two boys) was very simple and did not waver much: dried fruit assortments from Harry & David (platters that came with a two-pronged plastic fork that included dates and maraschino cherries, apricots and pears and such). A silk scarf in a small box, with tissue. And some kind of bath item like powder with a puff — usually a respectable, well-known scent.

These gifts were old fashioned even back then! But thinking back on it, I loved what he brought, for his daughters especially, at Christmas: delightfully simple things that were, in their own way, quintessential and right. Care spent in making them ready. And the simple tag accompanying each one of them that said our names and “Love, Dad” in his own loopy, big-boss-man handwriting. In fact, it was probably those two words in juxtaposition — “Love” and “Dad” — that, along with his little gift, reminded us that he had a beating heart, after all, and that it was a soft and tender one.

Day of the Dead — and of the Living

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, November 2, 2018


In Santa Fe just last weekend for a visit with friends, my husband and I are lucky enough to have it all: sweet October warmth, blue sky, the coziness of all that adobe and the golden cascade of leaves coming down like coins as we stroll along.

Not far from downtown, we walk under an enormous pear tree, half the fruit still on and the other half a redolent carpet on the ground. We hear church bells from the cathedral, a brass band on the plaza. We have this delicious feeling of having extended our fall in the most seamless way possible: by simply driving south a few hours. Could we chase autumn’s glory all around the world? It feels like it.

At dusk, the New Mexico sky’s pinks lick their way across the firmament and then lower into embers on the horizon line. I feel a cotton candy vibe here, a coffee shop, cinnamon-chocolate, and chile vibe, a vibe topped off and sealed in by all the Day of the Dead skulls in shop windows on every corner.

What a beautiful moment in time, I think, remembering certain late Octobers in the San Juans over the course of all these years, leaves already gone, gray settling in in a way that said, “Hunker down, my brethren, hunker down.” In this moment, there is no need for hunkering. Instead, we loosen, having stolen a moment, a moment far from the snow that’s about to fall any second back home, up north.

Somewhere in our weekend conversational stream, there is mention of a book, a collection of essays about new business models and reasons for their success, called “The Culture Code.” Our friend Zach mentions the profile of a restaurant in New York where service itself has been reinvented and I casually pipe in that it sounds like a memorable meal I had with my daughter in the city once. I say the restaurateur’s name, and he points at me and excitedly says, “That’s it! That’s the one!” With corroboration, the book comes to life for him — and in the same synchronistic crackle, that meal vividly comes back to life for me.

It was an important meal. We had just dispatched ourselves to New York after the death of my husband in 2011. Her father. We had held it together for the memorial service, and then for her graduation from high school. She was about to turn 18, and going back to the city to visit close friends felt like the only thing we could possibly do.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were handling death in the only way we could — by compartmentalizing and walking away. Soldiering on. We had not yet come to terms with the smallest things (the closets full of clothes, the piles of skis), the medium things (the pads of paper with his writing on them, the stories of things he did that we never knew about) or the bigger things (figuring out what to do with the chair he sat in, seeing his truck go by with someone else in the driver’s seat). Let alone, the biggest thing of all — the idea of life continuing without a loved one’s body filling up its normal space in the world.

In New York, everything is different. We shoot ahead to spring in full bloom, bypassing the mountain mud season. We decide to go out for this five-course lunch at a well-known restaurant, because she, like her father, is interested in food and it seems right. We get to Eleven Madison Park (owned by restaurateur Danny Meyer, at the time) ready to be bowled over by the wonders of gastronomy. But after the meal, we’re surprised by our feelings. Because even though the food is really good, it’s the service that is unforgettable, and for one reason alone: its genuine, impeccable graciousness and kindness. They treat her like a queen. Make us both feel not only cared for, but loved. In the cutthroat world of restaurants? Unheard of.

Maybe we needed just this kind of unprecedented and surprise kindness more than we could fathom. I know it left a mark on me — the first tiny pinhole of an opening for feeling and vulnerability to seep into. For light to penetrate, tiny bit by tiny bit.

I explain the unique quality of the service to Zach without going into detail. But then later, back on the streets of Santa Fe, I take another look at all the bright candy skulls and skeletons looking at me from every window, the faces and remains of ancestors and people we’ve lost, smiling, all shaky and vibrant, and I get it, I get it in a way I’ve never gotten it before. Why we have to celebrate and hold close all those who have departed — feel them in our bones, and let it all, the whole beautiful mess, rattle around in broad daylight.