The holidays are strange, partly due to the pressure of making things magical for everyone. Add to that a returning college freshman with a head bigger than a cannonball, and you know it can get very, very ugly.

I had planned to write a piece about a priceless few minutes I spent with Blue and Dimples during Thanksgiving break, but as time got away from me and Thanksgiving has now slid into a New Year, I realize that that brief time, wondrous as it was, was just one remarkable moment in a holiday season of ups, downs, and sideways.

I’ll start with what I intended to talk about, an “up,” the unexpectedly rewarding read-aloud my boys and I shared one evening during Thanksgiving break. First, a little back story. I have an addiction. I know it’s good that I can admit it. Like most addictions, I don’t really want to give it up; I just may need three more jobs to keep it going. I buy books. New books, classics, hardcovers, paperbacks, poetry compilations, short story collections, novels, anthologies, memoirs, and books about writing. My addiction now includes books about teaching and books to read to my elementary school students. During one of my hourly visits to amazon.com, I stumbled on a book that I used to read to my kids when they were teeny, a book everyone should own, especially those of us trying to help children increase their social-emotional skills. I don’t know who introduced it to me, but it has that juicy (no pun intended – you’ll see what I mean) combination of great lessons and hilarity. It’s called “How Are You Peeling? Foods with Moods” by the ingenious Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. The cover portrays two expressive red peppers. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about the fun my kids and I used to have talking about emotive carrots, kiwis, and oranges; maybe it’s because I’ve bought 2,358 books since. Of course, the minute I saw that giant smiling pepper on my computer screen, as any addict would, I ordered it. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime that delivers my drug to me instantaneously.

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Back to those great peels. With the book in hand at the start of Thanksgiving break, I told Blue and Dimples that in no uncertain terms, we were going to find an opportunity before Blue returned to Maryland to have a reminiscent reunion with our favorite childhood story. They were actually looking forward to reconnecting with these moody fruits and veggies, but we didn’t get our chance until deep into the weekend. It was worth the wait.

We plunked ourselves down on the living room couch. It was quiet except for the dogs’ nails clicking as they walked around. I sat in the middle, flanked by these newly giant people to whom I gave birth. I opened the book and read the first page, which stars a charming green pepper with a strange smile. The only words were “Happy? Sad?” Immediately, the three of us cracked up as we analyzed the pepper’s ambiguous grin and speculated as to why he or she might have been happy or sad (in our world, peppers have genders). The questioning continued as we encountered sensitive scallions, lemons, and cantaloupes, and we discovered not only that everyone can interpret these healthy snacks’ feelings differently, but that their eyes were carved using black-eyed peas. I never knew! Usually, I’m impatient because my boys aren’t acting as grown as up as they should, forever fantasizing about one of them taking out the recycling or hanging up a wet towel. On this day, however, I basked in their boyness, how easily they reverted to wide-eyed children at the sight of a tomato that might have been confused, amused, or surprised. They were engaged. They were laughing. They were being nice to each other. While it was happening, I knew what I had. I was able to step outside myself and realize how exquisite this was, and how fleeting. Even though I read as slowly as I could and lingered on each page so we could examine the crooked smile of every little radish and decide if it was mean, timid, bold, or in between, the moment ended.  

This lovely experience was a small part of Thanksgiving break, probably the best part. Other interactions with Blue during this six-day period at home weren’t quite so enchanted. Blue hadn’t been home since August 24th, when we rolled out of Westfield and drove to The University of Maryland for the beginning of freshman year. After all these months, I was really excited to have him in my midst again, to hear his leaden footsteps pace the upstairs hallway in his chosen too-short pajama pants, to make him bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches for breakfast at 2:30pm when he got out of bed, and to watch Who is America? together, as we’d talked about since he first saw the show earlier in the fall. Something not so funny happened, though, as he settled in. He forgot that our house doesn’t have Greek letters on the door. Other than bonding over that fun-loving produce, what stands out most from that long-awaited visit is a late-night screaming bout in the kitchen when I came downstairs, barely coherent or able to see, furious at having been woken up by slurred speech and the sound of the sliding glass door opening and closing a thousand times. When I was in college, what happened on campus stayed on campus. Now, what happens on campus happens in your parents’ house as well. I understand addiction. As I said, I’m not immune, but this child is just finding his collegiate legs and he’s putting his body through it each and every day. In a quiet, post kitchen-rage moment, I implored him to value his liver and sperm count.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Blue caught a bus back to school and I breathed a sigh of relief (hi guilt). I went to a holiday party in mid-December where I got into a very intimate conversation with a woman I’d met only once before about our sons in school and the trouble they’ve gotten into. I felt like I’d known her all my life. After some wine, I told her that I was dreading having Blue home for winter break. I immediately wanted to suck my words back in, which is when she said that virtually everyone feels the same way. They do? There is comfort in not being the only one with child dread, but it feels dirty. I want to be Eddie Murphy in the SNL skit when he dressed up like a white man and went about his day observing how white people treat each other (they give each other things!), going undercover into my contemporaries’ houses to see how they’re handling this nails-on-a-chalkboard homecoming.  

Fast forward to that much anticipated winter break, where we are now. Substance abuse is bad enough, but the attitude of entitlement is more than I can take. We have been crystal clear for years that ours is not the party house. The other day, I was getting something out of the basement, where Blue had spent time with friends the night before, and I found six empty beer cans tucked between a storage bin and the wall. Blue was in the shower and I was doing heavy breathing exercises to stay calm. When he came down, I invited him to take a walk with me. I asked him to explain the cans and without a second’s hesitation, he said, “They’re mine.” I did that thing when you look around to see if there’s a camera capturing your shock (remember Moonlighting?). I kept thinking, where is the shame? Where is the panicked look when you realize you’ve been caught, the nervous stammering, the rapid-fire apology, the pleading for forgiveness, the insistence that it’ll never happen again? Crickets. The shamelessness continued a few days later when he blew off a 12:30am curfew we had just been arguing about, and stumbled in at 3:30. I’ve always heard that nothing good happens after midnight, and I thought I was doing him a solid by offering a half-hour grace period. When I confronted him, he was evasive and had the gall to cop attitude with me as if I had done something wrong. I remember Jennifer Aniston once saying something about Brad Pitt missing a sympathy chip. I’m starting to think that whatever Blue is inhaling is eating away at the conscience he once had. Mess up. We all do. Just own it. Blue is home until the end of January (one more week), which feels both like years from now and precious little time. He wrote me an apology-novella-text, in which he said all the right things, one of which was an acknowledgement that he is the child and I am the parent, a true epiphany. It was great to read. I just hope it brings about different behavior. I don’t like this go-stay tug inside me. I’m hoping for a little holiday magic: getting my son back, the one who pushed the limits, but at least recognized that there are some.