This was really Ken's doing. The whole valentine's day cards issue had come up when I was hanging out with the kids a week ago. Trudy, now officially and actually 5, had spent the day in school decorating a large envelope that would hang on the wall along with envelopes decorated by each of her classmates. The envelopes are there to receive valentine's day cards. There are official preschool rules about the holiday, and the wonderful, experienced people who run the school are clear that participation is not mandatory. I always take those invitations way too literally, so often just don't participate in such events. I'm frequently the one who really does not bring a birthday present when asked not to. I'm also the one who responds honestly, though usually with what I consider to be constructive criticism, when a waiter asks, "How is everything?" I hold people to their words - so if you tell me no presents, you better mean it. Same for asking me what I think - you should really want to know.
Huck, my third grader, jumped in on the game, and stated that he wanted to make cards for all the kids in his class. I think he's really interested in the candy that people are going to hand out (not us - see above). I told the kids that this year they could not count on me for help with this one. If they wanted to make valentine's day cards for everyone, they were going to have to motivate themselves. I'm absurdly busy, and will remain that way until I fully integrate an assistant into my law practice. Plus, we're getting a new business off the ground! Double plus, my choir is singing NoisePop and I'm trying to rehearse. Not to mention laundry, of course.
Ken, bless his soul, responded with a determined affirmation a few days later when he was a part of a similar conversation with the kids: we will send our children to school with valentine's day cards for a collective 50 children. We have to do right by them.
There are certain expectations of kids and parents that I really resent. I'll supervise homework and make stupendous snacks and wash cars for fundraisers, but the holiday thing makes me batty. My memory of the holiday celebrations of my childhood - at least when it came to how we celebrated them in school - is that it was all much more organic and much lower key. I don't remember feeling a compulsion to do whatever for every kid in my class on each and every holiday. My sense, looking back, is that some of us pulled it together for valentine's day while others of us managed to get some easter candy to distribute and then there were always folks left to do St. Patrick's day duty and bring in clover shaped butter cookies with green sugar on top.
Of course, I wasn't the one who had to motivate or organize, so I'm sure -- I imagine -- all that holiday obligation stuff was fairly irritating to my parents too. It might seem by now that I have some kind of holiday chip on my shoulder, and I do. I love to celebrate and ritualize things. I think birthdays are great - you really know why you are celebrating what you are celebrating. The rest of it (it being all holidays) seems so overdone and, as a result, diluted. The special food that used to only be available on such-and-such holiday, is now available year round. The particular joyful experience of trick or treating and getting halloween candy seems corrupted - the quantity is beyond excessive and the quality of the experience suffers as a result. In our country everything is available 24-7, and at this point there isn't anything you can't do, even on the most sacred of holidays, Christmas: Walgreens and Safeway are open for hours. In particular, I hate the pressure my kids experience around holidays, and I hate the fact that often they have no connection to these holidays other than for the sugar or other loot. Going through the motions is not in my skill set.
Ironically, and, ultimately, poetically, valentine's day is one of the few holidays for which I have an actual family tradition. My family experience growing up was fundamentally safe and loving, but it was a bit fractured and distracted. There were elements of tradition in many holidays, things we did from year to year: I made the mashed potatoes at thanksgiving from age 8 until probably 16 or so; we made latkes for hanukah; and when my dad and stepmother were together there was the cozy joy of christmas morning at their lovely house - lots of hot coffee and usually bacon and other rich morning treats that came after withstanding weird slow present opening where we all held back and pretended not to care that much. Oh yeah, and then there was the dance around mother's day where my mom said she didn't really care about it but then ended up getting upset, always. For a few years I really carried this tradition out with my own family until I discovered that the best thing to do on mother's day was to remove myself from society to the greatest possible extent.
Valentine's day was different. For years my mom made epically wonderful cards for us. Really the thing was the writing - often 24 lines or more of poetry proclaiming her love and appreciation for each of us and our unique qualities. The poems, written usually on the newsprint favored by my mom, were surrounded by potato print hearts. Even when I became an adult, my mom wrote these poems and made potato prints and sent them to me. She even sent some to my husband in the first 5 or 6 years of our marriage. Sometimes the poems were short and sweet, but there were always - ALWAYS - potato prints. My mom didn't pull out the domestic whoop-ass very often but she killed it on valentine's day.
So here I am, irritated by holidays in general, irritated by holidays in school in particular, but being rallied by my equally overworked husband to help the kids make valentine's day cards. Am I totally evil? No! I got behind it. And I was able to get behind it precisely because of the valentine's day card tradition that I could really call upon: we'll make potato prints of course! The one thing I can do with my kids that DOES actually mean something to me on this, another, absurdly commercialized holiday.
As it often goes, my kids had other plans. Huck had a vision of layered hearts glued together, so he and Ken started cutting and pasting. Trudy enjoyed making potato prints for a while. We made a few really nice heart-shaped potato printers despite the fact that I had used all but one of the potatoes to make soup for dinner - didn't really think that one through. But then she wanted to do what her brother was doing (they did look pretty cool) and I was unable to talk her out of discontinuing to print with me.
Poetically, and ironically, while Trudy got involved with intricate drawings on two cards and spent a good deal of time talking Ken into cutting out lots of hearts for her so that she could do exactly what her big brother was doing, I ended up making 40 half-assed potato prints on a combination of cool joss paper I had and some blank index cards.
Hats off to Ken: the kids have valentine's day cards to distribute. They will not be humiliated and feel left out of yet another holiday celebration.
Also, it was quite nice sitting around the kitchen table doing an art project together, my bad attitude and Trudy's whining indecision notwithstanding. The thing I most love about that kind of project time with my kids is the way conversation flows and they talk freely about the random thoughts that bubble up while you are working with your hands.
In the middle of it, Huck told us, "Today I said something that made people in my class think I wasn't that smart." Puzzled (because Huck has a bit of a braniac reputation, complete with shirt chewing and other neurotic behaviors associated with the very intellectual) we asked him what he said.
"I told some kids in my class that God does not exist. And then I told them that Jesus isn't the son of God, and Santa doesn't exist, and the Easter Bunny doesn't exist either."
Ken and I were now listening quite attentively.
I don't know what they'd been talking about when Huck jumped in on the conversation, but when Huck the Heretic spoke up, the other kids pulled out all the stops, telling Huck he was wrong, presenting other proof of God's existence as they saw it, and finally asking Huck how can God NOT exist when God created HIM, Huckleberry Maceo Shelf.
For better or worse, Huck responded to his classmates by talking about evolution, not reproduction. Not sure which would have made him and us less popular among his classmates and their parents, but that is how it rolled. This is the point at which one kid told him that he was not actually smart, thus playing out the centuries old disrespectful dialogue between religious believers and practitioners of science.
Ken and I were laughing and cringing and proud and worried. We talked about how religion and science are often at odds with one another, and even different religious beliefs conflict, although for the most part religious believers hold their truths to be true. The fundamental message we tried to get across was the importance of treating others and their beliefs about the unknown with respect, even if they believe in something that seems patently ridiculous to you, and even if they are dissing you to your face.
Huck seemed to grock this message, and, in the end, it turns out he DOES believe in God - or, technically, GODS - he's down with Zeus and the other Olympian deities.
Really, I'm proud of my son for his ability to speak his mind and state his beliefs, even when he is up against a homogeneous group and in the minority. That is one family tradition we've created, and, hopefully, one that our kids keep going when they have families of their own.