Embracing the Lull

I had 36 people for Thanksgiving, so I’m a little tired.

I said goodbye to the last of the guests at 10 p.m., and crawled into bed, exhausted but too wired to sleep. My feet ached, reminding me of my summer banquet waitressing at the Glastonbury County Club outside Hartford. It was that good kind of tired, an exhaustion you get after a day of very hard work.

So here are a few things I won’t be doing this weekend:

  1. Christmas shopping.
  2. Putting candles in my windows.
  3. Cutting down my Christmas tree.
  4. Stringing Christmas lights.
  5. Doing anything related to Christmas.

I’m taking a break, resting in that natural lull that used to exist between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m not just being a cranky and tired Thanksgiving hostess saying this: Advent doesn’t start until Dec. 2nd. So I’m taking a chill pill, at least until Monday. 

I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for about 30 years. My Dad announced one day that he thought it was time for my mother to pass the torch to someone else, and I quickly stepped in.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I said. “How hard can it be?”

Boy, what an idiot. I quickly learned that there’s quite a bit of work orchestrating the biggest meal of the year, from the turkeys to the sides to the folding tables and chairs. I also learned that once you host Thanksgiving, everyone assumes you love doing it so it’s pretty much yours for life.

I can’t give away this holiday, and believe me I’ve tried. So when my sister-in-law Ann suggests relinquishing my hosting duties and joining them for a very Martha’s Vineyard holiday next year, I shrug.

“What about them?” I ask, surveying the grandmothers, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews and distant cousins from Germany packed in my house. “What would they do without me?”

There have been many years when I’ve thought I drew the short straw hosting Thanksgiving. The worst were when I was working as a reporter and undergoing infertility treatments, hopeful yet angry that starting my own family seemed like so much work.

But things got easier after I adopted my children and finally had my own family. It was easier to host the biggest family holiday of the year with a full heart. The yearning and emptiness of infertility permeates your entire being, making it hard to feel thankful for anything. In fact, I’m most grateful to my children for releasing me from its self-pitying grip, which may be the most damaging part of the entire experience.

Aside: If you want a good look at the horrors of the infertility process, which you probably don’t, watch the movie “Private Life” with Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn on Netflix. It accurately captures the longing and lengths people will go to conceive. It also makes you realize you’re not a lunatic, though you often feel like one during the process.

I began hosting Thanksgiving as a favor to my father, to spare my mother the hassle of hosting every holiday at their house. But I continue to host it for my children, who insist I keep doing it because it’s now our family tradition. It’s the least I can do for them. I’m very thankful for both of them because they made me a mother. I can’t imagine life without either of them.

I’m most thankful that both of them finally stepped up to the plate this year, helping me pull off this one-day extravaganza. My son picked up the folding tables and chairs at my mother’s house, and set them up for me. He and his sister lugged a very heavy table from the basement so we’d have a safe landing spot for everyone’s covered dishes.

My daughter set the tables, cleaned the kitchen and assembled cheese and fruit boards with her cousin Julia M. The Curmudgeon did supermarket, Walmart, package store and train station runs, sparing me the hassle of getting into the car. I might even go as far to say this was a pretty smooth operation. It’s only taken about 30 years to perfect it.

I think I won the contest for the biggest anticipated Thanksgiving crowd at the Marketplace in Guilford, CT., where I ordered two 23-pound Willy birds about three weeks ago. As I stood in line to pick up my birds, people began announcing modest numbers like 18 or 23. “Yea, I’ve got 36 people,” I said. “It’s making me tired just thinking about it.”

“You win!” one woman shouted.

“I guess,” I said.

“Wine, lots of wine,” she said.

“Oh, yea,” I said. “You know it.”

The guests arrived, toasted, nibbled, socialized, drank, ate, walked, cleared, cleaned and swiped. I did a celebratory dance in the kitchen with my sister Janet as my sister Marianne loaded the dishwasher. That is, until the bottom rack slipped out of the dishwasher, crashing onto the floor.

About six of us struggled to get the loaded rack back into the dishwasher. I swear it hasn’t been the same since I plowed into the open door holding sheet music for my son as he marched around our kitchen with his trombone. It’s been a little off-balance, kind of the way you feel after hosting Thanksgiving for so many people for so many years.

I’m tired, but I should be. I’m a lot older than when I began this gig 30 years ago, and there are a lot more mouths to feed. Hopefully, there will be more next year. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve learned that the more the merrier. There’s a unique joy in coming together, in being part of a very large tribe. At the very least, there’s never a dull moment.

As I tossed and turned in bed, my son came into my room.

“Thanks for hosting it again,” he said. “I think this may have been the best one yet.”

“Did Dad tell you to come up here and say that?” I asked.

“No, why?”

Just wondering.



Gonzo Girl

Gonzo Girl: That’s Cheryl in the hat.

Talent and modesty are often mutually exclusive.

Most people who’ve written books tell you about it, even if they’re self-published novels off the vanity press.

So when I learned that there was a published author in my midst, I was intrigued. A woman who occasionally plays Pickleball with us had written a novel based on her experiences as an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson. Yea, that Hunter S. Thompson.

My friends Pam and Lesley raved about Cheryl Della Pietra’s book, and asked if I had read Gonzo Girl. Gonzo who? No, I hadn’t read it, nor had I heard of it. But I was familiar with Gonzo journalism, a style in which the writer becomes part of the story. Thompson is considered founder of the Gonzo journalism movement.

Cheryl and John Baratta with a mock-up of a movie poster featuring our ideas for casting. The actual film begins shooting next month.
Nancy Sullivan, John Baratta, Shane Bradley and Toby Neubig.
Pam Welch (left) and Wendy Renz. Pam suggested I read the book.
This is what Grappa at the end of the night does to a person. Not recommended for hostesses.

Thompson, whose penchant for booze, drugs and guns was legendary, was one of the most famous literary figures of his day. How had Cheryl, her famous boss, and her book escaped my notice?

I bought the book on my Kindle and began reading it. Within a few days, I was telling my friends about it and encouraging them to read it too. Within about a week, we were organizing a book party at my house with Cheryl as the guest of honor.

This was my first shot hosting an author meet and greet. I’ve been to several at RJ Julia in Madison. CT., a nearby bookstore, and I love them. I’m most fascinated hearing authors discuss their writing process. Wally Lamb said that he writes every day from dawn to about 2 p.m. When he’s stuck, he goes to a running steam or river. Somehow, the rushing water gets his juices flowing again.

What’s most striking about Cheryl is her modesty and grace. She’s one of the most unassuming people I’ve ever met. She’s the kind of person you want to succeed because she’s so normal and nice. There’s nothing about her that screams I wrote a fantastic book that’s being made into a movie. Yes, she’s sold the movie rights. Filming begins in December.

But what I appreciate most about Cheryl is she’s one of us, giving us all hope that something amazing could happen if we just keep plugging away. She began writing the book when her son was 2, and she was driving around to try to get him to fall asleep (sound familiar)? Like many moms with young children, she feared motherhood was taking a toll on her career.

One day, she pulled into the town beach, parked her car and began scribbling down memories from her time working as Thompson’s assistant in the early ’90s. She was just 22 years old and a new graduate of the University of Pennsylvania when she landed the job. Prior to that, she had been mixing drinks in New York City, trying to land a publishing job.

She was hired to get Thompson to produce pages for a book. Sometimes, that involved dressing up in outrageous outfits and accompanying him on his wild escapades in the Colorado mountains. Sometimes, it involved partying with him and his famous friends. Sometimes, it involved dodging flying objects thrown in her direction.

Cheryl chipped away at the book, deciding to write a novel rather than a memoir because she was 20 years removed from the experience when she began writing. Slowly, steadily, she wrote the book, which took five years to finish.

Gathered around my dining room table, we peppered Cheryl with questions. Did she really have a romance with a famous star who dropped by Thompson’s house? If so, it was time for her to start naming names.

But in true Cheryl form, she deftly deflected some questions, noting that she’s prohibited from discussing some aspects of the book and movie under strict confidentiality agreements. Yea, yea, we know, but couldn’t she just tell us anyway, just between friends?

No, she couldn’t dish on that, nor the star who’s been cast to portray Thompson in the movie. We understand, we really do. But let’s make one thing clear: if she’s got extra tickets to the movie premiere, we’re available. We’d love to cheer her on the red carpet because honestly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer girl.

Write On


I wrote my daughter a letter, and she couldn’t read it.

I poured out my thoughts about her challenging cross country season and how it’s a metaphor for life: there will always be hills to climb and obstacles to overcome, but you must persevere. Sometimes, the best you can do is one foot over the other.

I was anxious to hear her reaction to my words of wisdom. But when she  returned from a retreat weekend in upstate Connecticut, she didn’t mention it.

“What did you think of my letter?” I finally asked.

“I have no idea what you were saying because you wrote it in cursive,” she said. “I only got about half of what you said. What’s with all those curly letters? It looks like you wrote it really fast.”

Seriously? I wrote it on two sheets of loose leaf paper, pausing often to think of exactly what I wanted to say. I could have batted it out on the computer in two minutes, but I opted for long hand because there’s something very personal and intimate about it.

I jumped at the chance to write a letter to my daughter because I never do. I have a friend Wendy whose mother slipped notes into her lunchbox every day. My friend Lizzie’s mom wrote to her every day she was away at summer camp. That was no easy feat, since Lizzie spent the entire summer at camp.

IMG_6606 (1).jpg

My friend Barbara has kept all her letters between her and her husband when they were dating in a nice box. My old letters? Somewhere in my basement.

But my family has never been big on personal notes, and my mailbox is proof of it. I almost never get personal mail unless it’s a birthday or anniversary card from my mother, Christmas cards or the occasional thank you note. I’m equally bad at personal mail: I don’t even have a stash of monogrammed stationery or postage stamps any more.

I was invited to write my letter by the youth minister director at our local church. My daughter is becoming a peer minister, and would be helping with a group of kids going on weekend retreat. As part of the retreat, kids would be getting letters from parents, siblings and relatives about what they mean to them.

The director thought it might be nice for my daughter to have a letter while everyone else was reading theirs. My last letter was when she went on retreat last year just before her Confirmation. I wrote that letter on my computer and printed it out.

I decided to hand write this letter on a whim. I tried to convey my feelings about her in the least sappy way possible. I’m not a sappy person, so that wouldn’t be too hard. But sometimes writing to someone you love and your relationship brings up things that you didn’t know were there.

The mother-daughter relationship is complicated. We love our girls to pieces, but boy they can be tough. Between the drama, tears and screaming from both of us at times, our feelings often get lost in the shuffle. At the end of the day, I think all moms just want their daughters to feel loved. Sometimes, writing a letter reminds you what this whole parenting thing is about.

I’d forgotten how feminine my handwriting is. It’s loopy and curvy, filled with curlicues I had no idea were lingering in my brain and dying to find their way to paper. I paused several times to make sure it was legible. Unlike many lefties, I’ve always taken pride in my penmanship: it doesn’t slant backwards and could pass for a righty’s. At least I think so.

Many schools have stopped teaching cursive, but penmanship was a big deal when I was a kid. We began learning cursive in third grade, starting with lower case letters  before moving into capital letters. I was the first in my class to be able to write my name in cursive because we covered all the letters in the name Carolyn. We all got cool cartridge pens – my first had bright yellow barrel – and those ink-filled tubes that leaked everywhere.

Cartridge pens are tough for lefties – my homework was often smudged with blue ink from my pinkie dragging across the page – but penmanship was a rite of passage, a sign of becoming a big kid. By eight or nine, you had the signature that would carry you into adulthood unless you chose to change it.

I’ve never liked my handwriting. There are often gaps, as though I lack the energy or conviction to completely steer the pen to the end of a word. And there is an inconsistency in my letters: my capital Gs are a crapshoot along with my lower case Zs. I’m sure a handwriting analyst would have a field day with it.

Reporting wrecked havoc on my handwriting because I had to write incredibly fast taking notes. People assumed I was using shorthand, but it was actually my own system of abbreviating words and terms to get everything down as quickly as possible.


I began writing on a computer screen (aka VDT) at my first newspaper job in the early ’80s. Though I initially wondered whether I’d be able to compose on a screen, I quickly adapted. I can’t imagine writing any other way now.

When I took a writing class last year, I showed up with my laptop raring to go. I was quickly told by our teacher that unless I was disabled and unable to write, I should put the laptop away because we’d be using pen and paper.

Other students scribbled away while I sat there and pondered my navel. I found myself sitting and thinking about what I was writing more often than on my computer. It’s amazing how much careful you are with words when there’s no delete button.

Though writing on the computer is still my preferred method, studies show that writing by hand is actually better for you, engaging more parts of your brain and unleashing more creativity. It’s easier to bat out words on a computer, but you think longer, better and harder with a pen and paper. Imagine that.

My daughter’s inability to read my handwriting got me thinking about how rarely I write letters. At the very least, I needed a box of fine stationery, a nice pen and some stamps.

I drove to Two Ems, an old-time stationery store in nearby Madison, CT., and looked at stationery that might fit the bill. I wanted writing paper that reflected my personality, but had a little trouble settling on a design.

Writing paper embossed with a black octopus: too intimidating; horses: pretentious (I don’t ride); a bright pink beach bag: too preppy; a blue hydrangea: pretty, but not exactly right; a bee: nah, and two birds in a nest: too intimate. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

I finally chose a set of blank cards embossed with a tiny gold elephant with an upturned trunk. It reminded me of my Great Aunt Clara, who collected elephants with upturned trunks because she believed they were a sign of good luck. It somehow seemed fitting for a long gone relative to play a part in resurrecting the long lost art of letter writing.

I considered buying a snazzy pen – do you believe Cross has a $450 pen that has GPS so you never lose it? But I decided to save my money and buy an old-fashioned wax sealer featuring an ink well and quill. It seemed fitting given the circumstances.

I now have the tools I need to write a proper letter. Now the only challenge is sitting down, writing it and actually getting it in the mail.