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Alienating the people we most love, the Holiday Edition

Christmess passed!! And one tradition Michael and I have had every year since Eliot was born is to assemble a book of photos to give as an annual gift to a handful of relatives: the VAUNTED GRANDPARENTS. Between death and divorce and remarriage and the way our family structure works, the number of grand- and great-grandparental households nurturing our kids year-round both locally and from across the country stands at five, and adding in a book for ourselves brings the holiday tally to six books — a gift that, six years in, all the grands anxiously look forward to, keep on hand as coffee-table books to share with friends and family, and enjoy all year long.

The books are beautiful: hard-bound, archival-quality, rich photo reproduction on acid-free paper. They’re spendy as hell and worth every last dime; in a season of so many throwaway gifts, they’re one of the things we give into which we truly invest a load of time and effort, knowing they’ll be keepsakes for the recipients — for even our children and their children: a never-aging photo album of each year of Eliot and Nola’s lives.

The process collectively takes us days: me doing a first run culling the thousands of images I’ve taken throughout the year, then Mike editing those into his favorites and doing a first shot at layout, then me coming in and rearranging the layout. Finally, we add titles and any necessary captions and do individual and collective final proofs before preparing them for shipment. It’s a deliberative, painstaking process that we both treat like a job — mine as a former magazine editor and his in design — while also allowing for injections of levity.

Like at the very last moment of this year’s project, when I’d finished the final proof of the final proof while Michael pottered about upstairs, and on a lark I looked at a dust jacket flap photo of the two of us and hastily typed a caption I knew would make him laugh, a caption that he’d obviously then delete and replace with something audience-appropriate.

A little while later, when I was upstairs and he was at his desk, I heard a roar of laughter and Mike shout up, “So you want me to leave this caption on the picture of us, then?” And I groaned back, “Riiiiiiiiight…” All with full knowing he’d do the right thing because IT IS CHRISTMAS AND THESE ARE GOING TO THE GRANDS AND THESE ACID-FREE PAPER KEEPSAKES WILL OUTLIVE THE ZOMBIE UPRISING AND THE MAYAN APOCALYPSE, GODDAMMIT.

So imagine my horror on Christmas morning when I opened my own cherished photo book — which by now had been sent, received, AND opened by every last grandparent — to find this on the dust flap:

Now, when I related the whole horrible mess to my pal Nancy later in the day, she shrugged and said, “Well, you are my favorite Jewish couple.”

And it’s true: while Mike and I may not be official Jews, we are as Jew-ISH they come. I’ve spent my entire life adopted by Jews purely on the basis of being mistaken as one of the Chosen; for the first time this year, Michael finally witnessed it in action, bizarrely by a man who chased me down in the street INSISTING I had to be Jewish (yes, he was too). Even when we met, I was certain Michael was Jewish, and vice-versa; the letdown of finding out the truth about each other was exactly like that episode of Seinfeld:

Face it: the reason I typed the caption in the first place was that of all our unfulfilled Judaism, this picture of us from last New Year’s Eve has got to be the Jew-iest of all. I mean, come on! The velvet blazer and sequins! The big Eastern European cranium and flat-ironed curls! The noise-maker and champagne at the big holiday shebang! Mazel tov, schmucks!

“It’s just… SO US!” Mike explained. “It’s totally our sense of humor and captures that picture perfectly. I couldn’t bring myself to change it! We can call everyone and explain if you think we need to, but I think it’s PERFECT.”

The other thing he thinks is perfect? His “main” Christmas present. Our system is to get each other a few items off each other’s wish lists, and then also a few things unasked for — gifts that show we spent time really thinking about each other and what the other person wants or needs, or just something that might delight each other.

This year, I did something really fun for Michael, something that cost me virtually nothing in money or time and left him in complete awe… Of the copious amounts of television we watch there are a handful of shows we insist on watching together, and one of those is A&E’s “Hoarders.” Every week on Monday night, Michael and I put the girls to bed and settle in for an hour of dueling houses of horror. It’s like church for us, complete with repentance, come-to-Jesus moments, and me talking in tongues (“Tracy, stop yelling at the TV.”) But an episode of “Hoarders” is simply something of a letdown without the assistance of “extreme-cleaning specialist Matt Paxton,” who brings a gentle toughness and humor to the show’s hardest cases. Mike’s a little OCD — he’s a neat freak, the kind of person who can spend hours organizing a garage or papers, or sees a smudge on a fridge shelf and finds himself emptying the entire refrigerator to scrub the whole thing clean — so he LOVES the kind of work Matt does, going into the madness of these homes and saying NO! to years of chaos with snow shovels as brooms and dumpsters as trash bins. He’s often said that in a late-life career, he’d love to do what Matt Paxton does, he’d find it so gratifying.

And earlier this year, in August, while we were watching Matt perform his hilariously awful work — standing atop a mountain of calcified adult diapers that threatened to collapse the entire house beneath him while still being able to joke about his life’s choices — Mike laughed and said, “Honestly, all I want for Christmas this year is an autographed picture of Matt Paxton!”

Thinking I had plenty of time, it was well before Thanksgiving when I emailed a request to Matt at his business address. And then heard back nothing. Nothing! I’d completely given up, when the MONDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS he sheepishly wrote back and said he’d just gotten the email and would be happy to get it to me — I just needed to get him an overnight mailing label. I sent it right away… and then the envelope proceeded to bounce around the East Coast all week, a week during which I didn’t sleep at all. Friday morning, two days before Christmas, I frantically emailed him, and he instantly offered to get me another one for Saturday delivery, Christmas Eve: Matt Paxton was a HERO!! And just as I got the fresh overnight label to him, the postman rang the bell with the original package. Mike had his present for Christmas morning. It had cost me $18 in postage.

Later, he said it was the best present he’s ever received, that he couldn’t believe I remembered something he said six months ago and made it happen, and that it proved the best gifts really are the ones that cost little, that show you really think about and pay attention to people.

Now onward to the New Year. And mazel tov, schmucks!


  • Jillian Harrington

    December 29, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Haha! You know, it’s true, I was TOTALLY convinced you were Jewish when you and Michael started dating. I think I may have even TOLD someone you were Jewish, completely convinced. And yes, I was quite disappointed to find out you weren’t. Of course, I’m disappointed I’m not, too. Maybe next year we should start celebrating Hanukkah…

  • Tracy

    December 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    You know, when I was a reporter in DC, one of the stories I did was on a group of people converting to Judaism. And it was so beautiful: the synagogue community, the murmur of Hebrew, the timeless rituals. And for a while I thought, I should do this! Everyone keeps asking what I’m doing for High Holidays already, all I’m really missing at this point is my Official Membership Card! But then I realized that as an atheist, 18 months of conversion study and dedication seemed an awful lot of effort just to put toward becoming a Lapsed Jew…

    I love your idea. We can use one of your fine menorahs! And next year, the first day of Hanukkah is on my birthday — let’s blow out a mess of candles after dusk and light one more.

  • Karen Teal

    January 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    You know, I always thought that Mike and I had something like this, something very febrile and stupendous that we both share. It’s the love of the hoarding shows and a love of cleaning things up. It’s awesome. Way to go, Mike, and congratulations, Tracy, for remembering some little thing that was announced six months ago, which we all know is super-impossible to do.
    Bravo, bravo.
    I hope you have a super happy and healthy 2012.
    Karen and Tom Teal


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