Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Five Perfect Words

Five words keep me sane during the holidays. Five words that I always hear in my head in my oldest brother, Mike's voice. Those five words work at all other times of the year as well, but never so effectively as they do at Christmas time.

It's been, oh boy, at least fifteen years - probably more - since I heard Mike say those five words. I was still living in Maryland and had made the trip back to Michigan to be with my family for Christmas. We all gathered for Christmas Eve at Mike's house - there were probably about 16 of us altogether, between the assorted adults and children. My sister, Nancy, showed up a good hour later than anyone else, looking out of sorts, officiously hauling in load after load of cookies and food and presents, all the while complaining loudly about... everything. She, for all the veritable Santa's sleigh loot she hauled in, was clearly not in a holiday mood.

We soon found out why. Dinner with the Black clan is always filled with good sarcastic banter. Shit gets flicked with great alacrity (and accuracy!). We've all developed pretty thick skin and can take it just as well as we dish it out. Such was not the case that day with Nancy. Her feathers were as ruffled as a renegade Christmas goose. Her return comments were snide, not silly. And, what's a holiday gathering without someone falling apart into a cathartic puddle of tears?! Yes, she did.

In my brilliance at dealing with my sister and her emotional swings for over thirty years... which was like wrestling alligators - if you stay away from the teeth, you're likely to get thumped by the tail... stay away from the tail and you're gonna get chomped... anything in the middle is okay, but don't expect it to last. So, as I was saying, I had no clue how to deal with my sister, even after all those years. So, I pulled out my trump card. "Cheer up, Nancy! It's Christmas!" (I know, I'm an idiot.)

This threw Nancy into a fairly complete tailspinning nuclear Christmas meltdown - holy shit, pass the Tylenol. The tearful tirade consisted of none of us having any understanding of what she'd been through ever, she'd been busy doing this, busy doing that, spent way too much money, trying to make things nice, had to had to had to, busy busy busy, doing doing doing.... it escalated in volume and in capacity, and ended with "And I'm exhausted! I was up until 4 this morning wrapping presents and making Christmas cookies for today... for YOU GUYS!"

That's when Mike spoke those five perfect words. Very quietly, he said, "No one asked you to."

At the time, it sent my sister, wailing, to another room of the house. But his words struck me and they've stayed with me. Maybe Mike didn't realize which sister was really listening. Those words have stayed with me and they help me out whenever I start to lose my shit and wonder how I'm going to accomplish everything I "need" to do. I stop and ask myself, "Who's asking you to do all this? Anyone? Or is it just you?" Any time I feel myself becoming frazzled and frustrated and internally (at least) hollering, "I can't handle this by myself!!" I hear Mike's voice, "No one asked you to."

Already I've heard people complaining about everything they "have to" get done in time for the holidays. And isn't it always prefaced with "I have to..."? I have to put up the lights, I have to shop for my folks, I have to bake cookies for the office/school/church, I have to clean the house because company's coming, I have to attend a party, I have to, have to have to have to. No you don't. You don't have to. No one asked you to. No one expects perfection out of you, and if they do let them deal with the disappointment that comes from having expectations that are far too lofty and unrealistic.

Give yourself a break. Stop saddling yourself with unreasonable demands... because when it comes down to it? No one asked you to.


Important Note: I would like to say that my sister and I have both changed drastically in the years since the above event took place. I love her dearly, and it is not my intention to disparage her in any way. She is a wonderful, warm, funny, loving person who is full of life. We've both learned the importance of moderation.


  1. I had my "no one asked you to" moment the Christmas after Dad died. I was working two jobs, school full time, worrying about Mom, trying, in my 21-year old naivete, to (somehow) "fill the gap" FOR EVERYONE (as if I could). By Christmas Eve, I had helped decorate, cook, clean, all the CRAP that doesn't matter (but desperately hoping it would help)-- by the time I got to the choir loft to sing for midnight mass, I was D.O.N.E... Sat there for the 90 minute service, and couldn't make a peep come out, because every time I tried I started TO cry. So I lip-synched, all the while thinking about the bags of unwrapped gifts that were still waiting for me to wrap BEFORE I could go to bed. I went home, carefully wrapped each gift in a plastic grocery bag & then fell into the best sleep I'd had in months. When it came time to distribute gifts in the morning, I happily lobbed Christmas bombs into everyone's laps & enjoyed my coffee :-)

    It wasn't my job to DO or BE everything-- once I accepted that fact that I couldn't, the holidays became 100% less stressful.

    Now all I have to do is to get Steve to embrace that attitude ;-0

  2. (i liked laura's comment!)

    i have to happily say that the upside of not having much money in the past few years since my daughter was born and being a single mom is that i can only do so much. and i appreciate what others do! it's nice because my immediate family has cut back our gift giving...it helps all of us! this year the grandparents are taking the four grandaughters out to dinner and a "show". great for the memories! thank you for your wonderful and truthful post! :)


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