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December 21, 2008

Unexpected Gifts

Bluewater A damp and cold Tuesday, the last day of the semester, which meant I was lugging home two bags full of student papers. I’d spent the day in my office listening to student woes: my grandmother died (“they do that a lot this time of year,” murmurs the cynic in my head); my roommate and I have been fighting; I didn’t mean to plagiarize; could I please have an extension...on and on and on.  At home, we’d been passing around a nasty stomach bug, which had attacked me all day Monday, and now I was ready to eat something but nothing sounded right ... in short, by Tuesday evening, I was grumpy, cold, and hungry - utterly devoid of holiday spirit.

To make matters worse, I had to pick Caleb up at nursery school, which meant slogging through the after-work crowds in Union Square, and walking past Blue Water Grill, which sits on the edge of the Square and has big windows looking out onto 16th street. Walking past the restaurant, especially in the winter dark, I always want to press my nose against the glass and gaze inside, past the blue-lit Christmas trees that decorate the terrace. Who are those people, lounging inside at 5 o’clock on a weekday? They look so relaxed, with their cocktails and towers of oysters on the table in front of them. Why aren’t those people rushing through the streets to pick up children, thinking about what to cook for dinner, wondering if it’s a bad thing to serve hot dogs again (hey, it’s a whole-wheat bun!)...Why can't I be sitting inside that golden glow, ordering another glass of wine, maybe a few shrimp? Funny thing is that the food there isn't actually that great – but Husband and I go there anyway on our rare nights out, simply because the place exists in our minds as the site of a fantasy life-of-leisure that we don’t have.

Sighing, I continue on to Caleb’s school, wishing I’d brought an umbrella, or at least remembered my gloves. Then up the elevator to the school, collect child, lunchbox, artwork, stroller, hats, mittens; back down the elevator, outside to the cold and wet. The city seems more inhospitable by the minute and Caleb seems to have picked up on my mood, because he’s complaining that it should snow, he wants it to snow now.

Holidaymkt1We set off back through Union Square, where I intend to swerve to avoid the Union Square Holiday Market – red-and-white stalls for small-scale merchants that run from day after Thanksgiving until Christmas. Sometimes it’s festive – but on other days, like this one, it just feels like more crowds and noise. Caleb begs to walk through the stalls, however, and wins the battle by claiming he wants to find a present for his two-year-old cousin. I give in, warning that we’re only looking, not buying. He claims to understand (I’m dubious) and we meander onwards. Amazingly, he really does understand: we debate whether his cousin is old enough for finger puppets (he decides no), whether she would like a kite (not enough room to fly it inside, he says, and too cold for outside), and then he sees a little batik-printed dress, blue with lavender hearts. “Perfect!” he says, pointing. “And I want a shirt the same with hearts. Liam too.” Okay, so lavender hearts might not be the fashion choice of his third-grade brother, but I’m willing to take the chance and we decide to come back “next day” and make our purchases.

Maybe it’s Caleb’s good cheer, but my mood starts to lift: the lights strung along the top of the booths now seem romantic instead of tacky, and the drizzle creates a kind of Hollywood shimmer around everything. Then through the crowd, we catch the sound of actual singing – not piped-in carols, but live voices. Caleb loves music, so we push through to the pavilion above the subway entrance and standing there is an a cappella group - college kids, it looks like - singing carols and creating intricate harmonies around old favorite songs. Caleb is entranced and we stand there for almost ten minutes, until the group finishes their set. I dig a few dollars out of my wallet and Caleb drops the money in the hat that they're passing around.

Okay, maybe those kids will use the money to go buy beer, but the singing was lovely, nevertheless. I'd thought that what I needed to feel “holiday-ish” was time in an upscale restaurant but as often happens, the city seemed to know better. I’d needed a different kind of interlude: unexpected music and Caleb’s mittened hand tucked in mine.

As we walked home, Caleb pointed up at the streetlights. “Look, mommy, snow!”

This is an original post to NYC Moms Blog. Deborah Quinn lives near Union Square and also blogs at http://www.mannahattamamma.com


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