Clippings: Split holidays can bind family bonds

This column is not for everyone. It’s about Christmas and the holidays, but also about divorce, raising a split family and making it all work during this special time of the year — and beyond.

As optimists, it’s human nature to downplay the struggles and seize the high points in life. The squeals of laughter and excitement of small children on Christmas mornings are surely memories to cherish. The shuttling of kids from one house to the other on Christmas day, not so much.

So it was for me, the three girls and their mom growing up — since the ages of 6, 5 and 3 — spending part of the week in a nice neighborhood in Middlebury, and another in what was, initially, a converted camp on Lake Dunmore 12 miles away.

On the bright side, the girls had the best of both worlds: a home in town with best friends across the street and a neighborhood full of kids, good schools in Middlebury and the consistency of staying in the home in which they knew; plus, a new place to play and live nearby with Dad (beating the year or two in limbo between an upstairs apartment in Ripton and a brief shot at getting back together.) The lake house was smaller and we had a few rats (before we got cats), but it became that second home for the girls — even if it did mean leaving friends and going back and forth for three or four days each week.

But we had good times.

In the dead of winter, we’d make sled runs down the steep back yard that ended with a three-foot drop off a cement wall onto the frozen lake and we’d skid as far as possible on the snow or ice. We knocked out a wall separating two smaller bedrooms and made one larger bedroom for the three girls — the perfect setting for reading books to them and telling stories with our favorite characters. We had custom beds made by a neighbor that had four giant drawers under the bed and a small hanging closet at one end, to save space, and put two steps on the side for the girls to make the four-foot high climb onto their lofty perch on their own. Perfect. At three feet apart, the beds became launching pads from one mattress to the other… before first grade.

Back in those days, when the ice on the lake would consistently freeze early winter creating the smoothest black ice surface any skaters could want, we’d lace up the skates on each girl, and head out for an adventure — their arms not all that far from my legs. It was, at times, so clear you could see right through the blackness, as if there were no ice at all; then the ice would pop, crackle and crack, and we’d inspect the fissures that clearly showed four or five inches underneath. We played crack-the-whip, did pirouettes, tried skating backwards, and explored our frozen backyard as far as we dared.

Most memorable were the loud booms, like thunder, of the lake contracting — enough to take your breath away, and send the girls scrambling for the safety of my legs in those early years.

At night, the ice was magical. We all remember, these 15 years later, a time or two skating the southern end of the lake under the bright light of a full moon, black ice underneath and sonic booms resounding through the quiet.

Spooky, but unforgettable.

Once the snows came, nights after school would find us making snow angels in the middle of the lake, gazing up at the stars on a moonless winter night. Imagine being 8, or 9 or 10; it’s zero outside and you’re bundled up, lying on the lake in the snow, moving arms and legs — and laughing. No lights were around, but it wasn’t dark, so many stars filled the sky.

In spring, as the water warmed and ice began to melt, I’d use the big sledgehammer to bust up the four or five inches of ice near shore into big chunks. The girls would get on their swimsuits on a 60-degree sunny March day, put on a shirt and rubber boots and we’d play a game we called “ice-flows.” Like the name it wasn’t fancy, but the idea was to step on a big chunk of ice and see how long you could balance on it before you fell — into knee-deep water. Talk about little girls screaming. It was a hoot, and I was there to pick them up and put them on another chunk, then balance on one myself.

It was a short-lived game, followed by a hot bath, cocoa and snacks in front of the woodstove — and lots of talk about our derring-do.

In older years, we once hitched snow tubes to a long rope behind a pickup truck driven by a friend who whipped us across the frozen ice at frightening speeds. Ski helmets used for racing were a must, as were thick gloves and tough jackets. We popped all four tubes that day, but never forgot the thrills of the ride and the laughter following the inevitable spills and tumbles.

And, older still, teams of girl athletes in high school would have sleepovers and, inevitably try their hands at ice hockey, or snow-angels, or snowshoes or Nordic skiing, or mixing it up with guys from the ski team or soccer or whatever.

Older still, as adults we have our rituals each season on the lake, or on annual trips we take; we water ski and kayak, windsurf or sail, swim and fish, skate and Nordic ski and snowshoe when we must; and hike and climb almost everywhere we go, always exploring. All are memories to cherish.

Which brings me back to raising a family following divorce, and the optimist in us that looks at the bright side of life.

I did miss many Christmas eves and early mornings with the girls, as they went with their mom to church and shared Christmas morning there before coming to my house by noon for the rest of that day. There were some lonely nights; maybe missed memories of eager eyes seeing presents under the tree at the break of dawn. There was also a part of their lives I wasn’t privy to, and, like most families raising kids, we had our tough times.

But, absences do make the heart grow fonder, and it makes you focus on creating good times. What also changed for me was that I became a caretaker, not just a dad. Because we shared equal custody, I had to be responsible to pick them up after school and spend the rest of those days entertaining and caring for them, not just in the supportive role I had initially assumed. On those days, it was the girls and I, and silver lining of silver linings, it brought us closer together than I ever would have been otherwise.

The role of caretaker got me out of my role as provider. It made me leave work behind and focus solely on them, even the little stuff — get them from school, get dinner, help with homework, do laundry, take care of them when they were sick and, when we had time, teach and play. So simple, and yet, not so easily done.

The lesson is one this holiday teaches so well… to give freely to others. It makes cloudy skies clear away; frowns turn to smiles, and tears to laughter. It creates memories to cherish. Such is the spirit of the season.

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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