A Wonderful, Busy and Strange Holiday Season

Although my new lifestyle has been a significant life event for me, there were other moments that made this holiday season special that I wanted to update you on. Since stores start running Christmas commercials on Halloween, I might as well start with Halloween too. In 2014, my first attempt to live a healthy lifestyle, I gave up eating Halloween candy, and now the giant wooden salad bowl that becomes a Halloween candy bowl on October 1 every year doesn’t even tempt me. I also don’t like the idea of dressing in a scary costume because there is enough real evil in the world, I feel we don’t need to create pretend evil. My Jehovah’s Witness friends may have solidified this thinking a little bit when we talked during one study about how the origin of Halloween customs can be traced back to a Pre-Christian festival honoring the God of the dead, but I was already beginning to think this way the Halloween of my sixth grade year, the Halloween following 9/11.

But in 2016 when the office where I worked started what is now an annual tradition, a costume contest, I wanted to participate both to break up the monotony of the work day, and because while browsing costumes on Amazon, I saw what sounded like an adorable Elvis costume for dogs! If I could get Gilbert to wear the Elvis costume, and I wore a poodle skirt, it would be hilarious and adorable, and we would win the contest for sure! I was right. That year, we did win the costume contest, and everyone thought we made for an adorable duo. In 2017, Halloween fell on a Tuesday which is one of my days off now that I am part-time, and I didn’t want to adjust my schedule that week just for a Halloween party, but I wore my poodle skirt on Monday. It was kind of fun being the only one in costume that day, especially when the manager of the Intake Department was giving a couple new hires a tour of the office and introducing them to everyone. “That’s Allison, and that’s Gilbert there on the floor,” he said, “and by the way, that’s not a Halloween costume. That’s what she wears every day.” I still laugh about that thinking about it now. I suppose I did look goofy being the only one in costume, but I have always enjoyed doing goofy things now and then, and I love the fact that I work for a casual office that doesn’t require employees to abandon their quirkiness entirely in the name of being professional. Gilbert’s arthritis was acting up that day, so Mom and I decided not to put the costume on him, especially since he has to lift up his legs to get into part of it. This year, Gilbert’s stomach seemed upset so I didn’t even take him to work with me on Halloween, but I wore my poodle skirt again, and despite this being the third year I have worn it, I still got complements on it. At this point in my life’s journey, I don’t see anything wrong with having a little fun by wearing a poodle skirt, bobby socks and silly glasses to work once a year.

But participating in the office costume contest wasn’t the only excitement of that day. That day while standing for the office picture of everyone in their costumes, I met a relatively new co-worker who quickly became one of my closest friends. In fact, she is the friend I mentioned in the previous post who is health-conscious like me and advised my Secret Santa. Anyway, while standing for the picture, she said she had been dying to meet Gilbert and me but her desk is on the opposite side of the office and she felt shy about just approaching my desk. The more we talked, we realized we had a lot in common. We both adore our dogs, enjoy writing, and love discussing religion and politics. In fact, she indicated that she was new to the area and wanted to get involved in church and bible study but hadn’t figured out where she belonged yet, so I invited her to Elmbrook Church the following Sunday, and the young adult bible study I host at my house every Monday. So almost every Sunday, we sit together in church and then go to the Mission CafĂ©, a coffee shop run by volunteers after the service, and after everyone else has gone home on Monday nights, she will stick around a little longer to pet Gilbert and talk. I love having an “overlap friend” with whom I can discuss both faith and work. That day, we began a routine that is still going strong today. I e-mail her when I am clocking out for lunch, and we meet in the break room. Actually, to the extreme delight of both of us, soon I won’t have to e-mail her from across the room because on Friday, the boss told me that sometime this week, she is going to help me move my computer to the desk next to my friend because a lot of new people have been hired recently, and she wants to put one of these new people in this desk, and she thinks the new location will be quieter for me. I think the boss knows that we are especially good friends, but she knows we are also the kind of people who take our work seriously and are capable of striking the proper balance between work and socializing.

Speaking of which, toward the end of the day on Halloween, the boss turned around and asked me, “Have you checked your e-mail lately?” I hadn’t, so she encouraged me to check it right away. That’s how I found out I had been named Employee of the Month for November! She and the attorneys all agreed that I worked hard and took my work seriously. Gilbert was also named co-Employee of the Month. I never expected to get this honor given that I work part-time, so I was surprised and delighted with this news. As Employee of the month, I received a beautiful engraved glass plaque which I displayed on my desk all month, a fancy leather diploma folder with a certificate in it, an engraved lapel pin, and a $100 gift card. I also enjoyed an opportunity to get on a soapbox you could say, when the boss asked me to answer a few questions that would be displayed on a public board for all to read. One of the questions asked what I liked most about working for the firm, to which I answered the people, because everyone I have interacted with in the almost four years I have been with the firm has been extremely kind and supportive. For my favorite quote, I chose Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The King James translation of this verse was part of a requiem I sang a few years ago in choir, and it was so beautiful I actually cried the first time I sang it, and ever since it has been my favorite verse. I debated choosing a more secular quote so as not to be offputting to people in the office who may not be Christians, but I believe in honesty, and this is my favorite verse. Besides, although Christians are supposed to openly share their faith, I have never been comfortable starting face-to-face conversations with people about faith unless I have really gotten to know them well, so it occurred to me that sharing this quote was a perfect opportunity to share my faith without the awkwardness of face-to-face conversation. The final question asked what advice I would give to other employees. The advice I gave was to try and always treat client’s with genuine compassion, but acknowleged that this was something I needed to work on sometimes as well. When I am tired, or the last appeal before lunch is very talkative and I just want to get off the phone and eat lunch, I have been guilty of viewing each appeal as just a task to knock off my list. But this job is incredibly rewarding when my compassion is genuine and a lonely client will occasionally tell me that speaking with me brightened their day.

On November 9, I had my first choir concert of the season. For this concert, our choir collaborated with five other church choirs in the community. Each choir sang two or three songs, and then we all combined for a finale song called “We are One.” My friend that I sit next to in choir commented one day that she imagines all of us rising up to heaven singing this song. I love this image. I have also privately thought about how cool it would be if we could perform this song for government bodies, because if our political leaders could apply the beautiful message of unity this song speaks of, we could heal a lot of what is wrong in this country. The first line of the song says, “when we walk, when we sleep, when we rise, we are one.” Later, the song says, “when we’re hurtin’ one another, that’s a way we hurt ourselves.” Right now, too many political leaders seem to believe they are doing the right thing by digging in and refusing to compromise or listen to people they disagree with, but this behavior hurts everyone, and I believe it will eventually hurt their careers and legacies as well.

Thanksgiving was a quiet day with just my parents, brother and me, but the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my sister rented a car and drove all the way from Washington D.C. where she spent Thanksgiving with her husband’s family, to our house with her dog and cat whom we got to petsit for while she and her husband went on a vacation to Antarctica. Both pets were adopted from a humane society in Durham, North Carolina where my sister used to volunteer. The dog Gwen, is a sweet little mutt who is about half Gilbert’s size, but what she lacked in size, she made up for with intimidation. Given how Gilbert goes crazy when he encounters other dogs on a walk, I envisioned Gilbert having the time of his life finally meeting a “cousin” to play with. Well, on the first day, my sister warned me that Gwen was food aggressive, so I should keep her out of the room while feeding Gilbert, and when he was done, I should pick up the bowl and put it in the sink right away. Well one day, I forgot to pick up Gilbert’s bowl, and Gwen thought she would go in and have a lick of it. Well, Gilbert didn’t appreciate this violation of his territory, and Gwen didn’t appreciate being shooed away from the food bowl. Mom and I rushed into the kitchen when we heard both dogs barking and snarling, to pick up the bowl, and I never forgot to pick up the bowl after that, but poor Gilbert was bitten on both ears during this fight and from then on tried to keep his distance from Gwen. One day when we got home from work, he even refused to come into the house because Gwen was standing too close to the door, and he let Gwen have his big fluffy bed at night while he slept on the floor. Gwen went home the Friday after Christmas, and just a few hours after she left, we had to drop Gilbert off at the Animal Hotel, a dog boarding kennel, because we went to Indiana to visit Granny in her assisted living facility, a trip that would have been difficult for Gilbert. When we brought Gilbert home from the Animal Motel New Year’s Eve and he realized Gwen was still gone, my dad said Gilbert actually smiled!

From a human standpoint, caring for Gwen was interesting because she is at least 15 years old, probably older. My sister and her husband adopted her in 2004, and the humane society estimated she was already two or three years old at that time. My mom vowed to pamper her because she did not want Gwen to pass away in our care. If this happened, we would always feel terrible, the once-in-a-lifetime vacation my sister and her husband planned would be tarnished, and we joked that if we couldn’t keep their dog alive, we might not be trusted with their children. This was a test! Gwen is still very vigorous, but she has a very sensitive stomach so she needed to go out frequently, and even then, she would often have accidents in the house. She is supposed to take a pill each morning for a bladder condition, but she doesn’t really like the taste of it, so we had to trick her into eating it every day by hiding it in sweet potatoes, and sometimes even then, she was not fooled and we would find her pill spit out on the floor. She doesn’t really like the taste of her prescription dog food either, and my sister warned us that she would sometimes go on a hunger strike and not eat. My sister had never tried it, but she told Mom that the vet said Gwen could have duck or venison. So the week after my sister left when Gwen hadn’t eaten for 36 hours, something that Mom would tell my sister and her husband was “unacceptable at Grandma’s house” she bought a duck breast, and even while it was still cooking on the stove, Gwen was drooling! From that day on, Mom would put a sliver of duck in each of her meals, just enough to season it, and Gwen cleaned her plate from that day forward! We had a good time laughing about this dog’s refined taste because we don’t eat duck. But then just when her stomach would settle down, her vertigo would flare up, and after falling down the stairs one day, she was afraid to climb stairs for a few days so my parents had to carry her upstairs at bedtime and then back downstairs each morning. But despite her special needs, she was a sweet dog that we enjoyed having. Kari the cat was my favorite though. It took her a few days to get comfortable with us because she was afraid of Gilbert, but once she realized Gilbert was harmless, she spent many hours purring in my lap and would follow me around just like Snickers used to do, melting my heart. The big difference between Kari and Snickers though is that Kari is bigger and heavier than Snickers ever was. Part of it could be her genetic make-up, but she also has a big appetite. While Snickers liked to nibble at her food, Kari would devour all her food right away. Because she was so much bigger, she was also not as light-footed as Snickers and would thus jump onto our laps with a thud. But my sister and her husband trained her better than we were ever able to train Snickers, so we didn’t have to guard food or water glasses left on the table.

At about 11:00 on the night of November 29, my mom met the older of my two brothers at the airport. He had flown home to visit from Portland, Oregon, which was particularly special because his job kept him so busy he had not come to Wisconsin since Thanksgiving of 2014. He couldn’t stay long either. He flew home the following Sunday afternoon at about the same time my sister was scheduled to fly back to New York to pack for their vacation. On Saturday, the brother who lives about an hour and a half away came home too. He could only stay a few hours because a snowstorm was in the forecast and he wanted to get home before dark. But we made the most of this rare and brief time that all four of us siblings were together with a game of Trivial Pursuit and a family photo. The Trivial Pursuit game made for a funny memory because I thought I being the baby of the family who doesn’t really bother keeping up with trivial facts and figures, would be the only one who didn’t know any answers. But it turned out, no one knew many answers. My parents had unknowingly bought the 1980s and 90s edition. The oldest brother knew more answers than the rest of us because he was born in 1981, but my parents said they were so busy during those years they weren’t paying attention to trivial stuff, and the rest of us were too young at the time to remember anything. But I made a few lucky educated guesses. For example, on a couple questions that required the name of a country, I guessed China which I remember learning was starting to dominate the world at that time, and was right! For Christmas though, my parents found a more current edition. I still didn’t know a lot of the answers, but definitely knew more than I did from the first edition.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were the strange part of the season for me. Christmas Eve was strange because we usually go to church on Christmas Eve, but this year, our church decided to hold some Christmas Eve services on Sunday December 23, and with family in town, Mom and I decided to go to the 11:00 Sunday service, which is actually the time we typically go to church every Sunday morning. It felt weird not going to church on Christmas Eve, but since the weather was beautiful, Mom, Gilbert and I did get to enjoy some special quiet time and fresh air with a short walk. In the evening, the rest of the family had carnitas which I didn’t have since they are made of pork, but I had a huge salad with leftover chicken from our dinner Saturday evening when my sister and her husband arrived. I was also delighted to find out that my sister’s husband made shrimp cocktail sauce using a healthier recipe, so I didn’t have to miss out on the family tradition of shrimp cocktail as part of Christmas Eve dinner. After dinner, we played Trivial Pursuit until past midnight although due to the late start, our family added a twist you won’t find in the official game rules. You were welcome to go sit in a comfortable chair in the living room and holler the answers from there when it was your turn to answer a question, which Dad and my sister insisted on doing. But once you officially fell asleep and didn’t answer when we hollered that it was your turn, you were eliminated. My sister was the first to go out this way. I almost lasted until the end, but when I was starting to doze off and say, “I don’t know,” to questions Mom was sure I knew if I thought about them, I bailed and went to bed. I think the game ended half an hour after that.

There are no children in our family right now, so opening presents on Christmas morning isn’t our highest priority. In fact, we didn’t open presents until 7:00 in the evening after a leisurely day of food and games. This was completely fine by me. In fact, I have been trying unsuccessfully for a couple years to convince my parents to try a Christmas without a gift exchange at all. I love giving people gifts, and of course, I appreciate gifts I receive. But every year when my siblings, parents and I ask each other what we want for Christmas, our first answer is always, “I don’t know. I don’t really need anything.” Sometimes after spending a couple days racking our brains, we are able to come up with ideas for each other. If not, we turn to gift cards. I have nothing against gift cards. In fact, I enjoy getting gift cards, but as the gift giver, I feel weird about just giving everyone gift cards which don’t look impressive under a tree, so every year there is always at least one person on my gift list who I have no idea what to give them, and so I end up buying them something I know they probably don’t really want just so they have something to open from me for Christmas. I just think that now that we are adults, and we are not materialistic kind of people, it just seems dumb to me that culture and tradition makes us feel obligated to give each other gifts on December 25, whether we need anything or not, and by turning our backs on this commercialism, the Christmas season could be a little more peaceful and less hectic for everyone, allowing more time to focus on what really matters.

In the past, our family could agree on a family game that we would start shortly after breakfast Christmas morning and play into the afternoon. But this year, my siblings wanted to play Settlers of Catan all afternoon Christmas Day, and unfortunately this game is not accessible for me. In the past when I was excluded from games, I would still just hang out with them and snack. But this year with snacking against my rules, I did not trust myself to be downstairs around all that temptation, especially without a game to keep me occupied. So with no games to play–at least until after we opened presents, at which time we did play another game of Trivial Pursuit–and with the traditional holiday treats no longer allowed, I didn’t know what to do with Christmas day. I almost felt like I understood the isolation people describe the first year they convert to a new religion and choose to abstain from the Christmas celebrations. It ended up being a very peaceful afternoon spent in my room listening to Christmas music and writing a letter to my seventh grade Social Studies teacher, one of my all-time favorite teachers whom I have kept in touch with over the years. He attended my high school and college graduation parties, and sends me a couple letters every year, but I am ashamed to admit I let life get away from me and hadn’t written him back in over three years. I am so glad I chose this activity because I could feel myself sliding into a pity party, but the further I got into this letter and focused my thoughts outward rather than inward, the more my mood lifted. By the time we sat down for Christmas dinner, I truly felt that sense of Christmas comfort and joy. Maybe I will embrace letter writing as a new Christmas day tradition. I could even get out my braillewriter and some cardstock and decorate each card with braille art. I bought a really fun book from the Perkins Institute a couple years ago that has a pattern for drawing a Christmas tree and a bell in braille.

But while Christmas Day itself was a little strange for me, the Christmas season was wonderful. This year in addition to my choir’s usual two Christmas concerts at churches in the community, we collaborated with several other choirs and the Wisconsin Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert at Carroll University, my alma mater. As much as I love singing with the Waukesha Choral Union, I really missed having opportunities to sing with a full symphony orchestra like I did in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I had even thought about how some day, I might have to defect to the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. The rehearsal schedule for this choir would be a lot more demanding, but I missed singing with an orchestra so much! Well, with this concert, the itch was scratched! It was magical and I felt like a kid again, especially when we sang Merry Christmas from Home Alone II. Every year since I started my job, Mom and I have had a tradition of attending the Milwaukee Symphony Holiday Pops concert. It is always a joyful concert that gets us both into the holiday spirit, and for me, it brings back happy memories from when I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir which used to perform at that very concert. As usual, the concert did not disappoint, and although it was a rainy dreary day, Mom and I walked out of the concert hall full of holiday cheer.

I was also invited to sing as part of a Christmas program for the Senior Living Center where my grandma lives. For this concert, I got to lead everyone in singing a few Christmas carols, and I had a solo singing Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, which happens to be one of my favorite carols. Between songs, some of the residents read bible verses from the Gospel of Luke, and one resident who writes poetry read a couple of beautiful poems about Christmas that she had written. All of the seniors enjoyed hearing me sing, especially my Grandma, and I felt uplifted realizing I had the opportunity to be a part of a program to brighten the season for seniors who may not be able to go to a concert outside this facility.

It is always a little sad to see the Christmas season end. Even now as I write this, Mom is taking the ornaments off of our tree, which has dried out to the point that needles fall off when you touch it. But after such a busy and wonderful season, we also feel ready to move on, eager to greet whatever 2019 throws our way.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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