Merry is Optional

Merry is optional 

First published 12/16/2017


‘Tis the season, they say. For what, exactly, is up to each of us to figure out.

There’s the store-bought concept of what this time of year should be like, of course. Magazine covers, the Internet and daytime talk shows are full of ideas for making this The Best Christmas Ever.

There are tips on ways to simplify, of course. But those are dwarfed by ideas of a more elaborate nature, such as erecting a themed Christmas tree in every room and baking seven different types of soufflés for all the happy people gathering at your house, complete with timelines for what you should have done by now to ensure a stress-free holiday. 

So I’m just going to say it outright.

It’s mid-December by the time you’re reading this, right? And frankly, it’s way too late to start making homemade Christmas gifts and wrapping them in the “it” decorating style of the season — Kraft paper with a dangling set of miniature ice skates adding just the right decorative touch.

Maybe this year your gifts will be wrapped in the paper bag you bought them. You did shop local, right? So no plastic bags for you!

Or maybe this year, your gift to others was not buying them a gift at all, thus relieving them of the duty to reciprocate. Let’s call it the gift of freedom. 

Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about it. I wrote a book called “Merry is Optional,” because I think we forget that it is, in fact, optional. We don’t have to enjoy a second of this season if we don’t want to.

That not an original idea. John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” is a pretty great book about a couple who found freedom in sitting out the commercial aspects of the season.

Of course, they found so much more meaning and joy in avoiding commercialism that they ended up finding meaning in the season anyway. Sorry for the spoiler. 

The point is, they didn’t get to the point of enjoying what they were originally dreading by simply ignoring it. That’s not a thing when you’re walking around and breathing among radio ads and human beings cheerfully keeping count of how many days are left until Christmas. You can’t simply sit it out.

But you can find the freedom to do Christmas in the way that works for you in this season of your own particular life. It’s not always merry, but that’s OK. 

Real life doesn’t stop happening around us because sleigh bells ring in the distance. As we go through the motions of “this time of year,” it’s like every other time of the year in wrestling with life’s harsher details — illnesses, broken relationships and the death of loved ones, to name a few. 

So here we are. Now what?

Well, you choose. Given whatever situation you find yourself in this holiday season, what can you do to make the most of it? And should you choose to be merry, despite whatever challenges you’re facing, how do you do that on short notice, on a tight budget, amid some of the aforementioned situations? 

You choose. You consider what matters to you most, right now, in this season of your life personally.

Not the commercial season, but your season. What does your life look like right now? What can you manage that might also bring you joy, or at least less angst?

Maybe joy isn’t right in the moment. Maybe you choose to create memories for yourself or others to savor later, when your situation looks up.

That may mean sitting through a meal or tolerating a celebration simply to have the experience or give it to a loved one, even though you didn’t feel like it. Or it may mean you buck tradition this year and just eat out on your own.

It’s your holiday. It’s your life. So you get to choose.

This particular Christmas will be my first without my children. That’s what divorce does.

I tear up just thinking about waking up Christmas morning without them. But the truth is, they are going to have a wonderful time with their dad, their grandparents and their cousins.

It was my choice to give them that gift without imposing my own feelings on them. To help make that possible, I’ve planned to sprinkle Christmassy type things out through the month, so we have moments of our own to cherish, even if they weren’t made on that particular day.

This will also be my first Christmas without my dad. He passed away last month, and I’m still treading water in the wake of his loss.

Last Christmas was actually the last time I saw him. And I’ll never forget the last night we had together.

We left the pool late at night, because you can do that in Palm Springs. And even though we were chilled, having wrapped up in wet towels for a ride in an open-air golf cart — as one does in a retirement community in Palm Springs, even in the dead of winter — we took the long way. We wanted to look at all the lights. 

“Dad, I’m cold,” I said. “Let’s go home.”

“Soon,” he responded. “I just want to show you this one more. It’s fantastic.”

And with that, we spun past more houses that all looked the same to me, then stopped in front of one featuring a truly spectacular display. The boys and I stared in awe. My dad smiled proudly.

He’d shared a special moment with us. Now we could speed home — to the extent a golf cart allows, anyway. 

My dad was all about going out of your way, even if you had to suffer a little, to enjoy a spectacular moment. So this season, even if it’s not comfortable, even if everything isn’t the way I’d hoped, I plan to also go out of my way to create moments to savor. 

I’ll keep in mind that merry is optional. And while I’ll opt in as much as I can, I’ll feel free to opt out when I need to as well.

So, Merry Christmas to you — or not. 

Nathalie Hardy writes her columns "Raising the Hardy Boys" and "Behind the Picket Fence" in the margins of real life. 


It's been a rough year for a lot of us. In a lot of ways. If this resonates with you, I'd love it if you'd share it.

 p.s. check back tomorrow for the backstory on this picture with my dad. The last one of us. And one of my favorites. Spoiler: my hair was wet and I was in trouble. Because it doesn't matter how old you are when you're at mom and dad's house. :) 

 Tati and Me



The Screw Not Swallowed

The screw not swallowed


By NATHALIE HARDY | Yamhill Valley News-Register




Clip - December 2014

This could just as easily be called, “The boy who didn’t swallow a screw.” It all goes toward describing a particular Sunday five years ago that we still talk about to this day.

In fact, it’s a story about how new holiday traditions are unexpectedly forged in families, sometimes through adversity. As a result, we now have a tradition of getting our Christmas tree as early in the season as possible, lest we get “screwed” out of the opportunity.

Let me preface this by making sure you know I was nine months pregnant at the time. And I wasn’t cute, basketball pregnant. No, I was waddling around using a geriatric grabber tool to pick up my toddler’s toys off the floor.

The day started normally enough.

As with all stories you don’t know will be important someday, you forget the ordinary details because you don’t think they’ll matter much. But I do recall we were a bit bleary-eyed, having lost sleep to a windy night that kept banging something into the side of the house.

My husband, Matt, and I were looking forward to taking little Sam, 2 at the time, out to cut a tree. The plan was to spend the afternoon decorating it.

In the meantime, I asked Matt to do something with a table that had been blocking the hallway for weeks. He said it needed some new screws, and Sam wanted to help.

As Matt ran downstairs for something, I heard a strange coughing and choking sound coming from upstairs.

Matt got there first, with me trailing. We found Sam was holding a screw in one hand and looking suspicious.

Me to Sam: “Did you put a screw in your mouth?”

Sam: “Yeah.”

Me: “Did you swallow the screw?”

Sam: “Yeah.”

Me: “Did you swallow a fork?”

Sam: “Yeah.”

Me to Matt: “This is not a credible witness.”

But Sam was holding his throat and looking pale, so I called the doctor. As I waited for a return call, I realized he was no longer our doctor, as Matt’s company had changed to Kaiser, and even though I was pregnant, I’d yet to line up a Kaiser replacement.

Yes, during my pregnancy. Is that even allowed?

I didn’t mention this change as I talked to the on-call doc, though.

She said it was unlikely he swallowed it in such a short amount of time with such a small amount of fussing. But she said sharp, spirally wood screws can be dangerous, so suggested we head to the ER for an X-ray, just in case.

I was pretty sure this was just a peace-of-mind exercise. That being the case, I packed our sweaters and camera in the car before we pulled out, thinking we could stop by the tree farm on the way home.

Matt, meanwhile, was intent on locating a metal detector so we could conduct a do-it-yourself scan. That involved a series of phone calls, including one to our local police department, and a visit to his beloved Bi-Mart.

Matt returned from Bi-Mart with a stud finder, but no metal detector. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was tantamount to me stopping by the scrapbook store on the way to the ER to pick up some materials we could use to document the event.

Because of the aforementioned Kaiser business, we had to drive clear to Clackamas.

Unfortunately, time was passing, and it became obvious the granola bar, fruit leather and pair of mandarin oranges reposing in the diaper bag weren’t going to pass for lunch for one, much less three. So we made a quick stop at Safeway as well.

We finally made it to the hospital, where Sam was awesome, despite being scolded by one pediatric-phobic nurse for being “too wiggly.” Even Sam’s stuffed giraffe wore a little paper towel “shield” on the X-ray table.

Many, many hours later we learned that no screw had been ingested. We were finally free to return to our home turf — that is, we would have been, if we hadn’t run out of gas.

Luckily, we were within walking distance of our house by then. So I waddled on home in the freezing cold.

With all the time we saved not cutting and decorating a tree, Matt was able to move the table I mentioned.

We planned to get one the following weekend, but other problems arose. I’d have to look at pictures to see if we actually ever got one that year; I’m not sure.

As a result of this fiasco, we no longer “plan” to get a Christmas tree at the Hardy house. Our tradition goes like this:

I start talking about how I want to make sure we get the tree right after Thanksgiving. At some point thereafter Matt takes the boys out for breakfast and they “surprise me” by bringing home a tree.

The three of them tromping through the house, dragging a fir tree across the floor, is my favorite moment. It kicks off this festive time of year, celebrating childhood traditions and creating new ones to, um, cherish.

Since she’s not busy ironing napkins — or anything else, for that matter — Nathalie Hardy has more time to write in the margins of motherhood. Something else will have to give, as she’ll be marketing her new book, “Raising the Hardy Boys: They said there would be bon-bons.” Members of her family are supportive, provided dinner is still served. After all, they didn’t specify by whom. Feel free to drop by, preferably with food. To contact her, visit

P.S. Did you catch that in my new tagline – I did it! As I type this my first book, Raising the Hardy Boys, is being printed. So. Much. Yay!

Remember Project 365?



Remember how enthusiastic I was about Project 365 (or Project Life as many call it)? I still am. Even though I am approximately 93 days behind. Instead of waiting to catch up on those 93 days I’m just jumping back in where I’m at, so here is Monday’s picture of the day and journaling – just a little taste of life around here. The kind of thing that would be easy to forget one day.

I was driving the boys home from one of our favorite parks, the Airplane Park (thank you Emily) and saw a little pond with a bunch of ducks on the edge of it. I was flooded with memories from my childhood I’d long forgotten: feeding ducks at Wright’s Park. Which made me remember my mom and dad’s restaurant Le Snack … which brought back all kinds of memories. Stuff I want to write down before I re-forget. But I suppose there’s something kind of cool about having these flashbacks of memories.

{December Daily – one}






December first …

the hardest part about picking my story for the day was narrowing it down to one, there were so many fun things today: my article ran in Metro Parent, we got our Christmas cards in the mail, we started decorating and started our advent calendars.

I think the story I’ll pick though is traditions.

Celebrating old favorites – Advent calendars! Every year my mom got us advent calendars with little chocolates in them. She sent Sam one for this year and I suspect this daily piece of chocolate will be one of Sam’s favorites, too. We also brought down our advent tree from Matt’s mom and put the first ornament on last night:


And creating new ones:

Christmas “peejamoz” (Pajamas). The boys got to open one present last night – Christmas pajamas and then I spent 20 minutes trying to get just one good picture. I think I’ll change my definition of a “good” picture!


{Notes to self: use the tags from pajamas on the page, try to get pic with boys in jams at window standing still, take picture of advent calendars before they're opened/decorated - end albumn with a picture of them opened and decorated. Make a list of filler pages for days I come up short on ideas/time/inspiration}

Requiescat in pace, Ujo

 Wedding Slovak womenWedding Slovak men 

At first glance, I grew up in a small family. My parents, brother, me and a dog - usually a black poodle with a name ending in 'i.' When my parents emigrated from Slovakia in the early 70s, they left family behind in their communist-occupied homeland.

As is the case with many of us, but especially immigrants, you make your own family. Here's my chosen family, our fathers with their thick accents, our mothers who understand and love them, and us first-generation American children  ... and just a lot of love and memories.

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my wedding day but I have to tell you, that first picture, with all my aunts and cousins ... was the loudest ... and also one of my favorites. In that moment as we argued over the placement of the flag, it was clearer than ever that they are my people.

I love them all the way I imagine most of you love the families you grew up with. They are the aunts, uncles and cousins of my heart. One of them described it perfectly in an email this week:

"This is our true family; if not by blood, by love and lifetime." 

That is exactly how I feel, Sasha.

Some of these guys in the picture above grew up together in small Slovak town, Piestany. I've heart stories about their antics and trials my entire life and they are the truest of friends.

All this is to say, we lost one of the best this weekend, our Ujo Relo, Apu to his immediate family. May he rest in peace.

He is alive in my mind with his unique accent, different than my dad's but so familiar, with his stories, wisdom imparted through quotations, and if I squeeze my eyes closed I can all but smell the faint memory of pipe smoke at the edge of a playground and hear his laughter.

He leaves behind a beautiful family, who dances through their tears, hold each other tight and are surrounded by love ... I send my deepest condolences to them and look forward to wrapping them up for a real hug soon.

"You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you."

~Desmond Tutu

Salmon Marinade, Christmas past

   Scan0001 My sister-in-law e-mailed me yesterday for a recipe we once made together for Christmas dinner. It was when Matt and I lived in Garibaldi and my niece Riley was the only little one in the family. Pulling out the recipe card reminded me of how we stood in our very crowded kitchen trying to figure out the ratios to get the right balance ... oh, wait - maybe that was for the pasta recipe ... I'll have to dig that one out too.

I'm just a little confused why the only picture of anyone working in the kitchen is the one "photo op" of the guys. Scan0002Anyway, Carrie, here it is!

from jeff & jo

6 cloves garlic - chopped (For years I did this by hand until a friend looked at me like I was insane and recommended I buy a garlic press. So it's more squeezed than chopped. Tomatoe, tomato.)

1 Tbsp. peeled, grated ginger

2 Tbsp. minced, fresh cilantro leaves

3 Tbsp. sugar

Mix together the above ingredients and set aside

Combine the following:

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 Tbsp. dry sherry

3 Tbsp. sesame oil (toasted sesame oil is also delicious)

1 tsp. coarse salt

1 tsp. pepper

Mix both together and pour over salmon. Marinate 2 hours. Unless you're not a planner in which case it'll be fine just poured right over the meat or fish. Or spooned right in your mouth.  

Notes: So who can afford salmon these days? This marinade is good on everything! I usually double the recipe because I'm kind of a more is better kind of girl. Also if I'm already getting my fingers all garlicky and gingery, might as well make it count.


National Handwriting Day

It is crazy stupid what motivates me but last night I stayed up working until one a.m. because I wanted to be able to use my new calendar and track my work. I am stuck at outlining chapter six. I'm not sure if I'm stuck because I took a few days off to go to Walla Walla or if I'm really just stuck but either way I've got to figure it out and keep going because I want to be outlined through Chapter 13 by month's end. And you know I'll want to check off that little box on my January Goal Page!

Yesterday, according to my writer's calendar was "National Handwriting Day." Seeing that gave me a flashback to when I was at McCarver Elementary and learning cursive. My mom was in the hospital and Dad was trying to help us with our homework. It was a very frustrating night. Also, my dad did not make macaroni and cheese the Kraft way. Instead, he thought he was doing a good thing by making us a special dinner with baked mac and cheese. We did not appreciate his gourmet treatment and couldn't wait for Mom to get home. Not just 'cause of the cooking thing, though.

I had really sloppy handwriting. Or, I didn't care. Either way, Dad would check our homework before bed and if mine was really sloppy he'd tear it up and I'd be back to the drawing board. I guess it was worth it because I get compliments on my handwriting now. But damn.

for mami

You were meant to be my mother.

i wish i'd known then

that i would feel this way today.

maybe it would've been easier between us.

but maybe if it had, i wouldn't feel

so grateful for our relationship now.

i wish i could say we always got along.

i wish i could look back without regrets.

for all the times you drove to pick me up

when i couldn't sleep at the slumber party i was at.

for all the times you packed a healthy lunch

for the hours you spent arguing with me in

various dressing rooms teaching me taste and style

for the patience and consistency it took to teach me

the manners which give me confidence today to enter any situation

with grace and ease.

for the times you let me fail so i could learn

and for the times you stayed up late

to help me meet my goals.

for understanding when my heart was broken

and for promising it would heal.

for every time you turned down my bed

to welcome me home.

for the countless paperwork you did

to enroll me in camps, lessons and classes

and for driving me to the library

for teaching me to return my books on time.

for letting me go to grow into my own person

for loving me with all my hair colors

and also for paying to strip my hair

when i came to and saw goth was not a good look for me

for teaching me to be kind - to write thank you notes

and to ask for what i want - for teaching me

to give my time to help people - to smile at

strangers and to see beyond the surface of people

i know i will continue to realize more things

i learned from you for the rest of my life but

for now i want to thank you

for all that and more.

you were meant to be my mother

because there could be no other

who knows and loves me the way you do.

Christmas Past (part 3)

Christmas_card_1989 1989: Mazatlan - you have no idea how cool i felt in this outfit. And many happy memories of playing in the ocean in Mexico.

Christmas_card_1990 1990: Sunriver - another place full of happy  memories with the Borbeks, and especially Mel. This was the start of a particularly awkward phase as the mushroom do gave way to something far more hideous.

Christmas_card_1991 1991: Finding us on the slopes in the winter was pretty common. Especially on Sundays. I remember asking dad why it was okay to miss church in the winter. We were riding on the chairlift and he stretched his arms out and asked, "Can you imagine being closer to God than this?"