Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over. The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year. My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.
But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard. I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories. The presents have been opened. The food has been devoured. The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.
All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family. They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events. As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.
And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love. Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now. She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come. Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily. The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be. I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.
Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together. It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.
“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir. He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”
“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”
Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out. It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish). Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.
The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star. Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house, We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin. We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped. We got out the good dishes. We baked and we cleaned. We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.
And then they were here. Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant. Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary. And just like that, my boy will become a father. 7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs. I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.
Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding. We told stories. We played games. We ate and then ate some more. We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.” And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan. We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity. Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels. Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten. The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.
We also watched our own home movies.
“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’
“Let’s watch ‘em!” He said with his typical enthusiasm.
We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR. It disappeared, sucked inside with a click. The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.
A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend. She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange. She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.
She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn. A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it. Giggling she says, “He likes me!”
A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly. He wears top-siders with no socks. In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go. Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car. He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”
He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off. Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might. Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn! My turn!”
A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies. She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm. She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Time bent. I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children. They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.
Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often. She was innocent and sweet and unassuming. Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here. She was pure, authentic.
Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable. He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention. Whatever he felt, he expressed. His motto was life is great—what’s next? He was eager, energetic.
Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology. She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers. Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her. She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world. She is pure and authentic.
And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic. He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit. His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence. He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent. He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.
This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment. And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead. Just like that things do change. And I am brought up short. I’m in awe of the gift of my family. My family, here, now, together.
We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most: Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.
Just like that it’s 2014. I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go. I can take it all in and savor it and relish it. And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.