Thursday, December 25, 2008

Makeshift Christmas

Imagination stood in for Christmas wrap this year.

“Sit down,” I instructed my various children and my new son-in-law, “and shut your eyes!”

Then I exited stage left, grabbed their bundles of unwrapped presents from the spare bedroom, and returned to the living room where one after the other followed instructions and sat with eyes closed and hands face up on their lap to catch the goods.

“Okay,” I said, “now just imagine there’s a big bow! And shiny ribbon! And gorgeous wrapping paper, all sparkly and shiny! And when you tear that off, there’s a box inside. Then you take the top off the box, and imagine there’s some tissue paper! And you rustle it and rustle it, looking for what’s under it, and finally…”

That’s when I’d hand them their unwrapped sweater…or gloves…or flannel-lined pants…or scarf. We laughed, I got by without a nervous breakdown trying to find two extra hours for present decorating I didn’t have time for, and there was no cleanup of tumbleweed sized balls of cast-off wrapping paper. I guess there’s an upside to this after all.

It’s been that kind of a Christmas. Never tried the “Emperor’s New Clothes” approach to holiday wrap before, but hey, they say necessity is the mother of invention.

Two months ago I couldn’t have foreseen that my eighty-five year old crippled mother would break her leg and need to go to a nursing home for three months, that my eighty-five year old father would need to follow her because of his own serious health problems, that my—ahem, never mind how old—godmother would suddenly wind up in the hospital only a month later in serious pain and distress, and that my father would then deteriorate suddenly and require hospitalization himself.

Two months ago I was still envisioning the kind of Christmas I wrote about two years ago in Tale of the Christmas Axes. The kind of Christmas that evokes echoes of Norman Rockwell with the seasonal decorations around the house and garland around the banister and the tree festooned from top to bottom with hand-embroidered ornaments and a glorious angel atop, a mistletoe ball hanging in the living room, family around the dinner table for a fabulous meal, Christmas music playing softly in the background. I’d even found the crèche this year that had been lost for the past two holidays.

But then life got in the way, and a few thousand miles got put on the car running back and forth again and again to my hometown of Chicago to deal with the unfolding dramas, and Christmas shopping and Christmas baking and Christmas planning and Christmas cards went right out the window. My younger son and I had managed to pick out a live tree a few weeks earlier and get it into the house and upright with the assistance of his lovely girlfriend, but with less than twelve hours left until Christmas officially arrived, the only thing the tree had on it was a few strands of lights. And bah humbug, I was about ready to leave it that way.

But somehow things went right anyway. By the time it was afternoon on Christmas Eve, the kids had come home and the ornament boxes got dragged out of the closet, and then some of our favorite decorations made it onto the branches through no effort of mine. While a new fire crackled in the grate, they then set to rolling out the batch of cookie dough I’d made the day before, and the usual irreverence and laughter and the smell of coffee lit up the kitchen as they came up with new demented ways to decorate the axe-shaped cookies and their “victims.” Yes, we have Christmas stars and bells and pine trees and Santas. But we also ended up with a gingerbread man wearing a Speedo, a couple of Christmas giraffes, some Christmas pineapples, a pirhana, and a cookie decorated like a liquor bottle.

Then after the cookies were baked we raced through passing out my gifts before driving over to a family gift exchange, because I knew I’d be on the road to Chicago and back on Christmas day, visiting at hospitals and nursing homes and basically crashing my cousin’s delicious family dinner on the way home. Not the best timing in the world, but it was the only day in the week that the weatherman could guarantee I’d have dry pavement and clear skies for two hundred fifty miles. I drove home in the dark to an empty house, since the kids had spent the day with their dad. Christmas dinner at my house is going to be a day late. I hope the chicken in wine sauce a few days ago is still good.

Taking inventory of this year, there are a few things we missed. The percentage of ornaments is a little thin this year…though the kids still managed to get the strands of wooden “cranberries” threaded through the branches. We’re missing the angel and the mistletoe ball, the crèche never made it out of storage, and I can’t begin to imagine getting out the garland. Never bought a wreath for the front door, left the big electric outdoor Santa down in the basement, and the singing moose that chimes “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is nowhere to be seen. We skipped the tinsel on the tree too.

But we had warmth, and love, and laughter, and delight, and once again, Christmas cookies shaped like little bloody axes. As for the rest of the traditional things that got left undone, well…

We can always imagine them too.

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