Monday, December 26, 2011

Real Christmas Joy

I write this post, not to brag about its outcome, or to complain about its frustrations. I write it so I can remember.

Christmas 2011 was a very unusual holiday, to say the least. We’ve celebrated in many different houses, and in many different states. We’ve done the Santa thing so many years they all seem to blur together. We’ve never had a lot of money, but somehow it came together every year. That is, until this year.

This year we were more than lean. For the past six months we’ve been supporting two households, in two different states, while we waited for our NY house to sell. Our family’s been broken up, put back together in sections, then hung out to dry. We’ve been living in a tiny temporary condo, until we could figure out what was going to happen with the empty house we owned back East. Every penny we’ve taken in has gone out to some immediate need.

I saw the holiday approaching and had to give myself some quick pep talks. The kids are older, they’ll understand. This is a good life lesson for them. Sometimes crap happens in life and you push forward and make the best of it. It doesn’t mean life’s over, just postponed for a bit. It doesn’t take much money to just be together and make new memories.

We have all of the things that matter most - good health, loving extended families, a roof over our head, grocery money when the cupboards are bare, and a tight knit family who knows how to rally together when times get hard.

My daughter and I swung by the thrift store to get a small artificial tree (all of our holiday decorations are with our ‘stuff’ , in a moving company storage unit). While we were there, we picked up a few games and puzzles for our youngest family member, who, at 11, still needed something under a tree. We strung up some cheap lights and wrapped some garland around the back of the futon. Bring on the holiday!

We swung over to Utah to pick up my college son, one of my best gifts of the season. It felt so good to have all my chickens back in the nest. All six of us squeezed into our limited living space, but I heard very few complaints.

My kids all seemed to be enjoying each other and trying their best to give everyone the space they needed. No one argued when, at the family meeting, I announced that not only would there be no ‘real’ gifts under the tree, but that each of them would have one bath towel for the time being. (It’s the only way to keep my laundry under control and make sure I am not met with a pile of wet towels after every morning’s shower routine). No one complained that sleeping arrangements were going to be ‘snug’, at best. They just jumped in and did what had to be done, to get through the following weeks.

Christmas Eve came and we all looked at each other, thinking, “What do we do now?”

The only answer was to get out of the house. We piled in the car and drove down to a local pub. While jazzy Christmas carols played overhead, we had the pool tables all to ourselves. The pizza was hot and good, the friendly banter between my children was relaxed and comfortable.

I looked around and realized we’d raised some pretty great people. Two of ours are officially adults. So much of the time I can only see the ways I've failed them through the years. On Christmas Eve I had to step back and see them in a different light. They’re nice people. Kind and helpful to not only their friends, but their younger siblings too (most of the time). They are fun to be around and are going to find their way in the world, mistakes and all, in the years to come.

We came home, watched some Christmas clips on Hulu, then called it a night.

The next morning didn’t feel at all like Christmas. No little children rushing to wake us up, excited to see what Santa had left. But instead I found a note on the kitchen table. Next to the cookies and milk that were left out the night before by our way-too-old-for-Santa 11 year old, was a sign that said “Don’t Stop Believin’”. It didn’t take much asking around to figure out which of his older siblings took the Santa bites from the cookies and took the time to write the note.

Then, as we sat around the thrift store tree, so my youngest could unwrap his few token gifts, I noticed presents for the older kids, as well as my husband and myself. My 15 year old was grinning from ear to ear. He’d felt bad that there were so few gifts under the tree, so he’d taken the liberty to wrap up some things from around the house, silly gifts, so that everyone had something to unwrap.

Laughter filled our little condo as we took turns unwrapping our special gifts. My husband couldn’t imagine what could be in his small present, which sounded like rice when he shook the box. It was the box of matches from the kitchen. My oldest son couldn’t help but grin as he unwrapped his one (not two) flip flop. Little guy was very surprised to watch his older sister unwrap ‘her’ gift, which happened to be his ipod. My son whose name means laughter came through again, and made a pretty empty holiday feel rich and full once again.

An hour later all three of my boys were at the kitchen table, playing a board game we’d picked up for my little guy at the thrift store. Even when they figured out that it only had three of the dozens of pieces it needed, they came up with their own rules and played a few rounds.

After that, they set up the little guy’s simple hot wheels track set and had races down the long orange track, to see who could make their car jump and crash into our homemade gingerbread houses. Later they came up with variations to this game, hiding out in their one shared bedroom for hours.

Instead of concentrating on what we didn’t have, we all made do with what we do have. We don’t have much counter space, so we cooked a store bought lasagna and had a yummy non-traditional holiday meal. We don’t have TV service, so we pulled up holiday specials on Hulu. We don’t have room to spread out and have our own space as the afternoon wore on, so took advantage of what we do have - amazing scenery right outside our window. We all piled in the car and took some beautiful drives down snowy country roads.

Along a winding road we came across a family stuck in the ditch. My big strong teen age sons took great pride in jumping in to help dig through snow banks to find logs for traction, then anchoring their weight behind the vehicle, with every attempt to dislodge it. Somewhere on the outskirts of Golden we found an empty parking lot full of wet, slushy snow, and my boys took turns learning how to do the perfect donut with the family Suburban. There were many smiles that day.

It wasn’t the holiday I’d have dreamed of. There was very little Martha Stewart could have lived with. But it was special, so special to his mom who has tried so hard every year, to make it as fun as possible for her kids. For once, they turned the tables and gave back the gift of celebrating. They showed me, the one who usually farms out the pep talks, what the holiday is all about.

It’s about just relaxing and enjoying the people you love. It’s about finding fun in every day, from wrapping up one of your brother’s flip flops, to finding a way to make a board game with few pieces actually work. They were the gift I wanted. To be surrounded by these four people I love so much and their dad, my best friend. But surprise! I ended up with so much more.