Two Days of Christmas
I worked until noon on Saturday. It was a fast, though busy four hours. I cruised through documents mindlessly, my thoughts racing, my eyes skimming. Words and words and words. Just a few more bills. A few more, and then home.
We left Indianapolis around one in the afternoon. It was later than I had anticipated, but certainly acceptable. We going to Iowa. We were going to Iowa for Christmas. With my family. With my mom, who had never had a Christmas of her own.
Leaving the apartment was a bit rough. I was eager to get on the road and commence our eleven-hour drive, so I was not entirely enthused when I realized, after work, that we still needed to load the car. The apartment itself needed picking up as well, and swept and cleaned, for I am fastidious, you see, and did not want to leave my few rooms in "squalor." Unfortunately, I was less than courteous to the fiance, who shuffled out boxes and suitcases amid my staccato commands. Soon, though, we were packed up and packed full. Clothes. Presents. Leftover wedding decorations. Food. Cameras. Laundry. It was all there, nestled within the little Hyundai.
The drive was long and boring, but on all-day drives such as ours, boring is best. Boring means clear roads, safe roads. Boring means decent weather and easy traffic. Boring means a steady pace across the snowy, flat prairies.
I slept part of the way. Napped. The fiance drove the entire distance without complaint. After a few stops and stretches of our legs, we were in Iowa. At my dad's house. Standing around his dining room table watching him piece together the various textures of a jigsaw puzzle.
"I didn't know you were coming," dad had told me over the phone. I called him just 15 minutes before arriving at his house.
"We just passed Walnut," I purred. "SURPRISE."
"I don't have anything for you. Nothing to put together!"
"I don't care," I interjected. "No worries. A lot of people didn't know," I said. "Most still don't."
At my mom's house, it was cozy. Warm. Decorated. My tiny cat greeted me as I entered the kitchen through the back door, humbled herself by my feet.
"Hi, my little Ollie!" I exclaimed, scooping her into my arms. I nuzzled the back of her head with my chin, made kissing noises. "How's my favorite kitty?" A few more snuggles, then I reached for my mom, who had appeared in the doorway.
"Hi," I sighed, placing myself in her familiar embrace.
Not wanting to cry, my mom exhaled, pulled me close, tighter than she had ever held me before. "You're my Christmas present this year," she said, squeezing me. "Thank you." She held me, clung to me. My left arm wrapped her side, my right, her head. It was a natural shower of affection then, in the doorway. My mom's hair, dyed and light, was soft beneath my hand. The scent of her clothes--the musky blend of country air and baby powder--was similarly comforting. She again squeezed my shoulder blades, my waist. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
"I have a feeling you're thanking a power greater than myself," I said, as I pulled away from her. She laughed, immediately reaching for my fiance, whom she also greeted warmly.
"You're here," she told him. "And you're safe. Thank you, thank you." More hugs. More happy laughter.
The next two days were busy, to say the least. My aunt from Springfield (yes, that Springfield) stopped by my mom's house for presents, snacks, and visiting. Scheduled, and yet frenzied, my aunt hurriedly hugged me, my fiance, my mom, in equally hard-fast embraces. She pointed at her headband, a quirky, glittering ode to Christmas.
"This is my 'Trrrrrrrrr-eeesa' hat," she quipped, pointing at it and grinning.
We groaned appropriately, smiling as we settled ourselves at the dining room table, where we swapped gifts, opened each other's holiday wrappings. I attempted to please her with multiple items cultivated from various artisans around Indianapolis, and she surprised me with ... everything. Handmade necklaces. A carved, wooden jewelry box. Lotions and lip balms. Snacks. Chocolates. Tools. Duct tape. Gift cards. More than I was ever expecting, more than I ever imagined. Thing--for which I was only grateful--disguised in sacks and boxes and tissue paper. How? Why? Why all these things? I'm here. Home. This is enough. This is enough.
And yet the gifts kept appearing. One thing after another pulled from the plastic tote my aunt had hauled into the house. A sack for my mother, a stocking for the fiance. Packages for me. When it was all over, the cat, exhausted from sniffing shoes, wrappings, and papers, curled beneath my chair, her soft tail encompassing her paws. Glitter sprinkled the tablecloth, and aromas of caramelized popcorn, vanilla candles, and smooth, silky bath goods mingled and twisted about us. We spent several more minutes chatting, and my aunt asked questions about our jobs and about my hospitalized uncle. Soon, all too soon, she packed her gifts and departed, headed back to Springfield.
Similarly, we packed our car, with cookies and games and ourselves, and drove to the hospital, where we stayed and visited for a few hours. Several of my cousins were there, as were aunts and uncles. A makeshift "nest" had been established on the one waiting room couch, and an electric half-cooler, half-refrigerator had been stashed away in a corner, filled with meat and vegetable trays and water and Mountain Dew, my family's drug of choice. An enormous basket of fruit rested on a table amid wrappers and empty bottles.
My mom and I re-taught the fiance how to play cribbage, and we meagerly ambled our way through our hands. One of my uncles sat next to my mother, slumped in a chair and silently watching. He donned his usual University of Iowa hat, mumbled rules of our game beneath his breath and kidded anyone about anything he could. Soon, the waiting room was full--other families were present, yes--waiting for news about their loved ones, about those who remained in ICU or surgery. But there we were, "the family who was camped out," snuggled in a corner, chairs circling each other. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, significant others. Fourteen of us hugging, laughing, joking, shouting, playing, praying, loving.
We passed a notepad between us, flipped to a page dated "December 23," and signed our names. Like many others before me, I wrote a note, a small letter, to my uncle. I told him we had come from Indianapolis. I told him we were proud of him. I told him that there were far more people praying for he and the family than he knew. I told him that it was rare that our family spend so much time together, laughing and praying. And I told him that he was surrounded by people who loved him and that the waiting room, the hospital--though sometimes filled with uneasy tears and anxiety--was a place of hope, prayer, love, and support.
My youngest cousin crawled around on the floor, enthusiastically constructing LEGO combines and tractors with his brother-in-law, who is my age. The TV was on, and quiet, but flashed scenes from "Yes Man." There was a water cooler in one corner, a small aluminum Christmas tree in another. Stockings would be hung the following day, Christmas Eve, and would be filled that evening. My little cousin, fascinated with toys and snack foods, was anticipating a visit from Santa. His older relatives--sisters, grandparents--were orchestrating such a visit. For them, you see, Christmas was about making the most of where you were with the people you are blessed to be in the company of.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was indeed wonderful for them. Santa visited the hospital, and my family was able to open presents and spend the morning in my uncle's hospital room. In-laws brought in a full holiday meal, one with ham and potatoes and other mouth-watering delectables. And the best thing, of course, was the news that my uncle would be transferred to another floor--the recovery floor.
Back at my mom's house, Christmas was relatively low-key. My brother and his wife visited, and we enjoyed their extended visit. We hugged, joked, complimented, laughed. We played games.
"Name three cities in which the Olympics took place," my sister-in-law read from a card.
"Uhh, Sydney, Vancouver, Lake Placid," I said, taking only a moment to pause. "Now you guys." I shuffled through a stack of cards, ones labeled "5 Second Rule," until I found an adequate-enough one. "Name three perennials."
My brother and sister-in-law looked at each other. "Uhhhh. Daisies," my brother said, counting one on his finger. "Roses. Annnnnd uhhhh.... uhhhh..." He looked back up and into the eyes of his wife. "What are those things we have?"
"I don't know!"
"Oh! Uh, hostas. Yeah, hostas."
Alicia and I giggled. She picked up another card. "Three Hollywood break-ups."
"BENNIFER!" I exclaimed to laughter. "Aaaand ... Demi and Ashton and .............. Tom and Katie. ... among others. Gosh, I suck at those. Not good with culture."
Alicia smiled. "Yeah, if you guys give us anything about pop culture or Hollywood, we'll get those. Not so good with the other things. I clearly need to go back to second grade."
"Ha! Well, try this one--name three Christmas traditions."
"FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!" Mom interjected from the kitchen.
"CAROLING," my brother declared. "Eating turkey, and opening presents."
I nodded in approval.
"I'm going to give you a hard one now," my brother said, pulling yet another card. "Countries in the Middle East."
"Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan," I spewed without hesitating.
"Daaaaaaaamn," my brother whined. "You're too smart for this."
"How about this?" my sister-in-law questioned, holding a card to my brother. "Three fonts."
"Comic Sans, Papyrus, Lucinda's Handwriting."
Keith, mom, and my fiance laughed. "You would know that one," they stated.
"Gosh, I wouldn't have gotten that one," my sister-in-law chirped. "I would only know New Times Roman."
"It's actually Times New Roman," I said without a beat. Then, quickly embarrassed, I smacked my face to my palms. "Ooooohhh GOooood," I moaned through peeking fingers. "I am a pretentious bitch."
They laughed heartily as I apologized, embarrassed.
We continued the game for quite some time, my mom intermittently joining us from her preparations in the kitchen. We quickly announced three of everything--countries in the Northern Hemisphere, countries in the Southern Hemisphere. States that bordered the Great Lakes. Cities in states that bordered Iowa. Drew Barrymore movies. Jim Carrey movies. Julia Roberts movies. Books made into movies. Animals you see on a safari. NASCAR drivers. We struggled to think of professional golfers, of songs sung by Rod Stewart. Short lists of anything and everything. We laughed and laughed, thought of the obvious and the obscure.
The food, of course, was delicious, and the company, of course, was even better. My mother had never had a Christmas of her own, and so the opportunity for both of her children and their significant others to be there for her, on this day, this holiday, was the best gift we could have ever presented her. I was happy, joyful, grateful, thankful, blessed to be able to spend the day with those closest to me. With those who have known me the longest and the best, and who love me unconditionally. Those few hours with family, those few hours spent laughing, playing games, chasing the cat, photographing each other, cooing over presents and each other, was what we drove all those hours for.
That evening, mom, the fiance and I attended church. We had spent the rest of the afternoon curled up on couches and cushions, browsing the TV and watching Christmas specials. Eventually, we roused ourselves from patchy slumber and dressed in our best to attend the candlelight service. The church we attended was a small one, a Methodist congregation in a nearby small town. The minister, a spry young man the same age as my fiance and I, had befriended my mother, in my absence. This would be his first Christmas service, and we chose to listen to his readings, his music selection, his sermon about the importance of the Light. The glowing faces of the congregation illuminated the outside walls of the sanctuary as we sung our way through "Silent Night." Our candles, true and flickering, glimmered with the magic of Christmas. My fiance's gentle melodies hummed in my left ear, while my mother's deep, sharp alto pierced my right.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Wax from my little candle managed to drip through its protective paper guard, stinging my fingers. I would whine, scrap it off, watch it crumble to the floor. But all the while, I was reminded of Christmases past, of decades of church services.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia
I would remember attending the Lutheran church in which I grew up, the dark, wooden pews aglow with candlelight. I, a child of four and five and six, would hold my flame steady, flinch if wax were to graze my unbroken skin.
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born!
And soon, all too soon, it was over. Christmas was over. Visiting was over. No more presents, no more games, no more delicious, delicious food. The planning, the prepping, the wrapping, the phone calls, the surprises -- with a snap, a blink, it was gone. Over. "How?" "Why?" "Why so fast?" "It's never long enough." "Never." And so, we loaded our things: our leftovers, our presents, our clothes, the now-clean laundry. And we drove again. Another long, boring drive. But after we had parked the car, unloaded our things, and unfolded ourselves into our Indianapolis apartment, we were left with only Christmas memories--the aftermath of leaving behind good food, good times, good company.
But it was worth it. So very worth it. We were blessed--and I grateful--for the opportunity to see my family, to surprise, to love them.