As a kid I loved Christmas. I would lie in bed on the Eve and wonder how I would ever be able to fall asleep. I didn't think it was possible. I'd need a time machine or else suffer the hundreds of years between then and the next morning. I'd stare at my bedroom wall and follow the little bumps of the texture. My eyes drifted along the dried paint and, somewhere between there and the moonlit snow, I'd fall asleep.
6am. It was actually morning. The time machine worked.
I could hear my dad stomping around upstairs. This is a man who'd get us up at 3am to go to work, but on Christmas morning he loved to torture us. "We're not ready yet!" he'd yell. "We got firewood first!" Usually, he was kidding. Except for December 25, 1987 when he wasn't and we spent the morning in subzero temperatures loading up his battered Chevy pickup with firewood. I'm 43 and I'm still upset about that.
"Wait til your mom gets out of the shower!" he'd announce.
"She's not even in the shower!" we'd protest.
He would find anything to mess with us. We were too easy, too obvious, teetering off the edge of eager and into a panic. This day wasn't only about gifts, but also getting out of the mountains and into the Front Range. There would be people and sunshine. Rarely has a two-hour drive done so much. We'd pull out of the rugged pines and dormant aspen and into a valley of massive cottonwoods punching their way out of the ground. They'd shed their leaves, but monster limbs meant huge opportunity. Climbing, forts, nearby houses with other kids. I had no idea why we didn't live there. All of these people in pleasant, forced-air houses. How in the Hell did we end up the only ones in Gould? These city kids had dads who went to jobs that didn't make them smell like saw gas and sap and anger. I don't know, they wore white collars and confidence, and they went places on smooth, paved roads.
I can't say I was thinking exactly that as I fiddled with my toes on the edge of my bed, but I felt something like it. Something had me spacing out across the basement floor to somewhere warmer.
And then I could smell the cinnamon rolls.
I can't describe to you the best food on the planet. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try. It's our duty as those who've experienced divinity to scrape together something as dry and brittle as words.
My mom's cinnamon rolls: Soft, warm, sweet. You'd put on a pat of butter and it gave itself to the bread. A sacrifice to the ambrosia. Mombrosia. Butter's had many purposes but these rolls were the apex of achievement. These cinnamon rolls tasted like we no longer needed to try. We'd done it; perfection had been obtained. Opposable thumbs dragged us to the top, and now we could rest with impeccable baked goods. A fork, a dull instrument, would lazily sink through the soft bread. You’d carve out your next dose of blissful awareness and wrestle between primal annihilation or savoring it as a civilized person--crap. I'd need to get another.
My mom would ask how many I'd had. I'd say two as I snuck away a third. Technically, I wasn't being inaccurate. We'd ask her how come she didn't make them more often, but most likely because we would have been dead at twelve. Besides, she wasn't making food. She was making memories. She was making Christmas. Sweet olfactory candy baked at 350 degrees for as long as we can remember.
My mom had her particulars on the holidays, mostly that she loved them. Well, she loved kids. Pristine winter traditions were her time to shine. She was a Jesus Christ Superstar--a pint-sized savior piecing together a holiday for a family of five with nothing but nature. At first it was the nativity scenes she built out of wood scraps. And then she settled on her wreaths. She'd make and sell them. Every year she took orders wherever she went. Before Internet, she'd take them at my basketball games, Laura's volleyball games or Peter's football games. "Hey, Ann, count me in for a wreath!" and she'd log it in her head and make a note when we got home. "Oh oh oh" she'd say, scampering from the stove to the notepad by the phone. I'm not sure how many wreaths she made every year, but at 15 dollars a piece, they added up to her Christmas fund. Those greens we collected in old bed sheets at the base of lodgepole pines would be the smiles on our faces every year, although we'd complain as we trudged through three feet of snow dragging a queen-sized load of tree branches.
Mom also had her decor. The word NOEL in large letters suspended over the living room window. They were probably meant to face outward but with no other humans for miles she turned the message on us. We had no idea what it meant. Ancient French shouting at us about a birthday and we were simply satisfied that mom had found solace in it. Gold-flecked green-and-red block lettering to keep us warm long after the fire burned out.
There were the Swedish horses, too. Small, red, hand-painted ponies with white and green detail. Two of them facing each other on the window sill amongst leftover wreath branches. That's where I'd perch on the coldest days and be so happy I didn't have to be outside. The window bench was the nicest part of our unfinished home. On Christmas day it's where we'd sit waiting to open the gifts. Cinnamon rolled to satisfaction, we'd await the moment when our dad would finally come downstairs and give us the green light.
Sometimes he would stall to impress upon us how lucky we were to have a home. We'd be more moved by the gesture if we'd ever actually seen someone who didn't have one. In North Park the homeless population is limited. You really can't meander around at 9000 feet in December. My dad would preach gratitude; our complaints of isolated living deflected with an Arctic blast of mockery. We were OK with that. With the exception of 1987, Christmas Day was one when our tolerance of mountain weather didn't have to be tested.
Finally, we'd get to open presents. We'd pick through our stocking first. Candy. Nuts. The orange in the toe. More than once I think it was the orange from the year prior. On top there'd be a stocking gift. A warm up to the unwrapping. And then we'd get under the tree. A melee. My mom's reminders about reading the card buried in torn paper.
We knew that whatever we got wasn't going to be as good as with grandma. First on our trip to the Front Range was Grandma Colleen, a woman who'd delivered mail up the South Saint Vrain from Longmont to Allenspark before there was pavement or plows. Now she'd settled in the overlooked little town of Hygiene. It got its name when, around the turn of the 19th Century, people were sent to the sanitariums of the dry, high country to battle lung diseases like tuberculosis. I have to testify that it always seemed easier to breathe at grandma's house.
Our hand-me-down station wagon would turn off old Route 66, down north 75th and roll onto her gravel driveway. The little rocks would crunch under the family car. It was a pleasant wakeup if any of us would ever sleep. Grandma Coleen would run out, part excited and part panicked. She was that Grandmother. The one where we were always in dire need of warmth or food. And it was amazing. She had everything kids wanted to eat: Sizzlean, candy dishes on every flat surface, and the warmest, most loving grand parental house on the planet. Grandpa Lyle, perhaps still as edgy as his drag racing days, jingled pocket change on his approach to greet us. We kids did our best to be cordial before pounding down the stairs to the basement to play pool.
We'd sit still long enough for family photos and fill our pockets with candy before heading off to Grandma Mac's, whose larger home (and pool table) stirred some envy in Grandma Coleen. And grandma Coleen would worry that Grandma Mac would get us better things. And we would try to explain to Grandma Coleen that wasn't possible, because Grandma Mac had money because she didn't spend it.
Although, there was that Christmas when we thought we'd opened all the gifts, and Grandpa Mac walked up and handed each of us a fifty dollar bill. I'd never even seen one. I wasn't sure if it were real money. Ulysses S. Grant. A Civil War hero. This had to be good. My brother and I ran off to another room and examined the 50s. They were beautiful. Paper gems. Later, I'd be overwhelmed while walking the Twin Peaks Mall in Longmont. There was a knife store and I wanted a butterfly knife. But that would cut my wealth down to thirty-two dollars. I didn't want to break it at all. I wanted to hang onto the beautiful money forever. I walked around with my hand jammed in my pants rubbing the two halves of the 50 together. It had this kind of aggressive crispness. A wealth of friction. Not so much that it slid apart, but just enough so you knew it mattered.
Soon enough we'd be back home. In Gould there was never not a white Christmas. Standing outside, I'd listen to the silence, and be sad that it was over. The winding road of the Poudre Canyon had closed the mountains behind us, leaving the urban Front Range behind. I didn't look forward to the stretch of cold between then and my birthday. It was in the summer. There'd be people in Gould again. Campers, bikers, sometimes girls in cool city clothes. Before that there was January and February. Foreboding cold. By the time April rolled around you could only slip around in mud. Winter was melting. Crystal cold Christmas oozing everywhere. But on December 26th we still had time left in our vacation from school. We still had New Years Eve. That might mean people would come over. A few more guests, some warmth. We'd have a hot fire and the quietest parcel on the planet would light up one last time for the year.
I love backing away from the memory. Lifting up higher and higher and looking down on the well-lit windows and the chimney cranking like a steam engine.
I rise from the memory further and further. I can see the curvature of the Earth, the bending of time. The lights fade away and where there was a house becomes crowded with green. The trees cluster together and dominate the landscape. I back away until I look up and I'm in the city. I'm here. I'm outside of my house looking in. I see the tree decorated by my kids who are sometimes too sophisticated for their own good. For the moment, however, they are in their bunkbeds and whispering to each other about Christmas.