Over the past few years I've wondered if Christmas is a ruse to test parents tolerance under pressure. How many tiny plastic pieces can you assemble on four hours of sleep? How many times can you peacefully handle cabin fever bicker battles in the suburban Thunderdome of sibling rivalry?
How long do you have before your aunt's homemade caramels make your heart explode?
Questions persist amongst the wrapping paper and Santa requests. A household of petrochemicals trained into toys and only hours from falling out of favor. The latest in science and technology forgotten under a couch. Trickster Jesus cackling.
Christmas gets me in ways I'll explain later. But, in short, I was set up by a woman who's power extends long beyond the grave. (I just wrote about this in the last entry but it turned out poorly--or at least like a hurried journalist taking notes before it all disappears--so I'm trying again and this time with help from American short story icon O. Henry.)
I have something wrong with me where I cry. I don't want to but I'm moved to. The slightest deviation in a day's back and forth shivers me to pre-sneeze secretions. Here are a list of things that move me to tears. It's not heavy crocodile (do they actually cry?) tears but just enough precipitation to think that somewhere jets just flew over the national anthem:
2. CBS Sunday Morning
3. Struggling mothers
4. Older women in wheelchairs
5. People's stories of overcoming persistent woe
6. Altruism of all sorts
7. Surprise backstage guests on talk shows
8. Underdog stories
9. Jets flying over the national anthem
10. Anything Jimmy V
11. Christ, Ellen.
Hand over my heart, I can honestly state that I loathe Hallmark Hall of Fame movies but get me near one and it reverberates deep. My nipples do a thing. Sexy as you'll ever see them. Emotionally, I'm a freshly skinned poet at a citrus festival.
Yet Christmas can disgust me as easily as it excites me. Mid-merriment my mind drifts into a tide pool of unrecyclable wrapping paper that's swallowing all the whales. But I'm easily buoyed by beauty. Natural things that occur when all the human juices are aligned. People going with their guts on goodness, etc. And that leads me to O. Henry. He wrote The Gift of the Magi, and the story I'm about to tell you is as organic and refreshing as eating a good salad on a road trip. The potato chip of short-order satisfaction crumbles revealing something sustainable and real. But the moral of the story is how simple—a gesture —it is to come by.
No matter if you’ve read The Gift of the Magi and/or were touched by its broke-ass holiday motif—actually you’ll have to excuse any comparisons to the Magi as that classic is much more poignant and powerful--I think you'll at least get mild tingles from the gist of the Magi. It goes like this: To buy her husband a chain for his watch, she sells her hair, and to buy her some accessories for her beautiful hair, he sells his watch. The point being that their love is a gift greater than all gifts ever. And I wish we’d all read it and believe it and stop buying crap just because we feel we must buy crap.
My version is true and goes like this.
It was the holiday season of 2004, and I stayed home from work to surprise Sarah by putting up lights around the house. It’s something I don’t normally do because it’s a waste of electricity, but I wanted to show her that I had the spirit and would bring to life a holiday she’d never forget. What I didn’t know is that while I took the day to string some lights, she went out and bought some luggage for me. This luggage was to be a surprise, which meant she’d have to lug it onto a commuter train and then drag it a quarter mile home.
Were we poor? Were we fodder for a wacky modern O Henry RomCom remake? Well, middle middle class, I'd say. But there was that thing we could not know: it would be my mother’s last Christmas. A holiday she adored and thrived upon…for which she did much to sear into her children’s heads as a time that they'd never be able to fully enjoy without her. I’m pretty sure that’s a victory for a mom. Well, mom, you and your homemade cinnamon rolls and wreathes; your craft fair contributions, baking and kitchen caroling. Your I’ll-be-damned-if-we’re-broke holiday fire that burned like a yule log every penny-scraping holiday season. Well it all added up to a major maternal victory because a gilded Jesus could Kool-Aid Man into our living room and we’d still be light years from your awesome MacGyver holidays.
I guess I should add that, at the time, my mom lived with Sarah and me. And that day off of work she was so happy to see me put up some decor and so excited to surprise Sarah. We bounded around and added little touches to the holiday house. That night, my hope was to watch through the window to see Sarah’s shadow hurry home in the streetlights. At that moment, I’d plug in our display and the front yard would light up.
Of course Sarah was later than usual because she was conjuring luggage somewhere along her daily downtown Denver route. I’d call her office a few times but get no answer. This was before she had a cell phone so finding her would be futile. My mom’s sister was in town, too, so it was getting pretty estrogeny (new word) around the house. This is not at all a bad thing but they are both unencumbered by pessimism and I was experiencing out-of-body visions of me getting abnormally giddy about the holidays. I was Price-is-Right excited about Sarah emerging from the dark; something I was letting flutter skyward without societally-mandated checks and balances of macho self awareness.
My aunt, my mom and I sat by the window and watched…and watched. I paced around, checked the lights over and over, walked to the end of the block and back but nothing. Finally, my mom whispered from the window, “I think she’s coming!” I sprinted to the switch and confirmed a sighting. We waited for her to get right in front of the yard before illuminating our maple tree. That’s where Sarah stood, slunk low as if ducking the glow, and exhausted from a day at work and a night of sneaking luggage. She glanced around as to wonder what had happened to her usual darkened sidewalk. A passage that would have allowed her to sneak undetected into the garage to hide the surprise.
I still wasn’t sure as to what she was dragging. And I was a little sad she didn’t seem all that excited.
I stepped out onto the front porch and into the clandestine plan of my gift-bearing spouse. “Hi,” I said and left room for a question. “Are you a dragging a body?”
“I was planning on surprising you with some luggage,” she shared, defeated.
“Well, I finally put up some lights,” and she nodded to the obvious.
“Well, I guess, Merry Christmas,” she said. And I replied with the same.