Monday, December 29, 2008

Gifts of Such Astonishment

(week of Dec 21 – 27)


Youngest: We didn’t get as much presents this year, did we?

Middlest: But weren’t they nice presents?

Youngest: Well, yeah, but . . . I didn’t get a sword. And last year, didn’t we have the baskets filled up to like there . . .

Unfortunately for my swordsman-less-the-sword, for our family most of the North Pole preparations are completed many weeks before the children at my house get around to penning those wishful laundry lists.

The girls learned long ago that writing down “robot” on a letter to Santa wasn’t at all like placing an order with Scholastic Books – if you actually did get a robot, it was the next year and was more like a remote control Lego-thing you built yourself and not the handy chore-and-homework-helper you’d imagined.

This has been my son’s year of realization. Last year when I had temporized, “I don’t think there’s money for your very own helicopter . . . ,” he’d insisted, “But Santa can!” This year he brought me his list:

Christmas Wish List for
[spelling out his whole name, so there’d be no mistaking just who was listing wishes]
(2 sided)
* A sword
* Something to help the whole family
* rhodochrosite
* gold
* silver
* blue ore
* ruby
* halite
* flourite
* emerald
* diamond
* pegmatite
* Forever happiness for the whole family

[second side]
* A bell off your slay
* Some tools to help my Dad
* Three pigs
* A dog
* A cat
* five chickens
* A cow
* Two goats
* A parrot

As I came to the end, laughing, he asked a little wistfully if I thought the list was “very possible.”

“It’s certainly long!”

So the next day he came back with a new list:

* A Robot
* three rocks (rare)
* six candles
* three pounds of candy
[with an appropriately nauseated - or sugarcrazed? - face]

and on the other side:
* ipod classic
* A flame thrower
* a cell phone
* $200.00
* Grandma
* Grandpa
[canny choices!]

I laughed harder. His sisters told him they just waited to be surprised. But you can probably imagine that Santa seriously blew it – he didn’t even bring the 6 candles! Or a single sleigh bell! What a Grinch!

Our celebration this year was subdued. Even if we weren’t anxious on our own account (for our own accounts?), the news of our local paper mill laying off someone from so many of the households in our town – households of our children’s classmates – was enough to urge a frugal moderation. So we made merry in a quiet way.

After a full week snowbound, we had ventured (skiddingly) down off the hill the day before the Day Before Christmas to spend the afternoon with friends. We’d been told to each bring our favorite Christmas book. In our friends’ sunny front room, sun reflecting in off piled snow, we read to each other ‘Twas the Night before Christmas and Good King Wenceslaus and The Jolly Postman Rides Again and Davy and the First Christmas and The Nativity Story and Poochy the Pup (!).

Our combined young people watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before dinner, while my husband and I ducked out to make a trip into town for last-minute necessities. Sloshing and sliding around on the ice trying to get chains for our Famobile – which were not in stock. Wandering the aisles of the busy grocery store with strangely empty shelves (no marshmallow crème for the daughter who wanted to make fudge. And no eggnog as requested by our son. Not even any whole milk because the dairy trucks hadn’t been able to get through). But the whole time my husband and I laughing together over things I can’t remember now.

Because honestly, being stuck in the house together this month has not been so great for our marital bliss. There have been years when having time to be together was all it took to remind us why we wanted to marry. But one late night these past weeks I found myself reading some stranger’s blog about “what it’s like living with a depressed husband” and thinking, How much of that is just living with a husband? Nor am I intrepid enough to ask, nor even imagine, what it’s been like living with me.

I don’t know why this year we grate on each other so. Because he’s anxious and I’m worried about what’s coming next? Because we’re both feeling the tug of - not sadness, for both of us it's intriguing and satisfying to see our children coming into their own - but our daughters changed our lives so much by coming to us that now how do we think about how it will be when they go? Because we are the age we are and only perfectly average middle-aged people (which is not what we wrote down on our wish lists)? Or is it just because – as a favor and gift to me – he’s cleaning his half of the closet and everything out of the basement so we can have a room where visitors can stay – with the natural result that upstairs and downstairs are in wild disarray from years of packratting (my POV) and he’s being kicked out of his cave and made to throw away valuables that will be needed the moment they’re donated (his)?

The morning of Christmas Eve a phone call came that a woman we don’t know but who lives on our road was worried the roof to her manufactured home was going to cave in. She and a woman from our church both work in the same realty and so when our church member read her co-worker's emails about being stranded with a creaking ceiling and neighbors a far trudge away through the snow, she had called us, “Don’t you live up on . . . ?”

When I went upstairs to tell my husband I’d signed him up to help me shovel off the neighbor’s roof, he was soaking in a hot bath (and I wonder why he finds me difficult!) reading about global warming – “I guess I don’t have to worry about that today,” he tossed the magazine aside as I rubbed steam off the mirror.

He fired up the tractor and began digging out our snowbound neighbor's long driveway while I tromped around to others on our road trying to find someone with a snow shovel (only our oldest long-timer had one, of course – it’s been that long since anyone’s needed one!) Our new friends were grateful and almost incredulous as the neighbors began showing up – one man had even run to his shop and built a long-handled snow-squeegee. “I can’t believe you would do this!” she said.

“But what a great way to celebrate Christmas Eve!” we said.

“It’s just like a barn-raising!” she said, throwing her arms wide as we all stood on her roof, boots buried in snow. “People just don’t do things like this any more these days. People are usually so cold-hearted.”

“Oh, I think the world is full of good people,” I cried out, without thinking, because I can’t bear the thought that we’re not capable of better. “We’re just ignorant. We just don’t know each other’s need. But I think people are willing to help each other, if they just knew what to do.”

And the quiet neighbor man who’d stopped a minute to catch his breath, resting his hands on his hips, looking out over the white fields and our scatter of houses against the high walls of snowbound firs, nodded, "That's so."

“Maybe we just need to change ourselves, get to know our neighbors better” – so the talk on the rooftop and later down by another neighbors’ house who was also worried their place wasn’t built to withstand 10 thousand pounds of snow – (is that possible? That’s the number they were batting around. Can snowflakes really weigh that much?) – the talk was of summer barbecues and housewarmings once building projects were finished up. Warm thoughts as our toes turned to ice inside our rubber rain boots no matter how many pairs of socks we’d put on.

Christmas Eve proper the power went out as my oldest was in the middle of making Pepper Pot Soup, as my husband was finishing his second hot bath of the day, as the rest of us began setting the table for dinner.

We lit the house with candles: our clumsy kitchen suddenly beautiful - a cluster of long-legged candlesticks on the table, candles high up on top of the kitchen cupboards throwing their cheery light toward the rafters, a row of pinecone candles given to us years ago but never lit until now brightening the hearth in the next room. We could have bagels and kippered herring for Christmas Eve dinner and finish making the soup tomorrow when we could see to light the propane stove outside if need be. I was wondering whether to call our neighbors (who’d mentioned they had no way to heat their house if the power went out) when the lights flickered, shone - all the electrical apparatus of our lives up and buzzing again.

We turned the lights back off and by candlelight soon were spooning up my daughter’s soup - very tasty (though not as divine as the Red Butter Chicken she made for Curry Night the day after the Day After Christmas). We sang the songs – The Holly and the Ivy, Boy’s Carol, God Rest Ye Merry, Silent Night – and read the story in Luke, watching the lights on our overgrown jade plant masquerading as this year's Christmas tree.

The Day After Christmas (almost before my husband and I were wearing again on each other’s patience), he came in to tell me he’d signed me up to come with him - our neighbor needed a ride to the pharmacy. And we went. And it was good to get out and to be together.

Even if it wasn’t what we’d planned or wished for.


Emily Ferrin said...

I really liked that story about the nieghbors roof. You write so well. I like the idea of a candle light Christmas. I want to try it some time.

Lisa B. said...

I love the idea of asking for $200 for Christmas--if you didn't get some of the things you had on your list, well, then, you'd be able to cover it!

I think you got at the way holidays are wonderful and very hard all at the same time for families. Sounds like you exited yours holding on to at least a little bit of grace. Well done you for not overdoing the Christmas projects. I am a notorious overdoer. Somebody should stop me.

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