Holidays

“You can’t really see the days. I mean, look at the days with your eyes.”
                                                                   -Theo, age 4. 1 July 2015

December 1990: For our first Christmas tree, Bill and I drove after dark into the western woods of Pennsylvania. The owner of the tree farm stayed in his house as it was cold and we were the only patrons. We walked along the rows until we came upon the blue spruce–which was suddenly the tree I wanted.

The man in his house said that most of the trees were ten dollars, but the blue spruce was going to cost us a little more. I waited with bated breath for what couldn’t have been more than two seconds to find out where my expensive taste was taking us: we didn’t have an abundance of money, certainly not so much to squander on preference in Christmas trees.

The blue spruce was twelve dollars and beautiful, and it lit up the front window of our living room.

November 1992: Newlywed and apparently unfettered by guilt to enjoy the holiday with family, we decided with friends to spend Thanksgiving in Maine. Moreover, we would fly there–but the cheaper tickets had us arriving late Wednesday night. In the remote seaside town where we were staying, would grocery stores be open for necessary supplies?

We lined our suitcases with cans of pumpkin and jellied cranberry sauce. Our frozen turkey breast lay packed between sweaters. A perfect plan.

Except that someone at the baggage carousel in Portland had an identical suitcase– a fact we almost noticed too late. We had to go in pursuit (“Excuse me, sir. I believe you have our suitcase”) to reclaim it, and we laughed at (later) how surprised he would have been to find a turkey in what was clearly the Wrong Luggage.

How do we remember our holidays? My friend has a Christmas book with a four-page spread for every year. Here she records where they were and whom they were with, what they ate, gave, played, received. 

My holiday memories sift through my brain in varied order and at various times, triggered by who knows what? There is, for instance, that very early Christmas, when my baby sister was still a baby. My older sister and I awoke early, of course. Were we three and four? In the gray suffusion of earliest light, weighted by resistible guilt, we made our way to our grandparents’ living room. 

We were greeted by a monstrous eye, lidless, pupil- and iris-free, staring at us from next to the Christmas tree.

In terror, we scurried back to our beds and waited for more light and grown-ups, certain we had received our punishment. It was later, in the fullness of morning and a well-lit living-room, that we discovered the monster was an aluminum sledding saucer, intended only for joy.

December 1980: My Nana came to us in Pittsburgh from Florida and could never seem to get warm. We have photos of her bundled to her neck in the La-Z-Boy, the cat all in a heap on her lap.

Time plays her tricks. While we’re living them, the days feel so much like themselves. See? The dishwasher needs to be loaded again. Now emptied. Once again we’re setting the table. We’re staying up too late and forgetting to go to bed early, but otherwise things are normal enough. Until we’re looking back at them. That was when….

Thanksgiving 1995: They brought the turkey breast to us, once again frozen in the suitcase, because turkey was out of our price range in Switzerland. Our Swiss friends and neighbors thought it strange to have a holiday on a Thursday, but they were happy to withstand the Thanksgiving smells that wafted through the house. That was the year we learned that you really shouldn’t cook potatoes too far in advance–unless you’re going to mash them right away.

Thanksgiving 2011: We put the turkey in its brine in a cooler on my parents’ deck. It would be very cold out there; the turkey would be fine.

I’m not sure the raccoon agreed. He was interested in it at first–interested enough to get it out of the cooler, anyway, and drag it across the deck, and tear it (somewhat) to shreds with his little claws. But he left a sizable portion of the carcass near the steps.

We had to buy another turkey.

Over the years, my children were sometimes confused about *when*, exactly, the holiday was. “Thanksgiving is always on Thursday, but Christmas varies.” So every Thursday marks some weeks’ exact distance from that special feast, but Christmas Day skates over all the weekdays near the end of December. Any given Monday-Wednesday-Saturday marks an exact weeks’ interval from a Christmas Day, but who bothers to remember which?

That was when…

Christmas 1985: We lay on the Sanibel Island beach the day after Christmas, and a seagull pooped on my sister’s leg.

Christmas 1988: I knew I loved the man who would be my husband.

Christmas 2015: My sister and her family arrived Christmas Eve, but one of their suitcases (which held their gifts) didn’t. Of necessity, they took themselves to the Walgreen’s at midnight, there to wait in an hour’s-long line with the true last-minute shoppers to buy presents for their four-year-old boy.

The modest haul they returned with was Truly Impressive, and Theo never knew the difference on Christmas morning. Their suitcase arrived unmolested in the hands of a gracious airline worker at 3 o’clock that afternoon.

That was the year I had a new respect for Walgreens, new compassion for last-minute shoppers, and renewed appreciation for American Airlines.

They come in the standard sets of twenty-four hours, but are marked with special demands: guests, travel, celebrations. Accordingly, they take their toll. We settle into them eagerly enough, and then toward the end feel it might be nice to get up and stretch our legs. We recall the pleasures of routine. We remember that Everyday doesn’t really look like this. 

And then they are over.

Christmas 2015: The day after they left, I found my sister’s tennis shoes in the line-up by the front door. Bill discovered a baking sheet in the oven, a remnant from the Cuban sandwiches Christopher had made for us of leftover pork and ham. And on the floor of my bedroom, our copy of The Borrowers, which Emily had been reading to Theo while they were here. Their place is still marked with a torn-off corner of paper.

New Year’s Eve 2015-16: We watched the ball drop in our living room, surrounded by our kids and a small host of their friends. We toasted one another with champagne artificial and otherwise and with very loud music and dancing. And I tried to peer ahead at the empty grid of days, to see what they might look like.

But someone very wise once said it: “You can’t really see the days. I mean, look at the days with your eyes.” You can only be in them, whether or not you know how. Whether or not your mashed potatoes are lumpy beyond all rescue, whether or not the turkey is dragged across the deck. Whether or not, when you’ve put all the decorations away, you would like to take the days out again, like so many ornaments, and get a good look at them once more.


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