It’s a wonderful morning in Illinois. The sun is shining, the sky is bright blue, and there is a blanket of snow on the ground. We, at least W and I are, are back after spending Christmas in Ohio. B and O stayed another day and will leave for Michigan sometime today. W and I will head north early Sunday morning to join them; in the meantime he and I, and Ivy of course, have the run of the house. We also have a few things to do, like study for finals (W) and grade papers (me), before we pack up and drive north.
Somehow, Christmas always catches me by surprise. It sneaks up on me, pounces, and leaves me dazed. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be mentally, emotionally, or physically prepared for the season. Perhaps it goes back to my days working in restaurants when the Christmas season was a blur of long days and even longer nights, or maybe there is a deeper reason for my Christmas surprise. But, my restaurant days are behind me, almost twenty years behind and I still find myself lost at this time of the year. Teaching has replaced working in restaurants and there is a two week long break for Christmas. When Winter Break and Christmas do arrive, all I want to do is rest, sleep, or just enjoy downtime. There always seems there is more to do than we have time for, or places to go and visit, there never seems time to just, be, to enjoy the holiday. We have our family traditions – we put up the tree, decorate outside, and inside – B always does a wonderful job of making the home full of Christmas spirit. O loves to listen to Christmas songs and when she rides along with me, there is usually a fight over the radio, but not during December. I believe it all goes back to scarcity and choices; or how I use time, or not. I do enjoy Christmas and the entire holiday season, I just never seem to have it all together. It drove my dad nuts that I was so, so laissez-faire. It drives B crazy, too.
One of our traditions is Christmas with family – family in Ohio. With a few exceptions, since we moved to the Midwest in ’91, I have awakened Christmas morning in Ohio. Santa always found us, even me, regardless of whether I was naughty or nice. With B’s parents getting older and less mobile, traveling to them is the only way we get to see them. It is the same for my family – my mom in Texas and my step-mom in Mississippi. This year was no exception and we left Monday mid-afternoon. We took two cars. O and I in one car with B and W in another, because W had to be home for wrestling the weekend after Christmas – this weekend. The expectation is he’ll be home for practice next week, too, but I’ve already nixed that, explaining we will be out of town on a family vacation. We’ll be north at the cottage.
Christmas in Ohio is laden with tradition. Dinner was always at B’s parent’s house. We stay there and everyone came for dinner followed by desert, coffee, and opening gifts and visiting. Several years back Christmas dinner moved to her brother’s home with the entire family returning for opening gifts. This year B (and I) decided to return Christmas dinner to her parent’s home. The menu is the same: beef tenderloin, sweet potato casserole, roasted potatoes, a green vegetable, and Colette’s, B’s older sister, spinach salad. Always. My job is roasting the tenderloin. I’ve done it so many times, I don’t need the recipe. It calls for bacon, butter, salt and pepper, and of course beef tenderloin. One of the reasons the meal moved to her brother’s home was that the fire alarm would go off when smoke from the 500 degree oven would fill the kitchen. The entire combination of high heat, beef, butter, and bacon makes the tenderloin tender and delicious as well as smoky when the meat is close to done. It’s an inexact science and there have been times when the meat is underdone by the matriarch’s standards, but fine for me and my clan. This year I nailed it and had close to medium rare and medium well and everyone’s tastes were satisfied. Colette brings her spinach salad. I prepared the green vegetable – Brussels sprouts with bacon and Kristin, B’s brother’s wife brought the potatoes. Somehow, the sweet potato casserole did not make it. We have twelve at the table and it is a tight fit, but it was Christmas and it had the feel of Christmas once again. At one time, it wasn’t near as cozy because the kids were small, but they’ve grown and become adults and mine have grown, too seemingly making the room smaller. Dinner is served buffet style and it is served and finished in a sliding order – first served finishes first and last served, lingers. The conversation is tumultuous as we catch up, take time to laugh, compliment the chef(s), to enjoy each other’s company, or to hear a family story for the first time, the umpteenth time, or maybe the last time. Like most good things, it is over in a flash. Desert and coffee is served. The kitchen is cleaned, dishes washed, and we retire to the family room for the opening of gifts.
Not much has changed, except the kinds of gifts given. Where once there were toys wrapped for the children, now there are shoes, sweaters, a hat, a book, or a scarf. Thank yous fill the air along with the ripping and crunching of wrapping paper. When it is all finished we visit some more and then B’s brother and his family return to their home, Colette, too. It’s Christmas. I doze off sitting in a chair. W falls asleep on the couch. O disappears to discover a new toy. B and her mom share family history. It’s Christmas. It’s how I remember it, exactly.
Christmas was two days ago. Yesterday, W and I loaded the car and came home, but not before visiting with grandpa and grandma a bit more. I am always sad when I leave Ohio, or Texas or Mississippi. I am reminded how short life is and how important family is. Usually the first part of the drive along rural roads lined with farm houses, barns, and corn and soy fields across western Ohio and northern Indiana is quiet and reflective for me, but W has grown and is now working on his driving permit. He took the first part of the drive home – southwestern Ohio to northwest Indiana; three hours of driving, in fact. He was surprised I let him drive as long as he did. When we switched drivers, I made him fill up the car, I paid but he had to work the pump. I drove the last hour and a half and when we pulled into the driveway, he jumped out, grabbed a snow shovel and we cleaned off the driveway together before unloading the car and going inside.
Five hours in a car is tiring, even when sitting as a passenger for sixty percent of it. We had dinner and then went to bed. I beat the alarm this morning and awoke before the sun rose, even before Ivy. I wanted to write, but didn’t know where to start, so I went back in time to Christmases past.
Click, if you’d like. All three Christmases had us traveling north. W and I will be driving east, then north Sunday morning, B and O will be driving north later this afternoon. We’ll end up in the same place, together at the cottage. The kids will get to play in the snow – ski, snowboard. I’ll get to cook and relax. B will get to relax a bit, too. We’ll see our cottage friends and we’ll get to ring in the new year.
Meanwhile, I need to kick it in to gear. I have work to do – school work, planning, cleaning up, thank you notes, and a few errands. Today is gonna be a great day, so I had better jump up, jump in, and seize the day. Making the Days Count, one day at a time, one Christmas memory at a time.
How did you spend Christmas day? How do you spend the holidays? What is special for you?