Christmas in Adulthood.

I have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child.  Looking back now, I see that our family did nothing unique or extravagant for the holidays, but everything about it enchanted us kids.  Christmastime was, indeed, magical.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that these memories which bring me such happiness are what’s also causing me such stress this year; more stress, even, than trying to find a Christmas Card photo where I don’t look forty.  (We’ve got one somewhere.  I just know we’ve got one somewhere.)

See, as a mother, I can no longer simply luxuriate in the feeling of Christmas; I have to create that feeling for my kids to luxuriate in.  (I know I ended that sentence in a preposition but I tried it the other way and it didn’t work.  Please forgive.)  So while trying to “relax” and “simplify” (ha) during the season, I find myself constantly wondering, “Is this enough?  Am I doing enough?  Are my kids as dazzled as I was?”  It’s hard to tell because now that I’m all grown up, the Christmas magic is kindasorta gone.  Oh, I still enjoy Christmas, but it’s not the mysterious, glitter-wrapped nirvana that it once was. I view decorating the tree and watching Frosty the Snowman  through a different lens than I did as a child; it’s gratifying, sure.  But not magical.  And, truth be told, they sometimes feel a little bit like chores.  Reading Christmas stories, making Christmas treats, doing Christmas service projects–these were all a lot more fun before I was the one digging up the books from the red tubs in the garage, scraping dried meringue off the kitchen counter, and racking my brain for yet another creative, altruistic way I could teach my kids the Real Meaning of Christmas.  I’m not dissing the Big Day, promise.  I do still love the season.  It’s just that Christmas was a lot merrier when I was Tiny Tim sliding in the snow, not Mrs. Cratchit sweating over the pudding.  (Which, by the way, I always thought looked nasty.  No offense, Mrs. Cratchit.)

And every year, while I’m running around making life good for the little Cratchits, I wonder:


is my Cratchitiness tainting their excitement?  Do they know that I see a lot of this Christmas stuff as work?  Am I giving them the awe and anticipation that my parents gave me?  I don’t know.  My Christmas memories are so pure and sparkly:  cinnamon ribbon candy and walking home from school in the snow, giddy with the prospect of a real, live christmas tree waiting for me in the living room.  I’d find ways to sit by it all evening–reading, doing homework, petting the cat–just to inhale that glorious pine scent.  I remember one year, when I was very young, spending hours gazing at the different colors cast by the string of lights hung on our newly flocked spruce.  Because the tree was white, each bulb illuminated a six-inch radius of color around itself.  So when the tree was lit, it looked like a kaleidoscope of blue, red, green and yellow, splashed across a vasty, snowy canvas.  Magical.

Thirty years later, I pick my kids up from school, and we rarely have snow.   There are no drifty walks home to the tree–which, of course is artificial, augmented by a wickless Balsam Fir candle because we now know about Fire Safety.  Christmas seems a little less Norman Rockwell with every generation, and again I wonder:  are my kids feeling the magic I once did?  We’re so much more distracted–and my kids more discerning–than We Were Back Then.  And I find myself reluctantly thinking that it’s just not the same as it used to be.  Good, sure.  But not the same.

I thought about this all week as I shopped and wrapped and was still brooding over it this morning when some friends came by.  We ended up having a good conversation about not living in the past, about enjoying each season of life while we’re in it.  After they left I stood in my kitchen for a long time, pretending to do the dishes and thinking about my approach to the past in general and Christmas in particular.  I was scrubbing a cereal bowl when the belated, obvious epiphany hit me, heavy and hard:  when we remember the past, we remember the good stuff.  Especially when we remember Christmas.

I’ll bet you money we only had snow two or three Christmases total when I was growing up, but I’ve morphed them all into the eternal winter wonderland of my dreams.  I’ll bet we only had a flocked tree once or twice, but it appears in all my misty recollections surrounding Christmases of Yore.  And I know I spent most of my elementary years riding a sticky, bumpy bus to school, so my nostalgia for walking home in the snow is likely based on one day of one December one year of my life.

I’m not saying any of these realities diminish the meaning of the memories; we should look back fondly and selectively.  What I am saying is that, if I allow myself, I can also remember Christmases when I came home to a hectic house, a grumpy mom and a wilted, unplugged tree.  I can remember Christmases when vaguely familiar relatives came to stay way too long, hijacking our parents’ attention with their endless card games and boring adult conversations.  I can remember Christmases when my sister and I fought so hard–over what, I’ve no clue–that we both ended up spending Christmas night sobbing in our beds.  (My mom always blamed “the sugar,” but I think maybe we were just brats.)  I can remember Christmases that, for no definitive reason, just kind of missed the mark.  Among all the white lights and glittering gauze of my memories, there were plenty of brown bits and frayed pieces.  Christmas, like everything else we experience, swung somewhere between wonderful and disappointing.  And no matter how close it swung toward wonderful, I can also remember Christmases when–another year older and a little less dazzled–I looked around and said, “It’s just not the same as it used to be.”

By the time Christmas morning came, my parents were probably exhausted and kinda broke and relieved to have survived another year.  But we kids never knew this, because they never told.  They just smiled and read Luke 2 for the bazillionth time on Christmas Eve while we sat on our hands, willing them to finish so we could open the single, glorious gift that was allowed that night.  They never let on that Christmas was work and so we never thought of it as such.  It was simply snow (sometimes), and fresh pine trees (sometimes), and that one perfect present (sometimes.)  But it was bliss all the time, because the lens we saw it through as children was new and clean and everything behind it shone.  The lens we see Christmas back through as grownups is dimmer, and a little cloudy, and so everything behind it glows.  Both lenses gift us with a beautiful, if slightly altered, image.  Things don’t need to be perfect because our hopeful, malleable minds–young and old–will make them so.  The Christmas magic will take care of itself.

So to my frantic, frazzled friends:  if you, like me, worry that you are not providing the glorious Christmas memories that will shape your childrens’ destinies and follow them into the next life, don’t.  Whatever you are (or aren’t) doing for Christmas this year:  it’s enough.  Your children will relish Christmas now in their innocence and they’ll savor it later in their nostalgia.  And both lenses, bent as they may be, will sharpen and enlarge the one thing that is not imagined, and that is the love you invest in it all.  They feel that love now, they’ll remember it later, and it, too, will be enough. So let’s stop worrying about giving our kids a perfect Christmas and just give them a good one.  A loving one.  A happy one.  A Christmas that includes you, too.  That will be enough.  Because the magic, as always, will take care of itself.



And about that wet swimsuit:

In my last post I confessed that I roasted this year’s turkey while wearing a wet swimsuit.  This confession was, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to brag about spending Thanksgiving in Hawaii.  And I’m hoping that by confessing that, I’ll somehow dilute the aforementioned bragging and make you like me again.  (Did it work?  Tell me in the comment section.)

In relating the wet swimsuit incident, however, I omitted an important back story that warrants no bragging whatsoever.  In fact, I hesitate to share it with you now, but in the spirit of this blog, our trust, and mint-smeared sunglasses everywhere, share it I must.  So walk with me, friend, back to 1983.  I was ten years old, it was summertime, and it was hot.

So hot, that my two sisters and two neighbors (the Neighborhood Gang, natch) spent every waking minute we could at the local public pool.  These were the glory days of unsupervised childhoods:  we walked or biked everywhere, and for fifty cents could enjoy four decadent, parentless hours swimming with two hundred other parentless kids at the Kennewick Municipal Pool.  Oh, the sunburns and germs and fights that must have ensued at that mobbed pool; I still wonder if the lifeguards weren’t CPS agents disguised as teenagers, assigned to monitor the Great Latchkey Masses.  I remember one dazzlingly dramatic day when a bee sting required my sitting in the First Aid Office while one of the lifeguards on duty ministered to me.  He was tan, sandy haired, and The Most Beautiful Man I’d Ever Seen.  (He was maybe sixteen.)  Sitting next to me on a bench,

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he held my hand (!) near his face as he studied the wound.  I can still feel his cool breath on my palm as the giggling Gang smashed their noses against the other side of the window, giddy that one of us had finally made contact with a member of the male species.  And what a specimen he was!  The bitter sting of the bee was eclipsed by the tenderness of the caress; I was a damsel in distress, rescued by my knight in shining swim trunks.  It was a moment of moments for me, and largely explains how I came to develop The Rash.

See, after our passionate encounter with the bee sting, I couldn’t stay away from My Lifeguard, even for a day. Could you blame me?   And so to the daily afternoon swim session it was:  one ‘o clock to five ‘o clock, Monday thru Friday, by foot or by bike.  The success of each session required only two things I adored:  My Lifeguard’s presence, and my copper-colored swimsuit.

Grandview Municipal Pool

Oh, my copper colored swimsuit!  It was a shimmery, one piece that cinched around my non-chest and tied halter-style around my neck.  I loved this swimsuit as much as I loved that lifeguard; perhaps even more, since the suit was, I believed, my ticket to making him mad for me.  And so, armed with that logic, I never took the swimsuit off.  Like, ever.  I wore it before the pool, during the pool, and after the pool (it dried nicely as I bicycled home wearing it–and only it.)  I played tag in it, ate dinner in it, and delivered newspapers in it.  I slept in it every night, then woke up magically dressed and ready for the day.  It became my permanent underwear and, by happy accident, my first training bra.  And don’t worry: I washed it every day by showering–with it on–in the locker room at the pool.  That swimsuit was comfy, convenient, and I looked like a million bucks in it.  I saw no downside with it becoming my second skin during the torrid affair that was my tenth summer.  It seemed to me that I’d finally beaten the system.  What system, I wasn’t sure, but somehow I had beaten it.

Until one late August evening when, over the tater tot casserole, my treacherous older brother pointed out to my parents that I’d been wearing “that suit” for weeks in a row.  This got their attention; they’d naively assumed that when their nearly-grown daughter came to dinner in shorts and a T-shirt, regular undies were being donned underneath.  Oh, the innocence of the elderly!  They’d long forgotten that to a child, Hygiene is The Enemy.  My mom asked me if my brother’s accusation was valid.  Had I been wearing the suit every day, even to bed?  Of course I said no.

“Yes she has!  Make her show you.  She has it on now.”  My brother wasn’t backing down.  This was a serious breach in our Sibling Code of Not Telling which would, thankfully, be reinstated before high school.

“Shut up, Doug.”

“Mom, she has it on now.  She’s been wearing it under everything, every day.  I bet she hasn’t even taken it off to shower.  It’s so gross.”

“Shut up, Doug!”

“Jennifer, show me your suit.”  My mother had called my Jennifer.  I knew the gig was up.

Avoiding eye contact with anyone, I lifted my white tee ever so slightly to reveal a flash of beautiful, shimmery copper beneath.  I quickly closed the shirt and squirted more ketchup on my tots, hoping this gesture would close the subject.

“And how long have you been wearing that, Jennifer?”

“I don’t know.”  I shot my brother a look of hate, which only delighted him.

“Forever!” he spat.  “Like, all summer.  She never takes it off, Mom.  Like, ever.”

“Nu-uh!”  I yelled.  He was smirking his terrible freckle-faced smirk, and I cursed him, silently and once again, for being Mom’s favorite.

“Jennifer, you go up to your room right now and take that thing off.  Put it in the wash, and put some real clothes on.”  My shoulders slumped as I scraped my chair out and left the table with a dramatic sigh.  Of course nobody understood that this wasn’t just a swimsuit, it was a potent aphrodisiac!  How would I ever get My Lifeguard now?

Fine.”   I went to my room and slammed the door.  I peeled off the beloved garment–and all my hopes for romance–then dressed in the “real clothes” my mother had insisted on.  Looking down at my lonely tummy no longer swathed in nylon, I noticed a little red bump, kind of like a single chicken pox.  I then noticed another right by it, and another right by that one, and than another and another and another.  My belly was covered with as many red bumps as I’d spent days in the suit–maybe even more.  Maybe ten times more.  And as if on cue, the moment I noticed them, they started to itch.  Bad.  I went to scratch and despite having worn my suit perfectly dry all day, my skin felt moist and hot.  My wary scratching soon gave way to a ferocious clawing, and I wondered how the Suit could have betrayed me so.  I didn’t understand what was happening then, but I do now:  it was the first in a lifetime of disillusions about love, loss, and epidermal ventilation.  My heart pounded and my belly burned as I realized that this swimsuit would prove the ruin, not the redemption, of my blossoming summer romance.  Frantic and furious, there was only one left to scream down the stairs.