I'm writing this on the day after Christmas. My hands are dry and chapped from washing dishes and shoveling snow. Like you I am exhausted in that wonderful post-Christmas way, bleary, a little in awe of how much strain of activity goes into the buildup to Christmas morning, and how quickly all that frenzy is transformed into neat little stacks of gifts and a giant plastic bag of torn wrapping paper.
Without any spirit of exaggeration, I think I can report that I have loaded and unloaded the dishwasher 17 times in five days, done seven loads of laundry, shoveled four times, and run a dozen "last second" errands. My favorite was to the grocery store on Christmas Eve, where there were actual cart traffic jams as approximately 500 of my fellow Dakotans, some home for the holidays and therefore clueless about where to find the marshmallow crème, shoveled multiple cases of soda into their carts, some carts ranging the aisles in tandem at the hands of perky, demonic sisters-in-law. At one point I was reduced to telling a complete stranger: "Hey! No texting in the aisles. I'll run you down like a prairie dog on the highway." Fortunately, she smiled back rather than whap me with the 14-pound pork loin she was chucking into her cart. I had leisure to read Time Magazine's complete "Person of the Year" profile of Pope Francis in the checkout line. His attempts to preside over Catholic Christendom in a Christ-like way are raising some eyebrows.
My daughter requested a "live" Christmas tree this year, not the three-unit plastic tree that I usually manage to drag out from an obscure corner in the garage. We went Christmas tree shopping on the coldest day of the year: minus 23 and don't forget the windchill factor. Here are just a few highlights of a daylong saga: I install new battery in the Jeep; Jeep slips on ice and runs into curb; left front tire blows; we pony Jeep to nearby Best Buy parking lot; toy jack in Jeep (never before used) missing key part; father, wearing only a sports jacket, walks to Lowes to buy tools while daughter huddles in stricken Jeep reading magazine; father also buys mittens and a hat (idiot); first attempt to change tire fails owing to toy manufacturer's jack; good friend of father's walks across parking lot to smirk and commiserate and asks several dozen pointless and inaudible questions, before admitting that she has never changed a tire; father tells good friend to go jump in a lake (somewhat "softened" version of actual advice).
Once the tire was changed, we drove to Mandan to buy the world's greatest Christmas tree, which we tied to the roof of said Jeep and somehow managed to shove into the house, not without some frame damage. We spent the evening in a tangle of Christmas lights, which balled up more completely once we put our sap-encrusted hands on them. We made the Christmas tree star ourselves from foam board and the 24,300 bottles of tempera glitter paint in my daughter's craft drawers.
So far we have baked six fruitcakes, twelve batches of my mother's famous toffee; two batches of sugar cookies and one of chocolate meltaways; and two pies. On my repeated trips to the grocery store I have thrown embarrassing amounts of butter into my cart, again and again. On Christmas Eve we made perhaps the lamest batch of lefse (our first) in the history of Nordic culture. We will try again tonight.
The only calm in all this chaos was on Christmas Eve when my daughter offered to read the nativity story from the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke. We sat in the three best chairs in the living room with candles lit in every direction. She was wearing the new pink pajamas she had just opened—one of my mother's annual ritual gifts. I fetched up one of my Bibles, the New King James Version, and mother and I sat quietly as my only child read one of the most familiar of all stories in a voice that is two parts woman and yet still three parts a child. She did not stumble over "Zacharias."
Do you ever have one of those moments when you become aware that you are witnessing something you don't want to take for granted, don't ever want to forget, something you want to let get in deep, and so you try to become present, truly present, in a heightened way? "Some day I will look back on this moment and realize how magical it was, and how fleeting, and I will wish I could remember every detail—the quality of light, the sound of the music, the size of the Christmas tree, the color of the upholstery and the wrapping paper, the timbre of my child's voice…."
As I sat there I thought: for many years, my mother has been parked in a kind of timeless zone in which she is old without being elderly. She is healthy, autonomous, funny. She requires no special logistical arrangements. She drives herself to Bismarck and we do not fear for her (or others!) when she is on the road. At 82 she is still giving not needing. But the day is coming in the next decade when she will slip over some invisible line and become elderly. I won't mind making special arrangements when that moment comes, but it gives me the deepest pain to think that one of the most vigorous persons I have ever known cannot persist in this phase of her life indefinitely.
And I thought: my beloved daughter, heart of my heart, soul of my soul, now 19, is here tonight because this is where she wants to be, in that brief zone when she is making the transition from child to full adult. But the day is coming—and not far off—when she will announce to her parents that she is not coming home to the Great Plains for the holidays because she has a chance to study Orangutans in Malaysia between semesters, or that "Biff" has asked her to join him in Montreal this Christmas to meet his parents, or—alas—she is bringing "Biff" here and thinks perhaps we ought to discuss the sleeping arrangements in advance. Nooooooo.
Linger, my favorite women, please linger.
To my mother, whenever she does anything that smacks of "winding down," I say sternly, "Don't you grow old!" At which point she looks at me in a quizzical way, a little impressed perhaps that I am rooting for her so strenuously, but also as if to say, "You moron, do you think I want to grow old or that it makes much of a difference if I don't?" And to my daughter, whose life is going to be so much more bigger than mine, and who brings an earnestness to existence that I have never known, I want to quote Thoreau: "As long as possible live free and uncommitted."
As you can see, in my attempt to be fully present, I had slipped into this reverie instead. Such is the fallenness of man. And then I heard my daughter's voice again: "When they saw the Starre, they rejoyced with exceeding great joy" (Matthew 2:10).
A favorite verse, two celestial women in the candlelight, a cozy house with new tree smell, hot tea, and Santa on his way. Perfection.
See you in the new year.