Every Christmas, we pack up our lives and pile up the gifts. We drive south on I-65 and we begin our Christmas circuit that takes us all over the state. From house to house, we drag all our items out of the car (an obscene amount no matter the length of stay thanks to the little ones). Drew distributes and unpacks while I begin the vigilant watch of our 4 year old and 20 month old in new territory. Suddenly everything seems breakable or a choking hazard.
Christmas with two young ones is exhausting. Chasing them around leaves me so tired that 9:00 p.m. sounds like a perfectly acceptable bedtime. Watching them in new environments is a game of risk, a test of multi-tasking abilities while maintaining conversation, and a sport of trying to communicate with Drew through mere hand signals or looks that clearly say, “It’s your turn! I need a break!” Mitigating negotiation-deals with the four-year-old at every Christmas meal is always humbling while we sit in front of those who prepared the meal. He contorts his face and says in the whiniest, most pitiful voice he can muster, “I don’t like this. How many bites do I have to eat?” We unwrap presents and I practice my telepathy as I send eye-signals to the oldest to not immediately blurt out “we already have that” or “I don’t like that” or the most obnoxious, “Where are more presents?”
And yet, Christmas with two young ones warms the jaded adult heart like nothing else. Christmas morning in striped matching PJs, the boys jump up and down with un-matched glee as they see the stockings. From house to house, we get to watch our grandparents be great-grandparents to our boys. Our youngest’s shyness dissipates and he begins cackling and playing games with everyone. He plays peek-a-book, freezes, and shows his mean face. To watch my boys be known and loved by family – it is the greatest gift.
It is all too much. A glance at Drew humbles me as I remember that all of life is a gift – the relationship we found eleven years ago, the marriage we’ve grown, the children we’ve been called to care for, the life we have before us.
During those rare moments when I can look up from what is right in front of me, I remember that the preparation for and experience of Christmas is more than simply the traditions of gift-giving and family-gathering. The Christmas circuit brings me up close and face-to-face with the passage of time in all its brutality and its beauty.
At each stop at grandparents’ homes, I remember that family’s favorite stories, beloved members, and haunting pasts. I recognize that now is the time to pause and take notice, keeping in mind “the curious promise of limited time.”
In the back-roads off of 31-East, the photos on the walls always call my attention. The photos of my beloved when he was young remind me of the times for which I was not present. A portrait of three children hangs on the wall and I can’t help but wonder what it is like for Drew’s grandparents to go through Christmas without their son who passed away years ago. The dinner table holds the same Christmas dinner that we have every year. Simple and delicious. The company around the table my favorite part – the grit of a man whose days on the farm have come to an end, the sweet spirit of a Oregon-transplant who planted her roots in the Bluegrass out of love for that farmer, and two daughters’ deep love and tender care of their aging parents. I can’t help but feel the irony of bringing our family that is still winding up into a home that is winding down. It pierces the heart and I pause to let it soak in.
Thirty miles north-west, we walk in and find a woman busy at work in the kitchen. She is the epitome of a matriarch. She is a woman meant to have a full house but left to live her days alone since the passing of her beloved and the passing of time. A hallway holds it all from floor to celling with framed pictures of her four children and their spouses, her eight grand children and their spouses, and twelve great-grandchildren. Our boys walk in and she is immediately on her knees to hug and play with them. Love is a verb for her. She plays, she cooks, she gives. For a moment, she is content and all is right in the world.
Up north the next day, we walk into a full house. My grandfather meets us at the front door and celebrates the sight of our youngest. I make my way to the kitchen where I know I will find her. There she is – poised, elegant, and calm. My grandmother is still hosting the Christmas meal for the whole family. She has perfected the patterns and rituals of it all. She has always run the household – a task, I’m sure, as she raised three boys in her own day. The longer we stay there, the more I catch glimpses of the family life that once thrived in this house. Three grown brothers slip into their places as the three sons of Wayne and Eleanor. They begin to make jokes and remember their mischief. Their parents roll their eyes and smile. For a moment, all is as it was. As I watch it, it is tender, fragile, and strong all at the same time.
Down south but out of reach for this year’s Christmas, I think of my grandparents in their home celebrating with themselves and my uncle. We open their presents and think of them. I remember the picture of Papaw holding our first when he was only two months old on Christmas morning. And I give thanks for another Christmas for which I can make plans to see them soon.
Before collecting, repacking, re-loading the car each time, I parade the youngest around for his heart-melting lean-in hugs and sweet bye-byes. As we drive away, I pause and give thanks for the Christmas circuit. I come home and I write down the details so we can remember it all. I find my place in the continued stories of each of them and I praise the One who created this life full of mystery and miracle.
“Praise as the fundamental expression of worship is not solely an acknowledgement of dependent creatureliness. It is an express of astonished gratitude. It is a confession that existence is a mysterious, miraculous gift.” – Dwight Lounger