For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a lack of holiday stress. While other mothers are carefully planning for a seamless season of baking, shopping, wrapping, decorating and delighting family, friends and neighbors with special, thoughtful touches and glittering tidings of joy I am lolling about between shifts, only attending to the most necessary tasks. Oh, sure, we bake cookies here or there, but never with any regimented procedure. The likelihood of you ever tasting one unless you happen to stop by within twenty minutes of their retrieval from the oven? Pretty slim, friend.
As for my own mother, when I was a kid, she so energetically and elegantly wafted through the holidays that I must have gotten the early message that if you were exhausted, you were doing it wrong. Snacks appeared from under a graceful wave of her cloak. Cookies were picture perfect, even when we helped. Packages were sneaked into hiding places so clever that even the most dedicated Christmas cheater came away from her reconnaissance missions convinced that there were no gifts this year; peeking in all the closets, cupboards, and finally balancing in defeat on the rafters of the attic...finding nothing. And, oh, the gifts! She intuitively knew what gifts would be adored, even cherished for years. She has a freakish knack for seeing gifts that are exactly the most-perfect-thing-you-never-knew-you-always-wanted. I credit her with my bravery in usurping Christmas requests from my own children, who really don't know themselves as well as I know them...yet. A doll? You've never played with a doll a single day in your life! There are a hundred and twenty-seven unloved dolls in a box in the garage, I'll wrap one of those for you. You don't want a doll. What you are really going to love is a record player.
My mother always found a way to pull everything together without ever breaking a sweat, raising her voice, or drinking whiskey before dinnertime. There was never an apparent air of tension in her around the holidays. I credit her with my energy level (having never lost a minute of sleep to stress over how many days are left until Christmas and how many things are on my non-existent to-do list). Every Christmas, there is something that doesn't get done. Last year it was stocking stuffers and a good gift for my mom and dad. This year...well, this year it was Christmas dinner. That's right, you heard me. Our time-honored tradition of sitting together around an enormous roast, surrounded by steaming dishes of roasted vegetables, fresh baked rolls and buttered noodles (it wouldn't be Christmas here without buttered noodles) had to be adjusted this year. But the story... behind the excuse... underneath the reason that I did not go shopping for our Christmas dinner is a damn good one, and that's why I'm telling it. That, and because just posting a photo of my darling children holding Quik Trip taquitos and Slurpees on Christmas night might result in them removed from our home, if not by the authorities, by a concerned auntie.
Let's begin three days before Christmas. Thursday. I spent the day wrapping gifts and doing some shopping so that there would be something more than air in the stockings this year. I even overcompensated, buying twice as much candy as a sane mother would, including gigantic marshmallow snowmen mounted on candy canes. I think they each weigh an entire disgusting, sticky pound. I took my daughter to dinner and the Nutcracker that night, and returned with so much Christmas magic in my veins that I was losing oxygen to my brain. I was delirious with comfort and joy. Don't worry, I keep some brandy around for moments like that, so as not to lose any sleep over it. (Right now, my husband is shaking his head, and thinking "some?")
Two days before Christmas, Friday, and my euphoria is sustained by a lengthy clay ornament making session with my adorable three-year old. Walking in the back door of the restaurant that afternoon, I said what we all say to ourselves on the way into work the last shift before a holiday or long vacation. Presumably, whether you work in a shoe store or a library or a button factory, you are familiar with this phrase: if anyone is listening, please... let it be busy, let it be fun, and above all, please let it be quick!
And for the most part, it was. It was fun. I really love what I do. I really love who I do it with. I love the people I do it for. Mostly. Usually. Unless they are yelling at me about coat hooks. My Christmas cheer was at a peak, watching the families, the friends, the people who love people, all enjoying themselves. As my boss says, this is why we do what we do. It's fun to help people have fun.
Of course, not everyone is out to have a good time, and that's cool too. I guess. But not at Christmas. It seems that at Christmas I have a zero tolerance for ugliness and unkindness. As I admitted, I am not entirely thoughtful about the holidays, I come up short every year, but neither am I thoughtless. I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to be unkind to someone, at Christmas or any other time of year. My history of getting my feelings badly hurt every year two days before Christmas would indicate that my sensitivity is heightened, but it's taken me this long to identify the pattern. Last year a man yelled at me about broccoli while I was wearing candy cane socks, and I cried for almost an hour. This year, a man yelled at me about a coat hook, and I broke. That's the only word for it. I broke. The unpleasantness, the rudeness, the assumption that a nearly forty year old waitress must just not be a very smart person...who, after all, would choose this as a way to earn a living? ...it unraveled my Christmas High as quickly as if you'd tied a loose strand from your Christmas kitten sweater to the back of the Concorde (which would be ridiculous, of course, because that thing is grounded now, right?...let's go with bullet train...as if you'd tied a loose strand from your Christmas kitten sweater to the back of a bullet train.) As my face began to contort, and the tears welled in my eyes, I tried to amass all my love, all my bravery, all my cheer in an effort to regain control. Utter failure. I am not a pretty crier. "Whiskey, stat!" I heard someone say. I tried to convince myself that only tough girls drink their whiskey warm, and tough girls don't cry at work. They wait until they get home, like men. Too late. The next hour is a blur of finishing up side work to the best of my ability, through intermittent tears and red wine, and I'm pretty sure, more whiskey provided by the sweetest people anyone has ever worked with.
I left work and started to walk home in the cold, past the beautiful Christmas lights downtown, past the revelers, past the pretty things in the store windows. Fuck you, I thought. I called my husband. "Hello." "pfpfpththbbblllllllllllffffppppppthhthth, coat hook," I slobbered into the phone. He picked me up halfway home, where I stood sobbing on the corner. Home, I met comfort in the form of a giant hug from my giant husband and a giant mug of tea and brandy. I sobbed on and on about the special place in hell for people who are mean to waitresses and dogs at Christmastime. We decided that the special place is a hell on earth where you feel entitled to be mean to waitresses and dogs at Christmastime. More accurately, I decided on that. My giant husband put me to bed and went out to look for "that motherfucker who made my wife cry." He didn't find him.
I woke early Saturday morning, Christmas Eve. My face was swollen from crying. My brain was swollen from too much, um, comfort. My Christmas cheer was still buried under a thick ash of disappointment in a stranger's treatment of me. I lacked motivation. I spent a long, slow morning accomplishing exactly nothing. Coffee and a chicken-fried steak with buttered toast brought fresh perspective and a resolve to regain my happy mindset. I finished a painting for my cousin. I wrapped gifts for my mother and father. I organized the stocking stuffers. I finished everything but the grocery shopping in plenty of time to enjoy a long afternoon and evening with my hilarious family. I wasn't concerned that I didn't have Christmas dinner in the fridge. No problem, honey. This is the big city: Lawrence, Kansas. This is not podunk little Manhattan, Kansas, where no grocery stores are open on Christmas Day. I'll run out for a roast and trimmings in the morning. Ignorantly and blissfully I laughed, I enjoyed, I beat my hangover.
Christmas morning. After passing the third closed grocery store in a row, I began to have doubts that I was going to find an open one. I tried them all anyway. All closed. All. No part of me was frustrated. Again, my lack of holiday stress presented itself and I began to giggle in the car. Truly, I was filled with hope, because even the most godless, bottom feeding corporate giants, even Walmart, are closed on Christmas morning. I returned empty handed and we resumed playing with new toys, playing new games, listening to new music, and figuring out the new phone that my son was certain he wasn't getting this Christmas.
Mid-afternoon, we survey the possibilities. There's everything I need for a beautiful seafood stew, but I've got two who can't stand the stuff. Cheese and crackers? Maybe, but we have that a lot for dinner around here, so it's not exactly a special meal. Maybe we could find an open restaurant, but the notion of trying to enjoy a family meal in public with three kids who have each eaten a pound of disgusting, sticky marshmallow snowmen produces images of my husband tying himself to the back of a bullet train. His best suggestion was the Quik Trip, which offers a variety of mysterious meat-like fillings encased in warmish, greasy tortillas, a dozen sauces to choose from, any chip you've ever heard of and some you haven't, and Slurpees. In short: kid heaven. The man is a genius. We loaded up, piled in, stocked ourselves with whatever looked the most delicious (or in my case, the least offensive), and returned home to eat by candlelight while The Stones' Some Girls played on the new record player.
We toasted our good fortune. We talked about our family and how much fun they are at parties. We congratulated ourselves on not being assholes who try to rain on other peoples' Christmas parades. I thought about my parents, tremendously talented in the kitchen, both of them, but they raised me not to be insensitive, nor snobby. I dipped my Cheez Takito into spicy mayonnaise while the three-year old contemplated the gender identity of Santa Claus, and thought about all the great meals I've enjoyed at Christmas. This one was in the top five, for sure.