Holly Jolly

The Radio Shack receipt was for $38.87. I stared at it uncomprehendingly. The remote-control trucks June had selected for Noah’s Christmas present were $14.99, a surprisingly good price, and when the clerk suggested batteries, I agreed, not sure what kinds we had at home. Almost immediately I was chastising myself for saying yes. Surely there’s a huge mark-up on batteries at Radio Shack. But $38.87? The batteries couldn’t be that expensive. Then I noticed the trucks had rung up at $24.99.

I told the clerk the shelf tag said $14.99 and added that the trucks had been sitting behind that shelf tag for at least two days. I knew because I’d been in the store by myself on Wednesday morning while June was at school, looking for appropriate gifts to suggest to her. The clerk was unmoved. He didn’t even apologize for the shelving error. (If it was an error, I thought–I was getting irate and uncharitable.)

I felt a deep weariness settle over me. It had taken forever to get rung up despite the fact that the line was short. Before the price dispute, the clerk had been chatty and over-friendly, full of tips on how to manipulate my husband into getting me what I want for Christmas (perhaps a new computer from Radio Shack?). I never know how to come out in situations like this and sometimes I just don’t. Eventually I lay my left hand with its bare ring finger conspicuously on the counter, hoping he’d see it, take me for a straight single mom and just be quiet already. But he didn’t.

I was not going to walk out of the store with almost $40 worth of trucks and batteries as a present to Noah from June. That much was clear. Most of the presents I’ve been purchasing on her behalf have been very inexpensive, most close to $5, so $15 was a stretch as it was. I asked the clerk to refund my money and he did. We went back to the shelves and I gave June a few more options. She refused them all. She liked the trucks. She didn’t like the blue car or the silver car or the little cars that ran around a track. I gave up and we left the store empty-handed.

I thought she might be more amenable to my position after a snack, so we went to Starbucks next. As her spoon scraped the bottom her yogurt parfait, I broached the subject. Would she like to go back to the store and reconsider? No, she would not. I wondered desperately how we ever got through the beginning gift-giving stage with Noah, when the child is old enough to have some responsibility for reciprocating gifts but too young to make rational choices. The problem is I want it all: I want her to pick gifts (or at least pick from several choices I give her), to pick gifts the recipients would like (had I been willing to buy a light-up Cinderella figurine for Noah we could have gotten out of there with a gift) and to pick affordable presents, too. It’s too much to orchestrate, but I wasn’t sure what needed to give.

“Where are we going now?” June wanted to know as I pushed the stroller away from Starbucks.

“Home, I guess,” I said. “I don’t have any other ideas. We’ll have to think of something later because if we don’t, Noah won’t have any presents from you and that would be sad.”

“But I got him a book,” June piped up.

“What book?” I said. Did Beth help her pick a book for Noah? But she would have mentioned it if she had, because she knew I was taking June to get his present that morning.

“The book I got him at the store at the beach,” June said impatiently. Then it hit me. The limerick book! I even blogged about it not two weeks ago. I didn’t know whether to be hugely relieved or irritated I’d made not one but two completely unnecessary trips to this shopping center looking for a gift I had already bought. I settled on relieved. I still had two more “from June” gifts to buy for other people so one down was good, no matter how it came to pass.

We came home, I ate lunch (June passed, having just eaten that big yogurt) and I put June down for her nap. The babysitter arrived while she was sleeping and I set off for Noah’s school’s Holiday Sing. That morning he’d been excited about it and practicing a selection of the Kwanza, Hanukah and Christmas songs. (He also invented a pirate version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” for his own and June’s amusement. Sample lyric: “Ho, Ho, the mistletoe, hung where ye can see. Somebody waits for ye. Kiss her once for me!”)

As I walked along the side of the school, I could hear the pianist practicing “Holly Jolly Christmas.” I had a moment of panic, thinking what if it wasn’t practice. What if I had the time of the concert wrong? I knew “Holly Jolly Christmas” was the last song on the program. But when I arrived ten minutes before concert time, there were parents milling around and the multipurpose room (the cafeteria is often pressed into service as an auditorium so they call it the multipurpose room) was not even set up. I hadn’t missed a thing. Parents helped set up folding chairs in the back of the room, finishing just as the kids filed in. As I was waiting outside the room, I was happy to see Beth walk down the hall. I didn’t know if she would be able to make it.

“You made it,” said and then I saw her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked. There was a nursery school fundraising crisis involving addresses on letters that don’t line up with the windows in the envelopes. Plus she had been handed a huge unexpected project at work that might mean working on vacation next week. She was anxious and overwhelmed.

The sing-along was cute, as usual. I could tell Beth was distracted, though, and when Noah’s class came in we waved at him but he didn’t see us. I knew if he didn’t see us then, he never would because the 4th and 5th grade choir faces the audience but the rest of the kids sit on the floor and face the choir. I was sad about that. He always lights up when he sees us at school events. Telling him we were there later just isn’t the same.

We made it home before June woke from her nap. Beth spent the afternoon in a frantic effort to get letters re-printed while I watched the kids. Just before six, we piled into the car and drove to the community center for June’s school’s Solstice Party. We paraded from the Community Center to the library with the children all wearing paper crowns and holding their glowing, painted paper-wire-and-wood lanterns they made at school. (Noah, along with other older siblings, carried his old lantern.) We sang “This Little Light of Mine” as we marched. Inside the library we feasted on pizza, crudités, hummus, oranges and a wide variety of homemade sweets. Noah, June and I sat with the Yellow Gingko’s family. Beth sequestered herself in a corner, assembling the re-printed fundraising packets for people to collect at the end of the evening. I brought her a plate of food but she was afraid food wasn’t allowed in that room, so I took it away.

After we ate each class presented the teachers with gifts and there was a shadow puppet show (to celebrate shadow at this, the darkest time of the year). The Tracks class (four and five year olds) gathered behind the screen and held up their puppets as Lesley read a story about a magically expanding mitten that shelters a whole forest of animals. At one point the Red Maple (last year’s Caterpillar) rushed the stage (he wanted to see what was going on behind it) and he had to be snagged back by the Blue Gingko’s dad, who assured him it would be his turn to be in the puppet show next year. Next the classes gathered together and greeted the other classes. And then it was time to go home.

Of course, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without another snafu. Some people took the wrong packets with them on their way out. Beth was beyond frustrated.

But it was the eve of the biggest December snowfall in the history of the Washington region and Beth loves snow about as much as I love the beach. We woke this morning to seven inches of pristine, white snow. It snowed all day and by evening, we had eighteen and half inches on our patio table. Beth took the kids out to play and then Noah spent a good bit of the day sledding with Sasha’s family and then again in our backyard. June tramped around in snow up to her waist and enjoyed sledding down our little hill, crying “Again! Again! Again!” When she was too cold to continue, I snuggled with her under blankets and we read six of the seven Curious George stories in The Complete Adventures of Curious George. Later in the day, I took her out in the snow again. Beth designed and printed our holiday cards and heroically shoveled the walk (two times!). I made some very tasty bulgur burgers and roasted potatoes for dinner.

When I went into the kids’ room to tuck June in, I found her kneeling on the bed, looking out at the snow through parted curtains. Even with the frustrating shopping outing and mounting work and school committee stress, it was still a holly jolly two days.