Home for the Holidays

I. Christmas Preparations

Because we didn’t travel this year and the kids had almost two weeks off school, we had a long stretch of time at home, but somehow it seemed to go quickly.

The Saturday before Christmas in between making six trays of gingerbread cookies and a pan of fudge, we binged on Christmas specials. We own a lot and we all had a great pent-up desire to watch them after telling June night after night that we couldn’t because Noah had too much homework, so we watched four in a row, pausing only to deliver gingerbread cookies to friends of the family who were leaving town the next day. We had decided to give away a lot of the cookies and candy we made this year so we could still have a little of everything we usually make but not be overwhelmed with sweets with only the four of us to eat them. This ended up being really fun, making the treats as well as all the little visits.

Sunday we only watched one movie from our stash, but we also went to the American Film Institute to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in a theater, which was great fun. Noah and I read the book when he was nine, but it was June’s introduction to the story, and a pretty good one at that.  I didn’t remember that it was so faithful to the original. After the movie, we discussed similarities between Scrooge and the Grinch. I told June how when she was three and we were watching the How the Grinch Stole Christmas she kept saying over and over, “He is so mean. He is so mean,” and then at the end, surprised, “So now he’s nice?”  Same story, really.

Beth went to work Monday and Tuesday, but Tuesday she only worked a half-day and she took June with her so I could get some work done. Monday the kids and I made buckeyes (chocolate-covered peanut butter balls) and we made deliveries to Sasha’s family and to Megan’s because they live within walking distance and Megan’s family was also heading out of town.

While I was gathering ingredients for the buckeyes, I switched on the radio, heard they were about to play an excerpt from “The Santaland Diaries,” thought about it for a moment, decided Noah was old enough for a mild introduction to David Sedaris, and called him in to listen. The part that really made Noah laugh was when a mother wants the department store elf to tell her child Santa won’t bring presents if he doesn’t behave, but he goes quite a bit further, describing how Santa will steal everything from the house, despite the mother’s urgent attempts to hush him.

On Christmas Eve, Beth made cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I wrapped presents and the kids practiced their homemade production of The Nutcracker, which they performed for us before dinner. (They planned to make a video version on Christmas day, but artistic differences scuttled the project.) We put out gingerbread cookies in the shape of the word “Ho” (Noah made these) for Santa and I went into the garden with a flashlight to pick one of the last carrots for Rudolph because he deserves the best.

II. On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day

On Christmas morning the kids were opening their stockings by 6:00 a.m., the earliest they were allowed out of bed. I’d heard June going to the bathroom two hours earlier and she told me later she thought she’d heard Santa and the reindeer on the roof while she was in there.  Beth and I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and well before 7:30 all the presents were opened. I won’t list them all, but June got books, a skateboard and an American Girl doll (Kaya, the eighteenth-century Native American girl, as well as a box set of books about her and a bunch of accessories). Noah got books, a camcorder, a shirt, gift certificates and a check.  I got books, audiobooks, and gift cards.  Beth got books and a metal thermos that entitles her to 10% off each drink at a local coffee shop. But our main present to each other was to get the kids’ preschool self-portraits framed, only two and a half and seven and a half years after they finished preschool. Better late than never, no?

June and I went to the playground in the afternoon where I sat on a bench and read Doctor Sleep, struggling to turn the pages with my fingers in gloves while June climbed on the rocks by the creek and swung on the swings for a half hour or so. Later Beth and I cooked dinner—mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mushroom-Swiss cheese puff pastry, cranberry sauce and rolls. It was all quite delicious.

Overall, it was a strange day; I was half content, half melancholy about being separated from my family of origin on what would have normally been their turn. I didn’t predict it would be as hard as it was because I don’t feel sad when we’re with Beth’s folks for holidays—it’s what we do half the time, I’m used to it and I enjoy seeing them as well. But whenever anyone posted photos on Facebook from my aunt Peggy’s house in Boise where Mom, Jim, and Sara were staying along with Peggy’s family, I had the feeling we should have been there.

III. Christmas Aftermath

But my mood improved after Christmas day was over. The two days after Christmas June went to an ice skating camp run by the county park system. We thought it would be good to get her out of the house for a couple days so she didn’t end up bouncing off the walls, and also so we could have some time alone with Noah and with each other. Thursday was Noah’s day. We took him into the city, where we went to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips, browsed at Kramerbooks, where he spent some of the Christmas money he got from my mother, and then we went out to lunch.

Friday, Beth and I left the house at 11:30 and we were kid-free for five and half hours.  We delivered more treats (which now included pizelles Beth had made) to families who live in Silver Spring, had lunch at Republic (Takoma Park’s newest restaurant) and then went back to Silver Spring to see Inside Llewyn Davis. It was our second time in that theater in less than a week but I don’t remember the last time Beth and I saw a movie in a theater alone together. It might have been a year ago, or even two. The movie was fun and it felt good, restorative even, having that long block of time together, and made me think we should get a sitter for our first (or twenty-second) wedding anniversary in a little over a week.

Around this point, halfway through break, Noah started doing homework in earnest. Up to then he’d either been enjoying some homework-free days, or working just a few hours a day. I’m sad to say that he spent the last six days of his twelve-day break mostly working. Because he’s taking high school-level algebra and Spanish he has to take countywide standardized tests in those subjects in January and he had a preparation packet for each of those classes. The math didn’t take long, but he was working on the Spanish for four or five days, full days.  I was sad that homework ate up so much of his break, but at least he had some time to relax at the beginning, and he got to go to a movie, and a museum, and I read to him from the fourth and then the fifth book in the Fablehaven series (Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary and Keys to the Demon Prison) every day of break except the very last one.

I worked several days over break, too, but not nearly as hard as Noah did. I’m not even sure what I did the Saturday after Christmas except make our final cookie and candy delivery and take June to another playground where she spun on a merry-go-round and swung on a tire swing until it was so dark out that her blonde hair, jewel-red coat, and the sparkles on her shoes seemed to glow in the winter dusk. And then Sunday I spent an exceedingly slothful day in my pajamas, taking the occasional break from reading one of my own Christmas books to read to the kids from theirs.

However, Monday I roused myself to get dressed and leave the house a few times.  Beth and June went ice-skating at the outdoor rink in downtown Silver Spring and I tagged along to watch.  She really did learn a lot at skating camp.  Over Thanksgiving she was had to hold onto the wall or one of those metal things you push in front of you, but now she can skate by herself and even do a rudimentary twirl. If you are fond of June, this one-minute video is worth watching just for her smile at the end.

We also went to the frame store to drop off the portraits. Going after Christmas turned out to be a good idea. The framer said he’d been swamped right up until Christmas but he did our job in one day.  Finally, I met up with my best friend from graduate school and adjunct days, who was in town visiting her folks.  We had a leisurely chat over tea, coffee, and dessert, and talked about work, kids, marriage—all the things that really matter. Joyce lives in Indiana now and I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was great to reconnect.

The kids both spent time with friends on Tuesday. Sasha came over and he and Noah played a lively game of Forbidden Island, and then started a game of Monopoly. (Does anyone ever finish a game of Monopoly? Sometimes, I suppose, but not often.) Meanwhile, June was at Zoë’s house, and I got a few hours’ work done. We had sparkling apple-grape juice at dinner but that was the extent of our observation of New Year’s Eve.  Everyone was in bed by ten. As someone who doesn’t like to stay up late and doesn’t drink, I have never figured out a good way to celebrate this holiday.

New Year’s Day June had another friend over and I worked some more because Sara was swamped and asked me if I could. Beth was engaged in various cleaning and organizational projects. She hung the pictures and a coat rack, and helped June clean the kids’ room. Earlier in the break she’d organized the Tupperware shelf and straightened some areas of the basement. I was not as ambitious, but I ran some errands and made black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year along with a glazed beet and cranberry salad.

Yesterday the kids were back to school and Beth went back to work.  I used one of the Starbucks gift cards I got for Christmas as an excuse to go read in a quiet place before diving into work myself. I think we all had a good break. Even though I missed seeing my family, sometimes it’s good to tend the home fires.

IV. Bonus Day Off

And that’s how that blog post was going to end, but today, after only one day back at school, the kids were home again. We were just at the edge of that big Nor’easter you’ve probably heard about on the news if you’re not from around these parts. We only got three inches, but it was enough to cancel school and what would have been June’s first basketball practice of the season.

The timing was bad in terms of work, because Sara’s been really busy and I’d hoped to put in a longer day than I did, but it wasn’t going to be a really productive day anyway because I had a dentist appointment to get a new crown. Fortunately, Beth and I share a dentist and we happened to have back-to-back appointments so I brought June into the city, the three of us had lunch together and they we traded June off during our appointments and took the train together as far as Beth’s office, where we parted ways.

That took four hours out of the middle of the day, but I worked before and after. June played in the snow before and after. She made a snow angel and a snow volcano (which she colored with red food coloring so it could appear to have erupted), she went sledding on the little hill in our back yard and she went exploring down the block to see how it looked in the snow. She was outside a long time, considering the temperature never rose above 25 degrees, probably two hours, not counting time spent at bus stops, on train platforms and walking down city streets where the wind rushed as if we were in a canyon.

Noah spent the day at home. He went outside to clear the snow off the car with June and then he took all the ornaments off the tree (which he said made him feel like the Grinch), practiced his drums for two hours, and did some algebra homework.

It wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend the day, but last year around this time I was really, really sick with bronchitis, so anything better than that seems like an improvement.  Happy 2014, one and all!