Occupy Christmas

Day 1: Christmas Eve

My mom had a full house for Christmas—she and my stepfather, our family of four, my sister Sara, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl, their twenty-something kids Emily and Blake, Emily’s five-year-old son Josiah and her friend Sir. We were nearly the last ones there, arriving in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve day. Everyone was there but Sir, who was taking an evening train, so things were hopping right from the beginning. Peggy and Darryl live in Idaho and Emily, Blake and Josiah recently moved from Boise to Brooklyn so I don’t see them often. Right after we walked in the door I tried to introduce June to everyone, and, despite having seen recent pictures of him, I misidentified my cousin Blake. In my defense, his hair is much shorter than in the pictures. Later I told Beth I was glad to have gotten the most embarrassing moment over right out of the gate. And then my uncle got me and Beth mixed up, so maybe we’re even.

Mom and Jim’s house was beautifully decorated for Christmas, as it always is. There were evergreen garlands and big ribbons on the porch railing and the stairway and mantel. Mom had poinsettias on either side of the fireplace and her Dickens village (http://www.department56.com/content.aspx?cid=VLDV&ms=PRD&msi=58999) was on display, as was her Santa collection. Because she and my stepfather are planning to move to Oregon some time in the next year and she wants to lighten her load, she let Sara and the kids pick a few Santas to take home when we left. (June, who knows a thing or two about grandmothers, talked Mom up from two to four. Noah initially declined the offer and then changed his mind and picked two.)

We spent the afternoon getting re-acquainted (or in some cases acquainted). The adults talked and wrapped presents. June and Josiah drew on a big tablet Mom gave them (a superhero for him, a nutcracker and elephant and assorted other things for her). Then they chased each other around the house pretending to be zombies, because nothing says Christmas like five year olds shouting, “I’ve already eaten your brain!” and “No, you haven’t!” June showed off for Emily and Blake by counting to one hundred in Spanish. (There was a repeat performance for a larger audience on Christmas day and then Sara counted to twenty in Italian.) Sara asked if Noah was too old for her to read to him and he said no and produced a 39 Clues book. At one point I rounded up the kids and we rolled out the gingerbread dough we’d brought and cut cookies. Josiah was quite skilled at it and turned out perfect cookie after perfect cookie. I didn’t cut too many cookies myself because the kids kept me busy with requests for greased cookie sheets and more dough and help transferring cookies to sheets. I credit Lesley with giving me the confidence to take on a messy project with my kids plus a boy I’d just met.

We had chili for dinner (Sir arrived while we were eating) and put a very tired June to bed. Then after more wrapping, stocking stuffing and note-from-Santa writing (Noah helped me with this chore) we went to bed, too, a bit past our bedtimes.

Day 2: Christmas Day

It’s hard to sleep in a house with thirteen people. There were people still up and conversing at 1:20 a.m. and people up for the day at 5:30 a.m. (that would be our crew). There were people sleeping on under-inflated air mattresses and sofa cushions on the floor. I actually slept in a bed so it would be churlish to complain about my night’s sleep, but it was an awfully early start to the day. Noah crept downstairs at 6:00 a.m. (when he was allowed out of bed) and came back up to report Blake was sleeping on the living room floor, at which point we realized we’d need to wait for him to wake up before the kids could open their stockings. Sara was sleeping in the sunroom, which was separated from our room only by a pair of French doors so we needed to keep the kids both quiet and in the dark. There was nowhere we could speak above a whisper or turn on a light. People were sleeping everywhere. Technology, in the form of Beth’s iPhone and Noah’s iPod, came to the rescue and the kids were amazingly quiet until we heard Josiah downstairs at 7:30 and present-opening commenced.

Mom and I had talked ahead of time about how to open presents. We usually open gifts one at a time, taking turns in a pre-set order, youngest to oldest. I’ve always liked the ceremonial aspect of this, and being able to see people’s responses to gifts. But with so many people and so many presents we knew it wouldn’t work this year. This pleased Beth because her family has a more free-for-all style and our way sometimes makes her antsy. We put Noah in charge of handing out presents and people opened them as they got them and mine all piled up at my feet as I tried not to miss anything, but of course I did and for days afterward I was still finding out what people got from each other. (This in my mind illustrates the superiority of the traditional method.) But even in the accelerated version, it still took until nine a.m. to finish. The kids got too many gifts to list, but Santa came through with the mermaid doll for June and Noah got the headphones he wanted. I got a refurbished iPod nano, some Starbucks gift cards and candy and a book (http://classiclit.about.com/od/poeedgarallan/fr/aa_poeshadow.htm) and other nice things. Beth and I got and a mixer and a cutting board and I got her a shoe rack because the shoes that are always in a jumbled heap in the hallway get on her nerves. At one point during the present opening, Mom looked out the window and noticed frost on the grass. “It’s a white Christmas,” she concluded, but Beth said frost didn’t count.

We had brunch around ten—scrambled eggs, English muffins, bacon, veggie sausage and grapefruit. Mom and Jim’s dining room gets a lot of late morning light in the winter, and during the meal, she leaned back in her chair and said, “I’m feeling happy now in the sun with all you here and my dining room walls.” (They are newly painted gold.) The rest of the day passed pleasantly. June got a lot of art kits for Christmas. She assembled the picture of the princess and the winged unicorn you construct out of glittery puffy stickers on a wooden frame. Sara helped her with the magnetic mosaic kit while I cracked hazelnuts for Christmas dinner stuffing. Then Beth, Emily, Noah and I played Forbidden Island (http://gamewright.com/gamewright/index.php?section=games&page=game&show=245), one of Noah’s gifts from Mom, a very fun and complicated co-operative game. Afterward June and I took a much-needed nap, and then I read You Have to Stop This (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10757817-you-have-to-stop-this) to Noah. (This was one of his gifts from me). He was starting to feel sick and about forty minutes into the book he went to the bathroom and threw up. He spent the rest of the day in bed, listening to an audio book, and falling asleep early. He missed Christmas dinner, but we saved him some cranberry sauce and a roll, since those are his favorite parts of the meal. We listened to some of Sir’s original music and had pie (two kinds- apple and mixed berry) before Sir had to catch a train back to New York. And then we were twelve.

Day 3

The next morning Noah had made a complete recovery. He ate a big breakfast and before he was finished, June was hard at work on more art kits. She painted the paint-by-numbers butterfly (eschewing the numbers and making her own design). Before some of the late risers we up, she’d finished this and started on a mask from the mask kit—a queen, with red glasses, blond hair, red hair ribbons and a gold crown with green jewels (she used up almost all the jewels on her first mask).

As Peggy, Darryl, Emily and I sat at the breakfast table in the next room, Darryl looked up from the newspaper and asked the table at large to guess the official word of the year. We all stared back at him silently. “If you think about it you’ll guess,” he predicted encouragingly.

Suddenly it came to me. “Occupy,” I answered, knowing I was right and I was. We’d been discussing the Occupy movement the night before so it was in the front of my mind, but I think spending Christmas in such a fully occupied house might have helped, too.

The house gradually emptied. The day after Christmas was quieter because people spun off on separate expeditions. Mom and Peggy took June and Josiah to the Please Touch Museum (http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/), where it was reported they had fun and got along very well. Beth and Noah went out to lunch, as did Sara with a friend from high school and her husband, leaving me to read one hundred pages of my new book in a single day (something which would not have been unusual, say eleven years ago, but is now). When Sara returned, she and I went for a walk down by the creek and through Mom’s neighborhood, talking about work, and life in general. I haven’t seen her in a year and a half so it was really nice to have a long chat with her. When we got back to the house, Noah, Blake and Beth were playing another game of Forbidden Island and then Beth, Emily and Blake played Q-bitz (http://www.mindware.com/p/Q-bitz/44002), another Christmas present. Noah elected to play with own side game with the pieces because he didn’t want the time pressure of needing to race against other players.

We all came back together for a stir-fry dinner. While Mom and her helpers were cooking, I gave June a bath and Josiah made a mask for June, “a girl mask,” he specified. As I set the table, I kept inventing errands for June (take this toy upstairs, find out what people want to drink) because I was trying to keep her out of the family room, where a war movie was playing on television. Finally I ran out of ideas and had to tell her to stay out of the room. She was not pleased, and neither was Josiah when Emily took similar action shortly afterward. Fortunately, dinner was ready soon after and then it was June’s bedtime.

Day 4

Two days after Christmas, Sara and Peggy’s branch of the family left for parts North and West. That morning was nearly as challenging as Christmas morning, though without the need to distract children awaiting presents. They woke nearly as early as they did on Christmas and other people slept later, so I was shushing them from 6:00 a.m. until 8:45 when Beth and I gave up on keeping them quiet and went out breakfast, leaving the kids in Emily’s capable hands. Shortly before we left, I put my hand on Noah’s back and said, “A little quieter, please.”

“Sorry,” he answered. “I’m not a quiet person.”

While June and Josiah made yet more masks, Beth and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and a nice talk at the Regency Café (http://www.regencycafe.com/). One of the advantages of a houseful of relatives is abundant babysitting.

When we returned the kids were playing June’s new Cat in the Hat game (http://www.icandothatgames.com/cat/), which segued into Hexbugs (http://www.hexbug.com/). When Peggy’s crew left, the house felt strangely quiet and empty, considering there were still seven of us in it. Mom sank into a chair, looking done in and said, “It was a good Christmas.” Sara gave June a parting gift of French braids and left for the airport. And then we were six.

We spent a quiet afternoon and evening. While June and I napped, Mom played Forbidden Island with Noah (I’m thinking he likes this game) and afterward we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns on Mom and Jim’s big-screen television, which gave us the opportunity to compare the detail work on the animation (the older one is better, especially the snowflake effects). The irony of watching programs about snow while rain pelted the roof was not lost on me.

Day 5

Three days after Christmas the last of the occupiers left Mom and Jim’s house, leaving it calmer, quieter, and tidier no doubt, but perhaps a bit lonelier. Mom has always told me she’s dreamed about having a full house at Christmas (often in the context of wanting more grandchildren) so I’m glad she got her wish. I think it was a Christmas we’ll all remember.

p.s. If you were at my Mom’s house and you’re reading this, please feel free to Occupy the comments section. I would love to hear from you (and also those of you who weren’t there).