Christmas is still a few days away, and I’m already feeling anxious. It’s a family tradition.
My mom used to spend weeks shopping for presents my parents couldn’t really afford for five kids. She would wrap them and hide them under her bed or in the trunk of my dad’s car. She would polish silver flatware and bake pies. We all were recruited to decorate a big tree that somehow the dog always knocked over as soon as the ornaments were hung.
When he was feeling ambitious after getting the tree to stand up again, my dad would hang strings of lights on the roof. If not, he’d plant a couple of spotlights with red bulbs in the front yard, aim them to shine on the front of the house and call it good.
They’d be there, frozen in the ground, until April. Wisconsin winters were like that back then.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, my dad would pile all the kids in the car to take us on a tour of the holiday lights in the neighborhood. Mom was left at home to do the dinner dishes, or at least that was the story.
When we arrived home a half-hour or so later, the living room had been transformed into every child’s fantasy. Santa Claus supposedly had arrived and dozens of packages now surrounded the tree.
My dad loved the game more than anyone.
We would drink Tom and Jerrys (alcohol-free versions for the kids) and open our presents. My grandmother would be there to help us celebrate, always delivering cards with a crisp $5 bill inside for each kid.
And by 10 p.m., my mom would be crying.
Weeks of shopping and penny-pinching had produced a brief frenzy that resulted in the usual sweaters and socks, books, a special something for each kid — a transistor radio, new ice skates, a sled — and a giant pile of crumpled wrapping paper and ribbons.
In the end, it was just another mess to clean up.
She hated being in charge of the dream factory.
After my dad died, she refused to do it anymore.
My youngest brother was 9 and had outgrown any Santa Claus fantasies. My older brother was in the Army. I was in college. We pretty much quit the gift-giving orgy cold-turkey.
The gift was time together.
We cooked fancy meals and drank Champagne. We played Tripoli till late at night.
One year we rented a big old house in Silverthorne. This was long before I’d moved to Colorado — I was living in Washington at the time — and even though it wasn’t a holiday with the celebrities in Aspen, it felt very luxe to us.
On Christmas Eve, the furnace crapped out, the temperature in the house plummeted and we had to call the rental agency for help. A repairman arrived and got the big old lunker cooking again and my brothers sent him home full of holiday cheer.
It was a lousy snow season, so the skiing was a disappointment. After struggling with thin snow at Keystone, Copper Mountain and the resort my brothers dubbed “Breckenrock,” the boys decided to take my mom’s Toyota Corolla for a spin (literally) over Berthoud Pass because the word on the slopes was that the snow was better at Winter Park.
Maybe it was. I don’t remember. They made it back to Silverthorne alive, though, which was some kind of Christmas miracle.
At some point that year, everybody gave up trying to ski and went ice-fishing.
None of that mattered.
We were together with a fire in the fireplace, Fred’s jambalaya or maybe his famous bean soup on the stove, and my mom beaming. It was a blast.
Not every Christmas was as big a success as the one in snowless Silverthorne in the 1970s.
In the throes of divorce, Fred spent one alone in a motel in Texas. There were years when I was too broke to travel anywhere. And one year, through bad planning on our part, my mom spent the holiday without any of her kids around to create the magic she had come to appreciate so much.
With the possible exception of that one lonely holiday, she didn’t cry on Christmas Eve anymore. Instead, she reveled in the warmth of great memories.
Until she died at the age of 92, every year she’d tell the stories of the holidays when we’d get together — in Colorado or Oregon or Florida — with grandchildren and assorted current or former spouses, too much food and late nights playing cards.
There was the year we got lost trying to find a rental condo in Sunriver, Ore., and almost missed Christmas Eve. And the year my brothers had too many beers at a bar next to the laundromat when they were supposed to be doing the laundry and brought all the clothes home soaking wet. And the time ….
You get the message.
The present was us, she always said, and she really meant it.
Each year I try to embrace the concept. I try to resist the urge to be the manager of the dream factory.
This year we’ll hang lights on the portable toilet the construction company working on our neighbor’s house thoughtfully planted in front of our living room window. We’ll take treats to the neighbors and maybe bake a pie in Mom’s memory.
We’ll call my brothers and retell the old stories one more time.
And if the snow doesn’t materialize on the slopes, what the heck. We can always go ice-fishing.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.