Paper Christmas

Every year, Dan and Miss G & I head to Tucson to celebrate Christmas with my folks and my siblings. But Miss L spends Christmas with her Mom’s family, so we do a separate celebration for our immediate foursome. Or at least, we try. Shifting custody schedules and other-parent-snarkiness have combined to make Christmas pretty squirrely at our house. The annual uncertainty of when or how we’ll manage to celebrate has been the only holiday tradition we’ve managed so far, something that deeply offends my Christmas vibe. It’s hard to feel merry and grouchy at the same time.

I should have learned to roll with this kind of thing by now. God knows nothing else in our lives is peaceful or settled. But I grew up in a family that was serious about its traditions, especially at Christmas, which makes all this vague ambiguity that much harder for me to accept. Like moving from bedrock to marshlands.

Last year it came to a head-- no time during the winter break when we’d have both kids, leaving us with no family Christmas at all. Thanksgiving was the only weekend we’d for sure have both kids. But we already had plans to hit Fresno over Thanksgiving; how could we get back in time for Christmas the same weekend?

Then I came up with Surprise Christmas. I painted a Christmas tree on kraft paper and made paper ornaments, then hid them in a mailing tube under the camping gear along with wrapping paper and stockings.

We stopped at a hotel on the way back from California. I donned a jingly reindeer headband, Dan his Santa hat, and we unfurled the tree and hung it on the hotel room wall. We did all the shopping early and brought the presents along; the kids did their gift wrapping in the hotel room, surrounded by Elvis’s Blue Christmas and twinkling lights. They hung up the paper ornaments and sang carols. Santa even came in the night and crammed stockings full.

I’ve never seen either kid so excited.

On the surface, we got our Christmas. I guess. I mean, it had all the important elements of a ‘real’ Christmas-- family togetherness, lights, carols, presents. But despite the kids’ (and Dan’s) obvious delight, I felt depressed by the farce. It was a poor second to celebrating Christmas together for real. I mean-- a paper Christmas tree, for pete’s sake? Come on.

In the year since then, my perspective changed entirely; turns out it’s the most successful family Christmas we’ve had yet. The kids have asked-- multiple times-- if we’re having the paper tree again, and kept asking when would Christmas happen, starting around October. They were grumbly to hear Christmas was going to be a planned event this year instead of sprung on them unsuspecting. There’s been nothing but “Remember when” about last year’s Christmas; none of our other Christmases have been reminisced over even once.

Some traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Some develop slowly, build up over time. And some spring forth fully-formed, armed and ready for battle-- like Athena from the head of Zeus.

So, even though our celebration this year is marred by Dan’s radiation treatment, even though we’ll have to stay an arm’s length away from him while hanging our ornaments and opening presents, I can’t wait for our day. I plan on doing more than just celebrating-- I plan to revel.

I really, really love Christmas. There are a zillion movies about Christmas spirit and I cry at all of them. But nothing taught me the lesson so hard as last year-- that Christmas is where you find it. That Christmas traditions are accessories, not the foundation. That sometimes you have to make your own Christmas, even if it’s only out of paper. And sometimes, those are the most sacred of all.


Back to (Christmas) Basics

By the time we get to our foursome family Christmas, it’s Christmas #2 or #3 for the girls. They get so many presents that giving them yet more stuff feels like futility. Futility overlaid with a slight slime of one-upmanship.

I don’t want our gifts in competition with Miss G’s new digital camera from one of her other Christmases, or Miss L’s new Wii from one of hers. It’s fine if grandparents or other parents want to spend that much money. But I don’t.

It drags us to the edge of a black hole-- every year spending more and more, trying to find something nicer/more expensive/more memorable than last year, something better and more loved than presents received elsewhere. I don’t want Christmas to be about that.

So this year, when Miss L’s list started off with a $500 cell phone and an iPod touch, and Miss G included an electric scooter on hers-- I decided, this has to stop. Lists like that feel... well, ugly. Entitled. These are words I want to keep out of Christmas. More upsetting is when Miss L started to read me her Christmas list, then stopped, flipped to page two and said, “Well, I’ll read you the less expensive stuff first.” Yowch.

Then I thought, I refuse to feel guilty over this. There is no earthly reason I should spend more on a single present than all my other Christmas shopping combined.

We’re not stingy at Christmas. Even last year, with neither of us working and drowning in legal fees, the kids didn’t feel any lack. Except the lack of celebrating it together. Having that taken away from us was devastating. So this year and all years to come, the togetherness will be the most sacred part of our holidays.

Miss L’s assumption that we wouldn’t spend that kind of money on Christmas presents is absolutely correct. And you know what? I’m taking it even farther. I’m gonna be proud of it. I’m bringing the spirit back to our celebration. Let the kids’ other Christmases be about piles of stuff, stuff and more stuff. Ours is gonna be about handmade presents, stringing cranberries and popcorn, making cookies and gingerbread houses. The stuff, anyone can buy that anywhere. The traditions, the memories, being a family-- we build that all on our own. Together.



I miss footie pajamas and sippy cups. Parenting was clearer then.

Definitions have smudged over the past few months-- how much eyeshadow is okay for a 12-year-old to wear; how much visible cleavage is okay for an almost 12-year-old. (Very little and none, respectively.)

We're at the edge of exponential complication, lingering over a last cup of hot cocoa before the hurricane of two teenagers strikes with full force. No one's screaming that they hate us or slamming any bedroom doors. Yet. But it's coming. The air's thick with hormones and dichotomy.

They wanted to see Tangled, the latest animated Disney movie. At the rate things are becoming lame around here, I would not have predicted that. They ditched us, of course, sat somewhere in the back. But after, they held our hands all the way back out to the car-- one in her push-up bra and skinny jeans, one in her cargo pants and fuchsia eye shadow. They'll be taller than me by next year.

From the inside, this age was miserable. From the outside, it is magical-- watching them take grown-up out and try it on, twirling around in it. They are so beautiful in their alternating uncertainty and fearlessness; they are luminous with awkward grace.

And then, just as fast, the grown-up is all put away. There is not a word for this, for these women-dipped girls-- not quite ready to let go of who they were a minute ago, hesitantly brushing up against who they'll become. Contradictions ravage them at breakneck speeds.

We brace ourselves with arms wide open.


Single Parenting Salute

I’m doing this internet Secret Santa thing and after some (minor) internet stalking, I think my giftee is a single dad. This makes me want to send him about three times as much stuff as I originally planned, plus an entire extra box of stuff just for his kid.

Because it’s tough. It’s so tough, I couldn’t comprehend how hard it was until recently. When you’re in it, you just do it. But watching my sister with her daughter, how busy she is, knowing Miss G was at least that busy at the same age and I was doing it solo-- I don’t understand how I got through it. How we both did. I remember people asking me at the time, “How do you do it!” and I remember shrugging and saying “It’s not that big a deal.” And I really thought it wasn’t. It was just my life. And I was happy, and I loved it.

Miss G’s dad’s absence was a blessing. It made things easier on us, not harder. And in many, many ways I had it made. Although my folks were no longer in town, I had a village of friends helping me, an army of benevolence at my disposal. I had a generous grandpa who let me live in his home rent-free while he moved into semi-assisted living. I had scads of free grants to go back to school, enough to cover tuition and daycare entirely. I took out a loan anyway and just lived off that during the school year, then worked summers. Living off less than $1000/month was challenging, yes. But I’d always been so broke, it wasn’t a whole lot more challenging than usual.

And I remember those years as being blissed out. Challenging, but hilarious. Miss G and I call them our ‘glory years.’ But with newly married perspective, I realize-- it was a big deal. So big I couldn’t see the edges. I thought I stood on solid ground but I was really treading water, neck-deep. And the longer we swam solo, the more exhausted I got. The chances of a passing boat seeing us splash around got slimmer and slimmer.

But I didn’t know all that. We just lived our life. Our movies. Our Zelda-playing. Our pizza-ordering. Our long walks and longer drives, screaming along to Jackson 5 with the windows rolled down.

Not until I met Dan and he so effortlessly stepped in to help me with Miss G from time to time-- volunteered daycare when he wasn’t working, never gave me exasperated attitude if I canceled on him because she had the flu, offered her shoulder-back rides everywhere without her asking, was just there with his comforting presence and his stupid one-liners and his gentle heart-- did I realize how much easier it was with two.

I stumbled into my Santa’s old online journal entries about moving here and there with his daughter. He mentions his roommate , and I imagine the challenges of this little girl growing up with a couple computer nerds. (I say that lovingly). He mentions dating, and I can’t get into the horrors of dating as a single parent because this is a blog, not a novel. He’s posted grinning, freckled photos of her smiling over food and I wonder if she made it herself, or if he’s teaching her to cook. There’s one of her gamely yanking carpet out of her room, so he’s teaching her some remodeling too. Excellent.

Australian Secret Santa, hang in there. It gets easier as she gets older. I salute you.

PS, Thank God again for Dan.