It is the day after Christmas. Rebecca, Alex and Eli left this morning to go back to Vancouver and a Boxing Day dinner with his parents. Four days of life revolving around our four month old grandson who, like his mother, requires relatively little sleep and has no qualms about expressing his feelings when he is unhappy; grandchildren are parents’ payback.
With their departure, the house is thunderingly quiet. We turn our attention to final preparations for our trip to Ecuador; we fly out of Seattle tomorrow night. Most of the work is already done, mostly by Trueda, so we can be leisurely about it.
I’ve been thinking about Christmases past. For most of my childhood, it was just me and my mom. I never knew my father; he died a few weeks before I was born. I had a sister, but she had died a year before that. My brother left home when I was five. I don’t know how my mom pulled it together and made it work. But she did; she was a tough old bird. She build a new life around me.
It was only much later that I realized how poor we were. How she stretched every penny to make the money last until the end of the month and the arrival of the next social security check. How she must have spent many sleepless nights worrying about how to pay for a new roof, or replace a dying furnace, or a hundred and one other expenses for which there just wasn’t enough money. Somehow she kept all that from me. This was especially true at Christmas time.
One Christmas in particular stands out in my memory. A kind of stand-in for all the Christmases of my childhood (and possibly a conflation of several Christmases, which is how memory works sometimes). Many brightly wrapped presents sat under the tree that Christmas Eve. To this day I don’t know why we always did the gift thing on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Amongst the many gifts — nearly all of them for me — was a model train set. It was a simple oval with an engine and a few cars. I fell in love with it, and to this day retain a kind of delightful awe in the present of model trains setups. There was also a Lincoln Log set, which let me build pretty much whatever I could imagine. And there was a book: A Dog On Barkham Street. It was the first of a series of books I would receive every month for the entire year.
I played with the train set, and with the Lincoln Logs. Then I went to bed with my book. I stayed up for hours reading that book. My mom came into the room a couple of times to remind me that it was past time to turn out the lights and go to sleep. She gave up. Maybe she sensed that something magical was happening.
I don’t remember what the story was about, but it was my first encounter with a fully fleshed out work of fiction, my first encounter with the power of story-telling to draw you into another world and convince you it is real, my first encounter with how story-telling could make characters become so real and alive that you don’t want the book to end because you don’t want them to leave. Of all the Christmas gifts I received as a child, that was surely the most wonderful (wonder-ful, full of wonder) one. It changed my life. I think I must have been eight years old.
Trueda and I were always careful to ensure that Joshua and Rebecca got books each Christmas. In fact, we surrounded them with books all year. We taught them that they could learn anything, go anywhere, and become anyone they wanted — through books. I like to think this is part of the reason that they both found their way into PhD programs.
This Christmas we gave Eli a cloth book with big bold drawings of animals. He grabbed it (he is just learning that he can actually make his tiny hands grab things), and tried to stuff it into his mouth. It was much too big. So he had to settle for rubbing his face against it. Later, I sat with him in my lap and we looked at the pictures. He would focus on one, furrow his eyebrows, and after a few seconds would turn on his thousand watt smile and laugh. Then we would repeat this with the next animal. It turned out to be the highlight of his Christmas. He is holding it in one of the pictures above.
It has been a good Christmas. Trueda and I have so much to be grateful for. I hope your Christmas has been as full of wonder as ours.