When I was a little boy, I could never sleep through Christmas Eve. I always awoke from fiery dreams at about two or three in the morning. Once, I thought I heard hoofs on our roof and forced myself back to sleep lest I broke the promise all little kids make to never jeopardize magic. So strong was my belief that when I was seven and discovered a cache of goodies in my mother’s bedroom closet three days before Christmas, I convinced myself even after those same toys landed under our tree with a note from Santa that it really was his doing–just in a really odd way.
I brought that same conviction into our Catholic church on Sundays. I was an altar boy who knew the Latin Mass by heart and shook the bells on cue–never late–as though the future of heaven depended on it. I think the amazing thing about children, even the big ones, is their willingness to believe in the unseen and challenge the unspoken. They are born somehow with antennas rising not so much from their heads as their hearts. They want to hold and be held, love and be loved, miss and be missed. The more I teach, the more I understand it really is that simple and that hard.
Our children, now grown, are home for Christmas. Somehow, no matter where they all are in their lives, they always make room for that. The house, as usual, is ablaze with creches and elves and wreathes and a real live tree–the biggest I could find. My mother bought most of the ornaments years ago, and they shimmer in a corner of the house my in-laws purchased with their lives.
I find myself missing so many things this time of year, even as I rejoice in all I have. My eldest daughter’s train arrived at 9:35 PM on Sunday. I swooped her up and convinced her to come with me to this karaoke place I love. I have taken here there a few times in the past few years, and I always enjoy showing her off. She is a wonderful singer and a natural performer. More than a few faces in that familiar crowd said she gets it from me. They watched my luminous face as she sang; they silently clapped when we danced. “Man,” one buddy said, “you’re the O.G. You and your daughter got it like that?”
My middle daughter and her dog Mia arrived from California on Monday afternoon. She is a consummate bargain hunter and found a cheaper flight, but we will have to forgo our ritual of buying the tree together. On Saturday, I drove to our usual tree buying spot, but the lot was empty. A man in the neighborhood told me new owners had decided to do something else with the land. I frantically hunted on line for a new space, all the while hearing my daughter’s voice reminding me to find a full, happy tree that would do our memories justice.
Her mom picked her up while I completed my customary last-minute grocery shopping for Tuesday’s dinner. I decided to go traditional: mac-n-cheese, collards, butterflied turkey, pot roast, scalloped potatoes, corn bread pudding, sweet potato souffle, apple/cranberry stuffing, and homemade gravy. It is a menu my mother and mother-in-law would love.
Our youngest left her nearby apartment yesterday to spend a few days with all of us. She is a teacher like me. Her students are just beginning their academic life while mine are nearing the end of their high school goal post. I enjoy listening to her ideas, and the way she shares herself. But, try as I might, I cannot fully remember being that young, though I do recall the optimism and the doubts.
No matter the age, we all have them both–optimism and doubts. Some of my students shushed me last Thursday when I dared to make a weak allusion to the misinterpreted Mayan doomsday prediction, as though merely mentioning it might make it so. In the exams for both my sophomores and seniors, I asked them to annotate and dissect an excerpt from President Obama’s address at the memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims. I wanted them not only to display their close reading talents, but also to consider the impact of the President’s words. Young people today–and maybe always–are not blind to the darker sides of life. I suppose the job of adults, especially teachers, is always remind them of the light.
If Christmas day runs true to form, I will oversleep and start dinner a little later than I should. Then, while I did get a head start and reviewed my shopping list twice, invariably I will discover some key ingredient I forgot to buy. I will scramble and focus and improvise, and sometime around 6 PM, dinner will be served.
I will say a prayer before we eat, as I always do. Usually, it is short because everyone is hungry, and we all got up early to open presents together. But I want to say something more this year. I want to tell them how lucky I am to be doing what I love–and I want to remind them to seek the same. I want to show them somehow what a blessing they have been to me and their mother. I did not have a father to watch as I grew into manhood, and there have been many times when I have fallen short. But I want them to understand how warm I am to have them all here and home again.
We are the fortunate–and that is something we must ever forget, especially on nights like this.