Time to Enjoy the Gifts that Matter

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas has come and gone, and it was among the most easygoing holidays that I have remembered in recent years, because we did four things differently.

1. Our family, which includes five adult children and one teenager, decided to do a “secret Santa” instead of scrambling to buy gifts for everyone. That meant each of us was on the hook for one or two reasonably priced gifts for just one other person. Most were ordered online. We exchanged these gifts on Christmas Eve, and followed with a festive dinner and British-style “crackers” that dispensed small trinkets and silly paper crowns, which we wore with unabashed gusto.

2. We skipped writing out Christmas cards, sending out e-cards instead. I think I sent one to everybody, but I may have missed someone and if it was you I apologize. Some might call e-cards tacky and lazy, and yet another sign that technology is like General Sherman for thoughtful customs, and they are probably right. But what was interesting is that in years past we would always get a flood of paper cards about a week after we sent out ours. The flood did not happen this year, so now I know who has us on their B list! And that’s perfectly OK.

3. I baked only one batch each of two types of cookies. Neither required rolled dough or intense decorating involving tweezers or piped-on icing. The dough was just plopped onto a baking sheet, and finished result did not look like a holiday catalog from Williams Sonoma. Lightning didn’t strike. And fortunately, we received many fine-looking cookies as gifts from cooks with more patience and steadier hands. We proudly served these to visitors, and I beamed graciously when complimented.

4. We posted only half the photos to Facebook that we’d normally post, after a very candid conversation with our kids about how a focus on capturing the moment prevents us from enjoying the moment. Next year, I hope to post only one photo, or maybe even none. We don’t need Facebook to show ourselves or others that we are having a great time, but I did include two of the photos here.

Christmas is receding as swiftly as a port viewed from a catamaran, and pretty soon it will be a mere speck on our consciousness before it disappears. Like everyone else, we feel that having our children at home with us was the best gift of the season. Keeping the rest simple helped us do this. It was not easy to avoid falling into the trap of frantic, guilty shopping; of writing out scores of cards and baking dozens of elaborate cookies; of over-sharing on Facebook because “that’s what people do” at Christmas. The result is that the good feelings from the past holiday, the pleasure we had from being together, will linger long after the last of the decorations are put away.

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

The Art of De-Christmasing

Christmas has been buried at our house. The tree is at the end of the driveway, awaiting the hearse. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christmas has been buried at our house. The tree is at the end of the driveway, awaiting the hearse. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years my enthusiasm for full-blown Christmas displays has declined. This year was the simplest one yet. We did not have a big party as we have in years past. We put up a tree and decorated it with white lights and beloved ornaments, including a new one bearing the likeness of our new miniature dachshund. While we have at least a dozen cottages, mansions and stores in our porcelain Christmas village, and dozens more miniature people and street lamps, this year we just put out a few.

That made it very easy to de-Christmas this year. Yesterday my mom and I listened to Andrea Boccelli sing Christmas songs one last time as we took the ornaments off the tree. Then my husband and I dragged the tree out the back door like a dead body – think Scarlett and Melanie dragging the Yankee soldier – as it left a trail of dehydrated needles. It seems like a heartbeat ago that we were picking it out at the garden center — as always, debating the merits of balsam vs. frazer — and the kids were decorating it with ornaments that date back decades. Now it sits forlornly at the end of the driveway, stripped of its baubles like a bankrupt debutante, waiting for the Boy Scouts to pick it up Saturday. But I am ready for a fresh start.

The house has been cleaned top to bottom; the white candles, porcelain Santas and Christmas villages packed away in plastic tubs; and everything looks as fresh and pristine as the snow outside our windows. The hubbub of Christmas is over and the social calendar is clear until Super Bowl Sunday.

While I know better now than to make resolutions I can’t keep, this quiet time of year allows for some introspection. Here are some of the things I hope to do better in 2013.

  • Listen more, instead of chomping at the bit to jump in with my own observations.
  • Be less petty. Try to see the good in people. Be less cynical.
  • Eat better. I’m trying to recover from binging on holiday cookies and hors d’ oeuvres but it’s tough not to want hearty stews, casseroles, tuscan bread and noodle soups.
  • Make more time for friends and family who really need me. Be less self-centered and more tuned in to what others need.
  • Take piano lessons so that I can get out of my playing rut and reverse longstanding bad habits.
  • Resume Rosetta Stone sessions in Spanish
  • Write more often, and post more blogs
  • Enjoy the inspiring posts of my terrific blogging friends

Happy New Year to all my readers!!!

Can We Please Have a Breather Before Christmas?

While many nearby homes are already fully in the holiday spirit, we’re neither here nor there.

Our first snowfall was yesterday. I brought our dog Gus outside for some fresh air and marveled as he saw snow for the first time. He held out his tongue to catch the flakes and drank lustily from the pools of melting snow below our downspouts. Only about two inches fell, but it clung prettily to the branches, shrubs and mailboxes.

The snow was beautiful but it was another unwelcome reminder that fall is over and I’d better get my ass in gear soon for Christmas. Around our town a few organized souls have already done so. As soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were cleared away, electric candles miraculously appeared in each window, garland sprouted around the garage and tasteful white lights on every tree and shrub. On Thanksgiving day we saw at least three cars topped with trussed dead firs driving by. I am still upset that millions of people cut Thanksgiving short to wait in line to buy holiday junk at Walmart.

At our house, two large pumpkins, beginning to soften with age, still sit on our doorstep. Yesterday’s snowfall has given them fluffy white hats. We’ve been too lazy busy for our annual late November tradition of smashing them in the woods, at the same place where countless pumpkins have been slain in years past. While I’ve added a wreath to the front door – only because I had ordered them from our local Boy Scout, who delivered them before Thanksgiving — the pumpkins are still there, as out of place as uninvited Christmas party guests.

We need a breather — a few days or even a week of stillness — between the fall holidays and the winter ones. Just a few days to decompress from the Halloween candy and the tryptophan coma, to pull out the dead chrysanthemums and smash the rotting pumpkins, to sweep away the last of the leaves, to appreciate the barren beauty of the unincorporated territory between holidays. A few days to rest the brain, wallet and soul before December’s shopping, glitz and revelry. Who’s with me?

Too Many Cookies, and Other Post-Christmas Hangover Notes

The holiday that seemed to come upon us like a tinseled tsunami is now over.

It was a wonderful holiday – filled with warmth and laughter, too much food and drink, the bustle of shopping and wrapping, and most of all the presence of our family.

But now the tree is starting to look a little tired and its needles sprinkle when touched; some nights we forget to turn on the candles in the window. A battalion of empty wine and beer bottles now stands guard next to our recycling bin.

We still have too many cookies and no appetite for them. They no longer have the same appeal they had when they were baking in the oven, infusing the house with Christmas warmth. Even the cookie tin with the Santa on it couldn’t keep them from getting stale. The red and green sprinkles look weary, like someone who slept all night in her makeup. I’ve tucked a few dozen into the freezer, figuring that we might feel like having them again in April. Wish there were a foolproof method for matching supply with demand for cookies.

The wind is keening outside; I feel sleepy all the time; and just want to live on vegetables and soup. It’s just a case of post-holiday letdown.

Today when we woke up I noticed that our second floor hallway was sunnier than it had been for a week. That’s because the bedroom doors are no longer shut because our grown children are no longer sleeping behind them. Ben, Rachel B and Jesse have gone back to their apartments near Boston; Rachel F returned to San Diego on Monday and I dropped Ryan off at the airport yesterday for his trip back to London.

I miss that darkened hallway; the messy pile of Christmas gifts that have now been dispersed to Boston, California and Europe; the laughter that we could hear downstairs when we went to bed and the kids reveled until the wee hours; the medusa of X-Box wiring in our family room.

Yesterday John and I drove Ryan to the airport and listened to his IPhone playlist on the way – Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, lots of unfamiliar club songs. I could picture my son dancing to those songs in some London disco. When we pulled away from the international terminal I plugged in my own phone and switched over to Elton John. Driving west on the Mass Pike, with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” on the SurroundSound, I thought about how independent the kids had become and how the years when they need active parenting are so short. Then all of a sudden they have their own lives, with their own soundtracks that sound so unfamiliar.

A few hours later, John remembered that he had some homework to be completed over the holidays. After some grumbling to myself that the homework never seems to take a vacation, I helped him think out when he was going to complete it. Then I listened to him practice his trombone, which he is supposed to do every day.

“I want to be busier, but not too busy,” he said. “I’m playing too many video games.”

We talked for about 45 minutes on the satisfaction that comes from putting work before pleasure, and of having an optimum amount of busy-ness in our lives. John said he wished he could get better at school or on the trombone by just willing it to happen, without all that hard work. I told him that everybody struggles with that – even adults — and that Middle School was the end of playtime for most kids, and if he committed himself to a schedule for homework and trombone he’d feel better about both.

We unwound by singing the chorus from The Kinks’ song, “Father Christmas,” as the howling wind outside announced that January was on its way.

The Myth of the Perfect Gift

Does anybody else feel a little guilty having to ask their kids what they want for Christmas?

I struggle with this every year since most of our children have grown and moved away. When they were little it was easier. We knew if they coveted a certain toy or game, or which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle was their favorite, or if they wanted the BeeBop or Rock Steady action toy in their stockings, or if they needed pajamas or socks. It was easier to know exactly what would delight them. Well, maybe except for the socks.

But in recent years it’s been harder to find the perfect gift. We listen for hints in every long-distance phone call from Thanksgiving on. We ask questions designed to unearth a nugget of an idea. And when all else feels we ask them outright, feeling a bit guilty that we don’t know instinctively and sad that we are no longer as wired into their lives as we once were.

Sometimes we punt: we give money or a gift card, along with something else to open so it’s not just a stark white envelope on Christmas morning…jewelry, a book, a warm scarf. Choosing that something is an act of faith. Will the book be read? Will the sweater or earrings actually be worn?

Maybe it doesn’t matter if the gift isn’t perfect. In fact, maybe the idea of a perfect gift is just a myth. For Bob and me, the greatest gift of our 2011 holiday season is that all six of our children will be under our roof for the first time in two years. The gift-giving will be wonderful, but it will be a warm tradition rather than a measure of our love. Like the gifts, that love is sometimes imperfect – more frustrating than the mall parking lot on Christmas Eve; more confusing than the clearance rack at Marshall’s; requiring more patience than waiting in the pre-dawn hours for Wal-Mart to open. Sometimes selfishness or pettiness or fatigue makes us behave in ways that don’t appear loving.

But we continue to strive to love as perfectly as we can, and to worry and to want the best for our kids, and to take pride in their accomplishments, and that’s what counts. That love and concern will last far longer than a Lexus with a bow. Even a gift from Nordstrom or Tiffany could not capture it.

Here are some gifts that would be perfect for me if only they could be wrapped:

• Watching my wonderful husband wash dishes after he’s worked a 10-hour day, which he does every night.
• My son Ryan, at age 5, cleaning off my car after a snowstorm while I sipped coffee in the warm house, still wearing my bathrobe. I later discovered he had been using a shovel.
• The happiness we both feel when I rub my daughter Rachel’s back, which I have been doing for the past 25 years.
• Listening to John, 13, and his older bro/idol Ben, 25, laughing and watching wrestling in the other room.
• Our son Jesse’s quiet sense of humor and his kindness and helpfulness.
• The pride we feel in our children’s achievements – such as Rachel B’s new fulltime job, and Rachel F’s “A” in her anatomy class – and in how hard they’ve worked to get there.
• Having our blended family around the same table, playing a symphony on their water glasses and trading many laughs.

Merry Christmas and much love to all my readers!

My Ornamental Journey

Christmas tree ornaments are a reminder of the lives we’ve led.

Each year we pull out the big plastic box in our basement that serves as our Museum of Family History. Within its many cardboard galleries are Christmas tree ornaments that serve as four-inch tour guides, speaking warmly, knowledgeably and nostalgically about our past. Each is an essay about moments in our history, years that were good and not so good, people who’ve come and gone.

I’ve never understood why people wanted a tree with matching ornaments. I remember being at relatives’ homes each Christmas and seeing their tinseled trees filled with ornaments that all looked the same. I looked in wonder because they were dazzling and showy – especially the all-aluminum trees with lights that kept changing color – but as cold as an icycle. I remember being at my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house, where our cousins would join us in stealing tinsel from the tree to lay across the tracks on the model train set, making delicious sparks whenever the train ran over them.

Whatever happened to tinsel, anyhow? Is it even sold anymore?

When we were little my parents wouldn’t decorate the tree until we all were in bed. It was something they did with Santa. The ancient, brittle blown-glass ornaments came out of boxes, dusty from their year in the basement, with the brand name “Coby” on it. As years went by we added our own homemade ornaments to my parents’ collection. At 16, I made a swan from white felt; I think it’s still around here somewhere, more than 40 years later.

Don’t know what ever happened to those early ornaments, but my Mom gave up having a tree many years ago. Now she pulls a fully decorated tabletop tree out of a box and sets it on her dining room table. I can’t see myself ever doing that, but you never know.

My first tree as an adult was at age 26. I was newly engaged and we bought it at a hardware store near Spruce Street in Philadelphia. The apartment-sized fake tree had no ornaments, so I made some, clothespins decorated as members of my first husband’s family. When we divorced I kept some of them because I still loved his family. I got to keep my mother-in-law and sister-in-law; he took his Dad and himself.

When I was a single mom and then a remarried woman with a blended family, decorating our own tree was something that the family did together, sometimes accompanied by our kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends. But over the past few years our grown children have had busy lives in far-flung cities. So this weekend Bob and John and I will place the ornaments on our tree, and we will enjoy a journey through Christmases past.

It’s funny how each of these mute baubles can bring forth enough memories to fill a long essay. For that reason I seldom throw an ornament away, even after it’s broken. Instead, it goes in the back of the tree, away from public view and the need to explain, tucked away like a hidden, private chapel. The bottom of one of my Christmas storage boxes still has shards of spray-painted ziti, broken off from a cardboard tree that one of my children made decades ago.

Here is a timeline of just a few special ornaments. I hope that when you decorate your own tree – or if you’ve already done so – you will take a moment to meditate on these markers from your past, and to remember the people who’ve shared your life. Please upload photos and share memories of your own!

1978, self-portrait as clothespin. I was editing the employee newspaper at The Evening Bulletin at the time. My “dress” here was from a real evening gown I had sewn for myself.

1980 – My in-laws, Susan and Ita Flynn.

1985 — My daughter Rachel’s first Christmas. Ornament from brother Dan and wife Elena.

1987: Business trip to Park City, Utah. Pregnant with Ryan.

1986 — First Christmas in our new home in Broomall, PA.

1987 — Conrail ornament, from when I worked in their Public Affairs Department. Another version showed a steam engine, which some people felt was bad for the company’s image.

1988 — Bell by Jesse Buday, age 6.

1990 — Gift from my Aunt Chick, a woman of great faith and one of the kindest and bravest people I know.

1990 (Approx.) — handmade ornaments by Rachel and Ben Buday

1992 — Wreath by Rachel Flynn

1994 (approx) — From my husband’s former girlfriend, Jan.

Mid 1990s — Ornament by son Ryan, my worldly guy now living in London.

2006 — Ornament by John Buday. Very fragile and hard to hang but we find a way.

2007 — From my wonderful husband, Bob

2011 — Our newest ornament, a gift from my dear Aunt Marilyn. Bought at Martha Clara Vineyards in Long Island, owned by the Entenmann’s pastry family, where we spent a pleasantly buzzed afternoon.