Wednesday, December 22, 2004

2004 Christmas Story

And the Stockings Were Hung …

I slammed my palm against the steering wheel.


Parking lots had sucked up too much of my day. This time, though I’d followed the yellow arrows dutifully, my compliance hadn’t yielded a spot.

Ten minutes of fruitless weaving and still nowhere to put the car.

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

“Never mind, Jack. Just can’t find a parking spot.”

“There’s one!”

I braked instinctively, sending shopping bags tumbling off the seats. Their contents rattled forward in unison, creating a symphony of small parts. I envisioned Legos, Tinkertoys, Monopoly pieces and Craftsman sockets forming colorful little landscapes all over the minivan floor.

Then I imagined pulling up to the store entrance and pouring every tiny piece into the donation barrel. If everything had spilled, that would be reason enough to cancel Christmas this year.

Instead, I pulled into Jack’s spot and uprighted the bags, stuffing their toppled contents quickly away. The marvel of modern shrink wrap had thwarted my fantasy. The Salvation Army would just have to wait.

“Okay, Jack, you can unbuckle.”

“My Bionicle fell. I want to take him in.”

“No. It’s getting dark, hurry up.”

Jack jumped down from his seat and got on all fours, insistent on locating the rogue toy.

“Jack, LET’S GO!”

“Wait, Mom. It’s right here…”

“We’ll do it the hard way, then,” I said and pulled him from the van.

In the time it took me to close the doors and zip my purse, Jack had forgotten our dispute. He had, in fact, already turned into an airplane.

“Look Mom, I’m flying!”

I timed my steps to meet his as he emerged from between two parked cars, and caught a hand on the end of his outstretched wing-arm.

“C’mon, Jack. Stop it.” I felt more like a traffic cop with this child than a parent, constantly urging him as I was, to hurry up, slow down, stop, go, wait. “He’s a five year old boy.” My husband reminded me whenever I complained. “That’s what five year old boys do.” I figured all males had been born into a surreptitious pact which required performing wild, unceasing movements designed to crack their mother's ability to hang on to their wits. I was close but, for the moment, still unbroken.

He was still at the end of my arm, wiggling for all his worth and no doubt conjuring up his next antic. Considering we were approaching the entrance of the store, I was certain it involved the automatic doors.

Finishing three last items, then going home to somehow turn the hamburger I’d forgotten to thaw into spaghetti sauce were the next items on the list I’d been composing in my head all day. Chasing my five year old through Target was not.

“You, my friend, are going in the cart.”

“But Mama …”

I hated the thought of putting him in the cart. But, more than that, I hated the thought of wasting any more time. And wondering if he was going to get lost. I hated that thought, too. So, though he had become too big for me to lift, he was going in. Somehow.

I’d seen other mothers do it -- hang on to the cart with all their might while their kids climbed over the sides. I’d always thought how ridiculous and unsafe that was and wondered why they couldn’t control their children.

Then, I had a child of my own. Even after I’d had him, and the naiveté had worn thin, I still believed that once he was too big for carts, I’d teach my child to walk nicely beside me, hand in hand. Whether we were in the grocery store or at the mall, I’d use these opportunities to teach him smart shopping. We’d survey our possible purchases, discuss the options, and I’d sneak in little math lessons along the way.

Damn my convictions. This was the final stop on our last-minute tour; the lines were getting longer and my patience growing shorter. I boosted Jack into the cart and felt a humble kinship with all the worn-down mothers I’d ever scorned.

Three stockings. That’s all I was after. I didn’t care what they looked like, however generic or fake. Tacky ones, in fact, would help me make the point that stockings were a pointless tradition anyway. One I was taking up only because of pressure I felt at home, and would not truly embrace.

I’d bucked this tradition since our first married Christmas. Mark’s mother had hung her handmade creations from their perfectly decked mantle, each one designed especially for its name-bearer. The lovingly embroidered pieces, finished with bells, tiny ornaments or heirloom lace reflected a stability and family intimacy I was afraid I’d never grasp.

That first married year she’d added one for me. JENNIFER was boldly embroidered along the top cuff, the lustrous green taffeta finished off with glittery glass beads. When we’d prepared to leave after dessert that evening, she’d taken mine down along with Mark’s and offered it to me along with Marks.

“They’re yours, now, Jen. Welcome to the family.”

I’d declined. Then, and every year following. They were truly beautiful things, though I worried that accepting them would obligate me to continue the custom which I saw as an attempt to keep Mark in the clutches of her mysterious holiday rituals. I simply wasn’t up to it.

So, here we were, after nine years of Donna’s stockings, navigating our way to the Seasonal/Holiday aisle. Me, attempting to avoid toy sightings along the way. And Jack, loudly streaming his commercial consciousness and, I think, expecting me to actually listen. What I heard was something like “Mom, Mom … Shrek something something … look, Mom … Lego gizmo something something …Stop, Mom… Hot Wheels something gadget…Mom, WAIT! GO BACK! I WANT THAT. MOM, STOP!”

I don’t know how close I was to my destination when it happened. I only knew that my last nerve had finally unraveled. The impatient, malevolent mother I swore I’d never become had instantly appeared.

I looked at Jack and gritted my teeth. “You-are-not-getting-one-more-thing.”

“In fact,” I continued, curling a nasty smile into place, “that’s it.” I turned the cart around. “We’re going home.”

I walked out of the store, trying to ignore his tears of disappointment and the guilt and exhaustion creeping into my soul.

~ ~ ~

At dinner, Mark offered his holiday countdown. “Two days ‘til Christmas!”

“Mama says we’re not getting stockings again.” Jack replied.

I forked a swirl of spaghetti into my mouth and avoided looking up. I felt Mark looking at me, though I knew by his pleasant tone that he was speaking to Jack.

“Mama and I will talk about this later, Jack. Eat your green beans.”

We’d always tried to keep our mealtime discussions pleasant, but Mark’s stare had reheated the unpleasantness of my day. I couldn’t wait ‘til later.

“He doesn’t need a stocking, Mark. He was unruly all day. He’s getting too much as it is. He doesn’t deserve one more thing.”

Jack dropped his fork to his plate, and looked into his lap. “I guess I shouldn’t get any gifts then,” he said.

Mark reached to lift our son’s sad face. “What do you mean, Jack?”

“My Sunday school teacher says we’ve already received a gift we didn’t deserve. And that if we tried to earn it, we couldn’t. No matter how good we are.”

I closed my eyes and tried to keep the lump in my throat from choking me.

“That’s right Jack,” Mark replied. “None of us deserve God’s gift. But, they can never be taken away.” Mark turned his gaze toward me again. “You remember that, okay, son?”

“Okay, Dad. I’ll try.”

He was right. And I had been wrong. For years.

I thought of Donna’s beautiful stockings. And all those Christmas nights I’d refused to bring them home.

“That’s the whole point of Christmas, isn’t it?” I asked.

“What?” Mark asked.

“Accepting what is offered.” Of course, it was about giving. But it was also about receiving. How could I have missed that for so long? “Dad’s right, Jack. And I’m sorry about today. You’ll get your stocking, honey.”

Even if I had to drive across two counties on Christmas Eve to get it.

~ ~ ~

“I’ll be up in a little while,” I told Mark as he headed to bed. “I’ve got a couple things to do.”

I wrapped Mark’s tool set and tucked it under the tree. Then I sat down at the computer and sent off an email.

Dear Donna,

If it’s not too late, I’d like to accept the stockings you’ve tried to give me over the years. They are beautiful and we will treasure them. I know Mark and Jack would be thrilled to have them here on Christmas morning. And so would I. Please let me know if I can stop by tomorrow. I don’t have much time left to fill them up!


P.S. Merry Christmas Donna. And...Thank You.