That morning, sitting there in our comfy jammies, our tree seemed to me a symbol of how our lives have intersected and blended. Staring at it gave me warm tinglies. And finally, the moment was upon us. After weeks of clandestinely ricocheting back and forth from city boutiques to far-flung suburban malls and then stashing shopping bags at the backs of closets, it was our designated time to open our presents to each other.
I swooned while ripping away festive wrapping to reveal the coveted anatomy book I'd requested, then an in-bed reading light, then a Dickensian winter cape and gloves followed by tall black boots that fit perfectly. Marty went bright eyed at the sight of needed dress shirts, coveted shoes, a suede blazer, a Redskins calendar. Afterward, we sat back and giggled, filled with the kind of mirth that floods every cell.
From there, it would have been ideal to just serve up some eggnog and candy canes, plop ourselves back under the tree and meditate on shirts, capes, anatomy, each other.
But that wasn't going to be possible. It being Christmastime, we had to hustle.
Tossing the now-obsolete wrapping paper into the trash, we pushed our presents back under the tree and began frantically showering, primping, packing. Next came several trips downstairs to the car, Marty skillfully loading in mounds and mounds of booty like a dad preparing to drive his family to the Grand Canyon. Only, there was no family in our car. We pulled away in a rush, knowing we wouldn't see our home again, our tree, our twinkly holiday lights, our own cozy bed, until well after the juice had been squeezed out of the holiday.
As part of a long-standing tradition, all are expected to spend the afternoon and the night at Marty's parents' house on Christmas Eve, so we dutifully headed south to Springfield, Va. But about two miles from their abode, I was suddenly struck with the desperate need to be nestled in a booth at a Tex-Mex restaurant -- never mind that Christmas Eve dinner was only two hours away. It wasn't so much that I needed taquitos; I just needed more time alone with Marty at Christmas. I adore my in-laws, but my psyche just wasn't ready to enter the revved-up and swirling communal holiday vortex. Not yet. Marty indulged me, pulling into the last shopping center before his parents' house, and we sat there at the Austin Grill quietly watching the snowflakes fall.
That night, after the family dinner and the required standing-room-only mass, Marty's dad had us all sit quietly while he read "T'was the Night Before Christmas." Since his kids are now 23, 27 and 31, I figured this was all tongue-in-cheek fun. It wasn't; it was serious business and we weren't to poke fun. It was tradition.
The next morning, Marty's pop videotaped us all coming down the stairs to discover our presents under the tree, something he's been doing since his first child -- Marty -- was a tyke. This was no joke either. We were to stay out of sight at the top of the stairs and not budge until the video camera was in a perfect state of readiness, then we were blinded by the light as we descended, with Marty's dad narrating our every move.
Over the next two hours, we dug in, with bright wrapping flying everywhere. But soon, the paper-ripping and oohing and ahhing and yelping of Oh my God, how did you know I needed one of these? had to be cut short as we had to hurry and get to Marty's Aunt Paula's traditional Christmas brunch, lovingly served in the shadow of her extensive miniature Christmas village. Again, we rushed to shower and primp and race across town. And after about two hours of holiday vitality and vittles at Aunt Paula's, it was time to rush down to my sister's place in Fredericksburg, Va., an hour away, for even more vitality and vittles with her brood of five.
By the time Marty and I made it back to our apartment that night, it was almost the next day. We were wrung out, tired, overwhelmed, cranky, constipated. And I was wracked with a bad case of mixed feelings: Yes, we were blessed with many outstanding, insightful gifts and we'd had stellar visits with cherished people. But at the same time, I knew first-hand what it felt like to be a rock star who can no longer hack her road schedule, one who starts randomly canceling tours dates and pissing off fans, longing just to be at home, precious home. And the scary thing was: I'd already hit the holiday wall and my journeying was not yet over: the next day I needed to pack for my post-Christmas trip to see my sister in New Jersey. Ugh.
Unloading our myriad gifts and unpacking the overnight bags well into the wee hours, some strong notions coursed through my achy head and suddenly I was in touch with some serious holiday rebellion.: This is stupid. It's inhuman. And guess what? I'm not doing it anymore. But I was no Scrooge; I just wanted to have at least some of Christmas in my own home, dammit. After all, wasn't it time?
Certain sections of my inner self were shocked. You don't want to do this anymore? What choice do you have? those sections queried, and I knew that on some level they were right.
All my life, loved ones have had their established holiday customs and traditions and I have just folded quietly in. Being the baby of five set the tone for that. All of my much-older siblings married and bred and bought homes and etched their own traditions in stone eons ago. If I wanted to see them during the holidays, or really, at any time, I was expected to do the traveling. It might have been annoying, but truly, it just made sense. They had babies and strollers and cribs -- not items that fit handily into the overhead compartment. I, on the other hand, had only journalism textbooks and a duffel bag, then later, a laptop. And, until a year ago, I had no husband, either. Thus, I've just never been part of the club that gets to make holiday traditions.
And neither had Marty. He's the oldest of three, but he and his siblings are still young enough that they haven't yet claimed Christmas for themselves; they gladly let their parents handle the jingle bells.
But Batman smells. This season, for some reason, I felt an internal shift of tectonic proportions, a nagging intolerance for the hectic, other-people's-houses type of Christmases. Suddenly, on Dec. 24, I sailed over some sort of unprecedented precipice, leaving me deeply desirous of receiving visitors instead of being a visitor, something I'd never done in all my 36 years. I wanted to take coats instead of handing mine over, I wanted to tell people where the extra toilet paper rolls are instead of doing all the asking. I wanted to have people sit and admire our tree -- our tree, which no other humans but us laid eyes on this year, except for Marty's brother, who crashed on our couch one night after going out to see Gwar. But that doesn't count.
With just a few seconds left of Christmas night, I sat amid our suitcases pondering. What would it take to make the delicate reflective silver ball finally bounce into our court? What will cause family to willingly hand over the legacy and amble happily to our home instead? More fruitcake? Better candy canes? Some mistletoe? Thing is, Marty's folks' Christmas traditions are exceedingly old and very strongly held. Getting them to drop all that and cede control could take years of strong arming. Why, perhaps it's not possible at all.
Then it hit me: the trump card. Suddenly, I knew what it was: Kids. Yep. Once we start spawning tiny whippersnappers, chances are good everyone will automatically come over on Christmas, right? Right? And if they don't, so what? Because you're not expected to cart little kids over to other people's houses on Christmas morning. The little 'uns just won't have it; they have Big Wheels to ride into garage walls and Ez-Bake Ovens to break. Yes, it seemed pretty clear: when the spawn get here, the giant holiday magnet will shift and the family will naturally come to us. And, the added bonus: it will give Marty's dad something legit to videotape -- straight-up wide-eyed Christmas glee, minus the adult self-consciousness.
Yet, is that a good reason to reproduce? Well yeah -- maybe.
Then I got scared. Could Marty and I really pull off Christmas? Our place is cozy; it pleases us. We like our red dining room, our solarium with all its windows, our proximity to Rock Creek Park. But perhaps we don't have enough matching stemware, or even dining room chairs, for that matter. Is that integral, though? Can't people sit on pillows and drink from plastic Mardi Gras cups? Maybe. But the other frightening factor is: what Christmas traditions do we have? Not a one. In fact, having always let others dictate that, we'd never given that one iota of thought.
But hey, we could come up with stuff -- yeah. Maybe we could do bobbing for tinsel. Perhaps we could serve a New Orleans-style brunch on Christmas morning, replete with festive, red Bloody Marys and flaming bananas foster. We could have a rollicking ornament-making crafts session on the living-room floor, spreading glitter everywhere. We could do a dramatic reading of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries while Dean Martin's Christmas plays on a continuous loop. And what would Christmas be without a little religious coercion? After the meal, we'd force everyone to go to a Buddhist temple or maybe down to Hare Krishna House. So, it's settled: We'll treat everyone to a Christmas that is uniquely us.
Because after all, this is the natural order of things. There comes a time when the family elders must be wrestled to the ground and Christmas must be taken away from them and placed in the hands of the new generation. Yes, that's how it's always been and that's how it's got to be now. Hopefully, we won't come off like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, having to yank Christmas through the chimney.
Resolute about it all, I rang up my sister -- the one lives who an hour away and has five kids -- to introduce the concept. I expected resistance, whining, trouble -- not only because I would, in a minute, be presenting a thoroughly new paradigm, but because she deplores coming into the city, my city. Instead, though, my idea was met with an unexpected willingness. "Sounds good," she said, "Just let us know what time to come up." Wow, had someone drugged her? Or was she just down with the natural order of things?
I came away from the call stoked, practically jogging in place, pumping my fists. Yeah, we can do this. We can! In fact, I'm ready. So ready, on so many levels, in so many ways. I knew the time had come to approach the in-laws. Then I thought again and the jogging and pumping stopped.
Nah, I think we'd better have a baby first.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
Burning For You (12/25/2002)
I had a feeling it would be a bad idea to take my eyes off the dining room table, even for an...
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