Christmas Memory: Finding Joy In Aisle Seven
“Of course we’re doing presents,” I assured him. “But if we put them out too early, the baby will open them and the dogs will eat them.”
“Oh,” he said. Resigned. “But can I put the one I bought for you under the tree?”
Of course I told him yes. He is possibly the kindest of my children, and I like to encourage kindness. And I like to encourage presents with my name on the tag. But later, after he’s gone to bed, I undid just the teeniest bit of the wrapping paper to make sure the package that felt like a folded pair of socks isn’t something the dogs will eat and later vomit onto the living room rug. Nope. It was a folded pair of socks. Socks with a bright red strawberry pattern.
I wondered what the Co-op lady is getting for Christmas. Plane tickets to an exotic locale? A first edition Robert Frost? Something shiny and digital? I got a cotton bathrobe, flannel sheets, more socks. I got presents suitable for a mother of three, a woman who rarely leaves the house with clothes unmarked by jelly or tomato sauce. I got the kind of presents I used to get for my own mother. Sitting there beside the Christmas tree (garish colored lights ablaze) with one boy in my lap and another hanging down my back, I admired my gifts out loud while inside I wondered which of the few packages left under the tree contained black lacy lingerie. None of them did.
I’m not ungrateful. I wouldn’t change places with the artichoke-appetizer lady or anybody else. This stage of life is unusual for me in that I know I’m happy without needing any distance for reflection; I almost can’t bear to wonder how I’ll feel about these few years when I’m eighty if I’m so enamored of them now.
A few days after Christmas I’m the one shopping alone at the Co-op. Holiday eating habits growing stale, I escaped our packed house to pick up some of our usual staples: string cheese, yogurt, carrots, wheat thins. I bought a coffee and sipped while I wandered the aisles, caught between solitary serenity and that restless feeling I get whenever I’m away from my kids, a sense that they need me. That if I don’t return to them soon they will all perish miserably, like the ladybug’s children who had the bad luck to be alone in the house when the fire caught.
Perfect symmetry would require I run into the artichoke appetizer lady, perhaps burdened with a grandchild or two, and we’d exchange knowing glances and wry smiles. But I didn’t see her. I saw lots of dads dragged low with children. I saw a few other moms taking advantage of holiday off-time. And several of the people working at the store greeted me with variations of: “Where are your children? Did they have a good holiday?” We’ve been coming to the Co-op since before my oldest was born. My husband came here for food during our brief post-partum hospital stays. We stopped here on the way home with boy number three to restock the pantry I knew would be empty after my absence. The people here knew us, they knew our children, and they knew the smile on my face that meant I’m on my own.
“Your Christmas must’ve been a blast,” the young cashier said to me as she rang up my economy size ketchup and several pounds of Macintosh apples. Still no expensive artichoke appetizers in my cart.
“It was fabulous,” I told her.