My mom loves Christmas. She loves Christmas so much my dad once said the main reason she married him was for his last name—Bell. He was kidding, of course. I think.
Mom’s countdown begins in August with Christmas shopping. She hits the stores, scours the catalogs, and surfs the Internet looking for the perfect gift for each person on her list. No one gets asked what they want. From her point of view, that’s cheating. But she never fails to come up with wonderful, unique gifts that the recipients would never buy for themselves.
I don’t mean to imply she spends a ton of money. My dad makes a pretty good living as co-owner of a small accounting firm, and Mom supplements his earnings with a part-time job selling real estate. She’s an awesome salesman. But with four kids to raise and educate, my folks have never crossed the line between comfortable and well off. Mom just has a great eye—and a lot of experience.
Gift buying doesn’t end in August. In fact, it often goes on until mid-December. But in September, the primary emphasis shifts to meal-planning. Not just for the traditional Christmas Eve buffet and the family dinner on Christmas Day. She plans breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every day during the holidays that any of the family will be home, other than those normally in residence. This means, of course, those of us who live elsewhere all have to let her know well in advance when we will arrive and how long we will stay. And woe betide anyone trying to limit the visit to a day or two. She won’t have that, and if you’re smart, you don’t buck Mom.
I’m lucky, I guess. Even though I don’t live in Castleton anymore, my job as a college professor—okay, assistant professor, but I’m getting there—means I have a lot of time around the holidays. My sister Olivia, next down from me in birth order, had the good sense to come back home after she finished law school, go into practice locally, and marry her high school boyfriend, whose family also lives in town. (Mom solves the equal-time-for-the-in-laws problem by inviting Charlie’s folks to the family events—which suits Charlie’s mother just fine as she hates to cook.) Eric, my younger brother, is in graduate school and comes home fairly often anyway—mostly when he runs out of clean clothes. Suzanne, the baby of the family, is in high school and the only one of us still at home. Someday things might not be so convenient for all of us, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah. October. October is baking month. Mom bakes up a storm, filling the 80 cubic foot upright freezer in the basement to the brim with cookies, cakes, pies, and even the odd casserole ahead of time. I envy Suze in October. She gets to taste test everything Mom makes. (And then the rest of us have to listen to her bitch about all the weight she’s gained for the next six months.)
November, things start moving fast. November is decorating month. Mom has about twenty boxes of Christmas decorations in the attic, but every year she has to add to them, has to tweak her designs and do things a little differently from the year before. She’s crafty, too, so she makes a lot of stuff by hand. Of course, there’s about a week’s interruption in November for Thanksgiving, but she’s a lot more laid back about that. She does Thanksgiving dinner and likes to have us all there if possible, but she’s more tolerant of any necessary defections. Christmas is the main event for her.
December is all about filling in the corners. The shopping gets finished; the gifts get wrapped; the final bits of decorating get done (all except decorating the tree—that’s a family affair); the house gets spruced up; and finally, a few days before Christmas Eve, we start rolling in, and Mom can take a deep breath and know that everything is as ready as it can be. She can relax and enjoy family and friends while everything she feels responsible for runs like a well-oiled machine.
No matter how much chaos the rest of us manage to create.
Suze was the only one home when I stumbled through the door on December the twentieth. I was trying to hump all my luggage in at once—duffle, suit hanger, backpack full of books, and a laptop case—and doing a piss poor job of it. I finally manhandled it all through the door and dumped part of it in front of the stairs.
“Dork,” was the loving greeting I got from my baby sister, who was standing in the door to the living room on my right watching me with great amusement.
“Twerp,” I replied. “Get your lazy ass in gear and help me out here.”
I could see her debating whether to pitch in or give me the finger, so I added, “I’ll get this stuff. How about you go bring the gifts in out of my car?” I knew she wouldn’t pass up a chance to shake the one with her name on it.
“Okay,” she agreed. As she headed out the door she tossed over her shoulder, “Hey, you’re bunking in with Eric this year because Eric’s bringing a friend home with him.”
The guest room used to be my room. Or rather, my room was originally the guest room. I had talked Mom and Dad into letting me have it for myself when I turned fourteen and decided I was too old to share a room with my nine-year-old brother. I would be leaving for college in a few years anyway, and I could always sleep in Eric’s room when we actually did have visitors. My folks bought my arguments about the same time I realized I would have to maintain the room so that it would be at least minimally livable for someone who wasn’t a teenage boy, but it was worth it to have my own space. Once I left, Olivia snagged the room for a couple of years. When she left, it gradually reverted to a full-time guest room. I usually had it to myself when I visited.
I wasn’t complaining, though. Now that I was busy with my job, and Eric was knee-deep in graduate school, we didn’t get to see each other often. Sharing a room with him again wouldn’t be so bad.
I played it smart and took my bags upstairs in two trips, dumping them in Eric’s room before heading back down. Suze had already come back in the door with an armload of my gifts for the family. I relieved her of a few of them, and we took them into the living room to add to the pile beside the fireplace. The tree, ten feet tall easy, was in its usual place at the end of the room, but it was naked except for the strings of lights my father struggled with every year. The gifts couldn’t go under the tree until it was decorated, which should happen….
“Tonight,” Suze announced, as if reading my mind. “Eric and his friend are supposed to be here by dinner time, and we’re decorating after.”
“So, Eric’s friend, what’s her name?” I asked. It must be fairly serious if he was bringing her home for Christmas, and he hadn’t said anything to me during any of our spates of trading email.
“S’not a she,” Suze answered. “It’s some guy he knows who didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas.”
“Huh,” I grunted. Eric always had been the most likely of us to bring home strays, and the folks didn’t mind. Although he’d kick my ass if I said it to him out loud, Eric is a lot like Mom.
Which reminded me—“Where are the folks?”
“Kiwanis Christmas luncheon,” she replied. “We didn’t think you’d be here until later.”
At that moment, a blast of electronic music spilled into the air, and Suze dug a cell phone out of the pocket of her jeans. Her face lit up, and she started working her thumbs on the keypad, texting at the speed of light. “Uh,” she said, neither looking up nor slowing down, “why don’t you get yourself a beer or something. I gotta take this.”
Teenagers and technology. I figured I’d leave her alone for now and bug her about it later. The beer sounded like a plan.