My husband and I just finished watching It’s a Wonderful Life while sipping eggnog infused with calvados while the dogs snored on top of us, on top of a down blanket on the couch after having dined on our favorite local pizza. We then took the pups out for their final walk, all of us bundled against the cold, and I insisted on taking us by a “leg lamp” like the one featured in A Christmas Story — which we watched last night — where it is poised and lit beautifully in the picture window of a home around the corner as perfectly as in cinema. We’re making our own relaxing, simple, lovely traditions. I like them.
Yet I still find myself thinking about how my dad must be sitting in the choir loft at church warming up just now, waiting for the midnight mass congregants to file into aisles and the wooden pews below, like any band member getting ready for a gig, the biggest gig of the year, with anticipation watching the audience come in. I think about how, for the first half of my life, I would have been there with him, perhaps reluctantly, wearing tights and a dress trying to sit like a girl, but grateful for the music, the songs I loved from childhood, the deep blare of the pipe organ — and especially glad to have spent the evening before at my grandparents.’
Our bellies would have been full of ham and turkey sandwiches, pickles and potato salad from the crystal trays of bread, makings, and sides laid out across Grandma’s shiny wooden tables. We would have spread mayonnaise and mustard across cocktail-sized swirly rye bread, added cheeses and meats, piled our plates with deviled eggs, green salad, olives. Afterward, we shoved colorful cookies into our mouths and circled the tree reverentially as we each took turns playing Santa, reading off gift labels and handing out presents to our relatives.
I remember the 14 place settings she had, how much she loved having guests. How she glowed when we all arrived. I remember how tonight I set the table for 2.
In the morning, my husband and I will have slow coffee together, maybe do a crossword puzzle, make some eggs for breakfast, and open our presents to each other and those sent to us across the country from my family. I will think it odd since I’m heading there in three days to see them, but the timing is always a little off these days. Or just different. Back in the day (before I ever thought I’d use that phrase), I’d be at my mother’s house by 8:30 a.m. on Christmas morning to eat brunch with her and my brothers — David would have already been on a 10-mile run and settled into the seat at the edge of Mom’s table where a day bed sits, his arms folded behind his head, his legs stretched out in front of him. Tommy would be pouring mimosas.
Tomorrow, I’ll drive to Connecticut to celebrate the day with the youngest member of my husband’s family, a not-quite-two-month-old baby — the little sister of two big brothers — plus her sweet parents and my husband’s awesome sister. A different meal in a different place with different people — and maybe a little song if we’re lucky — our own lovely, simple, relaxing tradition. I will like it, and I will also miss my grandma and my brother and those magical Christmas evenings and mornings.
I think the church service might be starting about now. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can hear my dad’s baritone rise into the air, mingled with the other voices. What will the processional come in on? “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”? “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”? One of those goodies, a classic, one that everyone will know, the every-Sunday worshippers along with the holiday attendees.
Downstairs, my husband has the volume on the TV turned down low; I nestle into bed with the cats to read. I think I’m over the excitement, but I can’t help noticing it’s just one hour ’til Christmas.
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