Friday, December 18, 2009

My Christmas Past

Christmas is hard for me. It wasn't always that way.

I remember when I was very young, my brother and I would try to figure out ways to catch Santa Claus and then fall asleep waiting for him. To wake up the next day with stockings filled to the brim and more presents under the tree then a little kid could comprehend. We loved everything we got and were thankful for it.

My family never was very traditional when it came to Christmas. Sure, we had the tree, the boxes of decorations, and I think we made cookies with all different colored frosting a few times. We participated in the Christmas parade. But we never had turkey -- we had seafood. We didn't go to church. We didn't sing songs. We saw family occasionally on Christmas, but seemed to always live too far away.

These times were good. I was young, it all made sense, I enjoyed it.

Then it changed.

(This may be a mental block on my part, or a sore spot that will never go away, but it only seems be more poignant as the years go on...)

Our dog, Santa, fell into the pool on Christmas day and died.

He was a grouchy but sweet, salt and pepper poodle. He was pretty old, probably about 13. We had him as long as I had been alive. I must have been about 8 or 9 by that time.

We had unwrapped all of our presents and were off to our respective rooms with our new stuff. Dad was downstairs putting together a ten-speed or something like that. My brother was upstairs -- his roomed looked out over the pool. Mom and I were downstairs doing something in the kitchen (probably cleaning shrimp for our non-traditional dinner).

All of sudden my brother yells out from his room, "Santa's in the POOL!!!!"

Since it was winter time, we had the pool covered with a tarp but it was still full of water and the tarp had water on top of it too. Although it was December in Arkansas, it was cold outside and the water in the pool was near freezing.

My dad was the first out the back door. We got the dog out of the pool, but by this time he had suffered stroke, paralysis, coronary attack, and seizures. My parents called the family vet away from her family Christmas day, to meet us at her office. I said my final goodbyes to Santa as my mom and dad left with the pitiful, hurt, shaking little dog. I kissed him on the nose and knew I would never see Santa again.

And I didn't.

After that year, my family decided that maybe going on trips would be a little lighter on the heart. So for the next few years we travelled for the Christmas holidays. We went to Ixtapa, Mexico (Feliz Navidad never sounded so sweet). We went on a Caribbean cruise which landed us in the city of Hell, Grand Cayman on Christmas day. It was closed for the holiday so I couldn't get a souvenir. The final trip was to Colorado, Copper Mountain for a family ski trip. None of us had ever skied before. They had record breaking lows of -50 degrees in the mountain. This was more than we had bargained for. Mom got horrible altitude sickness. I got stranded on the mountain in my first ski class because a kid barfed in his snow mask and we had to wait for a medic. My first time down the mountain (other than the bunny trail) was in total darkness.

These trips were great in their own ways, but definitely not your ideal traditional Christmas celebration. More like a time warp.

The trips ended when my brother started college, then three years later so did I. Over this period of time, we would all go up to Wisconsin to see our extended family (both mom and dad's sides). They all lived there, mostly in the same city. We would pack up the car with parents, kids, dogs, presents, 50lb bag of pecans for my gramps, and head up North. The drive was about 12 hours. I mostly slept or argued with my brother about getting in my space. We would spend Christmas Eve at one house, Christmas day at two or three other houses -- we did a lot of driving.

These trips were special because I got to see my relatives but I could always tell that it was hard on the adults. Too many things to plan, too many schedules to coordinate while making sure that equal amounts of exclusive time were spent with each group. I could tell this was hard on my parents. It was a lot of work, but they did it for the sake of the family.

As the years went by and we all spread out a little further, the trips up North as a family ended. Mom and Dad would go see their parents and siblings. My brother had a new family of his own to start new traditions with and me...well I was wandering.

One year when I was in college, I stayed at my boyfriend's family's house over the holiday. It was my first Christmas without any of my family. I was so out of my element and missed everyone so much that I could not be happy. I cried and cried but tried not to ruin their Christmas with my tears, but everything stung so much. I wanted my momma. I needed a hug. I ended up hiding in a bedroom by myself, desperately trying to find a way out of this situation. And I could tell they wanted me to go. I called a friend at the beach in Alabama who invited me to come down immediately. So I made plans to be returned home (my college home) on Christmas day and then drive myself to the beach. Needless to say, that relationship didn't last long, and yes, in their eyes, I ruined their Christmas by being so sad and lonely.

This was the year that I decided I would rather be completely alone on Christmas then to be a stranger in someone else's home. Little did I know, I would get the chance to experience that too.

After this, I tried to get home to Arkansas for Christmas, even if we didn't go anywhere. At least I was safe with these people. They were my family. I cried almost every Christmas of my life and they never accused me of ruining Christmas. They knew that's just how I am and they loved me anyway.

The last time I saw my gramps was the first time I went up North by myself for Christmas. We both knew it was to say goodbye. And it was.

After that, I finished up college and moved to Eureka, California because it was geographically, the most ideal place on earth (in my mind). Little did I know, that traveling in and out of a secluded mountain area like that is outrageously expensive and there would be no coming or going. I spent that Christmas completely alone, except Clancy (my little white savior dog). I worked the day before and the day after Christmas at a retail job that I hated. Drank whiskey by myself on Christmas day and ate a frozen pizza. Passed out around 9pm. Just Clancy and me.

Oddly enough, the same situation happened the next year, but I lived on the opposite coast then. I was living in Durham, North Carolina and my parents were traveling all over for Christmas, but not to Durham. I understood. I had to work the day before and the day after -- retail you know, that's the busy season. Drank whiskey by myself again and probably switched it up and had a pot pie instead of pizza. Passed out early. Just Clancy and me.

These years, I felt like things were okay. I didn't ruin anyone's Christmas and no one got hurt feelings. What more could I ask for?

Then I met my husband. Before we were married (or even engaged) he told me about his family's big Christmas celebration and invited me to come. You can imagine that by this point, I was pretty scared to intrude on other people's Christmastimes. I know by now that I am not the best Christmas guest either. I get teary-eyed, I think of the past, I miss my family, I try to enjoy, but still have a deep down feeling that I must be ruining it for them. But everyone was so happy and the season was so bright for them, that I started to feel that way too. By the second Christmas with his family, I realized that they did love me and accepted me and wanted me to be there. It was a great feeling.

These were the years that I didn't think about what I had at the moment -- more family to love, more traditions to share. I didn't think about them when we decided to move so far away again. But I think about them now.

I wish I could take all of the good things from my Christmas past and put them together into one amazing experience and then feel that way every Christmas. I know that people talk about the spirit of Christmastime -- giving more, being more thoughtful, grateful, kinder. But I feel like I give as much as I can always-- not just one month out of the year. I try to be thoughtful, grateful, and kind always.

So when this time of year comes around, I just feel deficient -- like I can't be anymore than I already am.

And I always miss my family. No matter how much I try to tell myself that I don't. I do.

Merry Christmas.

I hope this didn't ruin it for you, but if I did, it wouldn't be the first time I did that.

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