Every year for the past three I’ve consciously made this our “last family Christmas.” I’ve been tangibly aware, for a while now, that my young people are flying the nest in big and small ways and I know that one of these years I’ll wake up to a smaller crowd on Christmas morning, fewer stockings, and someone FaceTimed in from afar. It feels like a lottery win to be sitting in my bed this morning, listening to the ocean in the distance and the bird warbling in the palm tree outside of my window knowing that all four of my kids are waking within arms reach and we’ll get one more year of cinnamon rolls for breakfast and a quiet morning gathered around a tree.
Yesterday and I wrapped up in the ocean mist on the beach and watched the boys throw themselves into the frigid waves with their boards it occurred to me that it’s gone:
All of those days when an afternoon felt longer than a year and I pasted a smile over my frustration at Christmas cookie decorating with four kids under four years old, knowing I’d be finding sprinkles around the margins of the kitchen for days. When it felt easier to do things myself than to suffer through “help,” and yet the big picture thinking meant taking a deep breath and making that help meaningful. The days of being awakened before six by a tiny nose about half an inch from mine by the side of the bed and wide eyes in the half dark staring intently at me, a child who knew better than to touch mama to wake her but was using the force for all he was worth. It was Christmas morning, after all.
I’ve been sifting through Christmas memories…
…as my big kids have floated around me, taking over the Christmas baking almost entirely, doing it perfectly, and not one stray sprinkle left for me to clean up. The years of caroling in nursing homes with friends when they were tiny, sewing matching Christmas vests for the boys and dresses for all of the girls, practicing for weeks. Dropping off cookies for our local fire station and gas station attendants, who took such good care of us all year long.
Long, cold drives to visit Grandparents and morning spent giggling around trees with kids who just about got lost in the paper piles. Grandpa’s Great (Tony’s dad) taking the grey parrot out of her cage to participate in the morning fun and the cage filling up with wrapping paper balls. Opening the annual Christmas Eve package filled with Christmas jammies, handmade by Grammy. (Gabe asked for this last night.)
There was the first year that we were traveling and we spent Christmas camped in our tent on the Sahara desert. Tony read the final staves of A Christmas Carol as we all snuggled up in our sleeping bags, my parents listening from their tent next door. I remember waking to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and looking up at a firmament studded with stars that took my breath away.
The two Christmases we spent in our little fishing cottage on Cape Cod, with a real tree and snow drifted up against the door frame so that when we opened it we were reminded of a cartoon drawing and laughed. The years on Wolfe Island… one in particular when the kids were quite tiny and my brother had blown in from somewhere around the world. We have a picture of him ripping down the back hill on a magic carpet sled on Christmas afternoon, clutching the handle of the sled in one hand and one of my kids, haphazardly in the other… wearing nothing but his boots and his boxer shorts. He’s a Peter Pan sort of uncle in all of the very best ways.
The years in which kids went to bed early and adults stayed up late. The years we had friends living with us and the kids howled laughing when Aunt Dianne gave them a book for Christmas called, “When Mommy Got Mad.” The very, very many years when Christmas morning has been spent with a houseful of strangers who needed family for Christmas.
The years, in Guatemala:
The first Christmas there when I had eight backpacking kids sleeping like logs across my living room floor. Tony and I slept there with them because our bed was full of Grandparents. I woke up that morning with David’s head on my belly. His feet were on Phil. Apparently he wiggles when he sleeps. At 18 he nearly died of embarrassment and we’ve laughed about it every year since. He later mashed the potatoes for dinner.
Phil helped carry Hannah and her broken foot down from the cliff that year. And I’d contacted each of their families to make sure they had a special gift from home under the tree. The Aussie girls, Georgia and Kate, brought me a bottle of wine and a pineapple in a wooden crate carried between them, and my kids insisted we wait for “King Darius,” Hannah’s four year old admirer, before we broke the piñata under the avocado tree.
The year that Hana Lucia joined us, every day for a month, to help decorate, clean, bake, sing, and prepare. She hadn’t had a Christmas since she was a child and she wept openly as she received her gifts. She nearly knocked my Dad over hugging him. Chris came and brought a spiral dream catcher with a feather that still hangs in my cottage.
And we had about 35 for dinner. Imelda brought me a basket of tamales. Leticia brought Mateo and I got to hold him for his first Christmas. We laughed and ate until there was not a scrap of food left in the house. Luke and Emily took photographs. Even Tor arrived late, skulking around the edges, letting me fill a plate for him and send him home with cookies.
The year we were in Borneo and the whole affair was a little lonely. No backpackers to make home for. No one in our whole town celebrating anything that looked like Christmas, and a ramshackle little blue stilt house that we rented. It had a swing hung beneath the house that the boys liked,and a basketball hoop that we bought a ball for.
The Christmas cookies burned. There was no ham to be found. We had Chinese new year decorations in red and gold instead of Christmas decorations. I still have the dragon hanging over my sink in the cottage. We Skyped home to family and everyone was a little weepy for a moment. Grammy’s box never found us, and it was never returned. When we went out to pick up our laundry (just another day in Borneo!) the woman who ran the washing shop smiled enormously out from under her veil and wished us, in English, “Merry Christmas!” I cried, right there in her shop. Don’t let anyone tell you Muslim people are anything other than wonderful.
I hear my children moving about.
No one is bursting through the door to see if I am ready. No one is prodding at the paper wrapped packages under the tree. It is more likely that someone is boiling tea water, or putting the cinnamon rolls in the oven. They tidied the house for me last night. No one cried in frustration over not being able to wrap their gift as nicely as they’d imagined in their minds. Tony read aloud, as he always does. We watched a silly Christmas movie, and cookies were munched. No one had to be admonished to bed.
We’re in another rented house, far from home, but the landlady put up a tree for us. And the guy’s friends from SV M’aitre D have been popping in and out of the festivities. They’ve been sailing the same route towards the Bahamas since October. My friend Gayle and her son joined us for Christmas Eve. There were gifts in my bag from Grandparents and we’ll FaceTime William in for some of the fun if he’s awake this morning.
This might be my last Christmas with all of my kids under my roof for some years. Hannah is planning for Europe next year. Gabe is planning for anywhere on a boat. The continent is a roll of the dice for us. I overheard Hannah suggest to her Daddy on the beach yesterday that, “Perhaps we could all come to Germany,” next winter where she and William plan to be. “I’m up for anything!” my intrepid guy answered his little girl, knowing full well that he’ll be footing the bills. He’s purchased a lot of priceless memories for us over the years.
This year has seen our family scatter across continents.
- Elisha spent a month alone in Guatemala and lived to tell. He also got his G1 driving license in Canada.
- Ezra dipped his toe into being an assistant sailing instructor, accompanied me on a girl’s trip to Guatemala, and has grown at least eight inches.
- Fitz has run the island boat club, and been his Dad’s right hand man in getting the Bahamas expedition off the ground.
- Hannah was to Guatemala and back with me and a bunch of girls, she’s knocked out another round at Queens and has landed herself a prestigious internship at the research library in Antigua, Guatemala for next summer. We’re all over the moon about that.
- The dudes are rockin’ it south in TearAway, who knows when they’ll be back on the island, before the next fall’s snow flies, perhaps.
- And me, well, I write some stuff. I’ve traveled, a little, across three continents; on my own, for the most part, this year.
- And The Man, he continues to hold the world together, spin plates like the ring master, and gets about a million extra points for taking these boys on the man trip of a lifetime. Single parenting, wrangling their schooling, working, and sailing south.
I didn’t know what an epic adventurer he was when I married this guy.
Wherever you are this Christmas, I hope you are well.
If you haven’t gotten our Christmas card yet, that’s because I haven’t mailed them. Maybe Monday. From our little loft on the beach in Daytona, Florida, we are wishing hard for a happy holiday for your family and a year filled with love, peace, and happiness to come. If you’re in the neighborhood this evening, feel free to drop in for dinner, or some cookies and a glass of cheer.
Merry Christmas, from all of the Millers!