Last night, we went out to dinner with my brother, his wife and their two boys. The evening proved a bit hectic, as the numerous things I needed to do at work prior to leaving town, coupled with a mishap my sister-in-law had with a car door and her finger, added additional challenges to the usual ordeal of waiting to be seated at the Texas Land and Cattle Company restaurant.
After dinner, we headed to my brother's home, where we went ahead and opened gifts. My brother's boys are 10 and 15, and yet Santa Claus had arrived an evening early, and left numerous unwrapped gifts. We all also opened gifts we had exchanged among one another, including my poor sister-in-law, who had to detour to the doc-in-a-box about her finger, but fortunately proved to be all right.
As we opened our gifts (and let me tell you, I am pleased with my succulent pony palm plant), I briefly flashed on Christmas Eves past. In my family, the first day of school Christmas vacation was the first day we put up our Christmas tree. The tree was always a live tree, usually a Scotch pine, but during the odd 1970s, when massive inflation would one year hit meat products, the next year hit xmas trees, we did use native pine and cedar a time or two.
My father's late father,whom we called Pappy, came to stay with us at Christmas time, from his home some forty miles away. Pappy was a taciturn retired railroad telegraph operator, whose embrace always brought to mind the joy of an imperfectly shaven face. As I essentially have to go three days to have proper five o'clock shadow, I have always wondered that Pappy had five o'clock shadow at four.
We three kids made Christmas lists, using catalogs from Sears Roebuck, JC Penney and Spiegel. In our small town, the stores did not stock any of the desired gifts, so we literally chose from the catalogs to make our list, and then Santa apparently used those same catalogs to order the gifts. We were permitted "three big things" and "three little things" on our lists. A big thing was no more than twenty five dollars, and preferably much less. A little thing was less than five dollars. Because of the time value of money, these sums back then were pretty substantial, so that we could get any basic toy, but nothing truly extravagant.
On Christmas Eve, we all had T bone steaks (my brother and I called them "bone in" steaks), which my mother cooked on an electric skillet which also served as the driving apparatus for pancakes, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, fried seafood, and a host of minute steaks over the years. We each had a moderate sized steak, plus a baked potato. There might be English peas or canned corn as well. We had heat 'n' serve rolls. For dessert we might have gingerbread men, sugar cookies or pumpkin pie.
After dinner, we went to drive the small town and see the Christmas lights. There were lots of lights and trees to see, but none of the lights were the grandiose megawatt displays of today. As if by magic, when we returned home, Santa Claus had brought our gifts that Christmas Eve. I do not recall ever getting materially less than what I asked for, but then again, I never asked for a pony. I remember once being distraught because I did not have the nerve to ask for a Chihuahua, which is odd, because my family kept Great Danes. These dog size choices seem pivotal to me, as I believe they key somehow into the importance I now place upon a sense of proportion.
We played the night away on our new toys. I remember putting the pegs into a Lite Brite. I remember a GI Joe with a French beret. I remember my dad setting up my first telescope, and seeing the moon craters up close for the first time (I cannot remember a greater thrill of discovery). I remember the time my father had put small nifty green fishing tackle boxes under the tree, which we boys missed in our excitement about the toys, which hurt my father's feelings, just a little. My nephew and I used one of those little boxes this Thanksgiving, some thirty odd years later. I remember Christmas Day parades on television, and the rare white Arkansas Christmas, dragging a sled over snow or sleet.
Christmas Day dinner, served just before noon, featured a huge turkey and dressing, along with casseroles involving all sorts of odd permutations of marshmallow and pickled vegetables. The adults all drank iced tea (to this day, none of the kids drink alcohol to speak of), while the kids were often seated at a separate kids table with water or a soda. Sometimes my mother's late father, whom we called Grandfather, said the grace, which would be thoughtful and almost long. Other times my father said grace, always very much to the point. A relative might bring "caro-nut" pie, that pie made with Caro-nut syrup and ample pecans. Pecan pie, though, was one of many childhood desserts in which a single instance of over-indulgence cured me for life (the peanut butter cookie dough incident, in which I squeezed masses of dough from a baster kind of thing directly into my mouth, still makes me avoid peanut butter cookies).
On Christmas Day we often watched Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street on television. I still cry when Kris Kringle speaks Dutch to the displaced refugee child. We also watched Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas and that wonder of claymation, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (which actually tells a fairly subversive tale of the Kringle-man, if you overlook the gender inequities imposed on Ms. Clause).
Our Christmas seasons would not have made a Hallmark card, but they were very nice, enjoyable times. In hindsight, my parents worked very hard to make those times so pristine for us kids. My father was a country doctor, in a two doctor town, who frequently worked the entire holiday season. Even though up until the time I was 15 he was apt to be called out at any hour of the day or night, I do not remember him ever missing Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner. My mother prepared myriads of food, and handled so many pragmatic seasonal details, even during the years she was busy with graduate school. The cocoon in which we kids were raised might not have been pristine, but it was certainly woven with a great deal of effort.
My life now is so very different than the lives my parents lived.
My wife and I do not have children, and will not have children. We travel to other cities to spend holidays with relatives much more often than we stay home. We put up a tree and we exchange gifts, but our joy in the holidays is very much in restful times and times spent with relatives we love. I work very hard, but compared to my father, I have an easy life. The suburban life we lead offers so many more things to do than did the little town in which my parents lived when I was a kid.
I never feel "old" inside, and yet I know that I am. I now must wear those "hidden bifocal" lenses, or else take off my glasses to read. I get medical conditions too dreary to mention that only middle aged people get. I no longer live a life in which it is a mystic thrill to take the painted ceramic nativity scene figures from their storage-wrapped heavy paper to "kick off" the "Christmas season".
I loved my family's old traditions, which had a certain 1960s sitcom feel. Yet I posit a theory about what being "grown up" means. I think we are "grown up" when we create our own traditions for the way we live our lives. In some instances, we reject the religious and cultural traditions in which we were raised. In other instances, we preserve them. In some cases, we even try to be more traditional than the way in which we grew up.
I do not mean this is merely a matter of what we cook at Thanksgiving, how elaborate we make our Halloween party, or the way we celebrate Christmas. I think instead that we mature when we treat our lives as if they have meaning. For me, "meaning" is a religious concept, but for someone else, "meaning" is a matter of self-creation. But I believe whole-heartedly we are story telling animals. One of the stories we need to tell is the story of our own lives. We create that story by the traditions with which we imbue our days.
When we lived in Los Angeles, my wife and I went two or three New Year's in a row with our friend Heidi to the Seal Beach Pier, where we fished from the pier on warm, peaceful days as the boats went by. We had little danger of catching any fish, given our methodology, and the one or two fish we ever caught pier fishing we promptly threw back. We just liked to watch the people and soak in the ambience. Although we did that just a few years, in my mind it is a holiday tradition, just as hiking in the Angeles National Forest or walking in Descanso Gardens rose garden is a Thanksgiving tradition.
But traditions are not just about holiday rituals. To me, growing up is about trying to make life work on an everyday basis. There's just so much dysfunction and distraction in life. I think that the time we mature is when we realize that we must be agents for making things function. These past two years, of all years in which I have been alive, have most clearly shown that chaos lurks just beneath the veneers of everything.
I am only 43. I have so much to learn. But I can share what I have learned thus far. There is not a time when everything suddenly makes sense, and the world coalesces in one's mind. All that one learns is how to live with the fact that one knows so little. One begins to realize that all we have are the things we bring to the table and share with those for whom we care. Whether we speak of Christmas Day or the most colorless July day, we come to accept that there is enough chaos and evil in this world, and we must act for good. Our understanding of what is "good" is problematic, but that's okay.
As we head into 2003, I feel so much less accomplished, mature and clued in than I had hoped at this point in my life to be. On the other hand, I grew up in a Cold War time in which we children expected that we would see nuclear war before we became adults, so every day is a grace from that perspective.
Some people say that being grown up is when the scales fall from our eyes, and we do not believe in Santa Claus or fairy tales or, for that matter, people at all. But perhaps being grown up instead that point in life when we realize that it's not about what we believe or disbelieve, it's about trying to find the meanings which life offers us. At some point, we have to accept that we are thin reeds, and that we'll be mown down before we know all the answers. But whether one sees this life as a prelude or as an entirety, growing up is realizing that we must create in our lives the things we value, because we all say grace, one way or another, at our own personal holiday feasts. So many times, a little grace, whether grace is a matter of God or just sheer imagination, is what we need, not only for the holidays, but for our maturity in general.