The Gresko Family Christmas would begin before Thanksgiving. My mom would take down the calendar and, starting with Black Friday, when we ogled the lights, Victorian decorations and multi-tiered poinsettia towers of Longwood Gardens, and ending with our many-coursed New Year's Eve smorgasbord, she'd pencil in more than a month of holiday parties and activities. Most special were the quieter things that only the immediate family took part in: visiting a rural farm to select the Christmas tree, baking dozens upon dozens of cookies and decking the house in garland and glitz.
I loved the yuletide season so much that for a while I kept a small shrine of nutcrackers and Santa figurines on my bookshelf year round. And no, I wasn't five or six. This was middle school.
When I became an adult, despite rolling my eyes and disdaining the general over-the-top schmaltz of it all, I couldn't deny my deep and un-ironic enjoyment in revisiting memories of Christmases past. However, asked about other things I remembered from my childhood, I would have focused on the moments in which, as an adolescent and teenager, I differentiated myself from my parents -- the fights, the refusals, the silent promises that "that won't be me when I grow up."
I found it easier to dwell in this place, as a freewheeling adult with an identity separate from my parents, than to think of myself as a child under their care. It was impossible for me to imagine myself ever needing them with the fullness and surety of early childhood, due less to a lack of imagination than to an unwillingness for me, Mr. Independent who's always gone his own way, to admit that I owed them anything, that I was very much their child. And besides, a lot of this part of my life is locked from my memory, so I didn't have much to go on.
Parenthood has changed that.
Staying at home with my toddler son, I see him grow and develop new skills almost every day, yet I know that he'll remember nothing of his first years. The many hours reading together, or walking in the park spying doggies and squirrels, or running around the playground, or the playgroup that meets at our house every Tuesday -- these fun moments will become part of the background noise upon which he'll compose his personality; they'll be the starting point from which he builds. I have faith in that.
Reexamining my childhood memories from this vantage point, I find the bells and whistles of Christmastime rituals pale in comparison to the ordinary magic my parents created the other months of the year -- all the time we spent as a family laughing, or playing games outside or around the kitchen table, or doing chores while singing along to music and sipping milkshakes. My mom and dad provided me a solid grounding of positive experiences from which to develop, and yet this aspect of our relationship is one I've rarely revisited -- maybe because I lacked the ability to access those memories without cynicism or discomfort. I wanted so much, and still do, to be grown up and different from my mom and dad that I've avoided contemplating our similarities.
It's an uncomfortable state of mind to hold, almost Zen-like in its paradox, to be aware at once of the deep, nurturing role my parents played in shaping me and of the springboard they presented for me to push away into independence. It leaves me feeling profoundly grateful, and more deeply compassionate for my parents.
And so at this special time of the year, a time that is deeply inscribed in the childhood memories for many of us, I ask all the parents out there to take a moment to try and remember the many close, warm instances not linked with any grand holiday or ritual, all those beautiful moments of love you shared with your mom and dad. You won't be able to remember them all, but that's ok. It's the magic of parenting that you'll be able to tap into the spirit of those exchanges and channel their warmth when you need to, just as Santa is able to make his worldwide trip in one short night.
Brian Gresko is now on Twitter! Follow him at twitter.com/briangresko.