There's something about mothers and transitions; the whole notion of moving us forward when we're stuck, or afraid, or need comforting. Sometimes they help us transition purposefully -- and sometimes it's just because they're near.
This Christmas, the last with our youngest still in the nest, my Jewish mother celebrated Christmas with us for the first time. It was, in fact, the first Christmas she's ever celebrated.
Other than birthdays, the only previous gift giving she'd experienced was during Chanukah when the presents were practical -- of the flannel nightgown, wool socks and cotton underwear variety. I think we even gave her a toaster one year and she pretended to like it.
I'm not saying Chanukah wasn't fun for us. After all, we sang songs, played dreidel, and ate a lot of potato pancakes. But once my Catholic boyfriend (now husband) included me in his family's Christmas gift-giving ritual... once we got married and had kids and I learned to create Santa footsteps made out of flour that led to the fireplace that led to the plate of cookies that proved Santa slid down the chimney... once I waded through mud and helped cut down a live tree and tied it to the roof of an old truck to haul it home...once I tasted hot cocoa after cutting down that tree, then decorated it... once I saw how fun it was to give someone something they wished for, as opposed to giving them something they needed -- it was pretty hard to go back to flannel and wool and cotton.
My husband and I merged the holidays, to give our kids a sense of both their parents' traditions, and yes, because it was more practical. So on this snowy Texas Christmas day at noon, my sons, now 17 and 20, gathered with my husband and me on the floor around our little Chanukah Bush along with our dog, who's become the chief un-wrapper in the family and pursues his job, doggedly.
We gave my mother a chair to sit in, which she assumed was a director's perch until she began to receive gifts and realized she was wholly unfamiliar with what was unfolding. We hadn't told her ahead of time that we'd be exchanging gifts. I suppose it was partly because I felt guilty about merging the holidays, partly because it would be like trying to explain a feeling to someone who has no experience with it, and partly because we wanted to surprise her and not make her feel she needed to do something in return.
After a lifetime of guarding her feelings, holding back, thinking she was supposed to be in the role of educating everyone, she finally let herself enjoy the ride. Sure, there were a few "You shouldn't have done this" and "I wasn't expecting this" comments, but I paid them no mind.
There were no big gifts exchanged, just acknowledgments of each other's interests -- some gifts were homemade, some store bought, but all were related to things we enjoy doing and that make us who we are, or are hoping to become. It's an acknowledgment that we are in tune with one another, and respect each other's individuality.
Our youngest son, the one who is a senior in high school but who will forever be my baby with the golden curls and contagious laugh, the one who used to be easy to read, then became a teenager, was also enjoying the ride -- he was grinning from ear to ear. Our oldest son, a sophomore in college who was literally born with his eyes open, who sees and feels everything yet has a Spock-like logic and is now nearly a man, had a newfound serenity about him. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of buying gift cards for his parents using money he and his brother earned -- a gesture that took us by surprise, and made me well with tears. Then again, perhaps he was just sleepy -- noon is, after all, early to rise for a student on Christmas break. Little children often like the boxes of the gifts they get more than the toys inside them; it would have been enough for this grown-up if they had just given us the envelope they put the cards in, the one they hand-addressed to Mom and Pop using a fat-tipped Sharpie, the Sharpie I once used to write their names on their new school supplies.
And to think that up until this year, the year before our empty nest, I'd never thought of blending my mother's world with ours during the holidays -- because I was worried about what she might think or say, worried that she wouldn't approve of or understand what we do and how we have decided to do it, over these now 21 years of marriage.
And so here we are, on the eve of the New Year -- a year that will be all about saying goodbye to the old way of doing things and hello to our new stage of life. A year in which I need to accept that the traditions that revolved around my children can evolve and yet still be meaningful and intimate. And isn't that what it's all about, really? When your kids move away you mourn the loss of those traditions, and the intimacy of your family unit. The world you created for them, took pride and comfort in, has ended. We are after all, mothers, from the moment we conceive, and that's what we do -- make a world for our children.
I'm glad my mother was here for the holiday: she provided a welcome distraction and comfort to me, especially.
Hopefully, my children will remember from this year forward, that there's something about mothers and transitions -- and they'll invite us to their holiday celebrations.
Join me next Monday for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles, as I transition from full house to empty nest.