I took my three little boys shopping at the Co-op two days before Christmas and got many, many looks of sympathy mixed with envy. We made a mad spectacle that reminded people how much fun holidays can be when children are a part of the celebration. Nobody was whining, no one had a runny nose, and I had washed my hair that morning so we looked like a family that had figured out how to function on too little sleep and too many interruptions.
The middle aged woman ahead of me in the checkout line seemed far, far away from the pandemonium surrounding her. Her items were few and included a bottle of nice wine, a custard pie, and a box of frozen artichoke puff pastry appetizer things. The expensive, organic kind.
The look she gave me was different than the ones I’d gotten used to, the ones that made me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. It wasn’t a mean look; she didn’t give off an obvious aura of disapproval for all things having to do with children. It was more a look of relief not to be in my shoes this holiday. And suddenly, I was the one envying her. Her quiet holiday became as real to me as the muffin crumbs sprinkled in my coat pocket: sleeping until whenever she awoke, warming up her artichoke appetizers in the microwave, pouring an early glass of good pinot, reading Jane Austen while snow fell calmly out her window, later in the day taking her trusty Labrador—named Justin or Spencer—for a long walk in the deepening dusk.
My holiday would be vastly different. Mine would be early, loud, chaotic, messy. Food would burn, children would shriek with glee one minute then sob in devastation the next. Adults would snip at each other until we opened the almost-decent wine. I would have to walk the dogs, but the walk wouldn’t be leisurely, it wouldn’t be filled with sunset sky. It would be hurried and cold and I would have forgotten my gloves due to the almost-decent wine. There are no artichoke appetizers in my grocery cart.
Watching her zip through the checkout with all the ease of a woman on her own distracted me from my charges, and the baby managed to pull several pump bottles of hand sanitizer out of the aisle rack. His brother had helped him open one and now they both held shining mountains of gel in their hands and the cashier cleared his throat like he wished his shift would end already. We hustled as well as we could.
At home, our Christmas tree would win no Martha Stewart awards.
For one thing, it tilts, even with the strategically placed hay rope adding much needed structural support. And its lights are two different sizes: garishly colored small ones and garishly colored big ones, reminiscent of Christmas trees in holiday films that take place in the 1950s. You might think we’re enjoying our big, garish bulbs ironically, but no. My kids think they’re cool. So does my husband, and any opinions I make on the loveliness of tiny white bulbs are drowned out by a chorus of fake vomiting. Such is life with boys.
Most of the ornaments on our tree are homemade. Not in a gallery-workshop kind of way; our ornaments are proud survivors of elementary school art classes. Seed wreaths with just a few rings of seed left, popsicle sticks framing my oldest boy’s sugar-sticky face. In a place of honor rests a reindeer made from clothespins, an ornament I vaguely recall gluing together with the help of my mother many, many Christmases ago. Only a couple glass ornaments delicately grace our tree, stragglers from life before children, the golden age when Christmas trees never fell down; now, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until the tree tips over at least once.
“Where are all the presents?” my middle boy asked that evening, concerned. “Aren’t we doing presents?”
“Of course we’re doing presents,” I assured him. “But if we put them out too early, the baby will open them and the dogs will eat them.”
“Oh,” he said. Resigned. “But can I put the one I bought for you under the tree?”
Of course I told him yes. He is possibly the kindest of my children, and I like to encourage kindness. And I like to encourage presents with my name on the tag. But later, after he’s gone to bed, I undid just the teeniest bit of the wrapping paper to make sure the package that felt like a folded pair of socks isn’t something the dogs will eat and later vomit onto the living room rug. Nope. It was a folded pair of socks. Socks with a bright red strawberry pattern.
I wondered what the Co-op lady is getting for Christmas. Plane tickets to an exotic locale? A first edition Robert Frost? Something shiny and digital? I got a cotton bathrobe, flannel sheets, more socks. I got presents suitable for a mother of three, a woman who rarely leaves the house with clothes unmarked by jelly or tomato sauce. I got the kind of presents I used to get for my own mother. Sitting there beside the Christmas tree (garish colored lights ablaze) with one boy in my lap and another hanging down my back, I admired my gifts out loud while inside I wondered which of the few packages left under the tree contained black lacy lingerie. None of them did.
I’m not ungrateful. I wouldn’t change places with the artichoke-appetizer lady or anybody else. This stage of life is unusual for me in that I know I’m happy without needing any distance for reflection; I almost can’t bear to wonder how I’ll feel about these few years when I’m eighty if I’m so enamored of them now.
A few days after Christmas I’m the one shopping alone at the Co-op. Holiday eating habits growing stale, I escaped our packed house to pick up some of our usual staples: string cheese, yogurt, carrots, wheat thins. I bought a coffee and sipped while I wandered the aisles, caught between solitary serenity and that restless feeling I get whenever I’m away from my kids, a sense that they need me. That if I don’t return to them soon they will all perish miserably, like the ladybug’s children who had the bad luck to be alone in the house when the fire caught.
Perfect symmetry would require I run into the artichoke appetizer lady, perhaps burdened with a grandchild or two, and we’d exchange knowing glances and wry smiles. But I didn’t see her. I saw lots of dads dragged low with children. I saw a few other moms taking advantage of holiday off-time. And several of the people working at the store greeted me with variations of: “Where are your children? Did they have a good holiday?” We’ve been coming to the Co-op since before my oldest was born. My husband came here for food during our brief post-partum hospital stays. We stopped here on the way home with boy number three to restock the pantry I knew would be empty after my absence. The people here knew us, they knew our children, and they knew the smile on my face that meant I’m on my own.
“Your Christmas must’ve been a blast,” the young cashier said to me as she rang up my economy size ketchup and several pounds of Macintosh apples. Still no expensive artichoke appetizers in my cart.
“It was fabulous,” I told her.