December 31, 2002
Little Christmas Stories

Thursday evening, 7 p.m.

The man in line behind us appears to be experiencing a major William Shatner Moment.

I've been listening to his low-level ranting for the past half hour: vague, ominous rumblings about rain on the runway and birds in the engines. But now, as we're about to board the plane, he seems to be ramping himself up to fullscale meltdown. 

I steal a nervous glance behind me. An aging hippie in mud-caked cowboy boots, he has the rabid, wild-eyed look of the profoundly unhinged. I watch as he wrenches himself free from his caregivers and glares at all of us in naked fury.

"FUDK YOU!" he shouts. "I ain't takin' no FUDKING TRANQULIZERS!"

A shocked silence descends over the airline terminal, as six hundred pairs of eyes turn simultaneously in his direction.

"That guy is going to end up sitting right behind us on the plane," I mutter blackly. "I just know it."

David beams. "I hope so!" he says. "Just think what an interesting *FootNotes* character he'll make!"

I'm not convinced. All I want to do is get on the plane, settle in next to the window and shut out the world for the next one hour and forty-seven minutes. I've got a lot of internal homework to do: reviewing the events of the past four days ... deciding whether the *Oh Wow* Moments outweighed the *Oh Shidt* Moments, this time around ... deciding how I'm going to write about it all of this, once I get home. I would prefer to do it without a raving nut-job sitting behind me for seven hundred miles, shrieking about monsters on the wing of the plane.

It's going to be a long flight home.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Monday afternoon, 4 p.m.

Jaymi and I are standing at the Fred Meyer jewelry counter, where she is helping me choose a last-minute gift for my mother.

"How about this one?" I say hopefully, holding up a huge silver Christmas tree accented with dangly ornaments and honest-to-goodness jingle bells. But Jaymi has already decided on the more tasteful marquesite crescent studded with faux pearls.

"This one looks more like Grandma," she says flatly.

Trusting her judgement, I drop the marquesite brooch into my shopping basket ... along with the CD for my niece, the gift card for my brother, the allergy medicine for David, the paperback bestseller for *me.* We don't have Fred Meyer stores in the Bay Area -- it's sort of the ultimate combination of grocery/pharmacy/clothing/electronics/groovy general merchandise, all under one roof -- and it's one of the things I miss most about TicTac. (Actually, shopping at Fred Meyer with my KIDS is one of the things I jaymi and david, christmas 2002 miss most about TicTac. But the store itself rates right up there on the list.) This afternoon -- two days before Christmas -- Fred Meyer is hellishly hot, painfully noisy, insanely crowded.

And I'm having the time of my life.

"I think I'm going to go look at bath stuff for a few minutes," Jaymi announces, once the oh-so-critical jewelry decision has been made. I watch as she wanders off towards the Cosmetics Department. She's still wearing her nice work clothes -- we picked her up directly from her office at the hospital -- and she looks very sleek, very professional, very SecraTerrial. Very grown-up. While she shops for her sister, I wander back to the book section and find David squinting over a guide to Pacific Northwest Bike Trails.

"Another fifteen minutes," I tell him. "Then we'll pick up the other two and go have some dinner." 

He nods pleasantly. That's fine. Take your time. We're in no hurry.

This is the first time all day that we haven't been in a hurry. There was the rush to get dressed this morning, the rush to the airport, the rush to find long-term parking, the rush to get to our gate on time. The flight from Oakland to TicTac was basically uneventful -- I spent two hours with my nose pressed against the window, waiting for Mt. Rainier to show up -- but once we landed at TicTac International, the rush was on again. As soon as we were off the plane I called my mother on my cell phone and let her know we'd landed in her Zip Code. In these post-911 days of heightened airport security, no one meets you at the gate anymore: you call and let them know you've landed, and then you wait for them to come pick you up. It's not as much fun as getting off the airplane and seeing all of those dear smiling faces, waiting for you ... but it's a lot safer.

Plus it gives you time to collect your luggage AND your wits.

By the time David and I maneuvered our way through the crowds downstairs to Baggage Claim and retrieved our suitcases from the carousel, Mom and Vince were pulling up to the curb outside the Alaska Airlines terminal. Hugs. Hellos. Handshakes all around. We tossed our bags into the back of their SUV and headed directly for the West TicTac area, where Mom and Vince share a house. A lovely lunch at a nice restaurant overlooking Alki Beach. A quick tour of the neighborhood for David. A five-minute drive to Mom and Vince's house, where we unloaded our bags and Mom handed us the keys to her Saturn. Then back onto the freeway, heading for TicTac to meet up with The Tots.

Rush, rush, rush, rush.

Now, though, it feels like things are finally slowing down a little bit. We'll only be in town for four days, and we have a bazillion things to accomplish while we're here: places to go, people to see, last-minute presents to buy, this-minute crises to defuse. I feel dizzy, simply thinking about it all. But right now I'm in TicTac ... and I'm standing in the middle of one of my favorite stores in the whole world, with a walletful of cash and credit cards ... and there is no place I urgently need to be for at least another hour.

Maybe I'll go look at sweaters for a while.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Monday night, 6 p.m.

"This is the BEST feeling in the world!" I announce, to no one in general and everyone in particular. "I've got my four favorite people on the planet, sitting right here in the same car with me!" 

And I twist around in the front seat, next to David, and smile at all three of the Tots, crammed into the backseat of the Saturn.

There is a murmured chorus of false assent -- Yeah Mom. This is great. Too bad we can't do this EVERY day -- before they lapse back into customary silence.

We caught up with the other two Tots after we'd finished shopping with Jaymi. My son saw us pull up in front of his house and came ambling outside to greet us: hugs for Mom, a firm handshake for David, a brotherly punch in the arm for Jaymi. Kacie showed up half an hour later. I was sitting on the sofa, chatting with my ex-husband, when I looked out the window and saw someone running down the street in the darkness. Thirty seconds later she was bursting through the front door and into my arms: a merry moment. 

Once I had all three of the Tots in my clutches, we had to decide how to spend our evening. Should we shop some more? Should we go see "The Two Towers"? Should we just hang out here and enjoy a night of Family Fun Time? After some discussion, it was decided that we would go out to dinner: The Tots, David and me. I felt a momentary pang of guilt -- Should we invite my ex? -- but he didn't seem especially interested in tagging along.

So it's just the five of us.with the tots, christmas 2002

And now here we are in the car together, and the decision-making continues. Where should we go to eat? No Mexican food: I'm saving myself for Taco Time tomorrow. No Mongolian BBQ: Kyle won't eat it. No seafood: *I* won't eat it. Eventually we decide on Italian, and we head for Dino's in Des Moines.

The waitress seats us at a long, low table in the rear section of the restaurant. David and I are seated next to each other on one side of the table, with Kyle next to David. Jaymi and Kacie are seated across from us, with an empty chair strategically placed between the two of them.

"Order anything you want," I tell them. "Dinner is on me."

Kyle orders some sort of pizza sandwich for himself; David chooses the baked manicotti; Kacie and I both go for the chicken parmesan. Jaymi orders a single glass of Merlot with her eggplant parmesan. ("Do you mind?" she asks David and I, and we assure her that no, we don't mind. Other peoples' drinking has never been our problem.) The waitress asks to see her ID, which makes all of us smile ... especially Jaymi. She's only been 21 for a couple of weeks: being carded is still a novelty.  Throughout the evening, I surreptitiously watch her as she takes occasional calm, measured sips of wine with her dinner. The wine is clearly not the focus of the meal for her: as a matter of fact, she ends up leaving the last third of the glass untouched at the end of the evening. I'm relieved, of course ... and frankly envious. I would love to be able to drink that way: a single glass of wine sipped slowly, sparingly, as a complement to a nice meal.

It's the fact that I can't drink that way, of course, that makes me an alcoholic.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Tuesday morning, 10 a.m.

My mom stands in the doorway of the guest room, keeping me company as I finish unpacking our suitcases. As I shake the wrinkles from dress pants and slide rumpled blouses onto hangers, we chat about family stuff, weather stuff, travel stuff, Christmas stuff.

"I bought David some new clothes just for this trip," I tell her. And I hold up the new maroon polo shirt for her inspection.

"Very nice," she says.

The polo shirt is a brand-new wardrobe development. David doesn't *do* polo shirts, any more than he *does* turtlenecks or Dockers or little polka-dot bow ties with matching suspenders. When he isn't dressed in a suit -- his standard Monday-through-Friday office uniform -- he is strictly a jeans-and-Mötorhead-T-shirt kind of guy. (Although he does indulge in the occasional touch of sartorial flamboyance. Just last weekend, as a matter of fact, he went to Famous Guy's Christmas party wearing a black silk shirt emblazoned with guitars ... and he looked pretty snappy, if he does say so himself.) Ordinarily I'm fine with the way he dresses, and with his unique sense of "style." But at some point during the past couple of weeks -- when I was planning David's first Christmas with my family in TicTac, and how I wanted him to dress for the occasion -- I decided that he needed to present a more "normal" image. (Read this: I wanted him to look more like his brother-in-law ... at least while we were all sitting around the Christmas tree together.) Hence the new maroon polo shirt.

"It's like dressing my David Doll," I tell my mom, mom shows david 'the gallery' sliding the shirt onto a hanger. She nods, as though she agrees with what I'm saying here ... but I catch a momentary flicker of something else in her eyes.

Doubt? Amusement? Been-there-done-that?

My mother really likes David. I watch her face, sometimes, whenever she's listening to him talk -- and talk, and talk, and talk -- and it seems clear that her affection for him is genuine. I don't know whether it's because he's a naturally likeable guy, or because he helped saved her daughter's life, or because she's probably never going to have to loan me money to bail him out of the drunk tank. I suspect it's a little bit of all these things, rolled into one. They enjoy a sweet, gentle, mutually-respectful relationship that is very lovely to observe.

As a matter of fact everybody in my family seems to like David just fine, just the way he is. Is it possible that I'm needlessly gilding the lily, here?

"Of course," I tell my mom, "I'm going to let David choose what he wears on Christmas Day." And I hang the maroon polo shirt on the rod in the guest closet ...

... right next to the flamboyant guitar shirt.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Tuesday afternoon, 1 p.m.

Over the years I've developed a theory about Taco Time, and about the power it holds over me.

It's not that the food there is so much tastier or so much better or so much more anything else than the food at any other fast food restaurant. Even when I was still living in TicTac -- walking distance from the nearest Taco Time -- I went through long periods where I could take it or leave it.

(I actually worked at a Taco Time for about ten minutes in the early 1980's. After I quit, it was six months before I could tolerate the smell of a Crisp Beef Burrito again.) 

It's just that Taco Time is so much less accessible these days, now that I live in California: it's a classic case of the old "We Want What We Can't Have" Syndrome. These days, I spend months and months dreaming about sinking my teeth into a plump, pliant, sour-cream-intensive Soft Taco ... and then when the moment finally arrives, it's like culinary orgasm. I imagine that if there were no McDonalds in California, I would feel the same way about a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

"Good?" Kacie asks, amused, as she watches me take that first rapturous bite. All I can do is nod, as sour cream dribbles down the front of my new red sweater.

Next to me, David pokes experimentally at his Baja Soft Taco. I force him to eat Taco Time every time we go to TicTac -- and he eats it willingly -- but he is considerably less enthusiastic about the whole thing than I am. Across the table from me, Kacie is hunched over her food, dunking Mexi-Fries into little plastic tubs of hot sauce. The three of us eat in companionable silence for a few minutes. When we're finished, I wipe the sour cream from my mouth (and my sweater) with a wad of paper napkins. Then I turn to Kacie and smile at her, with what I hope is an expression of benign maternal calm.

"Let's talk about how we want to do our shopping today," I say to her carefully.

She looks at me, all bright-eyed and expectant, and I swallow hard. I've been dreading this moment -- and this conversation -- for days. 

"I'm just wondering," I say very slowly, feeling incredibly awkward and inept, "if you plan to shop by yourself this afternoon ... or whether I should shop with you and pay for everything with my credit card?"

I look at her to gauge her reaction to this.

At first, she doesn't get it. "Of course you should just give me the money and let me shop by myself!" she laughs, looking at me like I'm this adorably loony woman who doesn't have a clue how the world is supposed to work. "I don't want you to see what I'm buying for you!" 

But then she suddenly reads something in my face -- caution? history? guilt? fear? -- and her own expression darkens, and all of a sudden it's like a door slams shut between us.

I don't trust her with money.

"I can't BELIEVE this!" she says, her blue eyes puddling with tears. "You think I'm going to STEAL from you!" 

I try to tell her no, it's not about stealing -- it's about me not wanting to fund anybody's recreational drug use, especially hers, especially since god knows if someone had handed *me* a big pile of money during the height of my addiction, I would have been paging my dealer so fast it would make your head spin -- but she isn't listening to me. 

"I don't need your fucking money!" she sobs. "I can do my own fucking Christmas shopping!" 

For one ghastly moment it looks as though she's going to leap from the table and run out the door -- if she does, I will have to let her go, of course, and that will pretty much be the end of Christmas for us both -- but instead she remains at the table and launches into a tearful, ten-minute tirade against me, against her father, against society, against the world. Why don't we trust her? What has she ever done to us? Why is everybody against her? 

I sit there and wordlessly look at the floor, fighting back tears of my own. It's Tough Love Time, baby, says the cold voice of reason in my head. You want my trust? You've got to earn it. You want the world to cut you some slack? Then own some of your own misery. You want me to hand you a pile of shopping money and turn you loose? Not on your life.

But oh my god, says the soft squishy voice of sentiment in my heart. She's my daughter ... and she's crying ... and it's Christmas.

Half an hour later we are pulling into the Fred Meyer parking lot. I turn around and press a small wad of bills into her hand ... hating myself for my weakness. "We'll meet you back at the car in an hour," I tell her firmly.

She gives me a hug -- "Thanks Mom," she says -- and she runs alone across the parking lot and into the department store.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Tuesday afternoon, 4:45 p.m.

My father is clearly surprised to see us at his door on Christmas Eve.

Actually, "surprised" is an understatement: he looks as though he's opened his door to find an army of rabid mutant chipmunks standing on his doormat, ready to knock him down and burst into his house and eat all of his mixed nuts.

"I know, I know," I apologize. "We're early." 

We'd agreed via e-mail, earlier in the week, that David and The Tots and I would be at his house at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Traffic was lighter than we'd expected, though, and as a result we're about twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

As far as Dad is concerned, however, we're about twenty HOURS ahead of schedule.

"Isn't Christmas Eve tomorrow night?" he asks, blinking at us in befuddlement. 

At first I think he's pulling our leg. My dad has a dry and twisted sense of humor: maybe this is simply him being funny. But then I take another look at him, and I see that he's dressed in rumpled pajamas and an ancient pair of house slippers ... and I look at my stepmother standing behind him, looking stricken and agitated ... and I look through the doorway at their dark messy living room, utterly devoid of twinkly lights or wrapped packages or holiday decorations of any kind.

And that's when I realize that he's not kidding. He thinks that Christmas Eve is tomorrow day early

Mute with embarrassment, the Tots and David and I troop into my dad's dark silent house and stand around awkwardly, looking at each other. This is an Oh Shidt Moment of the first magnitude: if I could sink through the floorboards and escape to the safety of Communist China right now, I would. 

To their credit, though, both my dad and my stepmom manage to recover from the surprise and pull together a makeshift celebration with relatively little fuss. Before we know it, we are all seated in their living room with Cokes and ham sandwiches, as my Dad passes out our unwrapped gifts, one by one. Shower gel and house slippers for the girls and I; aftershave and flashlights for David and Kyle. My stepmother unwraps the Julia Child cookbook I ordered from her Amazon wish list. My Dad oohs and ahhs over his new digital camera. 

After the presents are opened, Dad offers David and I a glass of Carolans Irish Creme -- my favorite holiday poison, during my drinking days -- and I remind him, once again, that I'm four years sober. (The offering and the reminding have become as much a holiday tradition, I think, as the liqueur ever was.) We sit and talk: about computers, about cars, about absent family members. An hour passes. Then another hour. Eventually the dogs are let out of the bedroom. They mill stoopidly around in the living room, tails thunking against our legs and against the furniture, until David's allergy medication begins to wear off, and he starts to wheeze and leak and turn funny colors, and we must finally say our goodbyes.

Dad stands in the doorway and waves as we pile into the car. "Merry Christmas!" he says, as we drive away. "See you next year!"

(But for the love of god ... CALL first.)

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Christmas morning, 8 a.m.

My mom is standing in the middle of her kitchen in a big fuzzy bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee. "Merry Christmas," she says. Momentary sunshine from the skylight overhead illuminates her face and her blonde hair, lighting her up like one of the Christmas angels in her collection. I've always thought my mother was pretty. Right now she is beautiful.

"Merry Christmas," I reply, giving her a gentle hug ... taking care not to joggle her oxygen tube.

By our calculations, it has been forty-one years since the two of us have woken up under the same roof on Christmas morning. "The last time had to have been 1961," she says. "The next year, you and Dickie had gone to live with your grandparents." 1961 would have been the Christmas I was four years old. The realization makes us both a little sad: the thought of all those long years -- those long decades -- spent apart from each other on the most important morning of the year. We always saw each other on Christmas Eve, of course ... but for forty-one Christmas mornings, we awoke in separate houses.

This is especially poignant when I remember that my own children have felt a similar loss in recent years.

"Let's take our coffee into the living room and exchange our gifts now," she suggests. 

She and Vince will be leaving shortly for my sister's house, where they will be spending most of Christmas Day; David and I have plans to spend the day with The Tots at my ex-husband's house. Soon, we will be parting ... but at least we have this moment. So we carry our coffee cups and our cinnamon rolls into the living room, and we enjoy a few minutes of long-delayed Christmas Morning Time together.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Christmas Morning, 10 a.m.

I'm not sure, but I think my ex-husband might be shrinking.

I hugged him again this morning, when David and I arrived at his house to spend Christmas Day, and he feels smaller, somehow, than I remember. Thinner. Less substantial. More fragile. I can feel the sharp edges of his shoulder blades poking me through his flannel shirt as we hug: if I squeeze him too hard, I'm afraid he might snap right in half, like a piece of that dry kindling he's constantly feeding his woodstove.

"I hope you're hungry," he smiles, shaking David's hand. And then he disappears into the kitchen for the next half hour to cook breakfast.

My son, on the other hand, is still in the my two husbands middle of a busy adolescent growth spurt. He's taller than I am by at least two or three inches -- I swear, he's taller than he was when he came to visit us in April, even -- and when he hugs me I feel like I'm being hugged by a mountain.

"Merry Christmas," he says ... clearly pleased to have us here.

Kacie is still sound asleep on the sofa when we arrive. All attempts to prod her into consciousness fail: she squints in annoyance at the intrusion and burrows further beneath the blankets, like a crabby woodtick. Never a morning person, that child. I take a seat at the end of the sofa, next to her feet, and quietly drink a cup of coffee while we wait for Jaymi and Joel to arrive.

In the corner, the Christmas tree twinkles and shimmers ... trimmed with ornaments from my childhood, from my early first marriage, from the Tots' collective babyhoods.

On the other side of the living room, the woodstove crackles and pops.

From the kitchen, the familiar smells of bacon and coffee.

Another Christmas in Polenville: it's almost as though I never left. (Except of course for the fact that I did leave ... and that I've been gone for five years now ... and that today I'm sitting here in my ex-house, while my ex-husband is in my ex-kitchen cooking breakfast for my new husband and me. It's a wonderful life, isn't it?)

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Christmas Evening: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

"What time IS it, anyway?" asks my mother. 

David and I have just returned to her house, after a long and exhausting day: she and Vince are sitting upstairs in front of the big screen TV, watching a travelogue. It feels very late, although it's probably only 7 or 8 p.m.

I glance at my naked wrist. "I don't know," I shrug. "I don't have a watch." And I give my husband a long, meaningful look.

He blinkssanta puss at me in stoopid sleepy confusion -- Gee, I don't know what time it is either, Honey -- but then he suddenly snaps out of his mental fugue. "Oh my gosh!" he shouts. "That's my cue!" And he leaps out of his chair and dashes out of the room.

Mom gives me a puzzled look. "What was that all about?"

"He forgot to give me my Christmas present this morning," I smile. "He's probably wrapping it right now."

David and I went around and around on the subject of exchanging gifts this year. Between the airfare, the gifts for the Tots, the expensive restaurant meals, the maroon polo shirt (still hanging in the guest closet, unworn), we are basically tapped. At one point, earlier this month, we decided not to buy anything for each other; later we relented and said we would exchange token gifts, primarily so nobody would feel sorry for us. Then my broken watch fell off my wrist, one morning on the bike trail, and disappeared forever ... and that was that. I've been *hinting* (in my oh-so-subtle sledgehammer fashion) for a replacement watch ever since.

While we wait for David to finish wrapping my present, Mom asks about our day.

"We had a nice Christmas with Ray sleepy kacie, joel, davidand the Tots," I tell her. And it's the truth: we had a marvelously fun, friendly, relaxing time. Jaymi and Joel arrived at the house shortly after we did ... Kacie was eventually coaxed into waking up ... the ex-husband was lured out of the kitchen for a few minutes ... and we all dove headfirst into the familiar, gluttonous ritual of the Christmas morning gift exchange. Jaymi played 'Santa,' as always -- she inherited the role after I moved out of the house, and it has been hers ever since -- passing out gifts with deliberation and care, one at a time, making sure that no one went empty-handed for long. I was soon surrounded by an embarrassment of riches: headphones from my son ... the PaintShop Pro Anniversary Edition I've been lusting over, from Jaymi ... a bike mirror and a set of porcelain dolls from Kacie. 

"The little one reminds me of you," she said shyly, as I opened her gift.

"It's been a lot of years since anybody gave me a doll for Christmas," I smiled.

After the presents were opened, the rest of the day passed in a pleasant blur of conversation and companionable sloth. We watched movies. We helped Kyle set up his new computer. We talked. We played video games. We looked at photo albums. We napped, a little. We read. And we ate, pretty much nonstop: cookies, chocolate, bacon and eggs, shrimp cocktail, more chocolate, gingerbread, crackers, soda, celery with cream cheese, more chocolate, and -- at the end of the day -- an enormous barbecued turkey dinner with all the trimmings, mountains prepared singlehandedly by my ex-husband.

"That reminds me!" Vince says,as I'm rattling off the day's menu. "Would you like me to make some popcorn before we watch the movie?" We're going to spend the rest of our Christmas Evening together, just the four of us, watching "Dragonfly" on the big screen. I groan and tell him no thank you ... I'm probably never going to be interested in food, ever again.

At that moment David returns to the room, carrying a small, lumpy, hastily-wrapped Christmas gift in his hands.

"Merry Christmas, Honey," he says, kissing the top of my head and handing me my Christmas present. "You'll never guess what it is."

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Thursday Afternoon, 1:45 p.m.

The World's Cutest Nephew is on the prowl.

It's the day after Christmas, the presents have all been opened, lunch is over, the grown-ups are still sitting around the table talking about boring grown-up stuff ... what's a guy gotta do for entertainment around this place, anyway? Twitchy with restless three-year-old energy, he wanders around the restaurant, looking for ways to amuse himself.

of course, his sadistic Aunt Terri immediately picked up her camera and took PICTURES

"I can't believe how big he is!" I tell my sister. This is not strictly true -- I am intimately, achingly familiar with how quickly children grow up -- but it seems the appropriately Aunt Secra-like thing to say.

Debi beams with pride as she watches her small towheaded son. "He's growing up so fast," she says wistfully.

I know the feeling.

Across the table from me, Jaymi is gazing absentmindedly out the window of the restaurant. Neither of the other Tots could make this farewell lunch -- Kyle was still asleep when we called, and Kacie is AWOL once again -- but Jaymi was more than happy to tag along. After lunch we will head back to her dad's house and spend the last couple hours of our Christmas vacation there, together, until it's time to take David and I to the airport for our return flight home.

In the meantime, The World's Cutest Nephew has discovered the holiday window display, next to our table.

"What's 'sat?" he asks me sweetly, holding up a small Christmas tree ornament. It looks like a shiny glass apple.

"I think it's supposed to go on the Christmas tree," I explain to him. He watches with interest as I loop the tiny ornament onto the miniature tree. 

"Ohhhhhhh," he breathes. "That's what it is." 

And for the next few minutes he stands in front of the display, completely absorbed in hanging ornaments on the tree, then removing them one by one and hanging them up all over again.

I love my little nephew. I wish I could have spent more time with him this trip. As it is, this brief, hurried, day-after-Christmas luncheon is going to be the only real chance I'll have to visit with him, and with my sister, and with my brother-in-law Tim. Ours is a family with many branches, many obligations, many conflicting loyalties. There is no way to do everything that needs to be done -- or to see everybody who deserves to be seen -- in the short space of four days.

Just one of the constant sorrows of living seven hundred miles from my family.

I gaze around the table for a moment, looking at all of these dear familiar faces, one by one. Next to me, David is scraping the last remaining crumbs of berry pie off his dessert plate with his fork. Across the table, Mom and Vince have their heads together, lost in private conversation. My brother-in-law Tim sits at the far end of the table, finishing his lunch, while my sister describes her new birthday Volvo. Jaymi, still lost in thought, continues to gaze out the window.

The World's Cutest Nephew is now investigating a display of ceramic gingerbread houses.

"This is pretty!" he says under his breath, to nobody in particular. I watch him as he traces the curves of the house with his finger. "What's 'sat?" he asks, pointing to the faux-icing trim. 

"That's supposed to be candy," Jaymi tells him. "But it's just pretend, so don't eat it, OK?" 

He nods -- Of course I'm not going to eat it, silly -- and continues to trace the contours of the roof. He pushes experimentally at the door of the house, but it doesn't open. He bends down and peers through one of the windows. "Nobody home," he says. Then he pokes one chubby finger through the smallest roundest window, just above the door. The finger is a perfect fit for the window: it slides right in, like a hand into a mitten.

The problem is ... he can't pull the finger back out.

For one long minute he just stands there: not moving, not saying anything, not betraying any emotion at all. The other adults at the lunch table are conversing with each other, oblivious to his dilemma. After a moment, though, he gives his finger an experimental tug. It doesn't budge. He tries again, but it just seems to wedge tighter.


I lean across the table and whisper into my sister's ear. "I think we have a problem," I tell her softly. Raising my voice is simply going to agitate him. Already his little face is beginning to crumple in alarm.

"Don't worry, Connor!" says my brother-in-law, running over to the gingerbread house and kneeling down beside his son. "We'll get you out of there!" 

After several unsuccessful attempts to pull the finger out of the gingerbread window, my sister dashes to the restaurant kitchen and borrows a plate of butter from the cook. We all watch, fighting to keep straight faces, as a glob of butter is smeared around and under and over the finger, which has begun to turn an alarming shade of pink. With a couple of gentle tugs -- and a lot of reassurances that 'this isn't going to hurt' -- the finger is finally released from its gingerbread prison.

Problem solved. Crisis averted. Drama over.

As The World's Cutest Nephew seeks the comfort of his mother's lap, Jaymi looks speculatively at the gingerbread house ... and then at me, her eyes glinting in mischief.

"Don't even think about it," I growl.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Thursday Evening, 7:55 p.m.

We've been sitting on the plane for more than half an hour now, according to my spiffy new watch ... but we still haven't rolled away from the gate. At this rate, we won't be home until midnight.

"I wonder what the hold-up could be?" I say to David conversationally. Mechanical problems? Bad weather? Terrorist threats? Crazy Nutjob Guy, screaming about monsters again? 

But David is already tipped back in his seat, eyes closed, mouth hanging open slightly. I can hear him snoring, under his breath. This "vacation" of ours has worn him out.

I sit quietly and read my magazine for a few minutes.

Eventually, the pilot comes on the intercom and makes an announcement. "We apologize for the delay," he says, in that genial, faux-Southern drawl that all Alaska Airline pilots seem to affect. "We've had a passenger suddenly take ill at the gate, and it looks like he won't be making the flight with us this evening."

David opens his eyes, and we glance at each other meaningfully. Gee. I wonder who THAT could be?

"Unfortunately," the pilot continues, "Federal regulations require that we remove his baggage from the plane before we can take off." David and I look around us. It's the day after Christmas, and the flight is completely full. There must be 200+ passengers, easily, with an average of three pieces of luggage each.

You do the math.

It takes another twenty minutes for the offending luggage to be located and removed from the bowels of the plane. (And that's OK with me. Frankly, I figure an extra twenty minutes on the ground is a small price to pay to make sure Crazy Nutjob Guy isn't flying with us.) Finally I hear the familiar roar of the jet engines firing up, as we begin the long roll backwards from the gate. A moment later we're hurtling down the runway. As our plane lifts off from the ground, I pop my glasses onto my nose and peer out the tiny porthole window. Ordinarily it's hard for me to pick out familiar landmarks on the ground as we're taking off -- especially at night -- but for some reason, this time, I immediately spot my son's sprawling high school campus. I quickly track the route before I lose my bearings. Four blocks west. Past the middle school. Across the street. Down the little private road ... and suddenly there it is:

My ex-husband's house.

There is no mistaking it: I can even see the chain-link fence in front of the driveway, the string of Christmas lights framing the roof, a puff of smoke billowing from the chimney.

"Goodbye, everybody," I whisper. "Merry Christmas!" 

I feel my heart squeeze, in a familiar combination of sorrow and love. My eyes remain glued to the ground below me as the house grows tinier and more distant, until it blurs into the constellation of neighboring lights and becomes indistinguishable, eventually disappearing from my sight altogether.

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happy birthday yesterday, deb!