By the week before Christmas, my siblings and I would finally be out of school and sick with anticipation. This manifested itself in several ways. Conspiratorial whisperings late at night as to how to catch Santa Claus. Manic running through the house, so furious the glass ornaments on the tree tinkled and clinked together, the old wooden floors groaning under our pounding feet. Arguments over nothing ensued, some playful slur or accidental elbow thrown, ending, as all such romps ended, in a fist fight.
Not a true fist fight, of course. We were careful not to hit faces or torsos where all the best organs lived, but there was some slugging and rolling around involved. My mother, bent over the jam cake batter, hollered that way she had in the moments just before she snapped, and we retreated to our rooms, relieved to flop on our beds and save ourselves from ourselves. We tossed insults at each other across the hall but really, our hearts weren’t in it.
Evenings and we lay under the tree, fanned out like spokes in a wheel, the room dark but for the tree lights, as we discussed with great solemnity, the existence of you-know-who. My brother, Billy, and I were old enough to have seen price tags left of toys the year before: W.T. Grant, Kuester’s, Sears & Roebuck. This required an elaborate series of events to explain, ones involving managers late on Christmas Eve letting Santa in the backdoor. We accepted the logic that he couldn’t carry all the toys for the world at once, while still accepting the fact that Santa delivered toys by sleigh.
The little kids joined us under the tree, all sweet-smelling in their flannel pajamas, and we were as happy as we ever were, lulled by the dark and colorful lights, all our energy spent for one day, and filled with generosity and goodwill as we anticipated the generosity and goodwill soon to be coming to us.
That’s the thing, isn’t it, how easy to be generous when we have enough. How kind we are when we anticipate kindness from others. How calm our hearts after a good scolding when we know we deserved it and to see, when the dust settles, that whatever it was that got us in trouble isn’t even forgiven, but completely forgotten.
We have new babies in the family this year. Four of them. They are far-flung and we have yet to have them all in the same room together. Right now they are new and fresh and still a wonderment to their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Their job is to be gazed upon and adored, to reach for us so we will pick them up, to squirm and fuss until we find just the spot where they fold into us and find our fit.
The fit that will be different with each child.
And we will study them like lab experiments, working like the teacher’s pet to understand every nuance of their movements, their burbles and grunts, until we believe we are the best in the class, unlocking their codes. We will study them for the rest of our lives. We all want straight A’s in the knowing of these children.
I find myself looking to my young niece, who is the true expert on her infant son, and take instruction as if I’ve paid her for tutoring. I all but take notes. I don’t get much of the new mothering these days: sleep sacks, tummy time, back sleeping. But I get that, for all the baby’s squishy rolls of fat, there is something delicate about new life, like those old German Christmas ornaments, big and brilliant and shiny, and fragile as egg shells.
There will soon be siblings for these babies to love and fight with, new babies for us to learn head to toe.
I have my own version of time under the Christmas tree now. It involves visits with friends, long chats on the phone with pals I might not see for months and months. Christmas music going, sometimes the old holiday classics, sometimes Trans-Siberian Orchestra, sometimes medieval chants, sometimes sweet nuns singing to me in Latin.
No longer waiting for Santa Claus and bribing him with cookies and milk, I will toss seeds and nuts out my backdoor on Christmas morning for the birds and squirrels still inhabiting my yard. I’ll make my mother’s jam cake. I’ll wear flannel pajamas to bed, although I am warm natured. I won’t miss slugging somebody, but I’ll think on the that particular form of sibling love that says, I may hit you but I won’t hurt you. You can trust me. And you do.