I wasn't thinking about Christmas when I was packing and loading the truck for my return to Maine this past May. I did give a passing thought to what I would do with the prize money from the Guinness Book of World Records for the amount one can put into a 24 foot Budget rental truck. I could easily see myself hosting my own show on HGTV demonstrating how you CAN take it with you.
But Christmas came, and it found me far less enthusiastic than in years past. Even though the outdoor world looked like something Currier and Ives dreamed up for a collector plate I was not inspired. For many of the years I was gone from home my mother had done Christmas sparingly. The manger, an angel figurine here and there. and the hand-crafted holiday kitsch. I surprised myself by being content with letting it go at that. Then my 91 year-old mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and would be facing hospitalization and surgery over the holiday week. The idea that this could be our last Christmas together gripped my heart and stomach like a frozen iron claw. The claw released my innards and reached up to slap me out of complacency and into action. Up went the tree, out came the ornaments--hers and mine--collected from everywhere for generations. Out of the boxes sprang Father Yules and nutcrackers, reindeer and snowflakes. They all gathered on the tree vying for prime real estate amidst the glittering garland and icicles. While the cats viewed it as a smorgasbord of opportunity my mother and I were patiently waiting for dusk to plug it in and have that 'oooh-ahhh' moment together. You only get to experience that once per season and it had taken on such a poignant urgency for both of us. We shared that moment--each of us knowing that the other was thinking the same thing--this could be the last time. Nothing was said--everything was understood.
Since 1994 I had hosted what came to be known as the Annual Christmas Refugee Party--hereafter the ACRP. I was a single person without family living in Texas. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by choosing to spend the holiday with one friend over another so I declined all of the invitations. After their respective observances came to an end, several friends came to my home to bring gifts and samplings of their culinary offerings and to bring cheer into what they considered my lonely existence. I ended up having a houseful of people and a veritable feast spread upon the table. It was the most fun any of us had had at Christmas. That's how the ACRP was born. The mission statement was simple: if you don't have anywhere to spend the holiday-come here. If you do have somewhere you HAVE to be, then after you've done the obligatory 'family stuff' and are yearning for the freedom of fun--come here. No one will ask you when you're going to settle down, provide grand children, get a better job, finish school, cut your hair etc... The primary rule was "It ain't about the gifts". Year after year they came back and year after year it was the best part of anyone's holiday. Traditions of food, games, and enduring friendships were spawned. I got to be the uber-host and see to it that no one left empty handed (I have never been good at following my own edicts)--or empty bellied. This would have been the 15th annual gathering and I was 1800 miles away--a lonesome little refugee on the tundra. I was feeling pretty cheated. I really needed a good swift kick to the pants to get over my cheap, imported self. Cue the frozen iron claw.
Standing in front of the most beautiful tree I've ever decorated, next to my mother-- arm around her frail little shoulder--the one I used to cry on, I flip the switch and have the oooh-ahhh moment with her again. In Texas I was blessed with the love of some extraordinary people. In the here and now of Maine I am equally blessed by the love of this extraordinary woman. Her presence in my life before I went away made what came after more priceless to me now. And an old tradition is precious anew. May you all have abundant oooh-ahhh moments.