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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

Exiling the Ghosts of Christmases Past

January 09, 1998|SANDY BANKS

It was officially considered a vacation, the two weeks I spent at home before returning to work this week. That's how it went down on the books. That's what my kids called it, announcing to their friends that Mom, finally, was getting "a long vacation, at home with us."

But I approached my time off with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

True, it could be a rare chance for the kind of "quality time" that overloaded parents always struggle to squeeze in.

Yet, I knew from experience that riding herd over three restless kids out of school for two weeks could be the kind of vacation that would make me eager to return to work, where, at least, I could eat a lunch that someone else made and get through an entire section of the newspaper without someone yelling at me to bring toilet paper to the bathroom.

There was, of course, the small matter of undone Christmas shopping to get out of the way. But I could finish that, I thought, and still have enough free time to bake a half-dozen varieties of cookies and pack them into festive tins for our neighbors and friends.

Then I would compose one of those delightful family newsletters and send out Christmas cards for the first time in years, accompanied by adorable photos of my three daughters, which I would find by rummaging through the thousands of pictures stuffed in boxes and bags in our storage closet.

The next week I would clean that closet, then reorganize the pantry, clear out my children's closets and rearrange the clutter in the garage. In between chores, we'd fit in family trips to museums and parks, take our dogs on long walks through the woods and work on daily assignments to advance the schoolwork the girls had left behind.

*

That was the fantasy.

The reality?

I came to consider it a success if we were out of our pajamas by 2 p.m., if I got the breakfast dishes cleared by dinner time, if we made it through the day without somebody inflicting bodily harm on somebody else.

I gave up the notion of teaching multiplication facts and spelling words. I settled, instead, for the relative peace provided by a 12-year-old who spent most of each day e-mailing her friends while her little sisters lounged in Mommy's bed, drinking Kool-Aid and watching cartoons.

I realized that I could wash three loads of laundry each day and some child would still complain she had nothing to wear. I could spend hours making homemade soup and baking fresh bread and my kids would beg for hot dogs and chips instead. And no matter how many times I went through the house turning off lights and television sets, the place would remain lit up in broad daylight like . . . well, a Christmas tree.

It took our single vacation diversion--a two-day visit to Wrightwood, for our first ski trip--to provide the ultimate reality check.

Another plan gone awry, I thought at first. The snow wasn't as I remembered it from my childhood in Ohio, where soft, fluffy white mounds made snow play feel like a day in the clouds. This was dense and hard-packed, slushy in places and spotty in others, with asphalt and brown grass peeking though.

But my children, thank God, are not encumbered by my memories.

It was snow--cold and white, and good enough for making snowballs, sledding, building a snowman.

And while I was preoccupied with my disappointment--frustrated that we couldn't make "snow angels" or catch snowflakes on our tongues--they discovered what fun could be had pelting each other with crunchy snowballs and sledding down a hillside that ended in a giant puddle of mud.

So I settled back and let them enjoy their play, and realized what a burden expectations can create.

And how easy it is to let the weight of old memories crush the joy out of a brand new day.

*

I'd be lying if I said the recent holidays weren't difficult, at times, for me.

I was lonely late on Christmas Eve, when the kids were in bed and I was still up, wrapping and assembling presents alone. And the joy of watching them on Christmas morning seemed muted, with no one to share the pleasure.

But my children displayed no such discomfort, effortlessly embracing new traditions and weaving them into the rituals of their Christmases past.

My friend gave us a hand-painted plate to replace the "Cookies for Santa" dish she'd given us years before, which was stolen last year. We got a new copy of "The Night Before Christmas" and I read it to my girls in front of the fire on Christmas Eve. They learned the words to the Christmas carols their father and I loved, and we sang them in the car wherever we went.

And, on Christmas Day, I scrapped the elaborate plans I'd made to keep us busy and hold sadness at bay and let our own rhythms dictate the day.

We slept in that morning until after 8, then came downstairs to a bounty of gifts that left everyone smiling. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast, then piled back into my bed to watch movies and sleep. Later we played outside together, shooting baskets and riding bikes, then headed off for dinner at our favorite Japanese restaurant.

It wasn't what I'd imagined, but it was as close to perfect as a Christmas Day could be.

Now, if I can just find a way to make that afternoon nap a new holiday ritual, I think I can dispatch memories of Christmases past . . . to my dreams.

*

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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