She loved the lights, the ornaments, the stockings, the music, and the food - even the slight pain in her neck from turning her head when she heard her name and discovered another parent patiently explaining the Nativity scene. She loved trying to find the perfect gift, and trying to keep it a secret when she did. She loved keeping old traditions alive, and making new ones for her son. She wanted this to be a magical time, especially after her last holiday.
Thanksgiving had been a dismal failure this year. Between morning sickness and mood swings, it was doomed before she even started, but they’d tried anyway. John made the turkey, bless his heart, and she’d made everything else. She’d managed to get everything started, the bread was no problem, brown and serve rolls are pretty simple. The green bean casserole had to be scrapped; just the sight of condensed cream of anything made her nauseas. Cranberry sauce came straight from a can, no problem; frozen pumpkin pie went into the oven without a hitch. Giblet gravy was not on the menu. It made her sick on her best days; she didn’t want to risk it. Dean helped with the mashed potatoes; he was so cute in his little apron, so serious about his mashing. Cornbread dressing was obviously the best option; oysters were on her list of things not to think about.
They finally got all the surviving parts of the dinner to the table, minus the cranberry sauce, which had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when she started crying over their last Thanksgiving as a family of three.
The meal seemed to go fine, a few misty eyed moments, and one threat of bodily harm when John wanted to leave the table and eat in front of the TV so as not to miss the game. She really thought the worst was over. It felt so good to be hungry and be able to eat. That lasted about three minutes after the meal ended, and then she had to sprint for the bathroom. Sobbing over the toilet was not how she wanted to spend the day, which of course made her even more inclined to tears. Eventually she recovered and emerged to find her guests fled, John parked in front of the game, and Dean asleep on the couch. All in all, it was not her best holiday.
Christmas, she decided, was going to be different. Luckily the morning sickness was behind her, and being emotional at Christmastime was perfectly acceptable, even encouraged. Things were looking up.
“All right little one, what should Santa get your big brother?” She rested her hand on her stomach. She wasn’t showing yet but she was starting to feel little flutters. John seemed to think she was nuts for talking to her stomach, but she’d talked to Dean the entire time she was pregnant with him and she still maintained that was what made him so smart.
“Besides, with Daddy at work and Dean at school it’s just you and me, baby. Now, let’s get this done and hide the goodies before we need to pick up your brother.” Most of her gift buying was finished, just stocking stuffers left, so with GI Joe, a matchbox fire truck, some candy, and of course a new Golden Book, the shopping was done.
“Dean, wanna help me decorate the tree?” Mary called.
Dean came running in from the backyard and settled in beside the big cardboard box.
“Ok sweetheart, hand me one of the ornaments, carefully though, they’re breakable.”
Dean began reverently hading over carefully wrapped or boxed ornaments, this was a tradition he already loved.
“This one is from Mommy & Daddy’s first Christmas together, let’s hang it down low since it’s so heavy. This one was the first ornament I bought for myself. You made this one last year, it’s still the cutest candy cane Rudolph ever.” Mary smiled as Dean carefully bent the pipe cleaner antlers back into shape. Mary handed him a blue glass ball with a year inscribed on it in silver. “Gently now, that’s your first
Christmas ornament, you pick where it goes.”
He glanced down into the rapidly emptying cardboard box. “Mommy, why is this one still in the bag?”
“That’s your new ornament, go ahead and look.”
“It’s a cowboy!” Dean exclaimed, lifting it into the air triumphantly. “With a red hat and red boots! But why is he so pale?”
“It’s a snowman cowboy, go hang it up.”
Dean carefully hung his new ornament right in the center of the tree, than gave Mary a hug, “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome sweetheart. Remember, when you grow up you get to take all of your ornaments with you, so your first tree won’t be bare.”
‘Or, she thought, ‘if it ever comes to that you could sell them, dated Hallmark ornaments ought to be worth something, especially since they all still have their boxes.’
She didn’t mention it to John, but sometimes she made little investments in trinkets he would overlook, just in case. She didn’t want him to think she worried about money, but life is uncertain and she wanted to make sure her little ones never lacked anything they needed.
“Daddy, we’re done, come put the angel on!”
“Dean, are you sure your Mommy will fit on top of the tree?” John asked as he came into the room. Dean giggled, Mary blushed.
“Daddy, the other angel!” Dean said, pointing largest item in the Christmas box. It lay in state, wrapped in tissue paper and cushioned by stockings.
“Oh, that, why don’t you put it on?” he asked Dean, handing it to him.
“I’m not tall enough!”
John picked up his son, “Now you are.”
Mary wished she had a camera handy, Dean’s grin was incandescent, and John’s was just as broad. She felt a flutter in her stomach.
‘Soon, little one, you’ll be a part of this very soon.’
John headed back out to hang lights, Dean in tow. Mary popped in a Christmas tape and went back to the box of decorations. Happily singing along, she set out nutcrackers and Santas, hung stockings and garland. Voices drifted in from the front yard.
“Are they lit now?”
“Only the ones by the door”
“OK, how about now?”
“Dad, are they supposed to blink?”
“What? They’re blinking?”
“No, are they supposed to?”
Mary smiled; Dean spoke so clearly, and sounded so grown up, it was easy to forget he didn’t always think like an adult. She just wished John had more time to spend with him, and with her. ‘Oh well, once the holiday rush is over he’ll have more free time.’
Every night this week had been a late one. People about to go out of town for the holidays were finally deciding to get their cars checked. John could’ve said no, or told them he was too busy, but she knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t stand the thought of those families getting hurt because of something he could prevent. So it was late hours, and working on Saturdays, all the way until Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve, the lights on the tree twinkled, the music on the radio tinkled, and her boys were safely tucked up on the couch reading “The Night Before Christmas”. Mary hummed carols as she pulled the last of the cookies off the pan, listening to John's deep voice reciting the familiar verses.
“…When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.”
“Eeewww! Why’d he eat the sash to begin with?” Dean asked.
Mary came into the living room to the sound of giggles, John had once again fallen prey to Dean’s infectious laughter. She sat the plate of cookies for Santa and the glass of milk on the hearth.
Dean looked at the milk for a minute then said “Won’t it get warm waiting for Santa to come?”
“Santa likes warm milk. Now, are you ready to open one gift before bed, sweetheart?” Mary asked.
Of course he was, so Mary handed him one brightly wrapped box. Dean tore off the paper, pried open the box, and pulled out his new pajamas.
“Mom, how come every year my early gift is pj’s?” Dean asked suspiciously.
John laughed. He’d wondered how long it would take for that question to be asked.
“So you’ll look extra handsome in your pictures tomorrow, now run get ready for bed. Daddy and I will be up to tuck you in in a minute.” Mary replied.
“And remember, you have to go to sleep or Santa can’t come,” John called up the stairs after Dean.
Two hours later, half a glass of room temperature milk had been poured down the sink, while John inquired as to why, exactly, Santa didn’t drink beer instead. One cookie eaten, one with a bite out of it, and plenty of crumbs left on the plate further attested to Santa’s midnight feast. Stockings were stuffed, a few gifts too large or odd shaped to wrap were pulled out of hiding, and Santa’s elves were ready for bed.
Her eyes started to open.
“Mommy, its Christmas!”
Mary rolled over and nudged John.
“Wake up honey, Dean’s ready to see if Santa came.”
Dean started to head for the door.
“Get back here young man”, John said with humor in his voice. “You know you have to wait till I get the camera.”
Mary grabbed a warm robe while John found the camera and headed down ahead of them. He was ready at the foot of the stairs when they came down and captured of shot of Dean’s face when he saw what had appeared overnight.
“He came! He came!” Dean raced down the stairs. “Look, he ate the cookies, and he left something in your stockings too!”
Mary and John followed their son at a more reasonable pace. By the time they reached the couch Dean had already emptied his stocking, exclaiming over every item. He pulled down his parents’ stockings and carried them to the couch.
“What did Santa bring you?” he asked.
Mary reached into her stocking and smiled. “Chocolates, and new tapes for the car, perfect!”
John pulled out a book on World War 2 and a new pair of socks.
“You must not have been very good, Daddy,” Dean observed.
John laughed, “No I just got exactly what I wanted, plus something I needed.”
Soon the room was a mass of brightly colored paper, box lids, and tissue paper. Dean was outside with his new bike, Mary watching through the window, while John made pancakes.
After breakfast Mary picked up the trash from the living room while John did the breakfast dishes. Dean lay on the floor happily concocting heroic missions for G. I. Joe and Han Solo, with boxes for spaceships and books for landing pads.
Chores finished, the adults settled on the couch, the late night and early morning finally catching up to them. Mary rested her head on John’s shoulder and her hand on her stomach.
“So, do you still want to go out tonight?”
“John, it’s a tradition. We always go out to see the lights Christmas night. Why on earth would that change this year?”
“I’m just teasing you, of course we’ll go.”
That night they all bundled up, Mary strapped Dean into his booster seat in the back, and then slid into the passenger seat. She was not looking forward to trying that after she started showing more, much less trying to get two little ones buckled in after the baby was born. John started the car, and the gleaming black Impala rumbled to life.
They drove slowly through all the best lit neighborhoods, singing along to Christmas tapes Mary knew by heart. Eventually the singing grew quieter, and Mary glanced back to see Dean had finally dozed off. She turned down the music and smiled over at her husband.
“Happy, sweetheart?” John murmured.
“Very. I love this time of year. It’s so nice to just be together as a family.”
“Just think, next year there’ll be another one asleep back there.”
“I can’t wait, the more the merrier. Merry Christmas, darling.”