Tag Archives: Christmas

The Last Day of Class

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25,...

Sharpened Palomino Blackwing Pencil, April 25, 2012 (Photo credit: Maggie Osterberg)

Today, my students met me in the computer lab to revise their work for the end of semester portfolio.  It was that strange course session when I run out the door after arming each student with a number 2 pencil and a scan tron sheet for my evaluation.

Evaluations are awkward.  I always try to guess what my scores will be when they come back a few weeks later.  I never guess right.

I always feel a sense of relief when it is over, when a student retrieves me to come back to the class, the evaluation time having elapsed and, my god, does the air always feel clearer after, the barrier lifted.

Today was the first day my four-year-old begged and cried and fought not to go to preschool.  Usually, he asks many times each morning when it will be time for school, but today, I arrived home from teaching just before I had to drop him off at the Ginther school to another scenario.

First, he wanted to wear his black shorts to school with the Spiderman shirt he’d slept in.

It might have been near 70 yesterday, but today, I had been caught off-guard, walking to my car from class, pulling my sweater tight and cupping it against my elbows.   Flakes drifted around me.  “It’s God’s dry scalp,” my father had said to me many times.

In front of the Christmas tree, I argued with my son to get him to put on his pants for school.  I said all the things that would make him insecure, horrible things that give me  nightmares, let alone Johnny, a little man in the making, a mind probably sculpted in ways I won’t realize until it’s done, until I will find myself, wrenched with anxiety and sleeplessness, fielding calls from my sweet boy, then a man, eyes peeled at 3:30 a.m., too, waiting for some terror that will never come.

What did I say?  I told him this:  I could not send him to school in shorts on a 30-degree day, that I would get in trouble for not taking care of him, that they would take him away from me, that his legs would not be protected by pants from the white-hard air and would go numb, they would turn black, and finally, that we’d have to take his legs off.  This sounds worse as I type it than it did at 11:45 when he had to be at school by noon.

No wonder he wanted to stay home.

When I was in college, I lived next door to my parents in the college house my father owned.  I’d call my mom at 3 a.m., crying because my then-boyfriend had disappeared in some drunken stupor and had ignored my phone call.  I pictured my mother, who was only next door (where I could have seen her from my landing window, through her kitchen window), smoking a cigarette and drinking rewarmed coffee in the yellow glow of the old wall sconce, while she told me, “I know, Sarah.  Just breathe.” And then she’d ask, “Do you want to come home?”

Though I laughed then, it would be two more years of these late-night calls.  During one call, I would tell my mother, “It’s okay.  He finally answered and he told me he is with lesbians, so I have nothing to worry about.”   Many nights passed before I learned my lesson, before I sobered to the clench in my jaw, the spite in my muscles, the sigh from my mother’s tired throat.

How many times had she tried to protect me from my will?

Today, my students were perplexed by the computers in the lab.  The computers sit below the desks, peering from beneath plexiglass windows, and then, shielded from above, still, by black plastic cubes.

“It’s to prevent cheating,” I told my students.  I only kind of knew this.

It took at least five or ten minutes for the students to adjust, to look down at the computer and all its words so far away, while refining what they had held so deep inside them that I had to pry it out.

I’m guessing they forgave me the non sequitur, when I admitted this:  “I get a strange separation anxiety at the end of every semester.  I spend more uninterrupted time talking with you guys than I get to with my family.”

When I looked up, they were all typing.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at Johnny’s school, he had jeans on, and a coat, and he wanted to be in school, as usual.  On the two-minute drive from our house to his school, he asked me why he had to go.

I’d told him all the practical things–about going to work, living in our warm, pine-filled house with applesauce and hot chocolate and warm jeans and a selection of superhero t-shirts, how all of these would be impossible one day if he didn’t go to school to learn.

I wanted to tell him what he won’t learn for years now, but is as true as anything I know:  that he will never stop learning, that when he least expects it, he will learn, whether or not he’s at school.  He will learn from his little brother during a food fight or wrestling match where they tumble like puppies.  He will learn from me, incorrectly, being over-protective and rash, but he will learn it anyway.  He will learn from his father, the texture of his voice, the ease in his step.   I wanted to tell him that the fact that there is more to know, that there is something out there he hasn’t discovered, some person he’s never met, a book unread, a game unplayed–that will keep him living.  He will reach and push and urge his way forward until he will have learned everything there is to know, which is never.  And then he will stop.

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Snow, late.

Blizzard in Rillington, North Yorkshire, Engla...

Image via Wikipedia

It was half-through January, and my promise to Johnny that he’d wade through snow or sweep angel shapes with his arms and legs against the cold-burning flakes had still not come true.  Our Christmas tree had gone up and come down.  Even before Christmas, the festive lights looked like they’d been strung up too long, that they’d already served their purpose.  There had been barely any measurable snow.

Finally, on January 13th, Johnny perched at the window, watching the tiny patches fall from the sky in a real-life snow globe.  The window opaqued with breath, and then he drew wet lines to see through to the outside.  At three, he wasn’t a weather veteran yet–he wasn’t nostalgic for the comfort of sweaters and mittens or the sting of wind strong enough to drive retirees to Florida.

Of course, neither was Sammy.  This was his first winter ever.  Belly against the couch and my arm, he watched the scene, pointing with his hand’s five fingers.  The salt trucks were at it, layering their crystals heavy on the road.  This would be the demise of my cognac-colored leather boots, I knew.  Sammy gazed at the blinking lights of the tow trucks, how they alerted themselves, shining false emergency into homes like ours.  Warning beeps I had never questioned in all my life suddenly made me wonder.  Sammy and I had much the same questions.

A large delivery Mack growled down the road so loud that Johnny jumped.

“It’s okay you little munchkin,” Johnny said to Sammy.  Sammy hadn’t been shaken, but Johnny ran his hand over Sammy’s hair to soothe himself.

Sammy’s eyes followed tires taking their time over the salt crust, then turned to the plow truck fanning dust down the opposite lane.

Then he saw them: a flock of birds, breaking from the trees in synchronized waves.  The birds had blended in before as part of the still-life, small black knots and bends on giant twigs.  Sammy drew air in deep through his nose and let out a breathy scream.  Of joy.  His arms flailed, and I imagined the tapping made the same sound as wings on air.

The birds flew, oblivious to the snow, as though they were just another line of traffic.


Santa Magic

Santa in the snow

Image via Wikipedia

We don’t have a real Christmas tree.  Our tree is a pre-lit, no fuss, Big Lots bargain tree.  I like it though, and I’ve never really known a real Christmas tree, so I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything.  Johnny and Sammy will probably never have real Christmas trees, but I’ve plugged spruce or fir or pine-scented warmers into the outlets, so they still have the smell of Christmas.  Every time they wash their hands with my green alpine-scented soap, they will suds Christmas.

There’s no snow yet.  This is so odd for Western New York.  Instead of boots, I wear flats to my last class of the semester.  I shuffle my shoes on with no problem while Johnny begs, “Mom, when is the snow coming?”  His face presses against the cold of the glass, as though he can wish himself out there, running and sledding amidst the snow flakes.  I crave the snow, too.  Here it is as much a part of life as the drained canal, the fallen leaves, the gasp the chill sends running from your mouth.  The white blanket softens the blow of winter.  It’s too beautiful to hate.

When school ends and my Christmas shopping is nearly done, Johnny and I go to Wegmans for a few last-minute Christmas-season items: wrapping paper for “Santa’s” gift (Johnny is too smart to risk wrapping his North Pole gifts with our farmhouse paper), hot chocolate with marshmallows (à la Polar Express), and candy canes to dangle from our tree limbs.  When we leave the house, Johnny pokes at a tiny ball of frost on the stone walkway as though it is a pea on his dinner plate.  The snow dusted down upon us like confectioner’s sugar the other night, and it’s disappeared since.  Johnny analyzes the snow fall.  Maybe he will be a meteorologist.  Maybe he just wants to see it sprinkling down like confetti.

At Wegmans, Johnny and I settle into our routine.  I buy a coffee for me and an apple juice for him.  He sits in the cart to help me decide what to buy, but really it’s so I can make sure he stays put.  We use the little cup-holders, and he calls his “a juice-holder.”

He talks about the train that Wegmans has displayed since Thanksgiving.

“I want to see the train.  It will go around and around,” he says, his hands dizzying themselves in circles.  When the train was first set up, Johnny walked over to it, and his friend from his old daycare was watching it too.  When it came time to leave, I was impressed that Johnny complied.  “Why is he crying, mommy?”  Johnny tugged at my hand.  “The train will be here again,” he said.  Johnny is just three, I thought, deciding that maybe he wasn’t as spoiled as I had dreaded.

I gave in to the traditional Santa threats this year since it’s the first year he understands.  When Johnny is naughty, I warn him that Santa is watching.  When he pulls down his pants and pees on the dining room wall,  I tell him that if he’s not careful, he will be on Santa’s naughty list.   If he throws the wrappers from his peppermint Hershey kiss on my living room floor and refuses to pick it up, I say the same thing.  In general, it works, but I worry I’m touching something that belongs to him, that I’m stealing the magic from his Christmas.

The chefs at Wegmans always talk to Johnny, always ask him if he wants sautéed mushrooms, or pomegranate seeds, or pork roast with carrots, but he usually will only eat a cookie from the cookie club, calling out, “Thank you, Wegmans” before he takes his first bite.  When I was little, my Sundays were marked, not with church, but doughnuts from Wegmans.  Religiously, my father and I would pile our dozen into the white boxes: apple fritters, glazed rings, raspberry or lemon-filled for dad, custard-filled for mom, apple filled, sugar-dusted for me.   One Sunday morning when I was five, my father’s pick-up truck wouldn’t start after we bought the doughnuts.  It coughed, but wouldn’t turn over.  It was January, and Western New York was Western New York that year.  Snow had piled up heavy the night before.  My mother had no car and no license then.  My siblings were still too young to drive.  He looked down at my feet, in their small white bobo sneakers with thin lace socks.  My father carried me home, our breath chugging ahead of us.   I don’t remember if we brought the doughnuts home that morning or not.

Now every childhood memory of doughnuts from Wegmans is caked in snow.

“Can we go see the train, mommy?” Johnny asks when we’re picking out his hot chocolate.

“Remember, the last few times, the train wasn’t working,” I say.  I had cursed out Wegmans under my breath when Johnny pulled me over to the train table again and again.  Every train car has the Wegmans logo with perhaps a sliced ham printed on the side, or gum drops, or maybe Santa himself.  I must admit, I would buy it if it weren’t nearly $200.

“We can get batteries.  That’s all it needs,” Johnny says.

How practical, I think.

We make it past the train without Johnny even asking again.  He is holding his package of hot chocolate with marshmallows.  Today will be the first time he tries it.  I imagine setting him up at the kitchen table with his mug of hot chocolate, and I will have my mug of coffee.

At the checkout, Johnny tells the cashier that Santa is coming.  I’ve hidden the North Pole wrapping paper, a candy-cane striped tube, under the cart, and I whisper to the cashier not to let Johnny see it.  She ducks to scan the paper on the cart’s low rack.

I used to watch my parents closely, looking for clues that Santa was real, instead of clues that he was fake.  I believed for a short time, but I rode the school bus, so it was short-lived.  One year, my parents forgot to leave a present under the tree from Santa.  That was the last of Santa for me. That’s when my mom started using the phrase, “God is watching you,” when I was acting up.  Santa no longer held consequence for me.

After we check out, I see a man with a white beard and a red shirt coming towards us. Otherwise, he’s wearing blue jeans and tennis sneakers.

“Johnny,” I whisper. “There’s Santa.” This man has to know what he’s doing this time of year, I think.

“Hi, Santa,” Johnny calls out over the beeping registers.  The customers hear him and start laughing.  For a minute, we are all looking at Santa.

“Merry Christmas, young man,” the Santa says.  He disappears behind the door to the men’s room.

While I load the groceries in my car, Johnny grills me about Santa.  “How is Santa here?” he asks.

“He came to make sure you were being a good boy,” I say.  “He probably had to pick up some groceries for Mrs.Claus.”

“Santa is magic,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, relieved.

“Look, mommy.  There’s Mrs.Claus,” he says, pointing to an older woman in the car across from us.

“No.  Shhh,” I say.

The Santa is walking by our car.  “Hey there,” the Santa says. “I got something for you.”  He keeps walking.

“Johnny, you must be a really good boy.  He’s bringing you a present on Christmas Eve,” I say.

Before I finish loading the car, the Santa comes back, and hands Johnny a stuffed elephant.  I imagine whose it was before.  A grandchild, maybe?  His own child?

“Thank you!” Johnny says.

I’m reluctant to let Johnny take it.

“You keep believing,” the Santa says.

There are exhaust fumes trailing into the cold air from my car, and I wish it were snowing for Johnny.

“Ho ho ho,” the Santa says.

I smile curiously at the Santa.  He takes out his wallet and shows Johnny a picture of himself dressed as Santa.  I see a photo, tucked next to it, of the Santa and his wife.

“An elephant,” Johnny says, looking at his new and worn stuffed elephant.

“Merry Christmas,” says the Santa.

“Thank you,” I say.

“This is what it’s all about,” the Santa says.  Johnny has made his day.

I’m sure Johnny is in his booster seat before his eyes can follow the Santa to his car, where he drives away from the parking lot, leaving a trail of smoke behind him.