Christmas Eve morning Kim awoke with a start at around 5:30. She’d been restless all night and now she lept out of bed and put on her bathrobe. She was halfway across the room to where she’d hidden the presents.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I forgot to put the presents under the tree last night,” she said. In our family, one of the gifts is from Santa and the rest are from Kim and me but Kim doesn’t like to put out the presents from us until the night before Christmas.
“It’s not Christmas,” I told her.
She looked at me with some of the fog of sleep still in her eyes. “What?” she asked.
“It’s Christmas Eve tonight. Christmas is tomorrow.”
She sighed with both release and exasperation. She sat back down on the bed knowing she’d repeat this scene the next morning.
That night after the seven fish dinner, Kim, Maggie, and Kim’s mom went to midnight mass. Actually 10 pm mass.
Kim was a bit torn on this. Maggie had wanted to go at night and Kim didn’t see a way to tell her no. I told Kim that this would mean that Maggie would be up late that night, Christmas Eve night, and this would mean that – ummm – Santa wouldn’t be able to come until pretty late.
Sure enough at 4:30 Christmas morning I heard Kim set the alarm and felt the bed move slightly as she quietly got back into bed. The rule is that we aren’t allowed to go downstairs Christmas morning until the girls (now Maggie) are awake. Somehow it would spoil the magic if they thought we could have put the presents under the tree before they got downstairs.
So Christmas morning I woke up at seven and lay in bed for an hour or so. Then it occurred to me that we are allowed to go upstairs. So I climbed the stairs to the third floor and did some work until Kim called upstairs that Maggie was awake and ready to go down for Christmas morning.
I grabbed a camera and followed Maggie down the stairs. It all looked so empty. Two stockings hung over the chimney but only one was filled. (There was a year when neither were filled but that was a different story.)
She opened her gifts. It all went so quickly. There was no sister to show what she got to. No sister to compare with. No sister to show how to put together some toy she got.
Christmas didn’t seem to feel so special to Maggie. She was sitting at the computer exploring the internet a few minutes after we had come downstairs. I went to get her and Kim waved me off.
“She should be in here,” I said.
Kim shrugged. It wouldn’t have made it better.
I called into Maggie, “can I take some of your candy.”
“I thought you weren’t eating chocolate,” she called back.
“It’s Christmas. I’m eating everything,” I said.
“Aren’t you Jewish?” she asked, hardly looking up from the browser window. “It shouldn’t make any difference.”
I made coffee. Maggie played on the computer. Kim turned on the television.
She wanted to stop at Patti’s on the way over to her parents’ house to drop off some plates from the night before. I just couldn’t. We were going to see my niece at my in-laws’ house and that felt different. She was an only child. I just couldn’t see siblings sharing Christmas morning. I’d like to be a better person and be above that but I’m not.
I told Kim I wanted to stop at the cemetery. She went back and forth on whether she wanted to. I told her she didn’t have to. She knew that. In the end, the three of us drove to Elena’s grave on our way to Christmas dinner.
Wreaths decorated a good portion of the graves. The cemetery was beautiful. Maggie decided she wanted to stay in the car this time. Kim and I walked over to Elena’s grave.
Kim’s parents had been there earlier and had left a tiny evergreen decorated for Christmas. There were child blocks that spelled out Elena and a little bear that came in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Perfect. Just perfect.
We stood for a while. Another tradition for Kim’s family on Christmas. Visiting the grave of this beautiful six year-old. We walked back to the car. Kim started to cry again.
For maybe the tenth time in the last hour I said, “we don’t have to go, you know.”
“I know,” she said. And then lying to me for the tenth time in the last hour she said, “I’m o.k..”
We parked across the street from Kim’s parents’ house as my parents pulled up in their car and as Kim’s sister’s family arrived. It was if we’d all called each other.
It was a pretty typical Christmas dinner. Kim was overwhelmed by the absence of Elena and left the table in tears. I just don’t know what to do to make her feel any better. I guess it’s not supposed to be o.k.. After a while I went upstairs and sat next to Kim not being much of a help at all. When she was ready we came back down. People were eating dessert. Childhood friends of hers dropped in to visit and make sure she was doing alright.
After they left we opened present. The girls – Maggie and Lydia – opened box after box. It was both a normal Christmas and it wasn’t.
People left in groups until it was Kim, Maggie, me and her parents. We watched the Christmas edition of “Deal or no Deal” trying to figure out when the offer exceeded the expected value. Usually Kim and I drive separately to Christmas. This year we drove together. The three of us drove there together and the three of us drove home together.