Cue up a Hallmark Christmas movie, start the electric fireplace, and bring on the wrapping paper. I cater toward meaningful gifts concealed beneath the combination of wrapping paper, ribbon, and glittery tag that fits the recipient. My coffee table is transformed into Santa’s Workshop just like the ping pong table in Mom’s basement. The process is slow and creative, a perfect match for my sick day last week.
I wrapped them all, thinking about the family and friends who will open them soon as I worked. I put them all under my tree. It was even more beautiful… for a moment. That was before I packed up a box to send to my brother’s family in Greenville, a bag of gifts to take to my brother’s family here, and still more bags and boxes of gifts to take to Charming’s and my parents’ for everyone else in our lives.
In our lives. There was this moment when I was tangled up in silver ribbon struggling to get the tape dispenser back on track when my eyes settled on my gift list. I’d made two columns, because, of course, every respectable list is inherently organized by some gradation. One was for the people in my world. The other was for the people in Charming’s. It shocked me how nearly equal the two columns were in length. Granted two were for a gift exchange, but still for his parents’ Bible Study Christmas party.
I’d knocked out most of my Christmas shopping while on my training tour in Madrid last month. Amazon Prime fulfilled much of the rest with rarely more than two days’ shipping time. In recent years, since our family has grown so large, we’ve taken to doing a Secret Santa among the siblings and spouses and between the children. This year, I ignored it and brought each back a small token, a reminder of my love despite geographical boundaries.
I don’t think they’ll mind. My favorite gifts to open are the ones for which I can’t imagine the contents. They won’t be expecting anything, so they can’t be disappointed. I remember reading books and watching movies about kids snooping for presents, but I wasn’t one of them. The surprise heightened the impact of each gift. I’d sit year after year for decades in the same spot in the middle of the living room rug and spread out my secret treasures. If I’m honest, that should be in present tense.
On Christmas morning, we take turns opening presents, one apiece in age order, savoring each gift with the appropriate due response. My mom is fun to watch for these couple of hours each year. She turns into an excited little girl, with this dimpled delight in her smile, appreciating the thoughtfulness and sentiment with animated joy. I’m this way when I’m opening my own gifts, I’m sure… but her joy comes when we open those she’s given to us.
Mom enjoys giving gifts. It’s her love language. She actively loves us in the contents of each perfectly wrapped present; she’s the author of nearly every one of my Christmas traditions, not the least of which is matching the tag and bow to the paper and the person. In less than a week, I’ll introduce Charming to a Palma Family Christmas. I imagine Mom’s looking forward to blessing an extra person in that living room this year.
That’s how I feel about that second column on this Christmas gift list. In just a few days, we’ll be celebrating the holiday early with Charming’s family before heading north. We get the best of both our worlds. My first Christmas together with Charming, and his family, and my family. I’m my mother’s daughter, and never is that quite as obvious as in December. The opportunities to love people in personal gifts are exponential with the meeting of two young-ish people who were single a year and a half ago.
At this intersection of our worlds, Charming’s and mine, the collective joy of gift giving is multiplied. Essentially, I got twice as many chances this year to love on people who matter to me, in a capacity not typically fostered by our constant trading of weekends between Alexandria and Hampton. I exchanged gifts with some of the ladies in his Bible Study, and it was while wrapping those gifts that I got tangled up in silver ribbon and couldn’t help but feel a little tangled up myself.
I straddle two worlds. I have my work, my house, and my brother’s family here. I bounce between churches when I’m home; church shopping having never yielded that perfect match, when our weekends land in Hampton, I settle for one that’s familiar. I know I should have a church home, and I should be in a Bible Study of my own. I should. And I know.
But I had that once, when I wasn’t straddling two worlds, when I was completely immersed in a Hispanic Christian subculture. For a decade, my entire adult life until the day I left, I was a Nashvillian. I loved music, and I dreamed of the day when my husband’s talent would finally be heard by the right producer. We shared that dream. We had his family, our church, and our friends. I had my teaching job. He had a nine to five that paid the bills. He stopped making music. That dream died. Maybe we died with it, because that was the lives we envisioned and expected for our future. Having come to the proverbial Christmas tree with expectations, we were sorely disappointed when the contents of our marriage and our futures did not seem to contain the things we wanted most.
Somehow, looking at that list while wrapping made me think about all the names that used to be in a similar column, similar relationships to a different man. His family, his friends, our Bible Study group. When I was in Madrid last decade, I bought a piece of jewelry for my ex-husband’s grandmother. Last month, I bought one for Charming’s. Those people aren’t in my life anymore. But new people are, and I should be grateful that God is connecting me, weaving stories together so that I don’t feel so much like a snowflake as much as part of a snowstorm.
That was how I felt, too, at the Christmas party with all Charming’s parents’ closest friends, their children, and for some, their children too. Three generations of families bound by a weekly Bible Study meeting well into its fourth decade. As he made the introductions, Charming would supply me any necessary background information. Everyone was laughing and smiling, despite the cancer or car accident or tumor that had recently rocked various members.
I should be in a Bible study. I only know a handful of vague tragedies some of these men and woman had faced, so imagination can see the exponential potential for more that have littered the past thirty-five years of their shared lives together. Lives in which they supported one another. Grieved and celebrated together. An extension beyond family that is somehow just as deep, bonds forged in the moments when they have been most vulnerable only to find themselves embraced when the tears are done.
I imagine it, anyway. That’s what it’s like for my parents’ small group, too. I want that. But I thought I had that in Nashville, and I lost it, and that was a whole different type of grief than what I experienced over my marriage. Perhaps, I haven’t actually mourned it completely, distracted by the myriad of losses when I uprooted myself with little warning to anyone, myself included, and just left. No goodbyes.
The unexpected sobs wrenching my chest are making it hard to write, also confirming my suspicion. There are new people in this column, and I think I’d like to wait to see if they are still there, if maybe they’ll someday be on my side. I want to end up with Charming, and if our worlds finally collide, there’s going to be some losses. If I have to leave Hampton, there will be enough to grieve without adding another small group to my wake.
If… if… if… and I see the list now as evidence of the gamble of my existence. It’s not unlike Christmas. I have no expectations, so I can’t be disappointed. Like my mom, I get to love some new people this year through nicely presented packages. After all, the potential for joy is exponential when two worlds intersect. Jaded realism answers back that the potential for future loss and grief is equal.
Yet we buy the gifts. We wrap them, not thinking about whether or not we will wrap presents for these same people next year. There’s no more gifts under my tree tonight. My husband and I wanted a different life than we had. With Charming, I want more of the life we already have.
That childlike joy my mother sewed into my genes will find Charming in the center of the living room floor with me on Sunday morning, the greatest of my secret treasures. It’s a good thing I like surprises.