The Christmas Ornament

I found it at the local Hallmark card store, just in time for Christmas.

1981: First Christmas Together

The package included stickers so you could customize your ornament with names. I added them before I wrapped it, and couldn’t wait for him to open it when we exchanged gifts.

Sherri & Scott

In hindsight, it’s an ugly ornament. Made of thin glass with a plastic coating, the Christmas scene on the front — a Victorian couple ice skating — looks cheap and cliché. But to a 16-year-old girl, it felt like something real. Like a way to say I’m crazy about you without really saying it.

So I wrapped it up and presented him the ornament, along with a few other gifts he probably preferred but have been long forgotten. What 17-year-old boy wants a Christmas ornament, anyway? The years I have spent as a mother since then have given me insights into the mind of a teenage boy I didn’t yet have back then.

Pretty sure I should have just kept the ornament for my own tree.

But somehow I was claiming my territory, trying to anchor our relationship within the envelope of his family. To have our ornament displayed on his family’s Christmas tree gave me a tiny shred of confidence that they could see me. See that I was important to him, too.

The holidays can be a particularly difficult time to work a new relationship into the mix. Moms usually have expectations and routines and traditions, certain events and family gatherings that are a “must-do” each December. Some of these begin to fall off the list as the children grow older and Christmas loses a bit of that magic it held when they were small. No more family visits to see Santa, no more driving around the neighborhood in jammies to check out all of the Christmas lights. But family bonds are tight around the holidays, and it’s tough to break in.

I think buying the ornament was a pretty bold gesture, especially from a girl who had only been dating their son for 9 months. But somehow, it passed inspection and his mother agreed (maybe reluctantly) to display our First Christmas Together ornament on the family Christmas tree.

At least when I was expected to visit.

I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for discretely moving it to the back of the tree once I was gone.

You see, there is a special dance between the mother of a son and the girl who steals his heart.  A give-and-take that many young girls take as a sign they aren’t welcome or liked or even tolerated. But it isn’t always about the girl, and that part I didn’t understand until I had a son of my own. Until our first Christmas together in 1981 unfolded into a lifetime of them spent as a couple, then a family.

And while the girl or young woman sees a potential future in the handsome young man, the mother still has her heart wrapped around the little boy who used to sit on Santa’s lap and leave crumbly cookies on a plate each Christmas Eve. The boy who willingly wore a red sweater vest for the Christmas Eve church service and belted out carols like nobody was listening. The boy who untied the bows on the advent calendar with excitement and the anticipation of ringing the bell at the bottom on Christmas Eve. The boy who played with silvery strands of tinsel and stole candy canes from low-lying branches.

The boy whose eyes brightened when the lights were first lit on the Christmas tree each year.

Now his eyes brighten at the sight of her.

And maybe she is very special to him, and the mother understands that to hold her son in her heart she needs to make room for one more.

One more person, one more ornament.

This year, I am that mom.

Our First Christmas Together ornament hangs front and center on our own family Christmas tree, 33 years later.

And I have room for one more.

Flashback on Aisle 4

mother shopping for groceries

I know it’s not him. Really, I do.

I don’t need you all worrying about my mental state, thank you.

And yet, there he is.

Halfway down the aisle, staring at the rows upon rows of crackers and snacks.

His mom obviously sent him to find something on her list, her way of letting him be a bit “big” while still accompanying her to the grocery store. He’s at that age when kids need to break free just a wee little bit — and being sent on an errand to the other side of the grocery store is only as far as a mom can bear to let him go.

He looks like he’s probably 11 years old, 12 at most. Long, lanky arms and legs that probably grew longer since he entered this store. I know how the mind of a boy that age works. It’s highly likely that while he initially remembered what brand and type of cracker his mom wanted, those details have now been replaced with the memory of a funny YouTube video or an idea for a brilliant new Minecraft build.

And so he stares at the cracker section.

As I move closer to him, his momentary trance snaps and he glances up at me, then scoots apologetically to the side to make room for my cart.

Nope. He’s not my boy.

I wanted it to be him. Just for a day, maybe just for one shopping trip.

I have shopped in this grocery store several times a week since he was 2 years old. Endless conversations about dinosaurs or books or Legos have taken place between these four walls. He charmed the cashiers from the very beginning, and his attempts to teach strangers waiting in line about which dinosaurs lived in which prehistoric periods were always met with a smile.

And when he got older, I would send him off to hunt down something on my list. It made him feel big — bigger than his little sister, who then took over the business of the endless conversation.

And this boy standing right here feels like a ghost to me. Like someone rewound the reel of a long-lost episode of my life. I remember my son so well at that age, but as he grows farther away from being 11 or 12 or even 16 I find those memories grab me at unexpected times, filling me with emotions that aren’t usually on the surface.

I wonder where the time went.

My boy shops at the grocery store hundreds of miles away from here these days. All by himself.

He’s big.

Pretty sure he isn’t chatting up the other customers or teaching the cashiers about dinosaurs these days.

I haven’t seen him in three months.

He’s coming home tomorrow.

And I just might invite him along on a grocery store run. But I won’t be sending him all over the store to collect crackers and paper towels and baby carrots.

Because I would love an endless conversation with my boy right now.

Life Lessons from a Labrador Retriever

There she goes.

Again.

She ran out the back door the moment I opened it and plotted her course straight towards the huge tree in the corner. The squirrels are chattering at her from high above, the animal version of a snarky retort.

I whistle in an attempt to bring her back from her wild dog fantasy, but it’s no use. Once she’s focused on a squirrel she won’t give up until it hops onto the fence and heads for the neighbor’s yard.

One small victory in the effervescent life of a Labrador retriever.

I give up and watch her run gracefully up and down the fence line as the squirrel plays the daily game of catch-me-if-you-can. Deep in her gene pool lies the stuff of great hunting dogs, according to the breeder. When she runs and leaps around the yard you can see tiny glimpses of the dog she was born to be.

But fate placed her here, in this suburban home with 2.0 kids and not a hunter to be found. Her keen retrieving instincts are directed towards the spit-stained stuffed animals that inhabit her toy basket. She sleeps on my daughter’s bed and spends countless hours curled up under my desk.

Not quite a dog’s life — more like the life of a princess, my husband claims.

When she was younger, she was injured while running up and down the fence chasing a nighttime critter — either a possum or a raccoon. Her leg swelled up and it was difficult for her to move around. After vet visits, ultrasound treatments, medications and as much “rest” as one can force on a lab she was healed and life moved on. She continued to chase the squirrels and play seemingly endless rounds of fetch with a tennis ball.

But then when she was 3 years old it happened again. She was sitting in front of me as I sat on the steps tying my shoelaces. I motioned for her to back up and she did. The cry of pain was horrible and her leg was sticking straight out to the side, in a direction back legs weren’t built to go.

And it was the other leg.

So after a trip to the emergency vet, CT scans and consultations with the surgeon it was determined that Holli has an uncommon, chronic problem with both Achilles tendons in her back legs. Because the surgery and recovery is very difficult, we decided to wait it out. We carried her home, nursed her back to health and decided to try and limit her running and activity in order to avoid surgery for as long as possible. No more endless rounds of fetch in the backyard or running around with the big dogs at the dog park. She was destined to be the canine model for a couch potato.

And yet, she runs.

She runs because she doesn’t know that she can’t. The consequences of running the fence line in hot pursuit of a squirrel mean nothing to her. She lets her inner hunting dog loose and runs with grace and agility.

I swear she’s even smiling.

She runs because she can, because she doesn’t understand my long-winded explanations about why I called her back into the house. Because to her, running feels like something she is compelled to do, something she can’t stop doing. And she isn’t afraid of the consequences.

She runs.

Why don’t we?

We all have something we wish we could do, or maybe even feel that we were born to do. And yet, how often do we throw up our arms and say, “WTH? I’m going to do it!”

Has someone told you that you can’t? Is your inner critic whispering “You’ll fail” in your ear, ever so quietly while you daydream?

This is how I feel about writing, most days.

That I am driven to do it and really need to get those words out, but that time and work and my inner critic all get in the way.

That I need to write like nobody is reading.

That I need to take one more run at that squirrel on the fence.

And not worry about the chatter.