But the full impact of missing Christmas Eve with my family did not hit me until about 20 minutes ago, when I began to plot out my day (plotting and planning is very characteristic of Virgos...don't be alarmed). With the exception of wrapping the last of the gifts and making a last minute post office run, there is nowhere I have to be and nothing I have to do today.
That would not be the case if we were back home.
Christmas Eve activities and preparations begin in the morning. Cheese dips are assembled...turkeys are basting...children are chasing each other manically around the house while the adults pick at the last of the bacon on the plate near the stove. And, of course, there is always the curious kid shaking and weighing any gifts which bear his name. My grandparents, Daisy and Elmer, provided a home and a hub for all Christmas Eve activity. Papa even had a "one gift before church" rule. So, naturally, we always chose the largest box. One year my one gift before church was a toy piano, which I banged on incessantly while the adults prepared dinner. I'm not sure how I survived that Christmas, although I'm pretty sure that, at some point, I was exiled to the back bedroom.
Granny could be counted on to emerge from the bedroom on Christmas Eve morning in a velour suit of some kind and jewelry. Lots of jewelry. Her hair perfectly coiffed from a well-spent day at the salon earlier in the week and nails always painted in some shade of pink. She helped Papa in the kitchen (although the kitchen and the garden were his domain, he accepted the occasional helper elf) and teased us about what Santa was dropping off that night. They were a team and although they were probably unaware, Christmas at Papa and Granny's was the greatest consistency in my life. Everyone was always there. Every year. Almost without exception. My only regrettable memory of Christmas was when someone very close to me opted out of the celebration. It's the only Christmas that I wish I could forget.
My grandparents have been dead for several years now. No bank envelopes with the grandchildren's names scribbled across the top await in the tree. Sometimes the shrimp tray goes uneaten. The 8-track player, which was actually built into the dining room wall, was sold along with the house and the background music now comes from someone's satellite radio or Internet provider. We still go to church. We still eat a ham. But sometimes it's at Mom's house and sometimes everyone gathers at my aunt's place. And sometimes it's just the 2 or 4 of us. Sometimes Neal is deployed and often the parents of young children don't want to travel far from home on Christmas Eve for fear that "Santa will not know where to find them". But this year, it's us...unwilling to drive 7 hours north through Jellico Mountain and whatever weather await us there...unable to tear ourselves away from a chance to have a quiet Christmas at home. And suddenly, I wish I was there in the thick of it...shuffling a deck of cards for a spirited game of Rummy or Uno...pouring a glass of Oliver wine for Mom while she slices the ham...begging Neal to stop tickling the kids which causes them to scream as if someone is on fire...opening one gift before church.
Mom said in an email last week that this was "the beginning of new era". And, in some ways, I'm afraid she's right. The Army will move us wherever and whenever and we may not always make it back home to the Bluegrass. There could be air fares and work schedules and pregnancies to consider. We may have to consolidate Thanksgiving and Christmas or shift it all back a couple of weeks. But it's not for forever. It's a temporary and uncomfortable condition of the life that we chose in the Army. But one day he will retire and we will move home and Christmas Eve will once again be the flurry of activity that I knew growing up. Because I will make it so. We each have the opportunity to raise our children in whatever environment and with whatever traditions we choose. I may not own an 8-track player, but I can certainly croon to some Bing Crosby as I scribble names across bank envelopes and pass out the one gift before church.