As I build my Christmas list and work to check things off, a thought keeps coming to mind: “These are just things.”
While I know my little has a long list of things he’d love to see appear under the tree, I’m not looking to check off items on that list. My heart wants to build memories.
We lost my grandmother just before Thanksgiving. She was a week shy of 89, and her death wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising were the memories that came flooding back—and how none of them involved presents.
When I walked into my grandmother’s house the day before her funeral, nothing struck me as her. For me, her house will always be the one in my memory, the little house we visited so often and even lived in for a year while my father was overseas.
She hadn’t lived in that house for more than 15 years, but I can tell you about every inch of that house—from the avocado green appliances in the much-too-small, no-counter-space kitchen to the tiny tiles in the bathroom that were always cold in the winter, no matter how high Grandma turned up the natural gas heater in the wall. I wish I had a picture of that, as there’s no way that thing was ever childproof or safe, but I’d love to see that flicker again. The built-in vanities, with drawers I used to rummage through, as I marveled at Grandma’s treasures. They weren’t treasures, really, but to a young child, they were. They were Grandma’s things, so that alone made them special. The cabinet at the end of the hall with the Tupperware stash that I dreaded opening because I knew I couldn’t get it closed again. The step-down laundry room that always freaked me out because I knew there would be a bug just waiting to cross my path.
I realize those don’t sound like treasured memories, but they are. Thinking of that house, filled with smells of Grandma’s gumbo, or the thousands of little breakfast sausages she so willingly fried up for us, or the cookies, cakes, stuffed artichokes, egg rolls, and oh, the candied yams, those memories dance around my mind as I remember how I liked to stare at the Christmas tree and wonder what was in the perfectly wrapped boxes below. That little house wasn’t big enough for all of us at the holidays, but it’s where my best holiday memories live: Staying at Grandma’s house, being spoiled to no end.
A professional secretary—administrative assistant in today’s terms—Grandma wasn’t rich. I didn’t know that then, and it didn’t matter. Grandma’s brand of spoiling didn’t require loads of cash or the latest trendy gift. I didn’t realize it until she was gone, but I can’t tell you a single gift that Grandma ever gave me. Not one. I’ve pondered that as I’ve approached this holiday.
I remember seeing Peter Pan live on stage. I remember trips to the mall—big, exotic, and fun, with specialty ice cream stores and, oh my goodness, an actual skating rink (note here: this was the ’80s, so different from what we know now). I remember museum exhibits and special outings. I remember her and my great-grandmother visiting the White House with us and the wonder of that trip. I remember her time with me and her excitement at spending time with us, the grandchildren in a military family stationed so far away that she didn’t get to see us more than once or twice a year. And now that she’s gone, I realize those are the things that matter most.
So if your budget is nonexistent this year, don’t fret. Give your littles and the people in your life time with you. Offer up movies, popcorn, and sofa snuggles, or drives around town listening to holiday music as you enjoy the lights. Squeeze in some cookie decorating, and don’t worry about the sprinkles that end up on the floor (and everywhere else). Make decorations that aren’t Pinterest-worthy—all that matters is that you laugh and have fun. Read The Night Before Christmas together, or any other holiday book that you enjoy. Pull out old family pictures and tell stories about your childhood—the days before smart phones or video on demand or, for the well-aged like me, PCs. Sing carols together and make up words when you inevitably forget the lines.
Laugh together and let the people in your life—”the tall and the small,” to quote Dr. Seuss—know how much you care about them. Make memories and enjoy each other. Make the holidays less about things and more about the people you love. That’s the present that will keep on giving, long after this holiday season comes to a close.