I’ve been feeling more grinchy than usual this season and I’m not really sure why; I love Christmas. Last year I remember feeling very on top of all of my prep: I had ample gift ideas for everyone, some of my shopping was done and my Christmas cards were ready to mail by Thanksgiving weekend. This year I feel very behind the curve despite having put up our tree on November 27th. I’ve felt guilty and overwhelmed by the things I have yet to do, and a part of me feels like there’s no good excuse. It’s not as if we’ve been busy going anywhere or doing anything. Kristin wisely pointed out that I also have absolutely no alone time, and that puts a serious crimp in my ability to think and plan and feel inspired. I put the lights up on the roofline in early November because it was warm out, but somehow it still feels like I’m moving through something viscous.
Thinking about everything I have yet to do has felt overwhelming rather than exciting. Vivienne has been dying to bake cookies and as we approached this weekend (when I’d promised to do it) it just felt like a messy chore on my to-do list rather than a fun seasonal tradition. Then I felt guilty and awful for feeling that way and the spiral deepened.
The other night as I tried to go to sleep I found myself in a pool of anxiety as Kristin and I tried to think of gift ideas for the kids. Gift ideas led me to thoughts of, “but where would we put that?” which led to near panic over the mess in our house. Kristin vowed to gather us all in the basement on Saturday for the great toy purge that I generally attempt around now for the very same reason.
The kids were remarkably amenable this year. I think that they’re old enough now to understand that we can’t bring new things in if old things don’t leave, and that it’s reasonable to ask yourself if you truly use and enjoy all of the things taking up space. I made it clear that I would not force them to get rid of a single thing if they truly enjoyed it – we’re in a very strange time and I’ve seen them play with things that surprised me simply becuase they’ve run out of things to do. I was thrilled to see them choosing to donate item after item with no qualms
Well, I was thrilled until I wasn’t.
Vivienne decided that she really doesn’t wear dress-up-clothes anymore and many of them are too small now, so she opted to give away 3/4 of them. In the same moment she told me that she isn’t really interested in princesses anymore anyway. I’ve never much cared for princesses to be honest, but in this moment I thought about my sister taking my niece and nephew to Disney a couple of years ago, saying to me that she didn’t want to miss the window in which princesses were so loved by her daughter. I’ve never taken the kids to Disney, and in that moment I wondered if I’d missed an important window that’s never coming back.
The boys decided that they no longer need most of the toy trucks, as they haven’t played with them in ages. They gave away big construction vehicles and garbage trucks, and close to a dozen smaller cars and trucks. Jonah fell in love with construction vehicles when he was around two. It was one of the most significant loves of his short life, and for a time so many of the things we chose for him involved construction vehicles. For a few moments I was really proud of the boys, telling them how wonderful it would be to pass these trucks on to families that might really be struggling to give their kids a magical Christmas in this very difficult year. Later though, as I lay in bed I wrestled with the grief of passing time.
I have a difficult relationship with things. I’ve always felt like an inadequate housekeeper; I crave organization but can’t always figure out how to make it happen or maintain order. I lived for thirteen years in New York in small apartments where having too much stuff overwhelmed me. I learned to only bring in what was truly necessary, and yet I come from people who are sentimental. I hate to part with things that have meaning. I grew to hate stuffed animals as an adult because I saw them as beings with souls as a child and could never figure out what to do with them when they were no longer needed. Most of the time they can’t be donated so…do you throw them away? That was unimaginable to me then and it still is. So I grew to hate bringing things home at all that might feel sentimental, because then I’d be trapped forever.
My parents kept boxes and boxes of my childhood things, and eventually passed them along to me where they sit in my basement. Examining the contents has taught me a lot about sentimentality and the passing of time. I’ve found that I don’t care much about any of these things, maybe because they represent me as a child, but I don’t remember me as a child. I don’t ache for that person the way I ache for my own children as babies. My parents saved these things because they too wrestled with the grief of passing time and weren’t ready to let go. So when I think about my children’s possessions and wonder what to save, I sometimes ask myself who I’d be saving them for. I doubt they’ll feel as strongly about them as I do. I don’t want to forget any of it; I take pictures with the hope that I won’t, but at the same time I know that I will and no basement full of boxes will truly change that. They will continue to grow up; I can’t stop time.
Christmas has become a very practical exercise in control. I prefer to carefully select what gifts our children receive so that we aren’t overwhelmed with things I can’t figure out what to do with, or even worse, things I end up having to get rid of and then feel guilty about. I realize this takes all of the whimsy out of gift giving, but (at least for now) I still feel capable of creating magic when the gifts I’ve chosen are things that bring them joy. They make lists and we follow them, but we’re thoughtful about it perhaps to a fault.
We’ve made it a point not to go overboard at Christmas both because of my anxiety over where to put things, but also because we want the kids to find joy in Christmas that goes beyond the presents. That’s a tall order for little ones, but I see signs that we’re succeeding. When the decorations come out each year they’re positively giddy. They can’t wait to bake cookies and choose a tree, and when the growing pile of Christmas books comes upstairs from the bin they’re enraptured. This year they asked for so little in the way of gifts. When I asked him, Jonah could hardly think of anything he wanted (granted, his birthday was less than two weeks ago). He finally landed on one LEGO set and the fifth Harry Potter book, which he told me he’d like to read on his own now (another sign he’s growing up – I read the first four aloud). Jude told Kristin that he only wanted two glass christmas trees like the ones on our mantle (he adores them), a string of Christmas bells, and a croquet set (I mean, what decade is this child from?). Even Vivienne, who last year had the most lavish and imagination-filled list that stretched page after page has been thoughtfully paring hers down this year without prompting. She’s asked us to cross off several things, and eventually told us the one thing she wants most and left it at that (a toy dog that walks on a leash, something she saw while choosing a gift for her brother).
I felt proud of them for their lack of greed and reasonable expectations, but then the doubt crept in and I worried that my desire to be rational and organized is squashing a kind of dreaming of possibility that Christmas is partly about. Don’t get me wrong, every year on Christmas eve we look around and think we’ve done too much; they never go without on Christmas. But am I passing on good habits to examine what you truly want and need, or am I squashing sugarplum dreams?
As we continued to sort through toys in the basement yesterday afternoon, and I ran between rooms and donation boxes and posted things for free on Facebook, the kids announced that they didn’t need the barn any longer. The barn is the one you might be picturing: Fisher-Price, vintage like the one I owned as a child, with the one barn door that moos when you open it and a hayloft above, and a cow and chickens and a pig and a tractor with a wagon behind it. It even has the cardboard silo that holds the white fence pieces. My dad searched on Ebay to find it when Jonah was a toddler because for some reason barns were one of his first loves.
Forgive the poor phone photo and the fact that I can’t date it, but I assure you he was not yet 18 months old. We would occasionally pull up Google images of barns for him because he loved them so much. My parents sent us a book of Michigan barn photography and we adored looking through it with him. My dad was determined to get him a little Fisher-Price barn, and was so proud when he found one with all of the right pieces. When the kids told me that we could get rid of it I started to cry. Kristin hugged me in the kitchen, away from the kids (who were perplexed by my tears – didn’t I want them to clean things out?) and assured me that I shouldn’t get rid of it, at least not yet. When I returned to the basement the kids were compassionate, telling me, “It’s OK Mama D, you don’t have to get rid of the barn if you don’t want to.” I explained to them that my sadness isn’t really about the things, it’s about them and the things they loved and who they were when they were tiny.
After we cleaned up the playroom we turned two sets of IKEA shelves on end to make more space along the wall, the kids all tall enough now to reach the highest cube. We dusted the shelves and put the remaining toys away neatly, and on the very top shelf I set the barn and silo, because I need them there awhile longer if only just to look at.