The younger son tries to join in. He’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, well my favorite Christmas was the one when Santa brought Legos.” But has there been a year when Santa didn’t bring Legos? I suspect he’s just doing his best to keep up.
The older one can recall who spent which holidays with us, and he gets specific about which years we were home and when we were traveling. As he talks about this favorite day, my first thought is to try and recreate it exactly. Were there cinnamon rolls? Or was that the year I tried French toast? Did we stay home extra-long in the morning, or did we go straight out into the world to see family and friends? If I could check the boxes to create a favorite Christmas, I would do it. But when I back away from being a mother and look at the holidays as a woman who has lived through her fair share of them, I know it isn’t so simple. You can’t just add ingredients then expect perfection. Some pies, no matter how carefully you bake them, come out as delicious as a shoe. Heavily plotted presents fall flat. More seriously, and sadly, there are years when no matter how hard you try you can’t get your heart where it needs to be for the season.
A few years ago I was wandering around a garage sale, and I stopped in front of a table that was loaded with kids cowboy boots for sale. These weren’t the usual scuffed pairs that show the progression of a toddler growing into a teenager. These boots were wrapped with lights and had fake Christmas trees growing out of the tops.
“They’re for the front walk,” the woman who owned the garage told me, pointing to the cement sidewalk that led from the curb to her front door. “To light it up.”
I knew then I wouldn’t buy any. We lived in the country and didn’t have a front walk, only the paths the dog wore in the grass every time she found an armadillo to chase, literally, to death.
“You make a lot of these boots?” I asked the woman, because I am terrible at telling people that I don’t want to buy what they are selling.
“If people want to buy ’em, I make ’em,” she answered. “And for my family I make one every year to keep.” She explained that she paints pictures on the sides of the family boots, so they can remember that year’s Christmas. One year she painted a doll because three of them gave a niece the exact same doll. The adults thought it was a disaster, but the girl loved it. Another year she painted a waterfall because a toilet overflowed on Christmas Eve.
And that was when I decided to buy a boot, even if I didn’t have anywhere to put it.
Maybe this Christmas will end up being someone’s favorite. Or maybe the best we can hope for is that it turns into a funny story someday. But I like the idea that when you put all the years together — the good, the bad and the overflowing toilets — they light a path. So when a song or a smell or even an ache in the heart sends you searching for the comforts of the holidays, you can find your way to the place you need to be. Who cares if it’s not perfect — it’s home.