Cleaning Up Christmas

There is something about dismantling the Christmas tree, no matter when it happens — something that makes me feel simultaneously nostalgic and impatient. The pre-Christmas process of choosing, setting up and then decorating the tree is communal in our family. One of the great pleasures is hearing the kids recognize various ornaments as long-lost friends as they shake off the tissue paper and then choose the perfect place to hang each one.

But taking the ornaments off the tree is almost always my job as The Mother, and it’s the decoration process in reverse: as each ornament is wrapped up again, instead of that little throb of joyful recognition it’s something more wistful. It makes me deeply aware of time passing and my children growing up, and of all the changes coming our way now that even the youngest is about to head off to college. The impatience is there in the wake of it, a kind of stiff-upper-lip salvation that says, Okay then, since we’re done with this Christmas and all the sweet reconnections it’s brought us, let’s just get on with it! Pack it up already and let’s usher in January! For God’s sake, where’s the new calendar?

I’m not sure how Christmas clean-up ended up as my job, but I suspect it’s out of the same semi-masochistic tendencies that drive other mildly neurotic mothering habits that lead us to take on the hidden, rather onerous tasks that make a house a home (such as changing sheets or cleaning out the nasty detritus in the kitchen drain). No one likes to pack up Christmas. And every mother wants to make the holiday as pure and lovely as possible for her kids. So we gladly engage them in the anticipatory fun of preparation and the sated relaxation of the holiday… and then the Christmas tree and whatever other decorations announce the season become a bit invisible. No one is much motivated to turn on the tree lights on December 26th, and though everyone does a part of the post-presents clean-up, the scene itself just kind of fades into the background, though all the trappings are still there. 

And then here it is January and a new year already. We help our kids get ready to plunge back into school, or we pack up a box of lovely new stuff there isn’t room for in the suitcase and ship it out to them in Chicago or wherever it is they’ve landed for this phase of their lives. And after they’re out of sight we finally set to work to pack it all away for another year, like the stage hands who take down the elaborate set after the show is over, sparing the audience.

I don’t really mind. Every once in a while I do feel like announcing, in a slightly passive-aggressive way: Hey folks! This stuff doesn’t happen by itself! And then I remember all the years of my own growing up, how after Christmas there would be a day when I’d come home from school and suddenly realize that everything was back to normal — just a winter day, post-Christmas. My mother never announced that she had put away the decorations and gotten the tree out of the house. But I’m pretty sure she never had any elves helping out.

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Baby on the Doorstep

Remember the old movie cliché about a baby left in a basket on someone’s doorstep? The camera would pan in on the basket and show a cherubic baby, warmly swaddled in blankets, and this moment of hopeful abandonment would form the central tale around which the movie revolved. When I was a a little kid, I thought it would be thrilling beyond words to hear the doorbell and be the one to find the baby on our doorstep – a perfect baby, and of course I would be allowed to keep it for my own, and naturally it would prove to be a far more satisfying sibling than my actual baby brothers.

Last week I got a mini-version of this story, delivered by Mother Nature and the gods of irony. It was on a night when I was feeling crabby about the degree to which my own children’s activities have landed me the full-time job of Chief Chauffeur. As I opened the front door at 10:00pm to do the final pick-up for that particular night, I was probably complaining (perhaps even whining) about how much I would prefer to climb into bed with a good book. I took one step out the door and then found myself locked in the solemn gaze of a baby robin, standing in the pool of light right outside the door.

It was a very cold and blustery night, and fledglings like this routinely die if they’re caught out of the nest on nights like this (not to mention the predatory stray cats we’ve recently spotted, crouching hopefully directly under the bird feeder). There were no signs of frantic parental robins searching for their darling, and this little one had probably been blundering around in the dark for a long time hoping they’d show up. In their absence, he found and followed our light all the way up onto the porch, driven by the baby bird version of a last hope. He was so worn out he didn’t move at all as I came closer and then scooped him up. But as I held him, he looked at me intently with his shiny black eyes and then gave a loud cheep! and opened his mouth wide, apparently deciding that I would make a perfectly acceptable step-mother.

Well, what else could I do? I put him in a box with plenty of rags on top of a heating pad turned low, and made sure he was shut away from our curious (indoor, but still murderous) cats. In the morning, following baby bird instructions found online, I got some canned dog food down his hungry gullet. And then came the moment of decision: should I put him outside, despite the stiff breeze and chilly temperature, and hope that his real parents would come back in time? Or should I continue as foster mother, knowing that if I kept him longer, it would be highly unlikely that his birdbrain parents would even remember his existence?

I opted to turn him loose to the universe, despite all the dangers and uncertainties. Wild baby birds are very hard for humans to raise, no matter how good our intentions; and although I might be able to manage the feeding schedule (internet instructions: every ten minutes!!!), I have no idea how to teach a baby robin how to hunt for his own worms as he approaches adulthood, nor how to break the bad news that we’re actually different species.

So I set him out in the warmest place I could find, said a little prayer and turned him loose, resolutely climbing into the car and heading out to work. It wasn’t so easy — somehow, finding a baby on the doorstep has a way of making us feel we’re responsible, singled out for this duty. Who’s to say what is really the right thing to do? But it did make me think a little differently about my own fledglings, for whom I really am responsible. Sam has just graduated from the University of Chicago, an excellent and mature young man now, but still clueless about what comes next. This next one won’t be my flight to make, but his — whatever the direction he chooses, whatever the dangers of the storm. I resolved to complain a little less about these years as Chief Chauffeur for the two still at home. All too soon will come the moment to turn these fledglings loose to the universe as well, with all its glories and perils — on little but a wing and a prayer.