Best Laid Plans
I planned to go to California for Christmas, flying out a week before, flying home (cheaply) on a red-eye on Christmas night itself. The kids were with their father this year, and his mother was going to take the whole crew to Hawaii, so I booked a flight to San Francisco to visit my delightful divorced friend and her teenaged daughter. We were going to do what we did two years ago at Christmas–eat and hike and eat and go to the Korean baths and eat and slope around my old haunts and eat. Between the eating and the sloping and the bathing, I was going to finish an assignment, have lunch with a couple of my old professors, and buy presents for Belated Christmas, that traditional holiday (highly recommended for the chronically disorganized) of dissolved/recongealed families of divorce. And then my stepmother’s father, who was ninety-six, died two days before I was supposed to leave.
I met my step-grandfather when I was six. My stepmother’s side of the family is huge–my step-grandparents begat four children, who begat fifteen grandchildren, who begat (so far) nineteen great-grandchildren. This is the family I lucked into when my dad remarried, proof that divorce can have happy side effects. My step-grandfather was the patriarch–a wonderful man, kind and generous to me from the moment he met me right up to the day he died. His death marks the end of an era. I canceled my trip to California and flew to Dallas instead.
There were going to be two funerals–a small graveside ceremony in a family plot three hours south of Dallas, and a gigantic church ceremony the following day. I would arrive in Texas on Wednesday, fly home the Saturday before Christmas. The kids would be gone by then, and my boyfriend volunteered to drive down and meet me at the airport. He was happy we were going to spend Christmas together after all, and I suppose I was too. I couldn’t really focus on it, however, since the change in plans meant I was fucked sixteen different ways as far as getting presents to everyone at the last possible minute.
Listen, I am a world-class expert in getting presents to everyone at the last possible minute. I’ll see your Amazon Prime and raise you six times the value of the gift in shipping. Every year I procrastinate, hyperventilate, and lie my lying little ass off about why nobody got whatever-it-was until December 29th. This year, I’d punted the whole thing to California–figuring that my arrival six days before Christmas would give me plenty of time to locate and purchase everyone’s presents, fail to mail them, plus come up with a fresh batch of excuses about why nothing arrived on time. Besides, Belated Christmas meant I didn’t have to get anything for my children or my boyfriend or his children until, oh, you know, sometime way way off in the future, after I got back. I was the most laid back person with no shit whatsoever together you’ve ever seen right up to December sixteenth, the day I changed my plans to fly to Texas.
And then I flipped out. Denial will only take you so far–even I, world-class expert, couldn’t delude myself quite to the point of thinking that I’d manage shopping/wrapping/shipping amid the chaos of a massive family funeral, in an unfamiliar city, with no means of independent transport. I had to send packages that very day, before I left, or they wouldn’t get sent at all. Motivated by the twin goddesses of familial giftgiving (Fear–my mother never forgets a tardy Christmas present–and Filial Affection), I bought everything, wrapped everything, boxed everything, addressed everything. I went to the post office, where there was no line, and mailed everything. It was extremely stressful, let me tell you. I had plenty of time in the morning to complain on the phone to consoling-windows friend while I wrapped and taped and labeled, and time left over in the afternoon, before I had to pick up the children, to get a little loafing done, too.
Then I oversaw the packing of the children’s suitcases for Hawaii, delivered luggage and children to their father, and flew off to Texas bearing presents (wrapped! early!) for all my funeral-bound kin.
The funerals were–if you can say this of funerals–wonderful and perfect. It was a joy to see my dad and stepmother and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews and nieces. And I didn’t even think about Christmas, except to wake up every morning at five to remember that I had already done everything, and therefore could go back to sleep. I was finished! I had mailed things in advance! I had hand-carried other things right to their grateful, startled recipients! It was very exciting. I decided to turn over a whole new leaf, and get Christmas done in advance every year from now on. This must be one of those milestones people are always talking about, I thought happily, snuggling back down in my sister’s childhood bed. I’m finally a grown up. I’ve finally arrived.
Back at home, still well ahead (three days!) of Christmas, I brought in the mail that had accumulated while I was gone. I felt rather smug, thinking how surprised various relatives (who’d probably assumed the worst) were to be receiving packages from me right about now. Why, I hadn’t even had to use my totally legitimate excuse–a family funeral!–to explain why everyone’s packages were going to be just a few days late, just this once, just this year. Maybe I can save it to use another time, I thought as I sifted through my mail. Shame to let a perfectly good excuse like a funeral go to waste. The mail was full of Christmas cards, which was nice and all, but truth be told I was a little miffed not to see thank-you-notes already. It was only when my boyfriend and I drove to his apartment the following day, and I was confronted with a lovely stack of charmingly wrapped presents under his tree–from his children, and from him–that I realized my fatal mistake.
Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck fuck. I had forgotten that blowing off the trip to California meant I was going to spend Real Christmas with a bunch of people I had absolutely zero presents for. I woke up at five in the morning on December twenty-third in a horrible cold sweat. I tossed. I turned. “For crying out loud,” my boyfriend murmured in my ear. “Presents aren’t important. Your grandfather died! You don’t have to get me anything.”
Oh, my god. I got out of bed and staggered to the living room, where the charmingly wrapped presents sang a cheerful greeting. I was going to get everybody stuff in California, I mumbled grumpily. Outside, it was raining and horrible. While my boyfriend made coffee, I stared into space. Technically, I wasn’t completely giftless. I had taken my kids shopping for his kids, and I had a couple of things for him–a book, a CD of a pianist we were going to see in January. But both were–how to put this? Kind of obvious gift choices, and there was a good chance he’d gotten the very same book and CD for me. I’d been counting on California, specifically on the weirdo shops in San Francisco, for inspiration. Now here it was, two days before Christmas, and I had wasted all my energies on a bunch of faraway ingrate relatives while neglecting my kind, thoughtful, long-suffering, deserving boyfriend.
It was a terrible day. I ran around town with no umbrella like a lunatic, soaked and miserable, dodging the hordes of tourists who were taking their sweet time apparently buying Easter presents ahead of the rush. At an especially low moment (shuffling up one aisle and down another in a horde of wet-woolly-smelling folk at the MOMA gift shop, eyeing the eighty-dollar hideous chrome tea sets and Magritte refrigerator magnets), I pictured an alternate version of myself flying triumphantly back from California, bearing a taxidermy unicorn or something, with that special happiness that comes from knowing a beloved other is about to open a thoughtfully chosen present from you–something he mentioned months ago! Something he had no idea you knew he wanted! Something you’d magically intuited he’d longed for ever since he was small! Something that perfectly expresses the profundity and loveliness of your special bond, something that will bring joy and fond remembrance decades from now, a gift for the ages, a gift for all time!
At Rockefeller Center, soaked to the bone, feeling like an utter twat, I ducked into J. Crew and bought two deeply discounted men’s cashmere sweaters. Both would be too small, but the proper size was sold out. Besides, isn’t it the thought that counts? Without quite meaning to, I crossed the street to Banana Republic, where I accidentally bought two more sweaters. Back out in the rain I actually felt a tiny bit triumphant, like I was finally getting the hang of this whole present thing. Then the paper bag holding everything ruptured as I splashed toward the subway, and I dripped all over everyone on the ride home, my arms full of crumpled tissue paper and damp wool.
On Actual Christmas, I opened thoughtful present after thoughtful present (things I’d mentioned months ago! Things I had no idea he knew I wanted! Things he’d magically intuited, profoundly lovely things that will bring joy and fond remembrance decades from now, and, as I’d feared, the very same book and CD I’d gotten him. Rats.) Meanwhile my poor boyfriend opened sweater after sweater after sweater after sweater. “These are great!” he said. “I needed sweaters! Wow! You can’t have too many sweaters! Though, uh, maybe this one is a little bit…snug.”
“The other cashmere one won’t fit, either,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “I love them! It’s the thought that counts.”
A few days later, my children came back from Hawaii bearing an actual orchid-and-orange-blossom lei in a plastic clamshell, which they’d taken turns holding on their laps for the entire flight home. Another perfect present. It smelled amazing, and it lasted for days. I even wore it to Belated Christmas, which took place as originally scheduled with my boyfriend and all four of the kids, and was very merry indeed.
In January, I got my comeuppance: three bad colds in a row, a sinus infection, a tag-team relay of sick children, and a frozen pipe (which did not burst, thank Zeus) at the old house. I botched an assignment so badly that I had to rewrite it from the ground up. Twice. It snowed and froze and snowed and froze till it was no longer cute or fun or festive, and I quarreled with one of my sisters, and just when the children were well enough to go back to school, an ice storm closed everything down for three days. For my forty-sixth birthday last week, the children gave me a laundry basket. In other words, the Goddess of Bad Gifts has had her revenge, in spades.
Still. Six years ago this month my ex-husband and I separated. At the worst part of that horrible winter, I truly didn’t know whether I’d ever be happy again, and look at me now. I’m lucky, and happy, and ridiculously blessed.
(Though I do apologize for failing to update this blog, and for neglecting to wish you a happy New Year in anything resembling a timely fashion. What can I say? I meant to, really I did, I always mean to. I think about writing here every single day. But, well, you see, there was this family funeral…)