Christmas was the best.
I can still close my eyes and see every room, every softly lit corner, every china figurine, the order of the music boxes on the shelves that flanked the fireplace, every carefully chosen painting. I can smell the eucalyptus in the dried flower arrangements and remember the dry ticking of the mantel clock, its miniature Westminster chime announcing the quarter hours.
But Christmas was the best. The deep recess of the bay window was filled with light, a small tree at its center. The larger tree was decorated with ornaments no one else had; jewel toned birds with nylon tails that trembled and reflected the lights, bobbing on cunning springs. Tiny musical instruments with real strings. Glass ornaments that seemed to sparkle with sugar frosting. A jaunty man with a pipe stood smoking on the mantel, a smoldering cone of pine incense hidden under his brightly painted coat. The candlesticks bore tiny wreaths of their own, their light reflecting softly on the Christmas china's painted trees. Ceramic plates shaped like white poinsettias, or holly leaves and berries, were filled with cookies. The kitchen was busy and full of wonderful smells; if you opened the dutch door (closed to keep the dog from being a pest) you might be handed a bin of ice cubes, or a basket of rolls, to ferry to the table.
The turkey rested on the kitchen counter while gravy was being made across two burners in the roasting pan, majestic on its white platter. The electric knife would be unsheathed and plugged in, the designated carver summoned. Little by little, as real estate on the glass-topped warming tray was claimed by steaming, fragrant bowls, we'd start to gather. Someone would wander from room to room finding out 'what everyone wants to drink'. Pop-Pop's special iced tea glass sat beside his plate at the head of the table (Or the foot, depending on which one of them you asked). We'd all assemble, the shortest kid getting the back corner chair (on the leg, be careful not to kick it).
For several minutes you'd hear nothing but the scraping of silver on china. Seconds were a ballet since there was very little space between the table and the dry sink. (This did not deter us.) The talking would begin with news of cousins and family friends, funny work anecdotes, good report cards, and the combination of soft light and a full belly would lull you into a half dream, surrounded by the hum and murmur of safety, the warmth of people who loved you.
We would assemble after dinner in the living room, opening gifts one at a time, youngest to oldest, until everyone sat with a drift of paper at their feet. Slowly, so everyone could see. The waiting got easier as you got older. Mostly. I still have the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, its crisp smell and crackling cover slowly yielding to bookmarks and highlighted passages 27 years later, one of my favorite presents.
This Christmas is hard, because we know, finally, completely, that we don't have that place to go back to. What we miss is not merely the place, but the love that made it, and filled it, and held it together. We have to cry a little, and be brave, and make our own sanctuary. I can still see her looking at something and saying, "Do you know what I'd do with this?"
Yep. We know. You'd make it beautiful. Thank you for showing us how.