The Christmas Runaround
Serene, peaceful, harmonious — three words that do not describe Christmas in the life of a child of divorced parents. It’s more like hectic, crazy, running like a headless chicken.
I remember the day my parents sat me down on the couch to tell me the news. “Ashley, sweetie, Mommy and Daddy are going to live in two separate houses …” My six-year-old translation: Yes! Now I will have two houses like Elaine, the childhood friend whose vacation house I envied.
That news began my life on the run.
I now had two beds; two closets — with no garment ever in the right one; and two routines as well as two houses. The multiplication doubled at Christmas. I bounced to Mom’s to Granny’s to Dad’s to Nona and Grandpa’s, never in the same order.
No matter where I am on Christmas Eve, I am picking up my parents’ slack.
If I stay the night with Dad, I wrap his last-minute Christmas presents — even if I’m the one destined to unwrap them the next morning. This is no quick job. Brothertons don’t just cover a box with pretty paper and stick on a bow; it’s not in our DNA. We orient the box to make sure the paper will perfectly cover the gift — not too much, and not too little — then drag the scissors across a straight line, lift the paper to prevent sneak peak, fold the edges down for a crisp line and use three perfectly portioned pieces of tape to seal it.
If I’m with Mom, we are decorating the tree we had been meaning to decorate since Thanksgiving but never got to. We start the night with Mariah Carey and Chinese food from Kitchen No. 1. After the lo mein carton is empty and the fortunes have been read, we move to decorating. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation plays in the background as we decide which ornament goes where. Mom’s horse-laugh at Chevy Chase screaming Squirrel! tops off the night.
Wherever I spend Christmas Eve, I wake up. There’s no rhyme or reason to the annual schedule. It’s just what works for that year. I get to decide, and this year I haven’t yet made up my mind.
At Dad’s, stockings are passed out first. My stocking has been my stocking as long as I can remember. My great-grandmother, Dad’s Nana, knitted the Kelly-green stocking for him when he was a kid, and he passed it on to me when I was a baby.
As Dad no longer has a stocking, stuffing them is his job. He sneaks jewelry into stepmom Karin’s stocking, and something I already own in mine. We all get a toothbrush, enough shaving cream and hair ties to last the year and candy to fill out the toe. Then Karin, step-sister Maggie, Dad and I make wrapping paper mayhem. Once my perfect wrapping job is ripped apart by my loved ones, we clean up, layer on and head out to the next stop: Granny’s.
With just the three of us, Christmas morning at Mom’s is much more relaxed. Mom and I sit on the couch with sprawling Tessa the cat, sipping coffee and nibbling blueberry muffins before opening gifts. We open presents one by one. She’s attentive until she unwraps her annual cookbook from me. She oohs and ahhs recipes in the cookbook she will never use but loves thinking she will.
Once all the presents are unwrapped, I shift into high gear. I have to be on the road by 11am to Granny’s.
Christmas at the Brotherton Compound
No matter where I’m coming from, it takes me 15 minutes to get to Granny’s house. My five cousins have already torn through their presents, leaving behind only my dad’s, step-sister’s, step-mom’s and mine.
After opening our piles, we’re ready for stop three, downstairs in my Aunt Cathy’s basement apartment to open presents.
Next we walk to Uncle Ken and Aunt Mary Kay’s, 50 feet away, and open more presents. I don’t know how we’d manage if my aunts and uncles lived any farther.
Until early afternoon — remember, I’m on the clock — I hang out with my same-age cousins, who don’t have to get out of their pajamas. They always get the newest and coolest gadgets for Christmas, so we stay entertained with new games on the Wii. Aunt Cathy carries over two of her famous macaroni and cheeses to finish the buffet of food Aunt Mary Kay has already laid. Those two dishes will be the only ones empty before the end of the day.
I have finished four stops of my six for the day. About 2pm, I make the move.
If I spent Christmas morning with my father’s family, I’m off to Mom’s. Or vice versa. Are you confused yet?
It’s always a hard switch from a celebration too good to leave.
Before I was driving, both my parents had to halt their days to drive 10 minutes to meet in the middle and hand me over. They cheered when I was 16 and could drive myself to and fro. The switch is made by 2:30pm, giving me four Christmas hours until my next stop, at the home of my maternal grandparents, the Jordans.
Christmas Cookies with the Jordans
At Nona and Grandpa’s house, Christmas evening reverts to Christmas eve. Nona bakes all Christmas day. We arrive about 6pm to decorate cookies, eat another meal and spend the night together to repeat Christmas on December 26.
Nona is Italian. She makes pizzelles, fudge, homemade fig Newtons and dozens of shaped sugar cookies to decorate.
Nona bakes lasagna for us to eat while we ice cookies because I haven’t eaten enough carbs in the day. Over cookies, I enjoy a little friendly competition. I usually make the prettiest, most creative cookies. My Uncle Bret makes the most detailed cookie. My med-school cousin Sarah always manifests what she is learning that semester on a cookie. Last year it was Mitosis. My mom’s specialty is making two cookies, then “going to the bathroom” and reading her cookbook.
No one sleeps until every single reindeer, ornament, wreath, star, holly leaf, Santa, candy cane and angel has been iced and sprinkled.
Christmas Morning, Round Two
The smell of cinnamon rolls wakes us. Hungrily, we congregate in our assigned spots in the living room. Grandpa hands out the stockings that Santa magically filled while we slept. I gloat because mine is the longest stocking. Nona knitted mine first, making me the favorite (shh, don’t tell my cousins). Stockings are filled with more candy, a dish-sponge, scissors, a $50 bill and Bath and Body Works galore.
Present unwrapping begins with our annual calendars from Nona and Grandpa. Grandpa hands out the gifts. This morning’s competition is who can open the last present. Mom will hide one behind her back; Uncle Bret pretends he doesn’t see the one in front of him; Nona saves one of the grand-kids’ presents in a secret hiding spot so one of us wins.
Midmorning, the Jordan family divides into cookers and non-cookers. I am a non-cooker. I spend the rest of the day recuperating from the madness of the day before, watching movies, drinking homemade punch and waiting for dinner.
Nona is a much cuter and more talented Martha Stewart. Our dinner always looks like it’s right out of a magazine, and I get to eat it. Fifteen people gather at her table to feast on the best ham any of us have ever eaten, Kraft macaroni and cheese (per Sarah’s request), sweet potatoes, green beans, corn and whatever other sides we can fit on the table. Two plates and 30 minutes later, Mom announces I can’t eat another bite.
But she makes room. Apple pie is next. Now we really can’t eat another bite.
With four stops over 56 miles in 48 hours, my Christmas runaround is complete. What would Christmas be like if I stayed at one house all day? Boring.
I wouldn’t trade my runaround. I consider myself lucky that all of my family is close so I can spend Christmas with everyone I love.
Wonderful, fulfilling and loving. Those three words describe my Christmas.