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A Waltons' Christmas.

Saturday: 11:05 a.m.

"I need the phone," I said, as I checked my watch nervously.

My daughter looked disgusted, gave her goodbyes, and hung up. "What's the emergency?"

"I always call Grandma at 11 every day. It will only take 12 seconds. Trust me," I said as I dialed.

"Mother, how's . . ."

Grandma: "Fever's down, cold gone. Instant relief. You?"

"One bedrm., l.r. to go. Going out?"

Grandma: "Yes."


Grandma: "One birdie, one bogey, two beers. Serviceman arrive?"


Grandma: "Heard from B.R. Tues."

"Who's B.R.?"

Grandma: "Letter to follow. This is costing you a fortune. Love you." "Ditto."

As I hung up, my daughter said, "That's the most incredible conversation I've ever heard in my life. What's the hurry?"

"Ever since Grandma found out I'm a toll charge and it costs 12 cents to call here, she's been talking like a want ad."

"And you call her every day!" she said incredulously. "What do you have to talk about?"

Calling one's mother is a phenomenon few people can understand ... unless they're a daughter. A need for your mother develops the same day you come back from your honeymoon. I can honestly say I never knew Mother at all until Ma Bell came into our lives.

It took the daily phone call to learn that her secret pie crust came from a secret box in the supermarket. I had to discover by a slip of the tongue that she hid her billfold in the refrigerator in the vegetable crisper because only junk food addicts would rob a house in the first place and would never look under the lettuce.

One day she surprised me by commenting on how kissing on television bothered her. She said they always looked like they were chewing on a ham sandwich and bit down on a piece of fat they were trying to get out. Another time she admitted that when I was six months old, she was bathing me and I fell off the table. She never told anyone, in case I wasn't "right," and she didn't want to take the blame for it.

"Grandma's a neat lady," observed my daughter. "I think I always remember her best at Easter. Remember how she used to bake a lamb cake smothered in coconut with jellybean eyes . . . and the cream-filled eggs three times our weight?"

"You bounced off the walls for three weeks. Then she started to hide hard-boiled eggs," I smiled.

"And after awhile she got a little fuzzy as to where she laid the eggs, and along about July or August, when Grandad would cut the grass and grind up a three-month-old egg, it smelled like the bottom of a septic tank. It was Grandma's finest hour."

"I would disagree. Grandma's finest hour is the parade of the boxes at Christmas."

"Is she still saving all those boxes every year?"

"You, who got a ring in a rectal thermometer box last year, have to ask that!" I said.

"Where does she store all of them?"

"You've seen her at Christmas. She's like a minesweeper. No sooner is the paper off the present than she is winding the ribbon around her finger and smoothing the creases out of the wrapping paper. Then she stacks them like Russian dolls, takes them home to her closet, arranges them by size, and waits for all of us non-box savers to grovel.

"You should see her closet. If Tutankhamen's mother had a tomb, this would be it. You've never seen such a box glut in your life. One year I tried to borrow one of her boxes, and she reminded me that I jammed an afghan in one the year before and broke down the sides. I said, 'Mother, I'm begging,' and as she handed me one off the shelf said, 'Tell me what time it is to be opened, and I'll be there.'"

"We talking Grandma?" said my son, joining us.

"Umm, we have to sit down sometime and figure out what we're doing for Christmas."

"What's to figure out?" said my daughter. "We all come home Christmas Eve, decorate the tree, open the presents, eat ourselves into a coma, and it's all over."

"Wait a minute," said her brother. "Tell me Mom isn't planning another Walton Christmas." I tried to laugh with them, but the sound stuck in my throat.

"Admit it, Mom," said my daughter. "That had to have been not only the worst idea you ever had ... but the worst Christmas in the history of holidays."

I remember the exact moment the idea began to form ... It was Christmas night in 1979. I was under the tree and had just opened a box containing six shrimp forks. It was a gift to me from Harry. Harry was our puppy. My husband sat in a chair comatose watching "Bowling for Beers." Tinsel hung from his ears, and lights circled his head. We had decided to leave him decorated through New Year's before we took him down.

A bird that we had plugged in to hear his light-hearted sound chirped every three seconds. I grabbed it by the throat and began choking it to death.

The kids were riding cardboard boxes down the hill in the snow. The new sleds were under the tree.

I asked myself, "Is this what Christmas is all about?"

Is Santa Claus just a seasonal pitchman who arrives by helicopter, sells cat food, passes out samples of Monterey Jack in the supermarket, and hustles to those 55 or over without a physical?

Has communicating with friends come down to the Christmas Newsletters Annual Barf-Off? Did I have to know that Elrod was sleeping dry at three weeks or that Estelle's 90year-old father just stiffened in her arms and died during dinner last summer? And what about the fruitcake disciples who came out of the woodwork every December to have you put your hands on their 90pound bricks of fruit, look skyward, and shout, "Hallelujah!"

Did anyone care that we ran ourselves ragged to compete with the woodworking teacher next door who hoisted a large sleigh on his roof, had 500,000 lights surrounding his house, and was shown on the 11 o'clock news with traffic snaked back to the freeway?

How far would we go to satisfy the Goddess of Greed? Parents are such yaps. Every year we gather our children around our knees and inquire, "What do you want for Christmas this year, Sweetheart?"

An infant who has no control over his bladder, is unable to feed himself, and cannot focus both eyes in the same direction says clearly, "I want the Rattell Pirate Ship, Catalog No. 90456, made of nontoxic superconstructed balsa and equipped with a two-masted square rigger, a crew of 14, a dinghy, treasure chest, cannons, adjustable sails, working anchor, derrick for hoisting, and a crow's nest, cost $185. Don't accept a substitute. Look for the store in your area on channel 4."

I remember one year when all about me my friends had goals of working for peace and restoring America to a place of trust. You know what my goal was? Finding a doll for my daughter that drank milk, burped, rolled its eyes, said "I'm sleepy," and then deposited something very disgusting in its diaper.

When our children speak, we listen. When they cry, we start the motor of the car. When they threaten to stop breathing, we salivate, grow fur, and become predatory.

I was sick of rummaging through "kinky" little boutiques for my teenagers where I was the only person wearing shoes. Sick of being overdosed by incense and waited on by a guy with a ring in his nose and a tattoo of a snake on his tongue.

I grabbed a handful of tinsel and, lifting it with clenched fist, shouted, "I promise by all that is holy, I will never observe another Christmas without meaning."

By the time Christmas rolled around the next year, I was ready for it.

"Going to the cabin for Christmas is going to be wonderful," I said to my husband. "We can bake from scratch, light by candles, and heat by firelight, and what we don't have we'll live without." "You have just described the Depression," he said dryly.

"I have just described the Waltons at Christmas. And look what a long run that family had. What made them so special was that they bought nothing. Every gift to one another was something they made with love and homemade paste. I bet there is creativity in this family that hasn't been discovered yet. Every gift exchanged this Christmas will be made from loving hands. The first thing I'm going to do when we get to the cabin is go through the forest, gather walnuts, and bake fruitcakes."

"You hate fruitcake."

"So what? If no one eats them, we'll use them to extend the patio after Christmas."

There was no deterring me from my excitement to stage a noncommercial, back-to-basics Christmas that our family would remember the rest of their lives. In theory, it should have worked. I sent the boys out to chop down a live Christmas tree in the forest behind the cabin and set about creating those wonderful Christmas smells from the kitchen.

My mother dumped a glass of jelly into a saucepan. When I asked her why, she said she needed the glass to glue yarn around for a pencil holder. She reminded me the jelly cost $1.19, the yarn $1.50, and the glue $2.00, and for that she could have bought a gold-plated pen and pencil set from Bloomingdale's.

One child headed toward the bathroom with a bag of twine and a book, How to Macrame.

The boys returned in no time at all in a sheriff's cruiser. They did not have a permit to cut down a tree. The good news was that they were armed with a serrated bread knife, so the ranger did not take them seriously.

The smells were beginning to permeate the kitchen. Smells of wet paint and paste from unfinished gifts.

I sent the boys into town to buy a tree and set about decorating the cabin the old-fashioned way... the mantle with pinecones, and, on the outside of the window, I hung some little birds I had bought in the dime store. I poured wax into milk cartons and popped some popcorn to string the tree.

The boys returned with a tree that looked quite ill. There was no "good side." We tried to simulate snow with paste and water and ended up throwing globs of it on the branches. It looked like a relief station for gulls. They ate the popcorn before it got to the thread.

I lit the homemade candles, which melted before I got the casserole to the table. My husband couldn't get the fire started. He was passing the hat begging for drivers' licenses and blank checks.

The dog ate a pine cone and was throwing up.

It started to rain, and the little birds I had put on the tree outside started to unravel. It looked like their intestines spilling out, and was not a festive sight.

Somehow I didn't remember the Walton kids sitting out in the car with the motor running, with rock music on the radio until midnight, running down the battery.

This had to be the worst Christmas Eve of our lives.

And all I had wanted was to hear the chimes... like the little boy in the classic story who followed in the footsteps of kings and rich men who put gifts on the altar to hear the chimes ring out. The chimes were silent until he took off his coat and put it on the altar because it was all he had to give. It had been so long since I heard them ring.

Early Christmas morning, I tiptoed out into the living room. The fireplace was dark and cold. The tree was slipping away from us fast. The gifts were a ragtag collection of clumsily wrapped packages... some in newspapers, some in plastic bags.

The family drifted out and took their places on the sofa and the floor.

The first gift to be opened was from my husband to one of his sons, who was thinking of becoming a teacher. It was the only copy of his doctoral dissertation. It had taken him a year to write it.

My mother had painted a picture of the cabin on a piece of wood. She had just begun to paint the past year.

There was a home-crafted bird feeder, wall plaques decorated with macaroni, crocheted bedroom slippers, and a recording of our family around the table at Thanksgiving that someone had made. There were shelled nuts, pillows, and dolls with yarn hair. And who will ever forget that dramatic moment when my son emerged from the bathroom with a macfame planter holder and hands that went with it because he didn't know how to end it?

Then, each of the kids produced an ornament they had made for the tree. A Christmas bulb out of cookie dough ... a Styrofoam apple with a rubber worm coming out of it... a small pie pan decorated with ribbon and a picture of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child pasted on it.

As they hung them on the tree, the branches somehow became fuller and, from nowhere, a hundred lights seemed to sparkle. The fire in the fireplace took hold and suddenly burnt brighter, and the candles got a second life and glowed. For a second ... and only a second... we not only found something we thought we had lost... but I heard chimes.

The clock in the living room brought me back to reality. It had just turned noon.

"Can you believe Mom still has those crummy little ornaments we made?" said my daughter.

"And guess who gets their ornaments on first?" said my son. "The one who created the pie tin with a picture of the Blessed Virgin pasted inside, that's who. Every year, the best is first."

"Listen to him," said his brother. "You weren't first a couple of years ago. Those who don't come home for Christmas don't get a place on the tree."

"That's right," said his brother. "I was in the Peace Corps that year. How long ago was it?"

It was two years ago ... and that was the worst Christmas we ever had. We were all together, and yet we weren't all together.

My feelings were ambivalent, and they confused me. Didn't we do everything right? Got his teeth straightened, his hernia repaired, his body packed with vitamins. Didn't we teach him how to parallel park, wipe his feet, put down lids, flush, feed himself, and make his own bed?

We gave him room to breathe, smiled in all the right places, swallowed advice that lodged in our throats like a lump, and resisted spreading guilt.

When he left us at the airport, he could have said goodbye to a wrong number. "Don't worry, Mom. Worry makes you retain water."

We did all the right things. We encouraged them to take responsibility for their own successes and their own failures, develop their independence, and live their own lives. So why at Christmas, when they were all gone, did we feel so rotten?

And why did I fall apart when I hung on the Christmas tree that crummy little pie tin with a picture of the Blessed Virgin pasted inside dangling from a soiled ribbon?
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Title Annotation:humor
Author:Bombeck, Erma
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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