I’d been in commandant mode all day, maybe all month, but finally — finally — the presents were opened, the meal was produced, and the family was unpleasantly full after gorging on turkey and all the fixin’s plus some extra fixin’s for good measure. “Ben!” I’d barked at my nephew, “move it!” as I motioned for him to step away from the counter where I planned to set the brimming dishes. Then I added, “I want you to know I speak to you like my own children.”
As if he would understand that I only bark at those I love.
In the moment this picture was taken, this delicious moment after I emerged from bed to take it, my adult daughter and son had returned from checking on two pooches that my son was babysitting over the holidays. He seemed too tired to drive so my daughter, his older sister, agreed to go with him. When they returned, they had concocted the idea to take a picture in front of the tree in his-and-hers animal onesies.
They could hardly stand, they were so tired. I could hardly stand. But I’m so glad that I got out of bed to say goodnight just as my daughter was telling her brother that no one was around to take the picture. Then they saw me: problem solved.
Pictures were taken: arms flung wide, arms wrapped around each other. They’ve been this close since the beginning, a true gift to one another.
Why is it that I just figure Christmas out — remind myself what the season means — about the time it’s over? Until then, it seems, there’s just so much work to do to make it perfect for everyone. Or (let’s be honest, Betsy) to make it perfect enough for my own standards.
Christmas had begun to seep in on Sunday when I finally made it to church. As the advent candle was lit for the fourth Sunday, this blessing was said:
“Love surpasses the secure locations we would choose, the holy nests in precarious places and roots in the fragile.”
I’d been feeling overwhelmed. Broken. With my son applying to teach English in Japan, it had been like college app season all over again, characterized by my own frantic feeling that I needed to make sure he didn’t miss a step. He wanted this, after all, so I was all in. I know what they tell parents — it’s supposed to be their problem, not ours (there’s yet another “should” from whoever “they” are) — but I’m terrible at disconnecting.
So I was sitting in church feeling like a failure, like a rotten mother who, in her effort to ensure that things got done and done right, was turning the holiday season into boot camp. Instead of offering love, I was draining it. Ninety percent of the time I’d been in bitchy mode; the other 10 percent I tried to make up for it.
As the week continued, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blessing of the Advent candle. About precarious and fragile places. About brokenness.
Was this a reminder that love conquers all? That I could make all things right with enough love?
No, I had it on its head. It was a reminder that I was loved — am loved — even in my fragility and weakness. Even when I confuse motherhood with sovereignty.
Then I read Pope Francis’ homily on Christmas Eve. The meaning of the birth of Jesus, he said, “is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.”
God’s love could surpass my smallness? The way I sometimes fail in mothering, the most important role entrusted to me?
Here were my children, standing by the Christmas tree, engulfing one another in a hug, goofy in zebra stripes and leopard spots. Here it is, I thought, what Christmas is really all about. Love, just love. If only I let it in.