Confession: I don’t know if being without your grown kids over the holidays is actually Stage Number 11 of letting go. Eleven just seemed about the right number since there are so many milestones on their way to full adulthood that evoke weepiness and pride in equal measures. It starts in earnest when he/she/they head to kindergarten and includes, along the way, driving alone for the first time, starting college, first serious romance.
But this one—a child wanting to be somewhere else on Christmas—is a significant one. At least it’s significant for me this year, because it’s the first time my oldest son will not be in the house when I turn on the tree lights on Christmas morning and crank up “Santa Baby.” It seems hard to believe, since we’ve always made such a fuss about Christmas. I think of all the Christmases we’ve had together—22 of them—and how I’ve tried to reproduce the magic of my own childhood Christmases.
Through the Years
On his first Christmas, I bought way too much, and of course he liked the wrapping paper much more than anything it covered. That Christmas was more for my husband and me than for him. I knew that even at the time. But then we hit those years when he—and eventually his little brother—really began to get what Christmas was all about. I would stay up late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents, making sure to wrap those from Santa in different paper than the ones that were from Mom and Dad. The boys would get us up early during that period. As early as 5 a.m. because they were so excited. For about 14 years, my Christmas Day always included a delicious nap since I would only get about four hours of sleep the night before.
When they were in high school, the tables flipped, and my husband and I would be up before them. Present opening was moved back till around 10 or 11 a.m.—usually after we’d gotten impatient and woken them up.
During the college years, we’d open gifts even later, since both boys would be exhausted from exams and wanted nothing more than have some days when they didn’t need to set an alarm clock.
“There comes a point when you have to start going to your kids’ houses, right?” I asked my mother over the phone this morning. “No one comes home any more.”
“Yep,” my mother sighed. “Everyone starts their own traditions with their families.” She has six children and has for many years spent the holidays—from Thanksgiving to New Year’s—traveling from one child’s home to another. For the past 20 years, she’s made the three-hour drive to my younger sister’s house for Christmas Day, but this year she doesn’t have the energy to make the trip. It will be the first time in two decades that she won’t be there, and the first time ever that she will sleep alone in my childhood home when Santa is out making his rounds (my father died two years ago). Luckily, she will go less than a mile to my older sister’s house for Christmas Day.
I know I’m lucky because we do have my younger son here this Christmas. But I wonder how long will that be the case. I think about when I stopped going to my parents’ house over the holidays. I think I might have been 28, with a serious boyfriend, and we’d flew off to chill out on an island somewhere. I’m trying to remember if it was hard for me. Not to be at home, not to run down the staircase that the six of us had always skipped down as children to look at all the gifts spread under the tree. Even when we were grown, we kids would do the staircase drill in an ironic, goofy way.
But I recall now that it wasn’t hard for me. Because I kept all the warm memories of those childhood Christmases in my head, and they were strong enough to fuel me. I didn’t feel the need—at that point at least—to keep recreating them. I wanted to strike out on my own and embrace the freedom to make my own holidays. There was something giddy about it.
I imagine that’s what my oldest son is feeling now. A bit giddy. He’s traveling through Europe with a friend, and I have hardly gotten a text from him, though I’m thrilled for his adventure and know he loves us all dearly. It’s his graduation trip, a treat to himself after finishing a punishing college degree earlier this month. And maybe that’s why this stage of letting go feels hard for me right now, because it’s following right on the heels of Stage Number 10–college graduation. I hope he’ll give me some time before we hit Stage Number 12, which I suspect is marriage. But maybe those of you who have already been through all the stages can prepare me for what stage comes next.