Friday, December 30, 2016

The gift of grace at Christmas

From last week's Briefing:

I didn’t grow up with staunch Christmas traditions.
We moved a lot. Not every house had a chimney for Santa. Some Christmas mornings were at home, others with my grandparents. There’s no dish we always had to eat, no particular order to opening gifts, no storybook or Scripture we had to read.
So, as people are wont to do, I set out to create my own staunch Christmas traditions when I became a parent.
We tell stories about the sentimental ornaments we hang on the tree. We see the same Santa – the real Santa for photos in December.
We sing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve worship services and leave out a plate of cookies for Santa and two carrots for the reindeer.
On Christmas morning, we open stockings, eat baked apple French toast casserole and then open gifts, one at a time.
After years of creating and maintaining these traditions, I’ve discovered the most important element of all, the greatest gift I can give myself, the key to stress-free celebrations:
Sometimes ornaments break. Sometimes cookies are from a tin, not my kitchen. Sometimes one child’s stocking seems more generously stuffed than the other’s.
I give myself grace.
Ten years ago, I was a stay-at-home mom with a hard-working husband, a toddler, a kindergartener and a few freelance projects. I had time to decorate the staircase with garland, woven with berries and fastened with ribbon. Cooper and Katie owned multiple coordinating Christmas outfits, and I took photos of them all over town, trying to capture the perfect image for our annual card.
We were building our traditions, and it was glorious.
It was the last “normal” Christmas we’d celebrate as a family of four.
The next year, my hard-working husband was hospitalized as doctors tried to determine the nature of a mass discovered in his brain stem.
The year after that, Steve’s body was deteriorating, suffering the effects of chemotherapy and secondary infections related to his brain cancer.
The year after that, we were a family of three, holding on to our tenuous traditions as we navigated a new normal none of us wanted.
Ever since, I’ve required bucketfuls of grace, not just at Christmas but every single day. Being lenient with myself, loosening expectations about the little things (and most of what we worry about is little) has been essential these past nine years.
Grace means we don’t always unpack the Christmas plates and glasses.
Grace means I shrug off guilt the years that Christmas cards don’t get created.
Grace means we don’t always decorate a gingerbread house or attend a performance of The Nutcracker.
Ten years ago, Steve and I had no inkling that we were celebrating our final “normal” Christmas together. I hate to think – though I’m certain it’s true – that I wasted moments of that season worrying about ribbon or photos or cookies.
Our time together on this earth, no matter how much time we have, is precious. It’s silly to waste it fussing about inconsequential details.
Will we sing tonight of shepherds and angels and peace? Absolutely.
Will we rejoice tomorrow morning, reflecting a complicated mix of secular happiness and spiritual joy? Of course.
Will this Christmas be perfect? Nope. None of them are.
Imperfect Christmases are a tradition around here, and I’m thankful for every single one I get to celebrate.

Friday, December 09, 2016

My baby girl is growing up

From tomorrow's Briefing:

My Christmas wish is silly, shallow and sentimental: I want one more year with smocked dresses, matching hair bows and patent-leather Mary Janes.

Instead, my Katie is borrowing my boots and jewelry. There's not a Peter Pan collar in sight. Add the shift in wardrobe to the long list of signs that times are changing around here:

The American Girl dolls seem lonely.

There are fewer impromptu performances featuring stuffed animals.

Picture books are rarely in the nighttime rotation.

Girl-sized socks and tights have been necessarily tossed.

We are completely uneducated about any Disney Junior or PBS Kids programs developed in the past couple of years. (PJ MasksNature CatElena of Avalor? They're all mysteries.)

Katie's Christmas wish is one word: Books. Not a single plaything or licensed character or item that requires assembly or batteries. Because she's the second child and because I read mountains of parenting advice, I've tried to soak up every fleeting moment.

I relished dress-up days, with butterfly wings and layers of tulle and sparkly slippers littering her bedroom floor. We read piles and piles of books before and after naptime. Olivia, Skippyjon Jones and the Pigeon were some of our closest friends. I indulged her artistic whims and fought my own fear of paint and glitter on the kitchen floor.

I'm sure there were moments I wished time would go faster (such as potty training, age 2, bouts of insomnia, age 8), but I was almost always genuinely present and aware of the gifts of the moment.

She won't always be this tiny.

She won't always pronounce "glasses" as "gla-gu-sess." She won't always choose a dress based on its twirling capacity.

And here we are. She's almost as tall as I am. We wear the same size shoe. The television show we watch together involves zero animation. She gobbles up books. She's an amateur expert in Greek mythology. She writes with passion and precision. Just last weekend, she embarked on a new phase: Babysitter.

Katie took the job seriously. She scoured our playroom, identifying the best possible activities. She packed a tote bag with contents including a jigsaw puzzle, Spirograph and Christmas storybooks. She walked three houses down and across the street to report for duty. For three hours she took care of Zaza, a neighbor we've known since birth. They played and created and giggled. Zaza begged her to return soon.

Then Katie walked home and climbed into her own bed, crowded with a narwhal and bear, puppy and tiger. I tucked her in and turned out her light, leaving behind a bedroom still filled with youthful treasures (tiny purses, Winnie the Pooh, sheets of stickers, a mischievous gnome).

My little girl isn't gone. She's adding on layers, shedding a few, holding on to those most dear.

I expect she'll always express herself with a little drama and flair. She'll seek books that teach and entertain. She'll create art with words and pencils and paints. She'll work to make others happy.

The gifts she offers are much greater than I ever imagined, and they grow more meaningful each year. 

Times are changing around here, and though my heart sometimes aches for the past, I know there's little to fear and much to embrace in the weeks and months and years to come.

Tyra Damm is a Dallas native, veteran journalist, fourth-grade teacher and Dallas Morning News Briefing columnist since 2008. She lives in Frisco and writes about family life and parenting. She can be reached at