’Tis the season of peace, and from the front hallway comes the shriek of artillery as a boy who is supposed to be bent over his history homework takes advantage of the temporary distraction of his mother to transform into a “secret agent guy fighting the Nazis” in front of the mirror. “Bsheew!” goes a bomber, and the machine guns rattle, “Prrrr-prrrrr-prrrrr,” and it all makes a homey Yuletide backdrop to my white-knuckle effort to make up for a year’s neglect of the Christmas list.
#ad#It’s not as though Christmas and all its gift-giving obligations come as a surprise, exactly, but with one thing and another the sense of urgency hits progressively later each year, which is pretty foolish when you consider, as I ought to, that lots of our relatives live overseas, beyond the reach of FedEx next-day delivery.
“Shush, secret-agent guy, I’m on the phone!” I call, on hold and typing furiously and wondering whether it would be cheesy to send a bottle of port with her name in calligraphy on it to my mother-in-law. Does she even drink port? Or what about the fruit and nut platter? No one wants a fruit and nut platter, surely, but I’m getting anxious.
’T’was the night before Christmas/ And there in the house/ A woman was freaking/ And clicking her mouse.
“Confirm order,” I click, and off to one household goes a box of groovy stemless wine glasses. I hit “Confirm order” again, and whistling along the cables go two wine-and-cheese baskets, a box of truffles, and enough books to stock a village library. I am beyond wincing–over the predictability of these gifts, over the delivery fees, over their lateness–and must must must get them out.
The fact is, my husband and I are feckless layabouts when it comes to timely gift-giving, and Internet shopping is our enabler, the destroyer of any motivation to pull our socks up. We act, in short, as people generally do when their bad behavior is subsidized: Our pathologies become evermore deep-seated. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years’ time we’re reduced to getting up before dawn on Christmas morning in order to get something delivered to the house before the children wake up.
Still, it is a lovely time of year, isn’t it? The mailman has been dropping off brown paper packages tied up with string (from kind friends and relations who are not so shamefully disorganized), and colorful cards with nativity scenes that make Violet and Phoebe argue about which one of them gets to be the angel, or the Virgin Mary, as if, by pointing at a small reproduction printed on a card of, say, a Raphael, they actually can become that elegant figure to the exclusion of all others. The baby is always Flora.
Flora herself is a kind of Christmas pudding, very sweet and sturdy and possibly the least volatile infant in history. Her job is to sit in whatever spot she’s placed, beaming at whatever face looms into view and, unfortunately, doing rather a lot of coughing. Such is the fate of babies born in the autumn, just when their siblings start coming home with microbes nurtured in steamy pre-k classrooms, but we could have done without that 36-hour hospital stay some weeks back, when her breathing went all shallow and rapid. She’s fine now, and exists in a constant mist from the portable humidifiers that travel around the house with her.
“Hey, cut it out, Paris!”
“Don’t shoot at your sister,” I say automatically. “A boy should always protect–”
“I’m not shooting at her, just near her.”
“Ok, Mummy, here’s everything,” Molly says, bustling in with an armload of wrapped presents. Happily, it appears she hasn’t inherited the gene that leads to seasonal incompetence. “Will you put these in the Forbidden Closet? Or shall I–”
“No, no,” I cover hastily, “let me do it. I wouldn’t like anyone to see anything they shouldn’t.”
It isn’t a lie, exactly, is it? For there’s nothing to see. Due to Flora’s birth and tutoring two children at home and getting two other children to and from school and trying to persist with a bit of scribbling and generally keeping the whole ship of domesticity afloat, it so happens that the Forbidden Closet is, apart from Molly’s presents and a few packages from overseas, and a matter of hours before Christmas itself, bare. The sense of urgency suddenly hits with full force: I must must must get to the shops.
Just then, Violet comes down the stairs with Flora in her arms. Phoebe follows close behind, trailing a pink baby blanket which she is wearing like a toga.
“Yikes, Violet, careful on the stairs,” Molly says.
“Hello, Galapagos Glaow,” Paris says tenderly, using his nickname for her.
“Glrrr,” says Flora, beaming at him.
“Hello toodly-doodly,” Phoebe immediately interposes, jostling to get between the baby and her brother. “Mummy, can I hold her?”
“Hey, I’m talking to Flora–”
“Better not now–”
“Say,” Molly interrupts, “What are you giving Daddy for Christmas this year?”
“A helicopter, or what?”
“She can’t give him a helicopter–”
“How about a book?”
A brief bolt of anxiety runs through me–oh, man, what am I going to give my husband?–then dissipates almost immediately. Five small, interested faces are turned my way, and suddenly I feel like the mother of the Gracchi brothers, who told a highly ornamented friend that her children were her jewels.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say lightly, “probably a sweater.”