I am at my sister’s house. Our families are having an early Christmas. Kids are running around barefoot. Music is playing. Family pictures are everywhere. Chocolates. Cookies. Meatballs. My mother roasted some some nuts. My wife cooked fifty pounds of egg casserole.
I see an old picture of myself on a side table. I am maybe four years old in the photo. God, I looked like a little goober. Thankfully, I am all grown up now and have blossomed into a much bigger goober.
On my sister’s Christmas tree hangs a homemade ornament. I made this ornament when I was in preschool. My mother sees me looking at it. She smiles because she is happy to have her family in one place today.
She says, “My cup runneth over.”
Which is a cheesy phrase I never really understood. When someone says this, it means they’re supposedly happy. But if my cup were runnething all over the place, I’d tell the bartender to bring me a new one.
I remember the first Christmas after my father died when I was a child. There were no overflowing cups. Nobody felt like celebrating. Still, somehow my mother managed to put up a tree.
This felt pointless. Why? That was my main question. Who gave a rip about Christmas when we weren’t sure what was going to happen to our family? My father had just removed himself from the world. We were a local charity case.
Don’t get me wrong, people are very nice when you go through something bad. But people can only be so nice without getting weird. After a while, you’re tired of weird people.
All you want is for everything to go back to the way it was. You want your dead father to burst through the door and say, “Surprise! I’m alive! It was all a joke!”
But getting back to my story. On this particular Christmas, my mother attempted to go all out. It was the whole enchilada. She bought presents and shoved them under our plastic tree. She had scented candles and Christmas music. I’m sure there was even figgy pudding around somewhere.
On Christmas morning, I was holed up in my room. Back then, all I did was read Superman comic books because at the time—I think I already clarified this—I was a goober.
My mother called me downstairs. I staggered into the den with a bad attitude. I saw my mother and sister sitting cross-legged before our tree.
“Let’s open presents!” my mother said, trying a little too hard to be happy, smiling like an escaped lunatic. “It’ll be fun!”
When we divided gifts, I realized my mother didn’t have a single gift for herself. This was because nobody bought her anything that year. That had always been Daddy’s job.
So we opened gifts. My baby sister got mostly babydoll junk. Then it was my turn. The first package I opened was heavy. Maybe two pounds. I tore the paper to find a ceramic Superman sculpture, tall, intricately painted, and the coolest thing I had ever seen. It came from the department store. And it was expensive.
I started crying. I just lost it. It was the kind of crying where you fall down on the floor and press your face into the carpet. Then my mother started crying, too. Then, in a moment of deep emotion, my baby sister said, “I gotta pee.”
My mother said, “Then go pee! You don’t have to announce it to the world!”
So my sister ran into the bathroom and peed with the door open so that we could all hear firsthand what very healthy bladders sound like.
“Shut the door!” my mother shouted. “That’s loud!”
That’s when our crying turned into gut-busting laughter. The kind of laughter where snot comes out and you can’t catch your breath. And my sister came marching back, tugging up her pants, saying, “What’s so funny?”
Later that night, I sat in my bedroom. I couldn’t quit looking at the statue beneath my desk lamp. Superman was perfect. The Man of Steel. He was part man, part other. He could endure anything without ever getting sad. He could walk through walls, fly above Earth and all its troubles. Why couldn’t I be like that?
I used markers and construction paper to make my mother a small Christmas card. It was all I could come up with at the last minute. I gave it to her and it felt like the stupidest gift in the world. Because it was.
That night, I found her sitting by the window, listening to music. The sound of the Cambridge Singers and Orchestra was on the radio. We sat together. She pet my hair. We listened to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” And it was the worst Christmas of our entire lives. I’ve never had a worse one.
And you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you about it. Well, I’m starting to wonder why, too.
Maybe because sometimes you get sucked backward in time by old photographs. And on holidays like today, you’re reminded that nothing lasts forever. Not youth, not happiness, not sadness, not health, not even people who once seemed so alive.
But this “this-ness.” Whatever “this” is. This moment. The cheesy holiday music. Kisses from a child. Stale ginger cookies. The little ornament you made in preschool. The hugs from your five-foot-tall mother. The twinkly lights. Or a ceramic Superman statues that still sits on your desk, even to this day.
Well, it just makes my cup runneth all over the place.