As a child I thought Christmas was doll clothes my mother was secretly making for my ballerina doll. It was the smell of homemade coffee cake. It was placing too many lights on the tree. It was singing loudly in church with friends. It was visiting with and my Grandma Rose’s family. But at age eighteen, Christmas gave me a bigger gift.
It was nearing Christmas, and it was bone cold as the darkness of night lifted. My hair was damp from my early morning swimming class as I scurried across campus to English class in Beering Hall where I would discuss Moby-Dick with twenty other confused freshmen. I would try to understand what Ahab’s search for the whale had to do with my life—or any life. But I would draw a blank, and our final essay was due the next Monday.
I remember seeing the snow fall outside the classroom window, and in my mind, I was counting down the days until Christmas vacation when the buzzer ended our class. The boy sitting next to me asked me out for Saturday night, and I said I couldn’t go for I was heading home. He was a nice enough boy, but I said no because he felt like a stranger. I said no because I didn’t even know his name. I said no because I hated beer as much as I hated strange boys trying to kiss me in their cars in the stadium parking lot on frigid nights. But mostly I said no because my mind was too chaotic and unsettled, and I wanted to spare him.
That September I had moved into Vawter Hall with sky high college hopes. I chose Purdue because I marveled at how complicated the human mind was, and I had read in a catalog that Purdue was home to a fine psychology department. But secretly, like many of us, I had another dream inside. I wanted to be a writer. I believed I had a book inside of me. But as the end of my first semester drew near, I was not sure about either psychology or English as a major. In psychology lab all of our rats died of a virus, and I began to dread a future filled with dead laboratory rats and severely depressed patients. In English my instructor never warmed up to my essays. The professor tortured me with B after B. Perhaps worse he couldn’t remember my name—or anyone’s name.
That Saturday evening, instead of being stuck in the stadium parking lot, I finished reading Moby-Dick. The book loomed large and incomprehensible. What did it mean? I had skimmed parts, and I borrowed a friend’s Cliff Notes to try to make sense of Ahab’s quest for the whale and to help me write my final essay. I wrote it and turned it in that Monday, and the long slog of my first semester in college was over.
I headed home to Indianapolis and suddenly the strain of college was miles behind me. When I arrived, I was greeted with hugs and the smell of mom’s coffee cake. The sounds of my dad laughing and my mother teasing him about his addiction to Chuck Norris jokes. The banter sounded like music to me. I had missed them.
A day later our kitchen was filled with the laughter of my best high school friend, Kaye, She had gone south to Indiana University, and I had not seen her for months. We swapped stories for hours centered on the surprises college held for us. She described her college math instructor who could not speak English. She said she planned to study Chinese so she could pass math. I told her about the travesty of rat lab.
Then I remember a flurry of present buying with my younger brother Charley. He had his driver’s permit and we headed to L. S. Ayres where we bought a blue sweater for mom, and then we dug through a pile of Chuck Norris paraphernalia on clearance until we settled on crazy socks for my dad with images of Chuck Norris, dad’s hero. Afterwards we landed at Bob’s Big Boy where Charley explained what it was like to be the guy most-likely-to-be-cut Southport’s basketball team that winter, and I explained how psych lab was a disaster and how my future appeared to be a blur. He listened. It was a wonderful thing not only because I needed it, but because my little brother was growing into my friend.
On Christmas we drove to Grandma Rose’s in Richmond. Grandma Rose made a feast fit for kings that her five kids and fourteen grandchildren devoured. Uncle Junior dumped peas all over everything—turkey, mashed potatoes, veggie casserole. He always did this, and the rest of us always moaned at the sight of it. My Uncle Herb asked if I had managed to find an ugly college boyfriend yet—and everyone laughed. Before we left Grandma Rose gave me a special lace hanky she made for me. In it she had wrapped cinnamon rolls made from left-over pie dough. My favorite.
That evening Mom made hot chocolate and I sat with my family for a long time by the warmth of the fireplace and the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. We were quiet. Reflecting. The clear lights sparkled and the star atop the tree seemed to pour light right into me. With the first semester of college in the rearview mirror, I felt like I had been hijacked from all I knew and loved. But I could also see through the glow of Christmas that my home, my friends, and my family had grounded me. Had helped me become someone who was strong enough to go away, to experience challenges, and to find my way forward. I knew I would head back to Purdue that January and eventually make deep friendships, date a boy, find a major, and follow my path forward. And I did.
That Christmas ended up giving me the gifts of insight and resilience, and as the season unfolds, I wish those gifts for all of us.