15. Presents or Presence?

15. Presents or Presence?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Presents or Presence?

From home to home, and heart to heart, from one place to another. The warmth and joy of Christmas, brings us closer to each other.

~Emily Matthews

When we moved from California to Colorado, 1,200 miles away from our extended family, my husband and I decided that we did not want to travel with our four children for Christmas. So, one late October day, I had that phone conversation with my mother-in-law.

“When are you coming?” she asked.

I paused, not knowing how to respond, and changed the subject. When she asked again later in the conversation — “when are you coming?” — I knew that we would be abandoning our plan to stay home for Christmas.

The thought of not being in our own home caused me to be anxious. What would Christmas away from home look like? Would we pack presents to take with us? Would we be giving up the magic of Christmas by not being in our own home, with our personal traditions?

I always loved Christmas morning; we would start by reading The Christmas Story together before viewing the Christmas tree with all the gifts that had arrived the night before. I loved the excitement of opening gifts — it was like a big birthday party for everyone! And then we had all day to relax and enjoy our new things.

This year would be different. We wanted to prepare our four children, who were twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen, since this would be the first time they had spent Christmas away from home.

“How would you kids like to give Grandma Mary and Grandpa Carl the best Christmas present ever? We can do that by giving them the gift of our presence this Christmas,” we told them. The kids all agreed we should go and so the trip to California was set.

My husband’s large family always kept Christmas very simple. The focus of their celebration was the special meal together and enjoying fun times playing cards or watching old slide shows. My in-laws’ faces lit up with joy when our family arrived, filling their living room with our presence. Christmas Eve was filled with laughter, as we played games with aunts and uncles and cousins and the sound of our voices as we sang our favorite Christmas carols.

Sadly, my mother-in-law’s dementia was advancing so I was glad that we had made an exception and traveled that Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last Christmas we would spend with my mother-in-law. The gift of being present with her that year was the best gift I have ever given or received.

We have a video of our memories. We view that video as part of our holiday tradition now; we are passing on the value of memory making to our future generations. We listen to the recording of our family singing Christmas carols. We listen to Grandma Mary’s voice and are blessed by the gift of her presence, even though she has passed on!

That was a decade ago. Recently, I got another memorable phone call and I found myself wondering again what Christmas would look like this year.

“My job has been terminated,” my husband said over the phone.

My husband and I had moved back to California from Colorado for a new job opportunity four years before, and our kids were grown now. Family dynamics had changed so much since they were living at home. All had made lives for themselves. Our oldest son lives in San Francisco and is planning his wedding. One daughter and her husband live in Denver and are pregnant with our first grandchild. Another daughter lives in Los Angeles where she is attending graduate school and planning her wedding. Our youngest son lives in Vail, working in a five-star restaurant during the busy holiday season. We are all living different lives in different cities — including my husband and I. Because of some marital difficulties, he and I decided to separate while working to repair and strengthen our thirty-two-year marriage.

When my children heard that my husband and I were separated and that their dad was out of work, they listened to the Christmas spirit speaking to them. The four of them worked together and made a plan; it would be another Christmas without presents. The money that they would normally spend to purchase gifts for the family was instead used to make travel plans and to pay for accommodations to spend Christmas in a mountain rental home, all together as a family. I am so grateful that our children value the presence of family more than presents. We learned a valuable lesson from our Christmas in California with my mother-in-law, Mary—we aren’t always guaranteed another Christmas together.

Presents are fun to give, but having loved ones present in our lives is the most valuable gift we can give each other. Christmas 2014 was another special and beautiful Christmas to remember. My husband and I are now living together again, stronger than ever because of the beautiful gift our children gave us, the gift of family togetherness. Whenever someone asks me what I want for Christmas, I will forever answer, “Presence… it’s all I need or want!”

~Casie Petersen

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