It happened Tuesday night as I was about to unplug the tree.
Hours earlier, Laura had spread out a few wrapped gifts there. The first tag I checked had my Mom’s name on it. Visceral emotions arrived in a rush.
It wasn’t just the reality kicking in that my father, 91, and mother, 89, are coming to our house for the holidays. I’m not sure that’s ever happened during my nomadic adulthood, although I’ve spent many a Christmas back home with them in the Willamette Valley.
The closest we humans come to time travel, I suspect, is when memories unlock feelings of the past — especially of childhood. Finding that tag on that gift under that tree, 12 days before Christmas, turned a magic key.
I generally buy the sayings that life is “a journey, not a destination” and “what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The best proof has always lain in my Decembers of yesteryear.
It began early in the month when Mom would transform our living room into a land of enchantment. Age 3, 4 or 5, I’d memorize the placement of every ornament on the tree, squint at the lights by day and stare at their reflections by night.
The top of a bookcase became a fairyland of greens cut from the firs out back and wax-candle Santas and reindeer and snowmen that would never be lit. My little-boy imagination made me littler still, almost capable of walking amid the wax figures. Same went for the nearby gingerbread house and a nativity scene — we were churchgoers and it wasn’t lost on me that the baby in there was going to be celebrating a birthday soon.
My Mom still tells the story of the year when, just before she started to decorate the tree, I suggested that we sing the national anthem. It was an occasion at least as momentous as a football game, I must have figured.
The overlay for all this delicious anticipation, of course, was the realization that eventually there would be presents to open. Christmastime was a merging of the magical and the material, courtesy of Santa Claus and my parents.
Wrapped gifts started piling up under the tree. Many of the tags read “From Santa,” but somehow that didn’t dissuade my conviction that he’d be visiting late on Christmas Eve.
My much-older siblings played along with the Santa story, although my sister did inject a little disbelief into the season when she told me that if I squeezed through the sofa cushions I’d come out inside the gingerbread house. I tried.
They were away at school during the day, and my Dad was at work. Mom knew I was spending hours looking at and almost living in the decorations. She approved.
Dec. 24 and 25 were always great in my family. We’d crack open a few presents on Christmas Eve — the type you could play with — and often hit the road to look at lights and visit my grandmother’s house across town. Come the next morning, Santa had delivered, including some unwrapped extras that hadn’t been under the tree in advance.
It was all good enough to validate the buildup, but nothing could match that lush, leisurely period of childish wonder and expectation.
For adults, the holidays come all too quickly, and the days leading up are full of extra chores. That’s what made my Tuesday night discovery of a portal to the past so valuable.
My parents are coming to the coast for Christmas.
I can’t wait!