Almost Ready to Go
Before we even left Tennessee, we had to perform some Santa Claus tricks. Alana, my five-year-old, began asking for an electric car months ago, and we decided we were okay with getting ripped off and bought it for her. No, it’s not a Smart Car … but the pink Barbie Camaro we ordered from Wal-Mart is approximately the same size, only with more leg room.
We managed to keep the big box hidden in the garage — one of the many advantages of having a garage full of large, useless items — and informed Alana that even though we’d be in Chicago on Christmas morning, we’d asked Santa Clause to leave the car under the tree at our house. (Fortunately, Santa doesn’t charge extra for multiple deliveries.)
We’d also picked up a Wii for Sara, my seven-year-old. She didn’t ask Santa for a Wii, but after playing with one at a friend’s house some weeks ago, she came home and declared it “totally cool.” We decided to leave that under our own tree as well, if only to maintain a state of sibling equilibrium when we returned.
So after loading up the car and getting the girls strapped in, I had to make an excuse to go back inside and move the car from the garage to the living room. I was worried the girls might become suspicious. They’re used to seeing their mommy run back inside. In fact, my wife likes to play a travel game called Is The Coffee Pot Off?! The object of the game is see how far from home she can get to me to drive before turning around so she can run in and check the coffee pot. But that’s her role in the game. Once I leave the house to take a trip, I don’t go back inside unless I see flames in my rearview mirror.
I announced that I may have forgotten a suitcase and went inside. The girls never wondered why it took Daddy 10 minutes to determine if a packed suitcase was sitting inside the front door. During those 10 minutes, Daddy — who has a bad shoulder that will probably require surgical repair soon — was trying to lug a big box up a short flight of stairs while mostly using one arm to do it. Daddy was also saying lots of words that weren’t very Christmas-like.
Off We Go
With Santa’s extra deliveries in place near the tree, we took off for Springfield, Illinois. On most car trips, my daughters counter-synchronize their bladders to make sure I’ll be exiting the highway in search of a bathroom at least every 45 minutes. For some reason, they forgot this time. I was impressed with myself for making good time until I saw a sign announcing the distance to Louisville, Kentucky. I experienced a strange mental discomfort … something didn’t feel quite right. Then it hit me: we pass through Louisville on the way to Chicago, not Springfield. I’d been driving on auto-pilot. So we got to see far more of the Kentucky countryside than I’d planned as we spent two hours working our way west on two-lane highways.
It was while we were staying at my mom’s house in Springfield that I began to suspect my daughters might be on their way to having a perfect Christmas. (It seems to me we get perhaps one or two perfect Christmases during childhood — I remember two.) They built a snowman in my mom’s front yard. They charmed my mom with compliments such as “Grandma, I just love the floppy skin on your neck!” They loved the presents they opened after our big family dinner on December 23rd. They were delighted to see their cousins (my brother’s three sons), who are all old enough to be their uncles but also young enough to get down on the floor for piggy-back rides and wrestling matches.
Sara was also delighted to discover that my sister owns a Wii, which is attached to my mom’s big-screen TV. I was somewhat less than delighted (late at night, when no one was watching) to discover that my ineptitude at real sports is exceeded only by my ineptitude at Wii sports. Wii not only kicks my butt at tennis (on the beginner setting), it then insists on replaying each of my bad shots in slow motion. All that’s missing is an audio track recorded by one of the playground bullies from my childhood, saying, “You call that a backhand, weenie-boy? Man, you really suck!” But that would be cruel, so Wii settles for finishing each round by showing my Wii character bowing its head in shame as YOU LOSE appears on screen.
After trouncing my sister at tennis, golf and bowling, Sara again declared Wii “totally cool” and told me, “I wish I would’ve asked Santa Claus for one of these!” I reminded her that Santa wouldn’t be leaving the North Pole for another day and promised I’d try to get a message to him. She said to tell Santa it was okay if he left a Wii at our house, along with Alana’s electric car.
Off We Go Again
Word of advice to people still out there looking for love: forget about looks, personality, and other inconsequential traits. Marry someone whose parents live within driving distance of yours. That way you don’t risk winding up in divorce court after one too many debates about which family to visit each Christmas.
Springfield to Chicago is less than four hours in the car — unless it’s snowing, which it was when we left for Chicago on the morning of Christmas Eve. Eventually the snow was blowing more or less sideways, so the wipers on our van stepped up and responded by efficiently clearing the splatters from the entire windshield, except for a large area at eye level on the driver’s side. I alternated between making myself artificially tall and artificially short to see where the heck we were going.
After spending winters in both Illinois and Tennessee, I realize there’s a difference in how southern bad drivers and northern bad drivers respond to snowy roads. The southern bad drivers assume any amount of snow makes driving impossible and stay home, living off the canned goods they ran out to buy when they first heard snow was in the forecast. The northern bad drivers assume traction on a snowy road is exactly the same as traction on a clear road and continue zipping along at 75 miles per hour. Both sets of bad drivers end up ceding the roads to us cautious-but-willing drivers … but the southerners are sitting at home, while the northerners are sitting in their cars, hoping their cell phones can find a signal down there in the ditch. In a 100-mile stretch on Interstate 55, I saw nearly a dozen vehicles that made unplanned exits.
My girls and their six-year-old cousin Marzhan all know that Santa won’t slide down the chimney into a house where any kids are still awake. We emphasized the urgency of the situation by browsing to NORAD’s Santa Tracker on a computer and showing them that Santa was already in South America and could turn north at any minute. They understood. They wanted to go to sleep. They just couldn’t.
Every 90 seconds or so, one of them would appear at the top of the stairs and announce, “I can’t sleep!” They said this as if we were refusing to hand over the magic sleeping potion and were perhaps conspiring to deprive them of gifts from Santa. I finally informed them that if they crawled in bed and didn’t make a sound, Santa would probably be fooled into thinking they were sleeping and leave them their presents anyway. Once they were persuaded to stop jumping out of bed to tell us they couldn’t sleep, they fell asleep.
I’m a natural night-owl and didn’t bother crawling into bed until 2:00 AM. My girls bounced on the bed roughly 47 minutes later and announced that the sun was coming up and therefore it was clearly time to go downstairs. It’s only after becoming a parent myself that I finally understand why my dad always looked so exhausted on Christmas. (Given my dad’s famous lack of ability to use simple tools, I suspect he was often up until nearly daybreak, cussing about labels that read: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.)
Once again, the girls were delighted with their gifts — then delighted all over again when they found notes from Santa in their stockings, informing them that the electric car and the Wii would be waiting for them at home.
They ate several pounds of treats constructed entirely from high fructose corn syrup and/or white flour, then burned off the excess fuel by engaging in an all-day snowball fight with a gang of cousins. The snow was deep enough to look like Christmas, but not enough to shut down the city.
And Back Again …
After a few more days of visits with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and relatives I can’t quite identify, we drove home. Sara spent much of the trip listening to her new MP3 player. We figured it must’ve come with a few songs pre-loaded, which it did, but it turned out she was mostly listening a Suze Orman audiobook titled Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. I suspect she’ll be asking for a bigger allowance soon, and perhaps a 401k.
The closer we got to home, the more often Alana reminded us that she was soon to be the owner of an electric car, courtesy of Santa Claus. She didn’t see any good reason she shouldn’t take it for a test drive in the dark after we got home. Fortunately, it was raining when we pulled into the driveway, so she decided the test drive could wait. My wife hurried inside to turn the big box so the Wal-Mart delivery sticker wouldn’t be facing forward (something Daddy forgot to check while lugging the box upstairs and muttering bad words).
The girls bounded inside after her. As my wife and I carried in the luggage and the gifts, the girls were practically bouncing around the living room.
“Look! That’s my caaaaaaar!”
“Santa got me the Wii! Look, Alana, I got a Wii!”
“This is the best Christmas present EVER!”
“This is the best Christmas present ever, too!”
Yes, they’re just toys. Yes, Christmas is too commercial, Christmas shopping can be a hassle, and Christmas travel can be tiring. But kids don’t know that, and they shouldn’t. For them, Christmas can still be perfect. And when it’s perfect for them, it’s pretty darned good for us too.