Thursday, December 15, 2011

Familiarity breeds...what?


I wrote this after Christmas in 1991. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mark Twain said that familiarity breeds contempt, and in all honesty, I tended to believe it. Marriages go down the tubes with astonishing regularity; people speak with disdain of their home towns, their families, the schools where they were educated; parents abuse their children and grown children turn their backs on aging and disabled parents.

Rather than being cherished, familiar things become monkeys on our backs. Even I, who so oppose change that I will be ready when bell bottoms came back because I still have my old ones (they're size eights; who am I kidding?), become disenchanted with the sameness of day-to-day life.

But then the holidays came.

For the first time ever, I decorated our Christmas tree by myself. There were no kids around to argue about what went where, how early was too early to put the tree up, or whether to play Christmas carols or Guns 'n Roses while hanging garland. No one cared who made the blue ornament in the first grade, whether the garland on the tree was gold or white, or if the bottom branches drooped in the back. (They did. They always do.)

There was no one there to warn me that the lights that operated perfectly spread out on the living room floor wouldn't so much as blink when placed with scientific precision on the tree branches. There was no one there to remind me that there was only one outlet in the corner where the tree stood, which meant that twice a day someone would have to move all the packages out of the way and do a military low crawl under the tree in order to turn the lights on and off.

There was no one there to tell me I would be the low-crawler because I was the shortest.

I could have done with some familiarity.

I did my Christmas shopping without anyone tagging along showing me everything they wanted, which was everything that (1) was out of stock until February, (2) was available only in teensy weensy and gargantuan sizes, and (3) cost more than the house, my car, and their shoes.

This freed me to shop with ease and at leisure, which meant everything I bought was (1) the wrong size, color, and brand, (2) was what I liked rather than what they would like, and (3) cost more than the house, my car, and their shoes. It probably would have been better if someone had tagged along.

I bought all the ingredients for Christmas baking, figuring that when my daughter came home for the holidays, we would fill the house with the familiar scents of cinnamon, chocolate, and sort-of-burned cookie edges. However, we never found the time to bake, so the house smelled like the primer my husband was applying to the kitchen walls, the laundry my son brought home from college, and chocolate covered cherries.

But familiarity won out.

Going home from one shopping excursion, I heard the faint sound of music from outside and opened my car window in the 20-some-degree temperature to determine its origin.

Standing alone in front of the drugstore beside the customary red bucket, a man in a Salvation Army uniform played Christmas carols on a horn. His hands and cheeks were red from the blustery cold, but the notes from the horn were as true and sweet as if they'd come from Gabriel's trumpet. I continued home happier, my soul soothed by the songs I had been hearing my entire life.

Christmas morning at the Flaherty house was the same hubbub it always is. Paper and ribbon was everywhere and everyone, including the family in Germany whose presence was so sorely missed, loved everything. Suddenly on Christmas morning, color, brand name, and cost meant nothing. It was the giving that mattered.

So maybe Mark Twain was right, but I read another quotation just the other day wherein George Ade said that familiarity breeds contentment. I think I like his quotation better.

Till next time.

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