Now I know.
Those Christmas stockings set carefully at the end of the bed? Magically filled while I slept? When I was small, I believed.
Here is the new truth: Each item, from the toothbrush to the pens and pencils and breath mints, was wrapped in the wee hours of the morning by an exhausted Momma who somehow never got to the wrapping on the days leading up to Christmas, maybe because she was shopping and carefully counting out Santa presents so everything would come out evenly for each of her four daughters. She was making sure she had separate wrapping paper for Santa, something that was different from what she used to wrap gifts that were from her and their father. She was planning Christmas dinner or a trip to her mother’s for Christmas, or pulling together her contribution to the holiday bake sale or planning my December birthday party, or maybe she was sewing a special outfit for one of us or taking one of us to piano lessons or choir practice or both.
Oh, and the wrapping of the stocking gifts was always done after midnight mass on Christmas Eve, a production that involved dressing four girls in holiday best, making sure that each little girl head was covered by one of the hats that spilled off the top shelf of our hall closet, and I am guessing (though I don’t know for sure) that all of this occurred after the Daddy had already gone off to church, where he would rehearse with the choir and try to keep the organist from either running away with the tempo or playing everything, even the buoyant “Joy to the World” in dirge-like time.
When I think of mother love, I think of a Madonna-like midnight tableau, Momma rocking her babe back to sleep with moonlight seeping in the windows. This is actually a true and beautiful thing. My own midnight moment, with my own babies, happened around 2 a.m. with a train whistle marking the time, me in an actual rocking chair my own mother had given to me before I had my first child. It was magical.
And it was generally followed by a prayer that the baby would stay asleep as I carefully laid him (and, later, her) back in the crib, a prayer that I questioned even as I offered it, is that an okay thing to pray? Is that selfish? Shouldn’t I pray for world peace? But I wanted to sleep so badly, I prayed anyway. And then, if I escaped the bedroom without the wailing of a not-yet-asleep infant, and before I surrendered to the two hours I might have left for sleeping, I would go to the kitchen and inhale a yogurt, the easiest and quickest refueling stock I had.
Such are the mixed moments of motherhood. Sweet. And practical. And exhausting.
The Christmas stockings, in my mother’s estimation, were just exhausting. She railed against them once the secret about Santa’s elves and mother’s love was out. What a ridiculous tradition! she would say.
I don’t remember when she stopped doing stockings. I just remember that I loved them for a long time. Finding the stocking at the end of the bed was amazing. How did it get filled without me knowing? How could I not have wakened? (More of that praying business, I am guessing. Please don’t let her wake!). I don’t remember what was in the stocking beyond the traditional items that I still use to fill my own children’s stockings. The orange in the toe—with the accompanying reminiscence from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, recounting the monumental event it was to have an orange in the middle of winter, at the Little House in the Big Woods. The toothbrushes. Sticky striped hard candies fuzzy with felt from the inside of our red felt stockings. Maybe a comic book rolled up and sticking out the top. And there was a smell. Was it the candy? The orange? The still-in-the-shell nuts?
I re-jiggered some of the traditions when my children came along. We left cookies and milk for Santa, carrots for the reindeer, and notes scrawled in a child’s handwriting. On Christmas morning, there were only crumbs left. And great big bites out of the carrots. Who knows what reindeer bites look like? My children do.
This year, after midnight mass, I was slapping wrapping paper on tiny gifts for two stockings, once again. My children are grown, really. I don’t care.
This is mother love. This is magic.