It’s about 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2019.
I note the date because Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite times of the entire year since childhood.
Especially early afternoon on Christmas Eve, when my brother Tim and I would see our Grandma and Grandpa Hawks – our biological father’s parents.
I never met nor even saw my biological father until an aunt shared a picture of him and my mom at their wedding at my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday party.
The only father I ever knew and loved was Tony Hernandez. He gave Tim and me a new last name, family and future through adoption after marrying my mom following her divorce. What could I possibly want from my biological? Nothing.
Yet, every Christmas Eve, we saw his parents. Our grandparents, Al and Betty Hawks.
Their son (Tim’s and my biological father) wasn’t much to speak of, hence the divorce. (Trust me when I assure you that “not much to speak of” would win me the Understatement of the Year award.)
Yet they were as good and kind and decent and loving as any grandparents ever.
They’d stop by, spend a few hours with us, even bring gifts for our baby brother, Paul – my adoptive dad’s son with my mom. They loved my mom, still considered her their daughter-in-law, and adored my adoptive dad (no surprise, everybody did.)
Grandma Hawks died when I was in my early teens. I still saw my Grandpa Hawks a couple times when I was in high school and played in a jazz band at his church.
Those memories sparkle in my mind now, like a crystal ornament catching and bending and recasting the light from a nearby bulb.
Some might find this twisting of branches on the Christmas family tree odd. Strange. Maybe even wrong, somehow.
To which I’d say, “Then you don’t understand what ‘Family’ really is.”
My understanding of, and appreciation for “family” — immediate, extended, genetic, generic, by blood or just background — didn’t end with Grandma and Grandpa Hawks, either.
After they left each Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would take a nap in the early evening (of course, as kids knowing what was coming, we didn’t really sleep so much as just lay still for a few hours.)
Then, around 10 p.m. we’d head to Grandma and Grandpa Hernandez’s house, overflowing with wonderfully exotic smells and sounds and tastes!
In this new family that looked nothing like Tim and me, we now had more relatives than I could begin to count. Gifts for everyone there and even not there rose halfway up the Christmas tree that scraped the family room ceiling.
Of course, we couldn’t open anything until Santa came. And he wouldn’t come until after we got back from midnight mass. But that didn’t stop the kids from indiscreetly eyeballing every item, trying to find those with our names.
Around 1:30 a.m., after THE LONGEST CHURCH SERVICE EVER, salivating with anticipation, one of our aunts would insist that we sing Christmas songs until Santa came. Oh. My. God…didn’t they know that we were on the verge of insanity with all those packages sitting there mocking us?
Finally, a knock at the door brought a roomful of childhood screeching to a whisper.
Santa entered and handed out the first few packages before retreating from what quickly became mass hysteria. Mysteries hidden in colorful boxes and bags were mysteries no more. Ribbons and paper and bows filled the air like so many Christmas kites. The older kids delivered (or just tossed) gifts to the adults lining the room.
We’d go home about 4 a.m. “Sleep” a few more hours. Wake to open gifts at our own house. Then head to my maternal grandparents’ farmhouse in Herscher, Illinois.
There, we’d spend the rest of Christmas Day re-enacting the Battle of the Christmas Eve Bulge with most of my mom’s seven brothers and sisters, their spouses and kids, friends and assorted older relatives we saw only on the holidays.
In college, when my then-girlfriend Kellie and I started dating and later after we married, I would attend celebrations at her house on Christmas Eve.
Their home was like an issue of Martha Stewart magazine magically come alive. The family room lit only by the Christmas tree, golden shimmers filled the air. Sometimes, snow graced the scene outside the bay window in their family room as if on cue. It was, literally, breathtaking.
Eventually our two girls came along, and every detail of those parties became about them – especially the hours my father-in-law and I spent on the floor assembling a million toys.
We haven’t seen my in-laws on Christmas for a few years because of a mutual estrangement, but those memories are still precious.
Instead, the last few years we’ve enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with several of our closest friends. Dear people who have lived our lives, suffering together and shepherding each other through some major challenges. Building the unbreakable bonds of what can only be called “family.”
Now, our girls are adults.
They have adult lives. Other family commitments and work obligations limit our time together. We don’t begrudge them. Rather we make the most of every opportunity.
They still spend part of Christmas Eve with their grandparents.
Then Christmas morning, we enjoy a blowout homemade breakfast with them and their significant others, Kellie’s wonderful aunt – and now our granddaughter, Riley.
This year, Riley is 21 months old. Just big enough to understand that, of the 90 or so brightly colored, ribbon-festooned, shining, sparkling packages under that Christmas tree, 80 of them are for her.
At two years old, that’s all she needs to know.
Later, she will hear these memories and hopefully learn what I learned long ago. What has sustained and strengthened me through the many Christmas Eves since childhood.
All gifts are wrapped in grace, no matter what the packaging looks like.
Some are bigger, or brighter, or more meaningful. Some will fit just right. Some will be too big or small. Some will be thoughtfully planned and given. Some came from the corner drugstore at the last minute.
Some will make perfect sense. Some will have her wondering what in the world the giver could have been thinking. Some will bring joy and gratitude. Some might cause a twinge of unintended pain.
And the greatest gift of all is family.