Every year, I have the same Christmas dream, which is that I'll have the house fully decorated by Dec. 15, we will have a merry party of friends and neighbors on say, the 18th, and packages wrapped by the 20th.
So far, of course, this has remained an illusion. I cannot be retrofitted into Martha Stewart any more than she can be retrofitted into me. We went to the same college but came out very different people--she, the doyenne of domesticity and me, the queen of the last-minute crisis. I could start preparing for Christmas in July and still not be ready in time to enjoy a tranquil holiday.
This year, we did get all our packages mailed by Dec. 4, and there was almost no one in line at the Woodstock, Va., post office--yet another advantage of life in the country. Then, as usual, something happened right before the holiday crunch, and my plans for a Martha Stewart Christmas vanished. Last year, I went to California when our twin grandsons arrived 10 weeks prematurely; that kind of event makes you realize what's important, and it was a Christmas filled with worry for all of us as two tiny infants struggled to make it. When my son called me on Dec. 24--my birthday--to tell me that one of the babies was swallowing on his own, it was the very best birthday present I have ever had.
This year, my son and daughter-in-law suggested we make a brief trip out there before Christmas to see the babies, whom I'd not seen since September. I'm pleased to report that they are as beautiful as ever, with the sweetest dispositions imaginable, and thriving under the extraordinarily good care their parents are giving them. I've always been told by my women friends that there's nothing like grandchildren. That's true, and I love taking care of mine and playing with them. But there's also nothing that has ever made me more proud than to see what kind of a father my son is. I realize now that how your children step up to the plate as parents may be the most important measure of how good a job you've done with them. It's much more important, and sometimes much more difficult, than getting into the right college or establishing an important career.
We spent a day or so with some very good friends in Los Angeles whom my husband has known since the early '50s. All of us are journalists or writers, so we have that in common. But one of the delights of the past several years has been the growing correspondence between the two men, both of whom are wonderfully witty writers. I was in my host's study one afternoon and we were talking about how nourishing their friendship is, and we realized their correspondence is one of the luxuries of retirement. When they were both working as newspaper executives, they had no time for writing in friendship and for the pleasure of that.
We arrived home and picked up Norma at Sugarland Kennels, where they corrected some of the bad habits we had let her fall into. We had some additional training, and I've got a reading list to further my understanding of dogs. This may seem amusing, but it's actually critical. Norma weighed 51 pounds when we got her in early October, and she was three months old. A Central Asian Ovtcharka, Norma may be among the most rare breeds in the country.
Her breeder, Mark Lipsitt, couldn't predict how big she would get, but he said females were smaller than males. Norma was the biggest of the litter, and Mark says she's the most athletic. She now weighs 80 pounds, and we saw a sight that made my blood run cold when we picked her up: She is almost as big as her elegant mother, who at 3 years of age weighs 110 pounds. Training Norma well is a necessity. "You've got about two months more when you can teach her anything you want to, and she'll learn it," Mark said. "And then she'll be like an 18-year-old." That made my blood run cold, too.
My husband is not a fan of the Internet, but he and Amazon.com do a lot of business together, and he was the first Internet shopper in the family. This Christmas, I also shopped on the Internet, and I plan to do so even more in the future. I love getting friendly messages back, instantly, about my order, the shipping number, and when it's going to arrive. They are always signed by a bigwig in the company, too, and you don't have to stand at a counter wearing blaze orange in order to get a salesclerk to notice you. Okay, you can't hold the sweater up to you and feel its softness, but if you know what you want, this is as pain-free as shopping can get. I did get stumped when I was looking for a top-quality frying pan: Do you measure it across the bottom or the top? "They'll always pick the larger size," my husband counseled. Maybe, but I ended up going to a store where I could be sure I was buying the size I wanted. I also got frustrated at eToys.com when I couldn't find any baby outfits that were sized for 1-year-olds. Babies stopped at 9 months, and toddlers started at 2 years. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but at least I was assured that my order would arrive before Dec. 25.
We are going to celebrate Christmas at the farm, with a large gathering of children and grandchildren. The house is decorated, presents are wrapped, and we are looking forward to a wonderful holiday in the country. We did not get Christmas cards done this year. With the trip to California, we simply had to skip that. I hope our friends will understand. We've had quite a year of challenging health problems in our family, and many of them have come out with far better results than we anticipated. I celebrated my third year of surviving breast cancer on July 3. For our good health, and for those who are with us this holiday, we are very grateful.