THAT night, the snow was exquisite. It was Christmas Eve, and for once, as if made to order, the snow was a foot deep, dry, and clean. I had gone to the door to let the cat out, and I could see the street lights reflecting off the snow - the sparkle was in full tilt.
Inside our little apartment in Toledo, the air felt too warm from my using the oven all day. I was trying to cram all the holiday atmosphere I could muster into the holiday break we had from graduate school. A week before, after I turned in my term papers, I had begun to carry out my campaign to bring Christmas joy to my new marriage.
In those last few days, I frantically constructed Christmas stockings and ornaments from cheap felt, melted paraffin into candles, and baked several dozen each of nutty thumbprints, delicate spritz, and of course, cut-out sugar cookies. With a minimal budget I hit the malls to locate perfect gifts, and bought more food than would fit in my refrigerator.
The pinnacle of my holiday craze was to invite my mother to stay overnight with us. Not only would I have to give the place a high-power cleaning and create a guest room from our messy home office, I would also have to negotiate the moods of my Scroogy husband and my effervescent mother.
By the time Christmas Eve was waning, I was wondering what in the world I was trying to prove. Behind my cheery enthusiasm lay a lump in my throat the size of a fruit cake.
When I slid open the patio door to let the cat out, the cold air met my tired face, and I gulped it in. It was midnight; my husband was already asleep and my mother was just heading to bed.
"Come on," I said to her, "We are going for a walk."
My mother laughed. She was in her mid-50s, and not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. "Come on," I pushed. "We'll bundle up - I need some fresh air." She gave in to my apparent anxiety. Soon we were headed out into the snowy, quiet night.
Our apartment was located on the northern border of Toledo; in fact, we looked out our bedroom window into Michigan. As I took Mom's be-mittened hand in mine, I suggested we head north, into the farmer's field which oddly abutted our urban apartment complex.
The snow was so dry that it had drifted into elegant waves, about to break. In the still night they hung as if time had stopped, and it felt like we were the only beings in motion. We trudged through the drifts, holding hands, laughing as we struggled to keep our balance.
"I can't believe we are doing this," Mom pretended to complain. In fact, a couple of times we fell and the icy particles swished into our faces and found every imaginable opening in our outerwear.
I can't remember who started it, but, before long, a muffled "Jingle Bells" emanated from the steamy wool of the scarves across our faces. Eventually we had to quit: we were breathless from laughter and the energy it took to keep stomping.
That night was Christmas Eve, 1979. Twenty-five years later I am a middle aged mother myself. As a result of a serious heart attack several years ago, my mother is quite frail. For her 80th birthday last December, I wrote stories to go with a photo album so that she could rely on something more than her diminishing memory. As we talked about that, she asked me:
"Do you remember that Christmas you made me walk in the snow?"
"Yes," I said.
"That," she sighed, squeezing my hand, "is one of my favorite memories."
Perhaps, not so surprisingly, that is one of my favorite memories, too.
The memory, however, gives me more than pleasure. It leads me to a simple truth: no amount of holiday planning and preparation will guarantee happiness for me or the ones I love. If I didn't get it before, I do now.
I need to be able to let go of the plan, to seize the moment. Scratch the afternoon of cooking a fancy meal in favor of pizza and a video with my kids.
When we were little, my father's favorite expression seemed to be "Let's play it by ear." I used to think it represented a fly-by-night, laid-back inability to commit to his family.
"Dad, can we go to the drive-in?"
"Dad, will you be home for the Fourth of July?"
You could always hear it coming: "Let's play it by ear."
Now, however, I can see the middle ground. A reasonable amount of flexibility makes sense. Amid the planned holiday traditions that my family rightly expects, those spontaneous, fresh, departures from routine are often the place to truly find the joy of the holiday.
Beth Myers is a professor of English at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich.