The ticker

December 28,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

We have a Christmas countdown ticker type of thing L. found last year and installed on our computer some time before Christmas. I distinctly remember getting back from our holiday trip last year, looking at the ticker, and seeing with a mixture of amusement and regret that we had 362 days left until the next Christmas. 362 days filled with routines, and birthdays, and other holidays, and sweet and not-so-sweet moments out of our daily lives, and big challenges, and small ones, too, and of course the unknown—scary or good, it lay there like a flat white expanse, between us and the next Christmas morning. Then, sometime last week, the ticker said 4 Days Left! and we were busy shopping and wrapping and baking. Then, 3 Days Left! and we packed and sorted and packed some more. We loaded up the car and drove 7 1/2 hours north (it should have been 5 1/2--thanks, VA/DC/MD traffic) with kids who could barely sit still, they were so excited, and unloaded, and slipped into holiday mode. The kids tore out of my parents’ house the night we arrived and ran through the snow in their woefully under-prepared-I-live-in-the-South-and-it-hardly-ever-snows clothes: leggings, and track pants, and sneakers, with plastic baggies rubber-banded over them. I watched my kids weaving in and out chaotically across the snow and I saw myself at five or nine with my brother and sister, out in the same backyard, making tracks in the snow and ditches, and icy fort walls. When I opened up our laptop the day before Christmas the ticker said 1 Day Left! We sat up, drinking and eating and talking, and waited for the kids to fall asleep (it took L. until 11:00 this year). Then, human conveyor-belt style we carried up all the presents from my parents’ basement and filled the stockings. When we finally went to bed, well after midnight, I couldn’t sleep, even with the night settling around me, and T.’s warm body pressed against my back. Every year, on Christmas Eve, I toss and turn, worried about this and that. Had L. somehow heard us talking—somewhat too freely under the influence of spiked eggnog and milk punch--about the gifts? Would he wake up before the last person downstairs went to bed? Had we set out the cookies for Santa? Eaten them, too? What about that cup of soymilk T. put out and the Dixie cup of water she insisted we leave on the piano for him? Had someone remembered to drink those? What had we forgotten? Surely something—something that would shatter that Christmas magic. When T. and I woke up on Christmas morning, we found L. staring, glassy-eyed at my mom’s huge iMac monitor. He had been tracking Santa on NORAD since 5:00 a.m., and his hair stood out mad-scientist-style at the front of his head where he’d clearly been pulling at it for hours. “You know what?” He said in an awed whisper when we leaned over his shoulders to look at the screen. “I found out that Rudolph is REAL. They’ve been tracking him all night by infrared heat sensors.” The three of us watched a tiny, animated sleigh and reindeer hurtling over the very practical and starkly real and decidedly ordered lines and grids of Google Earth maps. I was in awe of this startling juxtaposition—the real and the dreamed about, right there in front of us, on the oversized computer screen. Reflected there in the monitor in yet another dreamlike layer, were my children’s faces, sleepy and filled with wonder, as they watched the tiny sleigh heave itself over the rooftops and on into the dawn. The ticker is back at 362 days now. The days and weeks and months lie ahead of us, flat and invisible for now, waiting to be filled with routines, and birthdays, and other holidays, and sweet and not-so-sweet moments out of our daily lives, and big challenges, and small ones, too, and of course the unknown—scary or good—it’s all ahead of us. 362 days, and counting.