Gentle joy

It is 2 a.m. and for the first time since December and the long holiday break, I am all alone. With just peace and quiet, and yawning fatigue as my companions. I am home after my first day back at work and every bit of me feels that I am still on vacation.

Yes, I am tired. But happy.

I look at all the still-unopened presents under the tree — my birthday and Richard’s and my Christmas gifts all combined (Juliana had already opened all of hers). Every year I look forward to that time when I have already gotten the house and my schedule in order again, and I am free to sit down under the tree to leisurely open gifts.

It is almost like tradition already, and is easily one of the many peaks of happiness for me: not being hurried nor harried. It usually comes by not earlier than February. I call it my Christmas in February. I am tired and still steeped in vacation mode and I feel very much like treating myself, even if it is not February just yet. So I decide to open two of my birthday presents. They are wrapped so wonderfully and delicately in beautiful paper, with handwritten cards, and they have delicate leaves that look so fragile. The presents make me so happy, I feel like crying. They were definitely on my wish list, both presents, written in the secret corners of my heart and were even more special because they came from people so dear to me. From the wrapping to the handwritten messages, I feel the love. Every little detail, in fact, is already a gift in itself.

I’m thinking that the biggest challenge for most of us probably was how to savor the gentle joy of the season with its flood of activities.   But I did find that gentle joy in the midst of the relentless bustle.

It was in waking up every day and seeing our huge wooden dining table filled with as much dear ones as there was food. It was in the storm that Richard whipped up in the kitchen on an almost daily basis, our cook Thelma by his side, like a little lieutenant. Totally unlike tradition, it is the man that cooks in our house. Great quantities of food are consumed. Oohs and aahs are bestowed freely and generously on his efforts, and it naturally inspires him to some more. We are fed, and stuffed, like happy birds, and in the process our waistlines grow an inch or two and our pants tighten. But what is there to complain about, really?

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It was in having the whole family complete and together, something we all take for granted but sorely long for and miss when kids become adults, marry, move away and live their own lives. I found it when I went through old pictures, remembering starkly how often my sister and I did the hula hoop as little girls, how we always wore matching clothes, and how cute and pudgy our younger brothers were. And I conveniently forgot I once had poodle hair! (Oh I looked horrible and one day I will share with you how I ended up looking that way!) It was present when Juliana, my sister and I played vintage Monopoly, the set my sister and I had owned when we were my daughter’s age now. The fact that every single piece in the set is still complete and accounted for is testament to how well Daddy and Mommy trained us to take care of everything we owned. I hope I can be as diligent in teaching Juliana to take very good care of all her toys.

Opening the over 20-year-old box felt like a hug from the past — apparently our last game was back in 1983 and my sister and I had played with our cousins Kay and Tricia and our childhood friend Maricel. My sister had recorded these details on a scrap of paper and there was also an old blue Kilometrico ballpen that looks antique and all the ink dried up. It was delightful to behold such old things, tangible reminders of a very happy childhood past.

The gentle joy of the season we tasted, too, in homemade presents from other people’s kitchens — sweet mango jam, liver spread, cupcakes and biscotti, all sorts of savory and sweet treats!

I very much enjoyed setting the table, putting out the linens, washing the fruits and arranging them into many large bowls. The many desserts I arranged prettily in cake stands and pastry trays. Every idle time that managed to find me despite the tight schedule I used to wrap presents. And what do you know! I am still at it well into the second week of January (what else is new?). I started very late with Christmas shopping last year and this year I have resolved not to dilly-dally as I normally do and just get down to it ASAP. In fact, as of this writing I already have a very bright plan. I came across some wonderfully talented suppliers and I already know where a good 60 percent of my Christmas presents for this year will be coming from. How great is that?

Once the New Year rolled in, I also had the luxury of reading Book One of a paternal aunt’s memoirs: beautifully written and rich with details about aunts and uncles and grandparents my generation never had the pleasure of meeting, much less knowing. That is why memories, pictures and diaries are precious. After that breezy peek into history, I cannot help but be thankful for the gift of family.

Yes, this is what the gentle season that is Christmas boils down to: family. The gift of togetherness brings love down to earth where mortals like us can enjoy it. No matter what life has done to our hearts, we seek and are healed by the presence of family, and are all the better for it.

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