I have only spent one Christmas with my entire immediate family.
The average household during the last census consisted of 2.58 people. My family was four-times that size at an even dozen (ten children and Mom and Dad). The dynamics of a big family are very different than small families. Routine is more important. Structure is a thin wall between orderly execution and utter chaos. Everyone has to contribute. However, you almost always have someone to play (or fight) with, and many hands do make light work. With a household four-times the average size, my childhood experience was anything but average.
One of the unusual dynamics of a large family is the age difference between the first child and the last child. My oldest sister was born in September of 1957. The baby sister of the family was born in September of 1978. In that twenty-year stretch the world changed a lot. By the time my youngest sister was born, my oldest sister was married and had a baby of her own. In fact, my mother and my oldest sister were pregnant at the same time. Because of that, the entire family was never home for Christmas.
In December of 1989, I was just finishing up pilot training in the USAF. My wife and I had been married a year and a half and had just welcomed our first son into our home. We were stationed at Laughlin AFB, Texas (southwest of San Antonio in Del Rio). We didn’t have the time or money to go too far for Christmas, and the nearest sibling was in Oklahoma. We thought we would end up spending Christmas by ourselves.
When my Aunt and Uncle that lived near Fort Worth, Texas, offered to host us for Christmas, it was just the catalyst we needed to get everyone together. My wife and I figured we could make the trip to their house. My brother in Oklahoma announced that he would be coming down. My Mom and Dad made plans to travel from Kentucky, along with my sister living nearby. Pretty soon, everyone except for one sister who was dealing with a high-risk pregnancy had made plans to be there for Christmas. The Aunt and Uncle that invited us didn’t have any children. I don’t think they had any idea what they had bargained for. It was going to be a packed house.
We packed up our Mazda 626 and drove along Highway 90 and then up I-35 to Dallas/Fort Worth with our three-month old son strapped into his car seat in the back seat. The weather was cold, but good. We arrived and staked out our territory in the corner of the den. Within a twenty-four hour period, the house went from quiet and orderly, to loud and chaotic.
Everyone, except for my pregnant sister, packed into the house and staked a claim in the living room, the den, the dining room, and even the hallway. We had beds and sleeping bags everywhere. My youngest sister slept under the dining room table with her niece. At night you couldn’t walk through the house without stepping over, or on, someone.
My parents didn’t know it, but the pregnant sister had been given permission to travel, and arrived after everyone else. I will never forget the look on Mom and Dad’s faces when she and her family walked into the house and surprised them. We pretended to interview them about getting the family together for Christmas and captured the moment on video with one of those huge video cameras that you rested on your shoulder. It was the look of sheer joy! The whole family would finally spend a Christmas together.
Mealtimes were an event unto themselves. The kitchen was a bustle of activity from sunup to sundown trying to keep with the house full of hungry mouths. We had homemade pies and cakes, fudge, and cereal by the case. On top of the regular meals, we had several nursing mothers. Keeping everyone fed was a round-the-clock operation.
On Christmas Eve, I got sick with fever. I curled up in my corner of the den and drifted in and out of consciousness as I watched the festivities in a feverish stupor. On Christmas morning, my Mom made everyone wait to open gifts until I felt well enough to sit up and participate. Thank goodness, I felt better before noon. Gratefully nobody else got sick.
I don’t remember too much about the gifts exchanged. I got a book about modern fighter aircraft. Honestly, the gift exchange was anticlimactic. The real excitement sprang from just being together. If there was an argument, I don’t remember it. If there was contention, it never rose to a noteworthy level. In spite of the close quarters and cramped arrangements, a true spirit of harmony permeated the entire home. If ever there was a Christmas miracle, having a house full of hardheaded Boohers together for three days without an argument surely qualifies.
I have tried for over a year to write this blog. That particular Christmas carries so much emotion for me that putting it down in words has been difficult. I am sitting in a hotel room separated from my own family this Christmas day as I finish it up, and I still don’t feel like I have done it justice.
What is the takeaway from this story?
No one is promised tomorrow. Today is the only gift you have. Be grateful for the time you have together as a family, because you never know if it will be your last, or only, time together. Material possessions and fancy gifts will pass like the setting of the sun and leave you unfulfilled and hollow, but the time you spend with those you love will burn inside of you forever. Take time to make some warm memories with those you love.
I was twenty-six years old before my entire immediate family was together for Christmas. I’m fifty now, and we have never all been together for Christmas except that one time, but the memory of that Christmas still burns inside of me.