When my mother picked me up from Philadelphia International Airport she had a big red bow with her in the car. This was for me to wear, naturally, as my arrival was a complete surprise to everyone else in the family. [Digression: I don't know about you, but I *love* surprises! I love seeing people I didn't know I was going to see; I love receiving gifts or honours I didn't know I was going to receive; I love discovering I like something I thought I would dislike... I just love being surprised. And yes, I know not all surprises are positive, but it makes life infinitely more interesting.] I attached the bow to my shirt, and we headed first to my father's office, where she had me wait in the car for a few minutes while she went in to tell him she had his Christmas present waiting outside. My father can be a bit of a pessimist at times, so he imagined she was finding a euphemistic way to tell him something was wrong with the car, or that there had been some disaster, so when he came outside his expression wavered somewhere between skeptical and terrified. I came running up from behind some bushes shouting "Daddy!" and gave him a big hug. I wish someone had taken a photo of the way his jaw dropped! He was so happy to see me--and so very surprised--that he was trembling. He gave me lots of hugs and took me inside to say hello to everyone (I worked in the office every summer from about age 13 to 25, so they all know me quite well there).
The introduction-by-Mom followed by surprise-I'm-home process was repeated when we got home, where my sister Cori was waiting to make bourbon balls with Mom. Cori jumped up when she saw me, but her first words were, "I KNEW it!" Apparently something I had posted on Facebook the day before had made her suspicious that I might try to surprise everyone. Clever little thing! But she was still really happy to see me, and we got right down to business melting chocolate and making the bourbon balls. I was glad to be able to help, because I had missed making the biscotti, which we do every Christmas Baking Day--though Mom had saved the icing and sprinkling for me. We were hoping my other sister, Christina, would come home to join us, but she had worked a long shift and was going last-minute shopping with her boyfriend, so we ended up calling her to let her know that I was home. She didn't recognise my voice at first--probably because she did not expect it to be me calling--so we played a little guessing game till she figured it out. She sounded stressed, so I didn't ask her to come home. I know how much I hate shopping, especially with big crowds of people, and she is a lot like me.
That night we had cheesesteaks for dinner (my request, as there is no such thing here in England!) and I went to bed tired and happy. The next day was 23 December, the day for preparing the cookie trays (gifts for the family...though we're always a little stingy and keep a big tray for our Christmas day breakfast!) and the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve. Because I have been having so much fun in the kitchen, I wanted to help my mother so I could learn how to work with fish. Of course, not all of our fishes were coming from our kitchen: Grandma D. was making her baccala and the anchovy-stuffed peppers (mmmm) and I think the mussels; we had ordered a big tray of calamari from a restaurant; Chrissy's boyfriend Joey was making scallops... so all we had to do was clean the shrimp and prepare the crab meat and make the tilapia and the salmon loaf and the spaghetti with clam sauce, and of course a baked ziti, because some of my cousins don't like fish, hehe. And yes, that is more than seven, but we had so many extra contributions this year that it couldn't be helped! And it was a good thing, as our extended family is quite large, and requires a lot of food. In the midst of all this preparation my mother realised she had forgotten something vital at the grocery store (I can't remember now what it was) and she ran out to get it, leaving me cleaning shrimp at the kitchen sink. While she was out, my brother Nick walked in, having driven down from the Newark area where he attends medical school. He did a bit of a double-take when he saw me, and asked, "What are you doing here??" "Cleaning shrimp," I answered nonchalantly, but with a smile. He came and hugged me--Surprise #4!--and he sat and chatted with me for a while as I continued to make up the cold shrimp tray. Later he asked me to go shopping with him, and even though it meant that I missed the stuffed shrimp and tilapia stages of fish preparation (which I really wanted to learn!), I went, because I so rarely get to spend time with my brother. That night we had some family time; Nicky built a fire, and everyone watched 'The Snowman," which I had been wanting to see for a long time (Cori had given it to me the previous Christmas, but we never got around to watching it).
The next day was Christmas Eve, and we had planned to surprise at least the grandparents (whom we knew would arrive first) by having me Skype-call from upstairs and pretend I was still in England. It worked beautifully, with both grandmothers having conversations with me and saying how much they missed me, and me doing my best not to let anything in my room show up in the background. When I finally came down and hugged them they were delighted, and so surprised! As the rest of the aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived, I gave happy hugs to everyone, and they were so glad I made it home for the holidays--as my cousin Elizabeth said, it wouldn't have been the same without me. We took lots of photos and ate LOTS of food, and had some good conversations (and maybe some not-as-good ones) and gave gifts to those we wouldn't be seeing on the following day. It was a jolly time, and the evening ended with a brief late-night visit from Mary-Elizabeth, who promised to return the following day.
Of course, the following day was Christmas, which began as always with my sisters and me running and jumping onto my brother's bed to wake him, followed by our rushing downstairs to see if Santa came, and then getting out the cookies and coffee and egg nog to have for breakfast while we open gifts, one at a time, so everyone can see. And yes, we range in age from 23 to 28 and we still do this. And it's awesome.
I won't spend too much time talking Christmas, because as delightful as it is, I think it is both personal and universal enough that reading about the way someone else experiences it won't be all that interesting to most of you. I will say that we had an amazing lasagna dinner (best in the world), we heard an interesting grace thanks to my father, and we stayed up late to watch "It's a Wonderful Life," which was interrupted by another visit from Mary who was headed down to D.C. early to avoid the big snowstorm that was predicted for the next day.
The snowstorm brought the next pleasant surprise, which was that I had three extra days in New Jersey. On the first one I got to participate in a surprise 30th birthday party for Jen, a high school friend of my brother's (and mine, too, though I was closer to her brother, Brent). This was especially fun, because I got to catch up with some people I hadn't seen in years, and I always find it fascinating to see in what varied directions our lives go after high school. Of course, some things never change, and at more than one point in the night we felt like we were right back in the Bishop Eustace cafeteria, gossiping and giggling and generally goofing around.
The next two days were a mixture of hanging out with my siblings and a good friend or two, and sorting through things at home that I wanted to take back with me, and maybe a little bit of worrying about the work I had meant to accomplish over the break that was now being put off for a few more days. And then, almost before I realised it, I was back on a plane to England, a trip which I have already described in another post.
Now I must finish getting dressed for work (5 more days of telethon...sigh), so I will sign off here. I wish you all a pleasant day!