An empty nest doesn't mean Christmas won't be full

It seems that not all that many years ago, I asked my son how much longer I was supposed to fill his Christmas stocking. This was not an uncommon exchange; I'd asked his advice before and, of course, he'd asked for mine.

Benjamin frequently had a fresh perspective on things that I'd been puzzling over, and I'd hoped this was one of those moments. I couldn't remember when my own mother had stopped hanging my stocking by the fireplace. Too many things had happened right after high school: My father had died, college had swept me away from my small town. Family rituals were boring. I hated hanging around the house for the holidays, and hit the road the minute the table was cleared.

But this was not to be the occasion of one of Benjamin's wise-beyond-his-years pronouncements. He said nothing at all, just raised one eyebrow and looked at me, mildly scandalized, as though I'd brought up the rude fact - once again - that there was no Santa Claus.

"Well, how about if we make the cutoff when you turn 25?" I said.

"We'll see," he said, and his features relaxed; safe for now.

Since I raised the Christmas stocking question with Benjamin, my life has become more complicated. When he left home to go to college, I decided to leave home, too.

I moved out of the apartment where we had lived in New York City, and came back to Massachusetts, and the town I'd left in a big hurry. I wanted to have a garden, take walks along the jetty, smell the salt air, start a whole new chapter. After all, I had prepared myself for this; I wasn't going to let the empty nest get me down.

I filled my son's stocking each Christmas when he came home from college, and gave him a hug when he headed out, back to New York to spend New Year's with his friends.

And then, like a fool, I fell in love, and married a man with four kids - one boy, a year younger than my own, and three others all the way down to a 10-year-old girl. Christmas rolled around - and I couldn't believe my luck: My stepchildren had never had Christmas stockings.

So I postponed the inevitable, went back to buying the plastic eggs filled with Silly Putty, the Slinkies, new socks rolled up in a ball, tangerines, and a chocolate Santa. My stepchildren, just like Benjamin, laughed as they unpacked their loot; every stocking has to have a copy of Mad magazine. And just as in New York, we had the traditional Christmas breakfast of bagels and lox.

Soon it will be 2004, and 10 years will have passed since we left the city. There's only one child still living at home. She's almost 17, and doesn't much like hanging around the family for the holidays - too boring. In the blink of an eye, she'll be off to college, reading Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, as I did.

This year, I suggested that we do things differently, take a trip over Christmas vacation. One of the boys will be with his girlfriend; another works in the theater in New York and can't come. Two of my husband's kids want to spend some time with their mother. My son would like to be with his girlfriend, too - but they've both been away at graduate school, and she'll visit her family for a few days.

Benjamin said he'll go with me and my husband to Montreal. I've been checking out French bistros online, looking through the attic for heavy sweaters and scarves.

It was only this morning that it dawned on me that this could be the year - he probably wouldn't even notice.

Still, it can't hurt to bring an extra-large wool sock or two for those cold mornings in Canada, and I heard Mad magazine has done a great riff on "Lord of the Rings."

It seems arbitrary, almost cruel, to just end it, without further warning. I could make the cutoff date next year, when he's 28.

Susan T. Landry is a consumer-health writer and a manuscript editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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