The season started the moment the college girl dumped a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the den table and announced she would have it conquered by Christmas.
Nobody much disagreed, or even cared, though there was a certain joy in knowing she would be around the house enough to assemble a puzzle of that magnitude. She is a social animal, and I don't mean that as an affront to other animals. I just mean she knows a lot of people, and now that she's of age, they gather in watering holes around Los Angeles, after which they call the parents to drive them home. At 21, they still have the playfulness of puppies. And they have resources too.
"What can I spend on Mom's gift?" she asked one day.
She meant my money, of course.
For a miserly sort like me, the holidays provide a mixed bag of tensions. I like the camaraderie and the chow, but I don't want to pay for any of it. My wife, Posh, is more reasonable about things. She is the Obama of family budgets, determined to spend her way to fiscal health. I'm the bad guy, walking around yelling, "Stop the spending! Just stop!"
Of course, no one's there when I yell this. They are all out spending. Even the little girl with the giant jigsaw puzzle, which sat half finished a week before Christmas. Because one day her little brother shook out a big blanket, accidentally scattering much of her puzzle around the room — into the furniture, all over the dog. Oops.
It was the sort of explosion you see in a Bruckheimer movie. Except it happened to be her Christmas puzzle.
On deck at other halls
There are a lot of pieces that go into a memorable holiday season. Socializing is one of them, and this year it seems we have more parties than ever, often ending up in the Millers' kitchen for a nightcap. Soon enough, the Millers' kitchen turned out to be the best tavern in town.
I enjoy this plethora of parties, this movable feast. At one, I initiated a 10-minute conversation on septic tanks.
"Oh, gawd ..." Posh said when I told her later. But ours seems to be collapsing like a coal mine, so I have a vested interest.
At another party, there was a long discussion of gluten-free diets. It was pretty clear that glutens are the world's foremost problem, surpassing rogue Mideast countries and even my own septic woes.
Contrarian that I am, I vowed to open an all-gluten restaurant where, as in the days of Prohibition, we would serve big heaping platters of breads and fries in a speak-easy setting.
I would model it after the Millers' kitchen — lots of hard surfaces, against which the conversations would bounce several times, and laughter even more.
Love a loud house during the holidays.
As if I have any choice.
Lost and found
On Dec. 22, someone swiped a car out of our driveway. Wasn't much of a car. It would no longer clear first gear, for instance, so we got a certain satisfaction at the thought of the thieves barreling down the freeway at 15 miles per hour. Good riddance, Grinch.
Far more troubling, several pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle were still missing, even after Posh checked under the ginormous sleeping beagle, Orson Welles.
Posh suggested we X-ray Orson to find that missing piece, because, except for that one lousy piece, the puzzle was now complete. The puzzle, a country Christmas scene, sat on the coffee table looking like a cat with one eye. It was a tiny piece, but the symbolism was enormous: At our house, something's always missing — or occasionally stolen.
So while everyone else was out spending money we don't even have, the little guy got out a piece of cardboard and scissored it to fit the hole in the puzzle, then colored it with some of his crayons.
It wasn't the best gift the college girl ever got, didn't blink or whistle or work with Wi-Fi. Despite the little box it came in, it didn't sparkle with firelight.
It was just a homemade puzzle piece that, after three attempts, still didn't fit quite right.
"Hmmm, I thought it was going to be jewelry," she said when she opened it.
Hey kid, it was.
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