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Tales of a Working Mother: Over the River and on the I-5 to the 101 or However You Got to Grandma’s

As this column appears on KPBS' web site I am just days home from my traditional family Christmas that literally takes place at Grandmother's House. If you were to come to my office today you might still be able to see the shell-shocked look that follows more than a week of round-the-clock family, sugar, food, sugar, presents, sugar, late nights, sugar, fun, sugar, hair-raising temper tantrums, sugar.

You would also see the smile that nearly breaks my face as I thank God that I have this job to balance all of those heart warming experiences.

For as much as I enjoy many aspects of the celebration with my kids and family, this is not a week-long Hallmark card commercial. Balancing the needs of my three kids with family obligations and lack of sleep make it more akin to the stories in David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice (which I read each December while nursing a cocktail to prepare myself for the reality of the season.)

The festivities begin and end with a 12-hour drive across the state for the stay at my parents' home. This is with three kids, two adults and an SUV full of luggage, presents, strollers, port-a-crib, etc. We might be able to downsize if it weren't for our pre-teen daughter's fashion needs. While the rest of us have one suitcase and one personal bag each, she prefers to pack several small, stylish bags each with a different purpose. There's the clothes suitcase, the shoes and purses bag, the stuffed animals bag, the book and activities bag, the toiletries and makeup bag (which includes full sized bottles of her shampoo, conditioner, etc. because she can't leave home without them).That doesn't account for her purse, jacket, pillow and several blankets. When I look in the backseat as we're driving down the interstate I can't even see her under all of her stuff.

On the subject of the THREE kids, this year I truly felt the challenge of having spread them so far apart. It's nothing short of a miracle to find activities that can please a 12-year-old, 7-year-old and a 3-year-old. This is especially true when we're out of town without their friends and my support system and it's up to me to provide all the entertainment. Tending to their individual needs and refereeing the bickering reminds me of playing Whac-A-Mole just as I solve one problem (or break up one fight), another one pops up.

When we finally arrive at my parents' home I often feel like we're a plague of locusts descending on a tranquil valley. Within minutes, my parent's clean, neat two-story home is overtaken by five more people and all of their stuff. And they love it!

My parents are ideal grandparents. And my children beam in my mother's presence as no request is too big and no need too small for her loving touch. So, you would think I'd have plenty of time for rest and relaxation during the visit. But, in addition to their grandparenting skills, they are also consummate entertainers and have hosted upwards of 50 people for the last 40 years at their Christmas Eve dinner party. And this is no potluck, BYOB event. They host it all and they do it up big with a tree that hits the ceiling, decorations on every flat surface, an open bar, presents for everyone and even a visit from Santa. My mother is not happy unless the table is overflowing with food.

When I was a child I turned into an indentured servant come each December. For in the early years, my mother insisted on making everything from scratch and as the eldest daughter you can guess who she dubbed her sous chef. Luckily, I enjoy cooking and I learned some of my best recipes in her kitchen. Over the years, however, I have convinced my mother to hire some help with the cooking as I had to stick to my signature recipes when my three kids came along and I couldn't assist as much. But, she's refused to cut back on any of her dishes as she claims each is the favorite of one or another relative. So, we end up with 10 types of appetizers, three pies, two cakes, several types of candy and about six varieties of cookies in addition to the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables/salads, rolls and cranberries. So, even with help, my parents are prepping for days before the big event and cleaning up for days afterward.

It is completely over the top and the reason "to grandmother's house we go" every year. I often return bleary eyed from the pace, the sugar and the 24/7 family time (except when I lock the bathroom door and hide out in a long, hot shower to escape). But I do it because I can still remember the Christmas Day celebrations at my own grandparents' house in San Francisco. I loved it because of the tradition. As the eldest grandchild I loved my role shepherding my 10 cousins through the three-story house. I loved when my grandpa dressed up as Santa. I loved joining my grandma at the piano to play and lead the family in singing Christmas carols. I loved that for this one day our large, extended family was all together. I was a teenager when my grandparents sold their home and moved into a small condo. I missed Christmas Day at their home for years.

Thanks to my parents, my children are storing the same types of memories every year when we trek across the state to join in this annual tradition. It is a ton of work for my parents, it is not exactly what I'd call a vacation for me. But it is important in a way that I can't put into words. So, until my mother decides to hang up her apron we will make the trip. I will teach my children what she taught me about cooking, I will watch them reconnect with cousins they rarely see, I will get over my exhaustion and be grateful for the gift of this connection and unconditional love. And, on the Whac-A-Mole days, there's always my dad's recliner, a glass of wine, and Holidays on Ice .

Deanna Martin Mackey is the mother of an 11-year-old girl, a 7-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. She is an associate general manager at KPBS, and has been writing professionally for 20 years. She is working on her first novel about a family.

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