In the spirit of having a low-key December (I know that’s not really a thing), I set modest goals before we packed up to go to my mom’s last week. 1. Finish all the laundry–that’s essential, because coming home to a stinky pile of clothes is not relaxing. 2. Pack–the kids packed their own clothes for the first time, which was more relaxing than I anticipated, once I realized it didn’t matter, they’d spend the whole week in pajamas. And 3. Vacuum–who was I kidding? That didn’t happen.

This was the second Christmas without my dad, and his presence still fills the house. For me–and I know it’s different for everyone–it hasn’t faded, which is mostly a testament to the power of his personality. Dad was almost a caricature of himself in many ways. Not one to do things by halves. Even if, as was true so much in the last few years of his life, that meant sitting in his favorite chair and watching golf or Fox News with his favorite drink at hand. By God, he did that in such a way and so often that to this day I can’t look at that chair without picturing him in it.

I think he would have really enjoyed this Christmas. Many Manhattans were drunk in his honor. There are new ornaments on the tree–a golf ball and a miniature bottle of Jim Beam–to hang next to the mementos he and Mom collected over the years. And between the quiet moments when we were overwhelmed by missing him, the laughter was back. Sometimes so hard it brought tears to our eyes.

Laughing as a family–it doesn’t get any better than that. It was worth the 700 miles of driving. The who-was-I-kidding-frantic hours of preparation. The headaches and the messes and the dishes, oh my god the dishes, but at the end a meal we all ate together. There is no such thing as low-key this time of year, not when your family is half a country away in the heart of the Great White North, not even if it’s a god-awful sixty degrees, which is almost worse, because then what do I do with the kids when I can’t throw them out in the snow?

But there are surprises, wonderful surprises. Cousins putting down their iPads and opening a Season Workshop, working all day to make (and sell!) construction paper crafts. Beautiful art, carefully colored. Beloved aunts and favorite uncles. Cherished gifts.

I put these gifts in my heart–there’s room, because that last load of laundry? I didn’t actually do it–and know that my dad will keep them safe.

How to have a happy road trip: Bring the dog!

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