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Independence Days

When the writer was a child, her mother defied the calendar, rescheduling holidays for the convenience of the family.

My mother cannot believe that anyone celebrates holidays on the appointed day. It's so much more efficient to reschedule them a week ahead or behind -- that way, you avoid the crowds. Christmas, for instance, can be anytime in December.

Our family may not be prettier than yours; we may not be smarter. But we do know how to avoid traffic jams. "You'd have to be a lunatic to get on the Pike after 3 o'clock," my mother used to say to me, when I was too young to understand the word "lunatic." But I took her meaning. There were people out there pushing and shoving to get to the same place at the same time. We would not be among them.

My mother has a theory: Eccentricity is efficient. When I was about 8 years old, she hoisted a Turkish flag onto the antenna of the family station wagon. "This way, when we park in the mall, I'll always be able to find the car," she explained. And so, for several years, my family traveled around like some rogue embassy, the white crescent moon of a faraway nation fluttering above as we drove to find a new set of bedsheets.

Years later, I sprawled across a beanbag chair in my high school library, studying People magazine. Eleven kids -- all about my age -- had been smothered at a Who concert. As I examined each of their photos, lined up yearbook-style on the glossy pages, I was gripped by disdain for those kids. I was in the process of becoming a punk rocker, learning to love the weird, the unpopular, the underground. I wouldn't have been caught dead in a stadium-rock hall in Ohio, wearing feathered hair and designer jeans. But those kids had in fact been caught dead in just such circumstances. That seemed like the real tragedy.

At the time, I thought I had developed such opinions on my own. But now it's clear to me that my devotion to the underground and the strange derived from my mother's obsession with traffic. Always, always avoid the crowds. That lesson has seeped into my soul.

A decade ago, my father lay in a rented hospital bed in my parents' house, dying. My mother and sister and I took care of him, circling around the room fetching Chopin CDs or hand lotion or morphine -- anything to mute his pain. It was late November, that stretch of days that dangles between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even if your father isn't dying, it's easy to feel awful in that ditch between the holidays. Psychiatrists' schedules fill up. Everyone is convinced that everyone else is going home to a happy family.

That year, it seemed I was always driving to the grocery store to fetch cans of protein drink, which was all that Dad could keep down. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" echoed down the produce aisles. Signs wished the shoppers happy holidays. The food itself seemed like just more gaudy holiday decoration -- the dollops of turkey and the confetti-ed cookies and the cranberry sauce, which would roll out of its can like a giant ruby. Dad would never get to eat any of this stuff again.

He died in early December. While other people were decorating their trees, we shopped for a headstone. After the funeral, we sprawled in the living room, too tired to put away the cheese plates. "Girls," my mother said, "let's not have Christmas this year." We'd always been fuzzy about holidays, moving around dates to suit our needs, but I had no idea that you could cancel Christmas entirely. My mother did know this. She never seemed so brave to me as at that moment when she -- wearing slippers and a sweat shirt, pale, exhausted -- decided we didn't have to do what other families did.

At that moment, she hoisted a flag over us more exotic and beautiful than the Turkish moon. The three of us, she seemed to say, would become a little country all our own. No apologies. No regrets. No rush hour. At that moment, she hoisted a flag over us more exotic and beautiful than the Turkish moon. The three of us, she seemed to say, would become a little country all our own. No apologies. No regrets. No rush hour.

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