I DON'T KNOW what it's like at your house at Christmas, but at my place it ain't Ozzie and Harriet's.

Maybe that's why I like daydreaming. Anticipation can be so much more fun than the real thing, and it's surely a lot easier to clean up after.Take last weekend. The two oldest of our three children were due home from college, and I was looking forward to having my nest full again. I don't know why I always forget what it's like to have them home. It's the same thing that happens in childbirth. You forget you swore "never again" until you're back in the labor room begging for ice chips.

For some reason, I had this notion that it couldn't be Christmas until my family was together again under one roof. You know, like that Hallmark commercial, where the kid comes home in a blizzard, and everybody starts singing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I love that commercial. I see that boy sneak in that door and I want to run up and hug him. I keep thinking that's how Christmas ought to be at my house. Except it doesn't snow here. And we don't sing.

Well, we sing, but not together. You have to be in the same room to do that. Lately, even when we're all in town, we're seldom home at the same time.

That's the part I seem to forget. And I really forgot it last weekend. The way I had it figured, everybody would be home by Sunday afternoon, and we could all sit down to dinner together.

After dinner, maybe we'd finish decorating the tree, or bake cookies, or play a game. Or hey, we could make gingerbread houses with graham crackers like we did when the kids were little. The more I thought about it, the better it got. I got so excited, I started thumbing through cookbooks.

By late afternoon, the house was clean (well, as clean as it ever gets) and I had a moussaka in the oven, plus a batch of cookie dough in the fridge.

My husband came home from Christmas shopping in an oddly festive mood (maybe he hit a big sale at Kmart) and started memorizing a poem. At 51, he says it's time he learned "The Night Before Christmas." Don't ask.

Meanwhile, I plugged in the tree lights, turned on some Christmas music and waited for the troops to come home.

It was a long wait. The youngest canceled first. Couldn't make it in time for dinner, he said, had lots of, like, important stuff to do.

His sister bailed out next. Called from a friend's house while eating a sandwich. "Don't wait up," she said.

The oldest drove in about 5 p.m., lugging a carload of laundry. He's big - 6 foot, 3,200 pounds. When he hugs you, you know you've been hugged. His neck, I thought, smelled like Christmas. I dished up moussaka while he laughed at his dad butchering lines of poetry.

("A wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread - except the wrath of the woman I wed.")

After dinner, we decided to catch a movie. I wanted to see something Christmasy. They wanted to see Demi Moore.

We were buying tickets for "Disclosure" when we realized we had no money. I hadn't brought a purse. The boy is always broke. And his dad had forgotten to bring his wallet.

"You might've remembered it," I snapped, "if you hadn't been so busy trashing `The Night Before Christmas.' "

We were headed for the car, when suddenly a woman from the ticket line came running after us.

"Let me buy your tickets," she said grinning. "I've got lots of money. Besides, it's Christmas."

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So we did.

That night, as my family slept, I kept thinking about the woman. I couldn't remember if I said thanks. And I really wanted to thank her, not just for the tickets, but for . . . everything.

So, if you meet a woman named Dee - who sounds like Emma Thompson and has a huge heart, if not a whole lot of money - please give her my thanks and wish her Merry Christmas.

And do the same, if you will, for the guy who was with her. She said his name was Santa. Maybe she was kidding. But they both looked like Santa to me.

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