Meghan Laudie baked 500 Christmas cookies recently, and she didn't keep any for herself. She doesn't eat sugar.
She started shopping for gifts in October, had the tree ready by Thanksgiving. She also filled her nights and weekends with parties and baby-sitting for friends with functions to attend.
For the past three holiday seasons, Laudie chose hustle and bustle over solitude. "That's how I stop myself from falling apart," she said.
Laudie's mother, Janis Marie Stavros, has been missing since Jan. 3, 2001. For months, there was no activity on her credit cards or bank accounts to suggest her whereabouts. Laudie, 23, eventually closed them.
There have been no sightings of Stavros, who was 42 years old when she disappeared. No body has been found. The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office has made no arrests in connection with Stavros' disappearance, said sheriff's spokeswoman Peggy Faulkner.
Laudie believes her mother is dead. She thinks her mother trusted the wrong person and was murdered. "Parents don't just up and leave their kids," she said. "I was very close to my mom."
Families traditionally connect during Christmas, said Chloe D. Merrill, a professor of child and family studies at Weber State University, in an e-mail interview.
When loved ones are missing whether they're children, parents, political hostages or soldiers families are kept in limbo, hoping they're alive but at the same time often wishing to see a body and feeling guilty about wishing to see a body.
"Having people in your life that you can talk to, complain to, cry with and laugh with represents an important stress buffer. Connecting with family members and friends becomes one of the more important ways you can insulate yourself from stress and strengthen your ability to cope," said Merrill.
When Laudie was 10, she and her younger sister woke up Christmas morning, ran to the tree and found dresses their mother had sewed for them. Laudie's was pastel blue and had puff sleeves. "I loved it."
That's her favorite Christmas memory.
For Mary and Ed Sorensen, there is a memory of a Christmas in England when he was in the Air Force. They presented their children a basket. Two miniature, wire-haired dachshund puppies were inside a brown male and a black female. The female puppy was for the Sorensens' 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Sheree.
"Her face just lit up," Mary Sorensen said.
That was more than 36 years ago, a time when their daughter was a physical presence in their lives. On Oct. 5, 1985, then-25-year-old Sheree Warren never returned from work to her parents' house in Roy, where she was living with her small child.
Warren's body also never has been found, and authorities are at a loss to explain what happened to her. Every month or so, officers are notified of a female body found somewhere in the United States, Roy Police Capt. Jack Bell said. But when Warren's dental records are compared with the teeth of the female body, there has never yet been a match.
The Sorensens have their own theories of what happened to their daughter, usually believing she too was murdered. But Mary Sorensen acknowledged, "I don't know if I've still accepted she's not coming home."
"You never learn to completely live with it. You can deal with death. It's finality. But this is a little more complex," said Ed Sorensen. He and his wife are not concerned about justice, "we'd just like to know where she is."
Warren was always on the go and friendly. She loved children, her parents said, and started holiday traditions with her son, who was a toddler when she disappeared. The family stuffed tiny presents into plastic balls and opened them on Christmas Day.
Every day of not knowing the whereabouts of her daughter is a struggle for Mary Sorensen. At Christmastime, it's difficult because "there's always someone who says, 'What would it be like if she were here?' " she said.Laudie believes her mother is in a better place and not all that far away. "I always talk to her in my head. It sounds kind of schizophrenic. . . . The whole supernatural thing used to freak me out. Not anymore."