“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 19: The Ghosts of Christmases Past

It's Boxing Day, which in England meant that the servants finally got to have a day off and the poor and all the service people received gifts from their various benefactors in a box.  In Canada there are sales going on, and my sister and her husband want to hit a few museums there and see the sights.  I may or may not join them.  Today seems like a good day for reflection.

Downstairs after everyone left last evening, I spent some time scrubbing the dried gravies and sauces from the last couple days off the stove in a sort of zen way, enjoying the physicality of the feat, erasing the burners' food memories but not mine, feeling exceedingly grateful for how our holiday has been going.  Our holiday get-togethers are happiest when, for the rest of the year, everyone is doing what they were born to do: the artist lad is making art, the scientist lad is making science (when he's not cooking gourmet feasts), the writer in this corner is writing, and the kind man who holds everyone together in our house is content with everyone's contentment (and reading a lot of mysteries and turning a wood bowl or two on the side.)

And Zoe, well she is currently off with my husband on the gentlemen's walk, a sacred morning ritual that happens 365 days a year, no matter the weather or the holiday. 

When my sister, Mira, and I were children we spent Christmas at our maternal grandparents' house.  Grandma Anna was a Jew, and we still identify as such, but Grandma was an atheist.   Grandpa Steve, an Orthodox Christian from Macedonia, was the dominant force in the house, so we celebrated Christmas, a holiday he loved so much that he strung Christmas lights all over the living room and kept them there year-round.  The tree was aluminum and he stored the box for it up in the scary attic where his rifle hung from the wall.  I remember going up there with him sometimes and cowering at the top of the stairs, but I liked the smell of the mothballs and always wanted to route through the old cedar trunks of retro clothes and photo albums.  Like any good Yugoslav, our grandfather roasted lamb, and it was probably delicious, but after he had refreshed his whiskey glasses again and again while the meat cooked I don't remember ever being hungry when we finally all sat down at the mahogany table that my sister and I were charged to shine with cut-open walnuts every day after school.

Sometimes I would fake being sick so that our mother would stay back with me in our apartment a few blocks away and I could spend the day in bed reading Charles Dickens novels. But when our mother's chronic mental illness made it impossible for her to hold a job and we were forced to live with her parents, we were stuck with the holiday whether we liked it or not.  It was nice when snow fell and we sang "Silent Night" or "King Wenceslas," and my sister and I would feed scraps of things under the table to Ginger, our collie shepherd mix, and take turns playing the piano.  For a minute or two we could trick ourselves into thinking we were happy, and that we were just doing what families do.  Sometimes I think we were happy, my sister and I, as we were both born with that capacity in deep reserves.

In my twenties, I roamed.  One year my sister joined me for Christmas in Mexico, and the two of us and two German friends went to a park in Mexico City and had a picnic above all the families who glided along a canal in gondola-like boats with their picnics and music, and the day was warm and fragrant.  From our perch on high, we laughed wildly at any and all the obvious Lothario types. Fed up at getting whistled at and harassed as we wandered around Mexico City and Guanajuato, we used our unique, sisterly brand of humor for revenge, as was our wont.

Another year I had people over to my grad school apartment and we ate the ceviche with scallops I'd learned to love in Mexico.  I used Christmas colors--red and green peppers, green cilantro, with tomatoes and rose-red radishes and sliced limes as garnishes.  Orphan and Jew Christmases were my specialty in the roaming era, and I was usually the host.

Except for the Christmas we spent in England with my husband's family, we have now spent 21 years in this house with mostly the same cast of characters: my husband, the boys that became my stepsons, my sister and her partner (for the past 11 years, Doug), and two couples we consider family.  On Christmas Eve, Foodie Son (the scientist) cooks something delicate and rare or earthy and savory, or a combination thereof, and sometimes, when she's in town, our friend Cathy comes.  On Christmas Day, my husband and I do up a turkey and all the trimmings.  Our dogs always get a squeaky toy or two, which become part of the day's soundtrack.  Usually our friend Mo takes them on a walk with us in the woods to work up room for pie, but this year we just stood in the back yard talking while the dogs chased sticks and ate snow.

One year my husband and I were so behind with our end-of-semester grading that we couldn't find a tree anywhere.  So instead, we found a branch of something evergreen and called it the Christmas Twig.  But we made it beautiful (not hard to do, since space was so limited, and only the nicest ornaments made the final pick) and we did our usual: eat turkey at 2, open gifts one at a time, play Dictionary in the parlor.  The ritual never changes.

Last year, and the year before that, I was heading to Quebec City and then on to France in early January, and so Christmas meant I only had another 10 days or so left in our house and in the States.  It was fun to anticipate those grand adventures, but the to-do lists were endless, and I don't think I ever deeply relaxed.

This year I'm grateful to be where I am: to want what I have, mostly.  If I could change anything, you know what it would be (Zoe in complete remission, and then there's the matter of world peace) but for now, I'm just happy to be home in a state of complete, unadulterated non-planning.  Just being here.  With the people and pup I love, up here in the North Country.

I wish you all a relaxing Boxing Day, gentle readers.  And I hope this weekend gave you memories you will wish to keep.
Poor Zoe looks resigned, the poor over-loved, over-kissed pup. Note her new, tripod-dog way of sitting. Photo by Tara Freeman 

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