Friday, December 11, 2015

You Can't Go Home Again (For Christmas)

The holiday season does strange things to me.  I tend to get hyper emotional, in good ways and bad.  This evening my daughters wanted to watch the Garfield Christmas special (don't ask), and I started getting a little misty-eyed over a piece of supremely cheesy entertainment.

In case you haven't seen it (and why would you), Jon takes Garfield and Odie back to his parents' farm for Christmas.  His grandmother is also there, and she talks of the lonely nights petting her cats thinking about the past, now that her husband has been gone.  This about had me lose it, since my own grandmother, who had spent sixteen years alone, died not too long ago.  And yes, when we would get together for my mother's family Christmas, it was at my grandparents' farm.

I haven't been in Nebraska for Christmas since 2012.  We were going to go this year, then an unexpected financial burden put an end to it.  With two three year olds it is a difficult undertaking, involving four pricey plane tickets and renting a car to drive the 150 miles from the airport to my isolated hometown.  Wrangling toddlers in the airport and getting them to not act like insane monsters on an airplane for over three hours is a task too difficult for the labors of Hercules.  The treacherous and unpredictable winter weather on the plains also makes the venture especially risky.  Back when I used to drive home from Illinois and Michigan I would hit blizzards, even getting my car blown into a ditch near Council Bluffs one time.

I've also come to realize that the Christmas of my youth can't be recaptured, which is cold comfort when I'm feeling down about being so far from home on Christmas.  We used to gather around noon at my grandparents' house, their farm about an hour's drive west.  The best part was the trees surrounding the farm yard, where I would play with my cousins and build forts out of junk.  We handled so much old rusty barbed wire that I am surprised that none of us got tetanus.  I also loved playing with the many farm cats, who we gave eccentric names to.  After a bit we'd be called in for Christmas dinner, which usually involved both ham and turkey. That was usually just a prelude to the pies.  My grandmother made so many of them, from banana cream to pumpkin to cherry, seemingly never-ending.

 I usually brought the toys I just got for Christmas, so my afternoons were occupied in a state of concentrated playing in my grandparents' living room at the foot of the aged fold out couch and massive picture window that claimed a few confused birds in its time.  When I got older I might be reading the books I got, which also fit with my teenage antisocial tendencies.  The adults would play pitch (a four handed card game rarely played outside of Nebraska) while drinking pop and snacking on Christmas cookies.  The supply of food was pretty much never ending, and for some reason around 5 they would reheat lunch and I would still manage to cram some more of my grandmother's mashed potatoes in my mouth.  (They were truly amazing.)  On our way out the door my grandma would usually give all of us cousins (and there were a lot of us) a bag of her homemade kettle corn, and sometimes a hand-knitted blanket or afghan.  (I still have them today, and they somehow still carry the slight whiff of the farmhouse smell.)  In my head I can still hear the quiet cacophony of car wheels on a gravel road underneath an impossibly black winter solstice sky as my family departed, my grandparents waving good-bye from the yard.

The thing about holiday rituals is that they provide comfort in their repetition, the comfort of memory.  By doing the same thing you did the year before and the ten years before that you revive the memories of all the Christmases past and simultaneously live them out.  Losing these rituals completely throws off the equilibrium of holidays, and is why I am desperate to go home for Christmas.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the ideal Christmases of my memory ended much longer ago than I first realized.  At some point some members of my family insisted on renting a banquet room at a nearby Holiday Inn rather than doing the traditional farm house Christmas.  This, I believe, was due to the sour nature of some of my family members, who simply wanted to cut the time with their extended family short.  I found these Christmas gatherings to be positively miserable.  There were no trees to go exploring in, no yard cats to play with, and no dusty basement to go poking around in.  It was a lot of adults talking and tepid hotel buffet food. If I was lucky I could cadge some quarters from my dad and go to the hotel arcade (remember those?) and play some games of Operation Wolf.

Later on, after my grandfather passed, we started getting together sometimes at my aunt and uncle's house, which while fun, wasn't the same.  These days there's no gatherings there, or anywhere, for that matter.  The submerged tensions and antipathies that had been festering for years between my mother and some of her siblings have broken out into open warfare.  I'd rather not get into the details, but things have been said that cannot be unsaid, things so odious that I can't and won't ever forgive them.  My cousins and I are still on good terms, but we have been flung far and wide to the four corners of America, from Portland to Mobile to Denver to New Jersey.  The farm where so many of my childhood memories are located is now owned by someone who out of spite would probably never let me visit it again.

It would be great for my immediate family to make our own new traditions, so my daughters and nephews and niece could have their own memories together, but being so far away means that this won't happen.  The land of my birth is probably destined to be a distant and strange place to them. I wish so badly I could share my grandparents' farm with them at least, but that will likely never happen.  At least my wife's family has some good traditions.  We eat Cuban food from a venerable place in Union City on Christmas Eve, then feast of roast pork the next day after my father in law makes a delicious garlic shrimp brunch.  It's great, but it does not have the comfort and resonance of the rituals I grew up with.

This Christmas I am going to try to do it a little more Nebraska style.  I am planning on replicating my Mom's delectable Christmas treats, from nut clusters to Ritz crackers filled with peanut butter and dipped in almond bark.  Maybe I will try to teach my New Jersey relatives how to play pitch, too.

Of course, it's not all bad.


Terry said...

Just from the evidence of this post alone, I would say that you *can* share your childhood memories with your kids, by writing them down and letting them read the stories year after year. This is a lovely piece, so evocative. I would bet it takes every reader back down the path of their own childhood holidays. It did me, anyway. Even unto the sour relatives and bitter schisms - though, fortunately, my family's weren't that bad. All my cousins and I are distant-living, but still on speaking terms. These days, we are the ones dropping off the branch, and there's much talk at funerals of organizing a get-together *not* arranged around someone's death, but we are far-flung and it's costly to travel, and everyone has their own stuff going on.

Anyway, this is beautiful and I hope you do establish traditions if even only for your immediate family. Your kids will remember the joy and love and play and food, too, and treasure you for them. Cherish your own memories, and write!

Steve said...

I may not have choked up watching Garfield, but I did reading this. How I'd love to do Christmas at my grandparents just one more time.

Brian I said...

Great piece; thanks for sharing your experiences. Similar to you, as a child I loved Christmas Eve at my grandmother's house, the one time all year that side of the family got together. It was glorious. She died my first year in grad school and it has never been the same. Last year my dad was in the nursing home Christmas eve and he died five weeks later. I'm not looking forward to Christmas the way I used to.

G.S. White said...

Thank you for this, and for your blog in general. As someone who grew up on the edge of the high prairie (central Kansas) and who now lives very far away from home (Finland), and a recovering academic to boot, I greatly appreciate what you have to say. A peaceful and relaxing holiday season to you and your family!