Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Heavy Handed Christmas

To read about a truly gifted writer's quirky family holidays, grab this book by David Sedaris at the local library. You'll be rolling with laughter.

Nostalgia is strange. Let yourself off your guard for one moment, and at times it can creep up so fast that you find yourself in tears. On Christmas Eve, I found myself sitting at a stoplight of an intersection from the town where I grew up, an area of road I remembered stopping at many times throughout my childhood, and suddenly the emotion welled up in the back of my throat and I had to fight back the tears. I waited for the light to change, turned onto the freeway, and left the place quickly. Forty minutes later I arrived at my parents’ home, the one I didn’t actually grow up in, but they moved to post-emtpy-nest, and I felt angry because this “home” would not the same as it was when I was little, and I realized it would never be the same again.
I went to bed alone, hoping that on Christmas morning I would awake and find the world as it should be. That I wouldn’t feel upset about the lack of family extension in our part of town, or that I wouldn’t argue with my parents about things that didn’t matter, or that I would surprise myself by being amazingly selfless on that particular Christmas Day.
Needless to say, I failed miserably.
We stayed at home, mostly because my grandparents had just moved down to Camarillo from the Central Coast, a trek of about three hours, and they stayed with my parents until their new house was ready and “liveable.” To save on gas and mileage, I rode up from San Diego with a friend on the eve of Christmas Eve; the traffic was horrendous. We left my apartment just around one, stopped once for food, and didn’t arrive in Burbank until after dark. This was due to the inching and crawling of the Five Freeway, which somehow I was able to tell myself wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t really notice the time until we got to the Metrolink station in Burbank. I bought myself a ticket to Camarillo, about forty miles north-west along the 101, and waited for the train to come. I had six bags with me—a small rolling suitcase, my hamper filled with laundry, some vegetables from the garden, and the rest packaged Christmas presents. All I could manage to do when the train came was to pull my bags on board before the doors closed, before, I realized later, I could double-check the route of the train. As the conductor quickly told me after seeing my ticket, I boarded the wrong one. I got off at the next stop, piled my things under the outdoor awning, and waited for someone to come and pick me up because it was too late to catch another train to Camarillo. I wasn’t in the best part of the Valley, but what concerned me more was the cold. Many people fail to realize that Los Angeles is a desert, and at night during winter, temperatures dip pretty low, drastically low compared to the 70 degree, daytime warmth. I would have given anything for some gloves and a hat. It didn’t occur to me until many minutes later to put on another sweater under my jacket, wrap a second scarf around my neck, and pull on my boots. Finally I did just that, and I put my ipod in my ears, and I marched up and down the train platform to keep warm, and to pass the time, and to stomp out the tears. Could anyone be so careless as to forget to check the train line? I was.
The way this Christmas homecoming began unfortunately solidified my dissatisfaction with Southern California. We, the Los Angelians, the Orangians, the San Diegans, are spread out by unimaginable distances. Our cities are connected by veins of highway, lengths of behind-the-wheel radio tuning, pit-stop taking, gas pumping miles. The time it takes me to drive to my aunt’s house in Redlands, I could have driven from Southern Maine to Boston. And back east, that seems like an awfully long way. Why would someone go all that way for one day? Christmas day? Surely you would stay overnight and feast and talk and play games late into the evening, to wake up early and start the process over again. But in my family, that never seemed to be the case. It’s not that we haven’t wanted to spend time together, but my parents, my brother, and I have always just gone up for the day. We open our presents by ourselves on Christmas morning, eat breakfast, and pile into the car to head to Aunt Kathy’s. It’s the way it’s always been done. But not this year. Unfortunately, the distance does make a difference after a while, and as the years pass, we seem to drive out there less and less. That makes me sad, and angry.
I finally did make it to Camarillo—my dad came to the Metrolink station to pick me up, to “save me.” And the next day was Christmas Eve, which felt like any other day because my brother was staying with his friends in the Valley, and I was stuck in Camarillo. My parents and I went to the Christmas Eve service at church, and we sat in the over-flow room and watched the service on a TV screen. When the music came on and the people in the large auditorium stood to sing, I stood as well, and was the only person standing in the room. And I, for a moment, looked around at the other people in that room, and said to myself, “Aren’t people going to stand here too?” Suddenly they did stand, but in that moment in the interim, I felt scared for those people. How sedentary their lives must have become—they are so used to sitting and watching, that when the call comes to stand, they don’t even respond.
            After the service, I escaped to go back to the Valley and see friends and have dinner with my brother and his girlfriend’s family. I craved a real, family Christmas meal, so instead of being sad and muttering about not having one because the grandparents were falling asleep on the couch and mom and dad were sipping cocktails to recoup from the sheer exhaustion of the day, I left. But not before having an argument about whose car to take, and whether or not my insurance would cover a fender bender, and why on earth I was choosing to leave and spend the evening in someone else’s home in the first place. They finally allowed me to leave (though I can’t imagine what made them think they had the power to stop me really, being 23, and out of college), and I reveled in the thought of men in red sweaters, mothers and aunts preparing dishes of food in the kitchen, and brothers, my brother, pouring me a glass of good, red wine. I was able to get all of these things and more. My brother was amiable, his girlfriend and I exchanged gifts, and her family was genuinely happy to see me, and me them. And before I left my old hometown I saw some of my best friends, and that’s when, sitting in the car before pulling onto the freeway, I had to fight the tears. Nostalgia. Change. Life not as it once was. How silly of me.
            I got lost on my way back home; the landscape looked so different in the dark, and when I finally did arrive, was unable to sleep. Coffee after dinner, for me, is never a good idea, so instead of sleeping I sat up and thought about these funny emotions I was feeling—the cynicism and the doubt about the next day’s joys. And just as I allowed myself to become bathed in self-pity, I heard a noise from the living room, a coughing, hacking noise. And I realized my grandpa was throwing up.
            Let’s talk here about fear—oh god, yes, fear for the old. An eighty-two year old man throwing up into a ceramic bowl, unable to speak, or to stand, just to lean and to spew, and me standing there, trying to think of what had gone wrong. Was it too much insulin? Should we call an ambulance? How do you know when a person needs their stomach pumped? My mom came downstairs to help clean up the mess, and settle him back to bed, and we sat in the office and waited. Three more times he would get sick that night, and each time I wondered how I could help, and wondered when it would be over—this one sickness, and the sickness that has become his life. When will it stop, and when is it not worth fighting anymore? And as usual, my mother became the great consoler. “Go to sleep.”
            Now, I realize this all sounds incredibly heavy and doomed, as if I lead this tortured existence and write these words in order for the reader to feel some sort of remorse on my behalf. But the fact is that I have a wonderful family, and very unique and special friends, and a lot of people in the world who care a great deal about me. But that’s not the point. My point here is about feeling disappointed with life and not being able to explain why. Sure, there are the little things—getting stuck on a train platform, watching your grandfather throw up into a bowl, not seeing family I’d like to see on Christmas, but what’s at the heart of the matter?
In retrospect, it seems that I was a much more optimistic child than I am now. I can’t say what has changed, too many awakenings perhaps. Or is it disappointments? But disappointments about what exactly? I couldn’t tell you for sure. Because I couldn’t even tell myself. Disappointment in general, like the sadness and the anger of remembrance, affects me so quickly that I don’t really know where the feelings come from until they’re right up upon me. But maybe that’s where the hope comes in. Hope throws open the window, douses the room in a cool breeze, and reminds the person inside that there is life out there to be lived.
The best part of this Christmas had nothing to do with presents or stockings, dinners or dresses. The hope came when my brother and I sat outside in the sunlight on Christmas morning, and talked about the future and about our plans for a better life. We dream of buying property in the north, having a farm, moving our family onto the land, working beneath the sun and sleeping with the stars and the stillness, with the quiet. That’s when I realized that disappointments have no hold on me—not so long as there is hope.
So here’s to the future. Merry Christmas. I, for one, am glad it’s over. 

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