Friday, December 21, 2012

And now for something a little different

This is not the kind of post I usually make. It’s certainly not the first post I intended to make after being absent for so long. So, sorry about that. But I think it needs to be said. It feels important. So here goes.

Since I was a child Christmas has been inextricably tied to Ottawa. More specifically it was tied to a house—my grandmother’s house. It’s been quite a few years now since we had Christmas there. She moved to downsize and that last Christmas there feels distant. Yet whenever I think of going to Ottawa for Christmas the first image that comes to my mind is that front hallway, bathed in warm light as my parents, my sister, and I came inside from a snowy night after a long drive from Toronto. For some reason that image is the strongest. That and the scent of fresh cookies or recently prepared dinner, and a smell that was unique to that place—a combination of my grandmother’s soap and perfume, and the mustiness of old books. A smell that still hasn't quite permeated the house she's in now.

When I was young it felt perfect. Christmas morning still held the magic of Santa-filled stockings and reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the deck. After breakfast the house would fill with the scent of roasting turkey, of stuffing, and onions cooking to perfection. The brightly lit tree would gradually shrink behind the growing mountain of gifts as family members arrived—so many of us that the dinner tables stretched from one end of the dining room to the middle of the living room. And we would all concede to wear the silly paper crowns from our Christmas crackers. 

The best part was always after dinner though—after the gifts, after dessert, after the scramble to snatch a brandy snap before they were all eaten. Somehow we would all end up in the living room, on the sofa, the armchair, the floor, the wooden wicker stools. That’s when the music would start. Whoever reached for their guitar first would lead us with Christmas carols, until we bored of those, and then moved on to songs unrelated to the holiday season—songs like ‘Paper Rosie’ and ‘Harvest Moon’ that now bizarrely recall Christmas whenever I hear them.

The last Christmas at that house felt like the end, like that house was the Mecca we arrived at every year and without it we’d ricochet in a hundred different directions, no longer sure of where we were supposed to be. I’d be lying if I said that Christmas has never been disappointing since we left. There were times I would wake up on Boxing Day and feel an aching loss because Christmas had fallen short, and in falling short almost ceased to exist. In the frenzied build up to the day I was holding every previous Christmas as a model for the present one. So if people bickered or snapped at one another, if there was palpable tension between certain family members, if we broke off after dinner into small groups that defied what I saw as our former unit, I felt robbed. 

I used to think it was that house, that being without it had somehow changed us. Until I realized that the changes to every subsequent Christmas were merely the symptoms of growing up; until I realized that it had nothing to do with the house and everything to do with the way we remember things—selfishly, imperfectly, yet with the conviction that our memories are accurate to the last detail. 

So I worry sometimes, about the pedestal we’ve put it on, this near-sacred holiday whose past burns so much more strongly than its present. I worry that we treat it with a reverence that will prevent us from ever being able to truly appreciate it as it happens. I wish we could always be aware that we have achieved something spectacular. So many families are broken and estranged, but here we are, every year, the lot of us. 

It’s not perfect. Some years people are absent, several of whom won’t come back, but I wouldn’t change any of it. Not for anything in the world. Because there’s a miracle there. In spite of it all—the arguments, the petty grudges, the harsh judgements brought against one another—we still gather every Christmas. And every Christmas there’s a moment, a moment when no one is bickering and maybe everyone’s smiling, when everything falls into place and embodies our hazy idealized memories. That is the moment that makes all the other bullshit worth it. Because we remember in that moment that we love each other and are nearly overwhelmed by all the reasons why. It is what drives us back to that place, not a house, but that place where we’re all together, and happy, and family in the truest most intimate sense of the word.