Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas

It's good -- really good -- to be lucky. It's another thing altogether when a big cloud of lucky fairy dust starts swirling into a dust storm that threatens to consume you. Confronted with too much luck, I suddenly take up guiltily wondering how I could possibly deserve it all. I know, I know: I wish I weren't so crazy. But it's true.

These past few weeks, back here in America, I felt most of the time like I was winning the lottery every few minutes, surrounded with way more love than I quite knew what to do with. We've had Christmas and New Year's, not one but two birthday parties, and an endlessly lovely round of hugs, confidences shared over cups of tea and coffee, and meals with all of the friends and family we missed so much while we were away. A bonanza of friendship. An atomic love bomb.

I haven't been able to sit down and write a word during this happy social swirl; I've been experiencing, rather than reflecting. As Bill wisely observed, my writing engine seems to need a whole lot of air and not so much fuel. Thus, having my gas tank continually filled to overflowing has meant a lot more living, and less creating. More input, zero output.

Similarly, during these few weeks, I've cooked a total of about five meals, (three of them bacon and eggs) and have been fed to bursting by everyone else. Cooking, like writing, takes time and attention. And for the first time since August, I've had more than just my family to attract and distract me.

Thus, these lucky weeks have been a great time for expanding my capacity for happiness, even when the days themselves have left me in tears.

And now that things are settling down, perhaps I can explain where we've been, and how, and why. So for those of you who wondered where the heck I went, here is installment one of several about how weird it is to take a vacation to home.

We landed in that scary blizzard, arrived home to our cozy, Christmas-decorated apartment, then spent the next few days in a fog of jetlaggy errands. We got our teeth cleaned, our prescriptions re-filled, our hair chopped back a few inches, and ourselves all hopped up on pizza and bagels. Then we caught a slow Amtrak to Albany, (no TGV here, folks) and fell into the holiday routine with my family.

I must say that the routine was pretty terrific: my mother would make a large batch of something meaty-licious and wonderful; we would all sit around the big table together and eat it with my sister Gaela and her fiancé Jim, as well as a newly arrived pair of aunts and uncles; then Mom would clean up after the meal while we lazed around. A few hours later, she would do it yet again, and we would all fall into a glorious stupor of being cared for.

We also had Samson, if just for a short spell. Our goofy lab-hound rescue dog has been spending his days stretched out on the doggy sofa at my in-laws' house, rather than at ours. So over the break, thanks to lots of pet-taxi efforts on the part of my parents, he was back with us. When we first drove up to their house, he nearly split open with tail-wagging joy. We all fell into a little tummy-rubbing pile, babbling in the goofy doggy babytalk we use with him, calling him "Mr. Woofums" and scratching his ears. But, like the good dog he has always been, within an hour or so following our arrival, he was back to the hard work of more sleeping. He was awfully glad to see us, but quick to go back to what really matters. If only we humans could adapt so well to change.

During the days upstate leading up to Christmas, there was plenty of snow to cover everything, but not so much that we couldn't get from place to place. Then, on Christmas itself, a fine mist of ice fell, coating every twig and branch and the surface of my folks' mile-long driveway. There, hidden away in the deep woods, our little family was swaddled in a big warm blanket of a house, then coated in a brittle coating of clear, hard sugar.

Looking out the big picture windows over the fields I saw a beauty that was exactly the opposite of the beauty of France -- grey sky, white landscape, and plenty of central heating to go around. Yet in other ways, being there felt exactly the same as being in a similarly rural place far away over the ocean: great food, quiet days, pastoral landscapes, and all family, all the time.

Bill and I did spend one fairly unpleasant day out of the warm familial embrace, doing our best to make up for several months of not having purchased much of anything aside from food. Auntie Gaela and Nona took the girls ice-skating, one of their favorite holiday traditions, while Bill and I spent the day alone together, for the first time since August. At that point, our luggage was still M.I.A., and so we needed warm socks and clean underwear to get us from one day to the next. The few things we had bought to bring over as gifts were still in the missing luggage. So much for the heavy, fruity wine from St. Jean de Villecroze. So much for the little provençal-painted garlic graters and confitures made out of strange things I can't yet translate, like Reine-Claude and Chataigne. Instead, we'd have to make our Christmas out of the i-books we had had the foresight to mail order, and whatever we could find in a few hours on a snowy December 23 up and down the main street of Saratoga Springs.

Because we were jet-lagged and overwhelmed by how different everything suddenly was, Bill and I were -- you guessed it -- cranky. Suddenly, everything we had fantasized would be so right about being in the United States felt all wrong. Thinking we were hungry for a real "American" diner lunch, we stupidly found ourselves in a sports bar on the main drag of Saratoga, surrounded by a dozen or more television sets, and other sheep-like American shoppers, and way too much processed, Cisco-delivered greasy restaurant food.

First we bickered a little bit with one another, eager to pin our vague bad feelings on one another. But then we realized, with a weird chagrin, that we were actually missing France. After all those months of missing America, plunked back in the thick heart of it, we were missing something we had known for less than half a year.

So here we were, home -- and homesick for somewhere else. On top of that, I was not only home (as in America) but Home, capital H, Home, with my parents. Fed, cared for, warm and loved. Safe. Lucky. Loved, and loving them all right back. So why then did I feel so lost and confused? Between the jetlag, the culture shock, and the disorientation of traveling so many miles so quickly, none of us could really sleep, eat, or speak very effectively. I was wide-awake every morning at 3:00 AM, ready to jump up and start my day. I would get up and let a confused Samson out the back door into the woods, but after he came back in and went back to sleep, I'd have nobody to talk to for the hours until breakfast.

I was breaking in and out of French, and found myself translating into French as usual, then re-translating back into English. For at least those first few days -- and particularly there in that sportsbar, that oddly foreign version of America -- I had no idea who, or where, was home.

I had been so hungry for home, but now I had some sort of lingering motion sickness that took away my appetite.

Thankfully, we couldn't wallow around in our cranky confusion forever. We had shopping to do, and lots of it. Grace had been pestering me during December about where I was hiding her Christmas presents. Santa has left this family for good, so she knew that whatever she was going to get had to come from Mom and Dad and her many loving grandparents, aunts and uncles.

I hedged a few times, then told her the truth. "I'm hiding them in the store," I admitted, and she found this hysterical enough to repeat on several occasions. But we had just one day to sort through what would be hers, what would be Abigail's, and what would stay in the stores for the post-Christmas sales.

As it turned out, I had been hiding most of her presents in the bookstore. Bill and I cruised the aisles and picked up all the books we remembered loving to read when we were kids. The girls have begun to mow through novels at a new speed-reader pace, and needed reinforced supplies. After being separated from a real-life American bookstore for so long, we shook off our culture shock malaise to spend an hour like those proverbial kids in the candy store. We piled up our arms with Fantastic Mr. Fox; A Swiftly Tilting Planet; Island of the Blue Dolphins; The Giver; The Phantom Tollbooth, and I Am The Cheese. We sought out enough great kids novels to get the girls through the quiet days ahead in Aups. No Hannah Montana books. No tweeny-bop crap that just came out last year. Just lots of late- 20th century existentially painful children's fiction. Our kids will spend the spring reading like it's 1979.

It took me awhile to figure out what to get for everybody else. I do like a theme, as it helps to organize and make sense of Christmas presents, which otherwise can feel somewhat random. ("Oh, such a beautiful snood. You shouldn't have! Really!) So my parents, Gaela, and Jim all got French things: fancy olive oil and fleur de sel to make salad dressing; a lustworthy La Creuset pot in peacock-feather bluegreen; a long drapey sweater in (french) blue. We spent way over an hour in the wine store where my Auntie Aimé keeps the books, getting excellent advice and looking for bottles like the ones we get at the Intermarché in Aups for a few euros.

So we were oh-so-happy to be home, but kept being drawn to buy things from -- well, I guess our other home. There we were in America, shopping in fancy downtown boutiques for the stuff we could have bought in a French supermarket a few days before.

Without being too awfully pretentious about my new fondness for fancy olive oils and Rhône reds, I have to say that I now understand why we like them so much: they're just plain better. So as we wandered through the stores, looking for ways to show our families a little Christmas love, our eyes were drawn again and again to our new normal. Once I gave into the theme of French stuff, it was suddenly a lot easier to negotiate all that queasy feeling caused by culture clash and lack of sleep and to try to get all my homes introduced to one another.

When you are looking forward to Christmas, it seems it will be in the future forever. But Christmas Eve and Christmas Day came and went, as they always do, wrapped up in a brittle coating of ice and snow. We drove into Schenectady for the early evening service at First Reformed, passing the red-and-green lights on the old GE sign, watching the kids act out the Christmas pageant just like kids have done for decades, (including my own stint as Mary in 1986) and singing all the familiar old hymns. Silent Night -- sung in the dark with all those candles -- made me weep and smile in equal parts, just like always. It was home, but I had become the foreigner long ago.

As someone who grew up in a church, but now shows up only on the occasional Christmas Eve or Easter, I always feel like I'm visiting the faraway land of childhood when I walk inside. A hard wooden pew is just that familiar and just that strange. I no longer belong, but remember the feeling of belonging with every possible sense-memory. It's time-travel, somehow -- to be this grown-up, middle-aged mother of a person, suddenly dropped back into an old place where I had fit so snugly at age 17.

It was that sense of time travel, as much as the disorienting travel in space, that had me so blubbery singing the hymn by heart in that dark sanctuary. At least I had Auntie Gaela to weep along with me. We kept each other company in all our wistful longing, then tried to cheer each other up as we drove home in the dark and cold.

When I was a kid, dinner on Christmas Eve was just another excuse to explore Grandma and Grandpa's house with my cousins. We would be nearly out of our minds with anticipation, rushing through the green beans and sauerbraten so we could be excused and get into trouble before a few fitful hours of listening for Santa on the rooftop. But as an adult, that big family meal -- at least the way mom and dad cook it -- is so terrific that it overmatches the holiday itself.

When we got home that night, Dad opened up a Cote du Provence rosé, and we all toasted our good fortune to be back together with the people we love. My Silent Night tears dried, and we once again started to laugh. Mom fed us yet again, this time with pies, and we all laughed and told our stories and patted Samson when he came around nuzzling our elbows for a little stratch down his backbone.

The morning dawned icy and cold and beautiful, so cold that I spent the whole day inside. We opened our presents, taking turns and taking our time so that we could ooh and ahh and enjoy everything afresh. Perhaps because the girls no longer credit Santa Claus -- or perhaps because they have gotten grown-up enough to know to be more loudly grateful -- they took the time to slowly savor each gift, to thank the right people and to appreciate each one. Babies like to play with the wrapping paper. Little kids tear through a pile of gifts, then look stricken when they come to the end, minutes later. But big kids -- especially great big kids like ours -- really get Christmas. They get it that the point is to enjoy the giving and the receiving, to appreciate and to be appreciated.

I was proud of them, and grateful. It's sad, in a way, to realize that our years of pretending to be Santa are over. But in another way, it's so gratifying to watch the girls see how a family really works. They too, are starting to know that luck does not come from fairy dust and magic, but from a grateful spirit.

Being away for so long has sharpened our ability to love and appreciate our lives, and one another, in a new way. We love one another -- powerful, intensely, and somehow way more vibrantly than we did when our attention was split in so many other directions. But we also find ourselves in love with everything that is so damn great about France, and everything that we have most come to miss about America.

We realized that although we had taken ourselves so far out of the world we knew, it was still here -- every last bit of it -- waiting as faithfully as our own dear Samson for our return. (And, like Samson, our world seems no worse for the waiting; we are clearly missed, but nobody has wasted away from longing in our absence.) Moving to a foreign place has allowed us to make a whole new home, and to renew the way we define our family. But it also sharpened our hunger for everything we left behind, and as Bill's grandmother always said, hunger is the best sauce. Wolfing it all down was overwhelming at first, but over the two weeks -- which suddenly and unexpectedly became three -- we've calmed down and relaxed into an important realization:

Not only will this trip not go on forever, but also, the world we left behind will welcome us back when we return. Current performance is no guarantee of return, but I think in this case, it's a damn good indication that we're all on the right track.

Back in the fall, a field of chopped-down sunflowers made me wake up and embrace the world around me in a new way. That field, dead and gone, helped remind me to stop holding back all the time. But this lush and growing landscape of true friends and American beauty has had the same paradoxical effect: I know I can throw myself into the rest of the year away with full abandon, because the world we left behind will still be here to greet us when we return.

1 comment:

  1. Those books! I am SO excited for Grace to be ready for the books that I remember from those fertile years - the ones you list, and also Tuck Everlasting, the Phantom Tollbooth, Trumpet of the Swan, Terabithia ... oh I could go on! The joy!