Travails With Christmas Travels
My family has no Christmas traditions. Well, maybe that's not exactly true, but it's close enough for this piece.
I am the oldest of four. I have a brother who is a year younger, a sister 3 years younger, and another sister 11 years younger. We lived in Indiana until I was age 5, Texas until 9, Pennsylvania until 13, and Michigan until I was 18. Then back to Texas for college, for me, at least. Everything before college was due to the curse of having a father who was good at his job and got promoted every 3-5 years.
Despite my stated lack of traditions, like many, I would state the Christmases of my youth loom large. I could say it's the innocence, but a big part would also be the freedom from responsibility. When I was 7, every social event in December didn't have the shadow of getting an unexpected gift looming over my head. In situations like that, I just tell the ambush gifter that my present for them is out in the car, then return with a rearview mirror wrapped in a roadmap.
But, thanks to my youth, Christmas and travel have a strong bond. Travel created some of my most enduring childhood memories and kind of prevented my family from developing more enduring traditions. After our move from Indiana, being separated from our extended family lent itself to a rather agnostic attitude towards Christmas. As dutiful Catholics, we weren't agnostic to the belief in the Virgin Birth or Jesus, I just mean we were flexible in how we celebrated it. The idea of quietly spending Christmas at home was sometimes shattered by a trip to see family, so a few times throughout my life, Santa visited early. We were so fast and loose with things sometimes that I'm kind of surprised my parents didn't just scrap St. Nick altogether in favor of the St. Patrick's Day Fairy.
The tone was set in Christmas of 1981 or 1982. We were living outside of Dallas in a town that provided few redeeming values outside of a few dear friends. Whatever time we had spent there so far had left them with one belief: we will get back to Indianapolis for Christmas or die trying. A freak blizzard seemed to envelope everything from Dallas to Chicago during the days leading up to the holiday, but we departed anyway. In an ironic twist worthy of O. Henry, we were risking life and limb to see relatives, but the vehicular devastation we witnessed on the highway en route seemed to indicate that my grandfather was a mere three miles ahead of us, as some sort of Bizarro Guardian Angel in a sedan.
One of the reasons this stands out so much in my mind is that it was such a break from the norm for my risk-averse parents. It speaks to how homesick they were that they were so determined to get back to their hometown to spend Christmas Eve at the party in my grandparent's basement. The decision to make the trip might have been the most reckless thing done on either side of my large extended family since a mid-1970s incident which involved a VW Bug which was brought to a very abrupt stop thanks to getting wedged under a telephone pole guidewire.
After that, I don't think we ever made another Christmas drive from Texas. So, the travel wasn't incessant, but it seemed like just enough to keep us from developing an inviolate holiday rhythm. But, at least we were gradually moving closer to Indianapolis. By high school, we were in Michigan, so what trips we did take were easier.
Then, my first year in college, I came home to Michigan from Texas only to make the drive to Indy on Christmas Eve. We got into a hotel at 11 PM, then my siblings and I made a last minute decision to go to midnight mass (our only midnight mass as a family ever) and my parents went the next morning. After that, we found ourselves with time to kill before brunch at my aunt's, so we went to the only place that was open. It was a joint in Greenwood, Indiana, off I-65 called "Waffle & Steak," an obvious attempt to recapture the eponymous simplicity of Led Zeppelin's first four albums. ("Hey, we have waffles. We have steak. Let's not overthink the name, people.") Sure, we could have felt sorry for ourselves, but the people in the next booth were videoing their meal. At least we weren't them.
No one really griped. We all cared about being together more than we cared about convenience. Also, it didn't hurt that Mom and Dad never skimped on Christmas. I could deal with the privation of a Waffle & Steak as long as I knew I was also getting the requisite stack of books and CDs for my troubles. I wasn't so much above complaining as I was playing the long game.
As much as I loved seeing my family, the Christmas breaks always ran a bit long in college. I wasn't going back to Texas until mid January, meanwhile the rest of my family had a life to get back to. In Michigan, I had no life, that's why I left. When my brother started college, his break was generally a week shorter. I bore the occasional boredom well, except for the time that he returned home one late December night from his vibrant social life to find me drinking alone. He probably invited me to go out with him, but I had my pride...I just didn't have enough pride to avoid having him see me drinking Cutty Sark and root beer by myself. It's not as if there wasn't an upside, though. My post Christmas boredom left plenty of time for New Year's resolutions and reflection, mostly involving the fact that there was 25,000 females at the University of Texas and, mercifully, most of them had yet to have any idea who I was. Tabula rasa for the spring semester.
It also didn't help that a few of these years, my brother decided to use his month off to make a few extra bucks. He and some of his friends signed on to put on art shows throughout the East Coast. This involved a U-Haul, 24 hours of driving in the snow, a truckload of paintings, a Best Western ballroom, and customers with low standards. He was paired with a similarly-aged friend for his forays, but not all were so lucky. One friend, Matt, played Ponch to a 55-year old Jon. The trip was marred by an uncomfortable hotel room encounter over a calling card. Matt lent him the card (apparently in an attempt to re-woo his ex-wife) and made a kind reminder to watch the minutes on it or something, which caused the guy to thunder, "Listen! Don't you tell me what to do!" At this point, as I remember it, Matt's respect for his elders took a backseat to his threat: to use his older partner's blood to paint the snow outside their door. It's the kind of stuff that the Mariah Carey Christmas Album left on the cutting room floor.
But, in the midst of all of this, it was also some things that happened on a few (non-Christmas) trips to Indianapolis that changed the way I viewed my family.
One time during my early teenager years, one of a my older cousins, Tony, a man quick with an encouraging word and a smile, referred to our family as the "Beaver Cleaver" family, in that we seemed especially happy and functional to him. Right or wrong, the fact that anyone could hold that opinion of us gave me pause. I thought of us as a kind of collective pain-in-the-butt up to that point, but maybe that's because unlike the rest of our relatives, we had to move heaven and earth just to get to see everyone else.
Another time happened a few years later in high school, I believe. We were visiting family for Labor Day, but my brother had to stay home for football practice. Of course, everyone asked where he was, and I truly felt like we were a man down. When I was younger, I tried to escape the shadow of my siblings. Not because they necessarily hogged the spotlight, but just because they were familiar and sometimes annoying, as opposed to the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. But, during that trip during my senior year of high school, I realized how important my brother, and my sisters, were to my identity. And that isn't mere hindsight, I said as much to my dad. Luckily, the true inflection point on our relationship came sooner, as my brother and I had largely moved past rivalry into friendship. It was just an inflection point in my understanding of our relationship.
And, these days, when my siblings and I say we have no traditions, we always put an asterisk by that. Because, we do have at least one enduring tradition: we get along. Is it always pretty? No, it's definitely not. But we share more than enough history, values, and love to smooth over the bumps. Especially post-election, lots of families are avoiding each other this time of year. But, I'm proud to say I'm one of the people trying to scheme to see my parents, brother and sisters, and their families as much as possible throughout the year and at the holidays.
Just like my parents did.
Even if it meant driving from Dallas to Indianapolis in a winter storm in a 1980 Oldsmobile with a backseat of screaming kids.