The Christmas in Minnesota

I have a week before I go back to teaching and there is so, so much to do (most of it having nothing to do with school.) But before I do all of the so, so much I need to keep up a tradition. Every year on this blog I have written about Christmas, with the exception of last year, when I must have been too busy with my novel to do anything here except whine about how tired I was. Oops. But anyway, this year there is no frantic writing independent study, only a surprisingly well-rested Alice, too distracted to take on her real to-do list.

This Christmas was quietly different from all the others (related here, here, and here.) It was both more joyful and more painful. As I get older such feelings are more keen, but more often than I used to, I know what they mean and I know what to do with them. I do not, however, always know how to express them.

I thought that I would tell you about the week in the old way, beginning to end, like a story, but it does not have enough narrative thread for that. It has a setting, of course: a Bible camp up in the Iron Range of Minnesota, where the camp director has raised his seven children, and has recently moved his quickly aging parents. Because it is Christmastime children, grandchildren, husbands, wives, and two little boys named after the same great-grandfather have converged upon the camp, where the ground is slushy, but still a bit slick. With them, they bring chocolate and the old family Christmas songbooks. They plan to stay for four or five days.

So that is the stage set, but beyond that, there is no plot, one event does not lead to another, so if I told it like that, it would make no sense. That is was not what it was. The week was not a story in itself, but merely an infinitesimal part of a great and large story, a moment about the length of a heartbeat.

My grandparents are near the end of that story. My grandma is confused and sad and only partly herself. She tries to introduce her grandchildren to one another, but remembers the taste of the orange balls she used to make. My frail grandpa is contemplative and eager for coherent company. While the girls organized a game of cousin knockout on Christmas Eve he stood bent over in the corner of the gym and enthusiastically dribbled a basketball till it bounced out of reach. He stands up in Sunday meeting and says that we are greatly blessed by Christ’s coming. And he asks, again and again, that we all sing “Come Let Us Adore Him.” (That’s his preferred title for the carol, I think, because he does not consider himself particularly “faithful,” but he does know Jesus to be worthy of adoration.)

My mother and her siblings are at another part of the story. A part which is harder and less certain than they anticipated, I think. They take charge and they clean and they cook and they delegate and they worry. They find perhaps that, more than before, they have no one older and wiser to pass their worries along to, save passing them around in a circle to one another. They must go straight back to the Source with it all, give every bit of it up in prayer. Then when next their hands are free on Christmas Eve some one of us bestows upon them a child to hold: a quiet, solemn little gift-baby, theirs for a few minutes, who will nestle his head into their shoulder and rest.

Then there are the grandchildren. (That’s us.) We are at the part of the story in which we have come into our own, some of us without noticing. I can only speak for myself, but the old excitement for Christmas has been replaced by a certain sober joy. My cousins sat on the couch and helped grade the fill-in-the-blanks on the last test I gave, and I remembered sprawling on the end-room bed with them, summers before, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. On the 23rd we dragged down the tree from the attic, set it up with great care, and literally festooned the rafters with lights. On Christmas Eve night, we had a dance party (inspired by Sally’s cautious hip-hop moves.) When we are together now, we want to be together. We don’t care if we dance like Peanuts characters. We are not forgetting ourselves, but deliberately setting ourselves aside. We are slowly, at our own paces and in our own ways, learning the value of what has been given to us: the old summers in the above-ground pool, Proverbs read at breakfast-time, full couches and long legs, parents who name their daughters Hope.

Earliest in the story are Billy and Liam. Small lap-sitters, futures unseen, no worries beyond whether they too are allowed to have some of that candy they see everyone else has got. It is for them that Christmas is intended first and foremost. Jesus’s beginning as infant was his loud, clear announcement of his intentions: that since he was coming as the least of these, he meant to love and save the least of these.

And so, if we follow the story, beginning to end (or end to beginning, as it were,) we find the Son of God at its core: the adored gift-child, bearing in his tiny frame all the fearful hope and promise of his death for our redemption.

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Christmas and Awe of a Small Kind

Last night, I was having trouble sleeping because my head was so stuffy and my room was chilly, so I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and curled up on the chair in the upstairs hallway. All the lights were out and I watched the gas heater flickering in front of me. Inside the blacked windows on the front of the heater, there is a cracked and crusted latticework, and behind that burns a tall, orange flame. Last night I turned it up so I could hear the gas softly roaring and ticking, and all around the foot of the lone tongue of fire, dozens of tiny blue flames sprung up. I stared at the impressive shadows the fire cast through the latticework into the darkness, and pitifully wished that I could still breathe through my nose.

When I was a little girl, I used to turn up those flames just to watch them burn. I would crouch on the floor, pressed against the little factory-printed placard which read, “Keep children, clothing, and furniture away,” and I would imagine that the inside of that heater was a small cathedral. The shapes of the lattice pointed heavenward like church windows, and the tall flame was a preacher, praising his God. All the little blue fires were his congregation, or sometimes even the choir, if I turned it up very high so that I could hear them singing hallelujah in a quick, clicking rhythm as gas was released. I thought it was the most beautiful little world in there. Sometimes, even at the wise old age of seven or eight, I had to restrain myself from prying the hot glass off the front to see if I could get inside, enter the cathedral, burn like a singing flame beneath the majesty of those arches.

Last night as I sat in the darkness and watched the tall flame rise and rise and rise I remembered all that. I wondered why I didn’t feel awe like that anymore, especially at Christmastime, the time of the lighted fir tree and the swelling choral arrangement. A couple months ago I told my students very certainly that if they ever found themselves in a place in life in which there were not awed, then they were in the wrong place. I burrowed deeper into my blanket and doubted my own words.

I do believe that awe is the response for which the Advent season begs. This is why we set children in the midst of it, hand them presents, watch their faces glow, and sentimentally compare them to the baby in the manger. Awe comes naturally when you are small and everything looks big, and it is for this reason that Christ bids us to “come as little children.”

But there are other sorts of Christmases, lest we forget. New life always arrives with the silent promise of eventual death. Two years ago I wrote this entry about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, and last night I could not stop thinking about T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” “A cold coming we had of it,” the kingly speaker says “…A hard time we had of it…Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” The wise men reach the appointed place (there is no mention of a bright, guiding star, no room for awe,) and the wine is all drunk up, three trees grow close together in a meadow, and a white horse mysteriously gallops away as they approach. The speaker pronounces the wonder they have come to see to be “satisfactory.” Then, hesitantly, he continues,

I had seen birth and death,  

But had thought they were different; this Birth was 

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, 

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

I actually got up out of my warm chair last night and turned on the light so I could re-read that poem. And even now, a day later, I am still struggling to explain the solace it offered me. It seemed to say that the way birth pains mirror death pains is not coincidental, that sleeping only in snatches is better than not waking at all, that at times it is well to be unsatisfied with the “old dispensation.”

So, if the remembrance of Christ’s birth does not provide me with the feeling of awe which I’ve been demanding, at least it brings me a measure of certainty. Certainty that God made his promises with the purpose of fulfilling them, that that there is order in his plan, that Someone much greater than myself is at work far beyond my sight. (Someone greater than myself? Beyond my sight? Perhaps this is awe after all. Awe of a small kind.)

After I read the poem I turned off the light again and returned to my chair by the flickering heater. I pulled the blanket tight, tight around me and I prayed. I prayed for those magi, and their hard, cold journey towards the Savior. (Sometimes I figure that if eternity is eternity and God really is outside of time, I can pray for anyone anywhere in history, and my Lord will hear.) I prayed that my own heart would soften and rest. I prayed for my students to whom, I think, awe still comes naturally. I prayed and I watched the tall flame glimmer in the cathedral, and listened to the tick of the gas valve in the dark, warm room.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2

Why This Matters

Yesterday I had my last CivArts and Dr. Munson talked about modernism and postmodernism, all crushed into one little class period. I love modernism, and I am not entirely sure why. I think it is because of the earnestness of self-critique and the push for excellence and the wholehearted love of a worthwhile thing. Nowadays we are rarely interested and earnest and willing, or, if we are, we try not to admit to it too much. No one would want to be our friend.

Of course what happens to modernism is that it is determined to find art only in introspective progress and is sometimes rather obsessed with obscurity. It digs and digs in the darkest recesses looking for new beauties, usually while hiding its eyes from revealed truth. It crouches and shrivels away from the light, until it collapses into a little dung-heap of postmodernism and self-referential irony.

To watch this happen over the course of an hour and half has made me so sad. It’s the terrible history of a people governed by fear.

I know fear. I am afraid. Throughout college I have become a much slower writer because of fear. I am afraid that I will say the wrong thing, that I will not say it well enough, and most of all, I am afraid that the things I write have no real meaning, that my words are just cheap, hollow ornaments which will shatter when dropped, to then be swept up, thrown away, and forgotten.

So, in my small grey puddle of fear, I sympathize with the modernists in their avant-garde tunnel vision. If it’s new, there’s a better chance of something worthwhile being accidentally dredged up in there somewhere, right? At my worst, I must even acknowledge a kinship with the deconstructionists. Some mornings, before I get up, I lie there, deeply afraid that there is nothing worth saying at all.

But I keep writing. I wrote papers this semester, kept up with my blog, edited two magazines, and drafted a novel. Why do I do that? Why do I spend hours of my life crouched on my desk chair, staring at a blinking cursor, hugging my knees, accidentally holding my breath while waiting for a word?

I do it because fear is mortal. I do it because fear pronounces my efforts dead and futile, but John Donne told me that death shall die. I do it because there are bloody hands stretched upon a cross, mighty and willing to save Prufrock from drowning. I do it because death has burst out of the grave and invited me to put my hand in his open side. I do it because a very long time ago, men followed a star in the eastern sky, where the sun rises, and found God incarnate. I do it because the Child who lies in the manger in Bethlehem is eternally stronger than the marked monstrosity which slouches towards it.

“For unto us a Child is born, / Unto us a Son is given.”

Howell Christmas

Jackie has taken to announcing recently that she is “feeling little today.” We know what she means when she says it. It’s one of those days when you’re not up to adult conversation or behavior or responsibility or probably even adult thought. What you’re up for is sitting in bed eating advent calendar chocolate and watching Charlie Brown bemoan commercialism.

I have felt little this Christmas. In fact, I often feel little at Christmas. When I am at Grandma’s in the summertime I feel mature and responsible. Two summers ago, when I was the only grandchild there, I was physically the strongest person in the house. (Every time I tell people that they apologize for laughing. It’s okay. Laugh. I, too, have seen my arms.) But Christmas at Grandma’s leaves me feeling little. Little and awed and surrounded by good things.

Last Christmas I wrote an entry called “Things Change,” and I am here, a year later, to tell you that they do, and that’s all right, but sometimes they don’t, and isn’t it grand? Almost everybody made it this Christmas, including Emily and André and their babies (she had twins this summer,) and my cousin’s fiancée Ashley, and all four generations of Billys, ages three to eighty-seven. There is nothing to make one feel warm with claustrophobia and familial affection quite like over thirty people crowded into one medium-small house where most of them feel quite at home and know where the silverware drawer is. Meals were something epic.

We’re growing up. The babies were sleepy little dolls and everybody held them at some point. Watching my cousins pass them around reminded me that our own babies are probably only a few Christmases away for some of us, and other parts of growing up are frighteningly close. Peter’s applying to law schools, Hannah will be an RN in April, Joe’s studying for his EMT exam, Tina’s moving to Peru next month and Billy’s getting married in two weeks.

But I think the secret of growing up is that it’s not such a great big deal as we all pretend. All of those people are still in many ways just the same as I remember them at ten-years-old. We can’t fit five of us on the loveseat in the living room anymore, but we still try. We can drive ourselves to Sonic now and pay for our food with money we earned, but we still sing Christmas carols with obnoxious gusto and slip on the ice while hectically switching cars. We are not really old yet—Hope is still shorter than me for one more year and Molly has a year and half of high school left.

This year we had a few newcomers who were experiencing their first Howell Christmas. Along with the babies, and Billy’s fiancée Ashley, whom we cousin-approved with great excitement and a piece of pink construction paper (no forged signatures this time!), Emily and André brought their friend, John. I wonder what they must think as we drag them into the great communal singing of the Twelve Days of Christmas and watch Sally, my mom’s littlest sister, conduct the last verse of each song. They are good sports. One evening we sat in the living room and threw Little Billy’s stuffed blocks at each other just because we could, but we don’t all have the best of aim, you know. It was a bit of a war zone.

Anyway, after all that, nineteen left on Christmas Eve, leaving behind a detritus of Christmas cookies and forgotten socks and underwear, and everything felt small and quiet with just the McLellans and Uncle Jon and us. We played Monopoly for the first time in years, with the anticipated miserable results and watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown Christmas, along with Sally’s new Christmas movie. It was peaceful and friendly, with one big table and one kids’ table (though UJ had to keep raising the maximum age for the latter until four of us were young enough to sit there.) We ate at Kaitlynn’s Deli and I slept on the TV room couch which is my favorite.

Each year the things that are worth being thankful for, the things responsible for my littleness and awe, are not the things that are old or the things that are new, but the things that are good. Cookies in the breezeway, unorganized games of Fishbowl, the way Sally refers to my mom as “my sister Hope,” my little brother who is too shy to hold a baby for more than a few seconds, snow-covered fields, my grandpa who uses a PA system just to talk to his own family in his own living room, (but still says more worth hearing than I ever do,) interstate highways, joy to the world, and a January wedding, where we’ll get to see each other all over again, so that this time, goodbye did not mean very much at all.

Christmas for Today

I was small when Columbine happened. I do remember hearing about the shootings at Virginia Tech in high school, though. I remember seeing the grief but not really partaking in it. The first of these tragedies to really hit me in the gut was what happened in Aurora this summer. I think you grow into sadness and grief with age, but so many children today did not get that luxury. They were forced to endure a terror and chaos which they could not pretend to understand.

This is hard. It’s been taking hours to sink in. I cried just now and called my dad. Then I sat on our little couch with my physics book closed on my lap and thought. I remembered that President Roosevelt once called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy.” I thought that really every date ought live in infamy.  Each day of the year is a remembrance to someone of great travesty and pain inflicted by another human being. I thought each date ought to weigh so heavy that it should be hard to get up in the morning.

I looked out the window and saw the star on top of Rockwell, the coming star, the calling star. I remembered a different Child and a different death. I thought that Christmastide is not always a celebration. It does need to be forever merry. The advent season is a coming and a promise of coming again. Today it is you and me and all of our brothers and sisters on our knees, begging for all these things to be brought to fruition, for God to send His Son again to heal the broken hearts and the broken world, begging to be reminded that God is not dead nor doth He sleep. I thought that today of all days, in the midst of infamy and weeping sons and daughters, we must not forget the Child in the manger.

Friends

Last night I watched It’s a Wonderful Life in Harker Lounge with quite a few people whom I like very much. At the end George gets a copy of Tom Sawyer from Clarence with this inscription in it: “Dear George, Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.” Well, I’ve been feeling real rich and successful lately.

I am so grateful for the people who surround me, who listen to me and who I get to listen to. I am grateful for friends who let me mark up what they write. I am grateful for friends who laugh at me, whether I am funny or not. I am grateful for friends who let me share their worries, and who don’t mind that sometimes I have nothing to mend their hurts but my own creased brow. I am grateful for friends who send short emails and leave long voicemails. I am grateful for friends who are generous and enthusiastic on days when I am neither. I am grateful for friends who sass me, who point and giggle when I am silly. I am grateful for friends who love my family and my past simply because they are mine. I am grateful for friends who remember what I told them long ago. I am grateful for friends who hold my hands while they talk to me. I am grateful for friends with whom to be silent.

I am grateful for these people who have, for whatever reason, found me worth their time. They remind me every day that my God is good. He is good to me.

Content

It’s Christmastime again. I know, it’s not December, but trust me, I’m not ready for this, and I need to start readying now. Friday night my family sang Christmas carols around the piano. (George boomed them out then slumped in his chair and pretended he hadn’t.) Saturday my dad and I drove back up to school and snowflakes flurried at the windshield, and I pretended that I didn’t like it, but I did. (Don’t tell.) On Sunday I made plans with friends to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and probably Shop Around the Corner too. Yesterday, I read a couple favorite T.S. Eliot poems about Christmas, “The Journey of the Magi” and “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” They are about death in life and life in death and the awe-filled Coming.

I am tired. Tired and full, and tired and waiting. I am full from this semester. I am full from running with Abby and writing poetry and early mornings and Sassy Tuesdays in Physics with Jackie (and Libby) and cleaning house and long showers and lunches with Laura and lunches with Heidi and weepy Friday afternoons and visits to the ABT hall and a carnation from my brother and rides to church with Haley and reading  good poetry and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and playing in the pit for the musical and Monday-Wednesday-Friday lunches with the girls and dropping things in intercampus mail and pie in Fantasy on Tuesdays and writing a story with chapters and hugging people on the sidewalk and watching my five-year-old friend Josiah draw a picture for me and write “ALAS” at the top.

I am waiting for finals and Christmas, for travel and rest, for this to be over and what’s next to begin. I’m waiting for birth and for death, and T.S. Eliot speaks true—I’ll find both with the Child in the manger.

I am content.

Things Change

Really, they do.

I don’t think I’d properly begun to realize that until this semester, perhaps even this Christmas. You see Christmas used to be this great shining thing set gloriously at the end of the year. School let out, we opened all our presents and drank eggnog, then the next day we were off to my grandparents’ in dear old Brookfield, MO.

It was just us and my Aunt Amy’s family when we were kids. Mary and Peter and Jacob and I sat at the kids table and wreaked havoc. Grandma would proudly set out her little individual salt shakers, and we would spend Christmas dinner salting each other’s milk and making up stories about my brother George’s latest escapades. Even when it wasn’t mealtime we would sit at the card table playing long games of Mille Borne (Creve! Creve!) and Monopoly. Usually Monopoly. Peter was always the banker and he always won, Mary cheerfully came in second, I came third for lack strategy, and Jacob came dolefully last, because Peter always had it in for him. Thus began the illustrious cousin tradition of bending and even, yes, breaking the rules.

As we got older, and my Uncles Bill’s kids also began to descend en masse every Christmas, we played Mafia just to cheat and peek, and generally win unfairly. All part of cousin bonding, you know. There was also an official cousin basketball game, in which I was always the official photographer, a job I was very bad at. Here we are in 2007 after that year’s game.

As I remember, 2007 was a particularly red-letter Christmas. Emily brought her new husband André, and we took joy in initiating him and giving him the official stamp of cousin approval.

Some of these signatures are forged, but who’s telling which?

The other notable thing about Christmas 2007 was Poopsie. Billy and Hannah went into town with Grandpa one day for some inauspicious reason, and came back a couple hours later with a puppy. He (she? I can’t remember…) was very cute, and also entirely unhousebroken (thus the name…) It wasn’t until Christmas night, when Mary and Tina and Joe and I took him for a walk that he did his business outside for the first time and we rejoiced. Then, while star-tripping, Joe fell and got that business all over his jeans, and we rejoiced only slightly less. (“Joe! That was Poopsie’s Greatest Achievement, and you fell in it!”) Wonderful Christmas.

Since then we have had a few family reunions in hotels which have brought us to some truly marvelous locations, like this unique antique mall.

As you can probably see written all over my face there, that was the Christmas that eight of us girls crowded into one hotel room and stuck this sign on the door.

It truly was, my friend. Santa was spotted just down the hall.

Mostly, the thing about Christmas with cousins is that it is a lot of very tall people in a house with very low ceilings sitting on couches together singing carols and giggling.

Three or four days full of lots. Lots of jokes about pantyhose, lots of games of Authors, lots of re-watching of State Fair, lots of racing out to the cold breezeway to grab orange balls, lots of Christmas.

Here we are, last Christmas—grown, haven’t we?

BUT…

This Christmas we couldn’t get there till the 23rd. It was the McLellans’ year off, Uncle Jon (better known as UJ) had done his familial duty at Thanksgiving, and as for Uncle Bill’s—Hannah and Billy had to work and couldn’t come, and Joe had already left for St. Louis. We had a nice evening, sang carols and all, and the next day an attempt was made at a cousin basketball game, which I rather spoiled, and that was it. The rest of them left. We went ahead and did the present opening on Christmas Eve, just to get it out of the way, it seemed. Christmas felt like any other Sunday, except quieter. Even in our unusually small numbers, we more than doubled the attendance at my grandparents’ sadly fading church. Merry Christmas and all that…

The holidays seemed to have matched my semester a little too well—quite lost from what I thought it would be. It all leaves me holding fast to the things that haven’t changed:

When we spent the night in Nashville, and the question of the evening’s entertainment was brought up, Peter Immediately said “We could play Monopoly…” and we all said “NO!”

When asked to pick a carol George made a show of deciding and then grumbled “We Three Kings.” It used to be the only song he’d sing with us, even in the summertime.

There was still a card table in the breezeway piled with cookies and leftovers.

A Christmas Carol was read aloud in the car, and It’s a Wonderful Life lives in that glorious black and white.

There’s something else too, that hasn’t changed. However I feel about the day, whether or not I even remember that it’s Christmas, it’s still the day Christ was born. It’s still the incredible beginning of God’s plan of redemption. It is a day that means even in the dreariest, most disenchanted place A SAVIOR IS BORN. Even when I’m drowning in self,  and dull, adopted hurts, my God sent his Son as a baby, even more vulnerable and prone to tears than I am, that I might know hope. And that will not change.

Tomorrow is new day and a new year in which I get to serve a living God who came to save me. Please remind me when I forget. Please.

Colors

My junior year of high school I was in a creative writing class, and in my journal I always told my teacher what color my day had been–a linoleum green, aubergine, festive red, or a warm, linty grey. The bad days, the gag into a corner days, were always tan. I hate tan.

Recently, though I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention, my days have been mostly the same color. Not quite sure what color that is–not tan–(okay, maybe kind of tan…) This is why I haven’t been writing. I actually have a list of possible topics living on my desktop, but it takes at least a tiny bit of Walt Whitman’s “urge, urge, urge” to make myself write, and the urge only lives in color.

But I have been thinking about some nice things today. I picked up a copy of the Quad, because my poem is in it with a whole page to itself (!!!) and then I started thinking about the book review I’m going to write on academic tenure, and that made me very happy, and then I remembered Christmas and cousins, and I watched this video. Then I felt just a little bit like I’d found my feet, and I started writing to you.

And now for some more things which have the potential to make the days change color. Classes are over and finals are coming, and I’m looking forward to them just a tad. I’m good test-taker. I’m comfortable there. At some point Heidi and I are going to go to the library, find a T.S. Eliot anthology, and I’m going to read her “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” sitting there in the stacks. I’ll drive to Missouri with my family, and Scrooge and the Grinch will probably come with. Over break I plan on reading The Hunger GamesHuck Finn and John Green’s new novel, if I can get a hold of it, along with some of those tenure books. And Hannah’s getting married–in January. A few sparks of pigment there, don’t you think?

One of my favorite lines of poetry from this semester is in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese  about the “gold and purple of thine heart.” She’s talking about an innate, unfaltering royalty. A nobility that lives behind the plainest faces, and beneath the flattest places–rich and deep and velvet. The color, perhaps, of peace, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things.” Fresh, warm, patient, Princely peace.

So here’s to gold and purple days, friend. Happy Christmastime.

Cousins, California, and Christmas itself…

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Hello. In case you were wondering, exams went well, except for one. Then after many hugs, and fending off the last wisps of stress, I boarded a plane to Iowa. Of course, I do not live in Iowa, but my family was there already with my Mom’s side at the Wasserbahn Water Park. (What a place!) Thus began my vacation of lots-of-people-for-not-long-enough. I did see my cousins, of course, and it was a good time. Since United didn’t get my bag to me on time, we had an adventure to some nearby outlets to buy me $70 worth of clothes for which I will be reimbursed. There was also an extremely satisfactory Secret Santa, a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which we found so entertaining that it is posted on Facebook, lots of Uno and Telephone Pictionary, and much cousin bonding on the couch in the hospitality room which was also Uncle Jon’s room. Poor UJ. We spent a quiet Christmas day at my grandparents in Brookfield, MO, and were up very, very early to get on a plane to San Francisco.

My dad’s entire family is in California, but except for him, the rest of us hadn’t been out for six and a half years. There has been some pretty awful drama which you may know about, and the details of which I’m not going to go into right now. Suffice to say, I’m so thankful we went, and that such a thing was even possible, but it was a surreal experience. We met my Granddad’s new wife, Shirley, and saw lots of cousins, whom I knew I had met before, but whose faces were unfamiliar. Last time I saw my cousin Lorenzo, we were kids and we visited the Jelly Belly factory together, this time he got more cheerful with each of four beers. It has been a very long time. We visited St. Mary’s Cemetery where my Grammy’s memorial is. We all stood around in the grocery store beforehand and said “I have never bought flowers for a grave before. How does one do this thing?” We got yellow because that was her favorite color. We visited my Aunt Sharon in the little house in Sacramento where Grammy and all of her siblings grew up. We drove down to Orange County to see my uncle and aunt and cousins. We went to a beach (a beach!) on New Year’s Eve. There was Bananagrams and a deeply competitive game of Silver Screen Trivial Pursuit.

I’m still sort of in awe that all of this could happen. That we could get on a plane in ten degree weather, and get off to see trees heavy with oranges down every other block. That Mary and I could sit there and watch as Grammy’s sister, my Aunt Marge, and Granddad’s new wife next to each other on my cousin Nancy’s couch making friends. That my family could step out of the car on Partrick Road in Napa, where my dad grew up, and smell the eucalyptus, and chew on stalks of anise. I had not remembered that California was so beautiful. Wherever we went I always felt like we were in a valley, surrounded by mountains that looked like cozy giants sleeping in extravagant positions. I could pick out a rumpled shirt-tail here, the crook of an elbow there. The palm trees that were not pruned looked quite silly—as if they were wearing shaggy fur coats beneath a bad hairdo. I looked out the window a lot.

Yet the trip was not idyllic. I suppose I am too old for that to be possible, but it was more than that. We never saw anybody long enough to get properly comfortable with them, and even then my aunt and her lies seemed to lurk a little triumphantly in the corner of every conversation. And there’s another thing. I think I missed Christmas. I mean, really, where was it? There was that one quiet day at Grandma’s, but I was busy packing. It is a silly thought, but I feel as though Christmas and I planned to meet, but missed each other by a few minutes. That doesn’t mean, though, that it didn’t happen. When I got off the plane from Pittsburgh and walked toward the baggage claim, there was a large group with American flags and signs, waiting for their soldier. I was a little shamed to walk past them in my dress and leggings. I was so obviously not the hero they had come to meet. Then my sister jumped suddenly out from behind them trying to scare me and hug me all at once, and I could feel their smiles at our little reunion, and I didn’t feel embarrassed anymore. That was Christmas. In Iowa, we took a cousin picture wearing light-up necklaces. That was Christmas. In California, we drove down the road in our cramped rental car listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and George snored on my shoulder. That was Christmas. Last night driving back from the Kansas City airport the stars above me refused to come into focus. They stayed icy and soft no matter how I squinted, so I closed my eyes and went to sleep. That was Christmas.

Christmas is no less than a promise fulfilled, an expectation realized. We are told every year that Christmas will come again. It does. “When we are faithless, he remains faithful.” He does. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  And He is.