(Anywhere but) Home for the Holidays

The last day in the office before the winter holiday break, and time seems to have slowed down. Casual chat in the hall extends. Thirty-second hellos turn into ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of discussion about teenage kids at home for the holidays, the impact of too much sugar on hormone regulation, and what to do on Christmas Eve in Spain.

A colleague from upstairs stops by to wish me happy holidays. I ask her what she’ll be doing over the break, and she tells me about her three children, late teens and early twenties, and how they will all be together at Christmas, as they always were; she wouldn’t have it any other way. She asks me what I’ll be doing, and I tell her: “I’ll be on my own this year.” “Oh!” she says instantly, “How sad!” She doesn’t mean this sarcastically. She’s one of those rather fabulous women who neither hold back nor mitigate their opinion. “Your office is too dark,” she said pointedly, when I brought in lamps to use in place of the glaring overhead fluorescent lights. Most of the people passing by called it “relaxing” or “mood lighting.” Not her. “How can you see in here?” she said. “I’d fall asleep, instantly!” Her frankness was like a gadolinium shot. You could feel it seeping through your veins, turning your limbs cold and your crotch hot, until suddenly you were agreeing with her as if her thoughts had been yours all along, and the voices complimenting you on your “mood lighting” were all deception and lies.

So when she coos, “How sad,” I brace myself for the shot and try hard not to give in.

“I have to have family around me,” she says. I agree that family is wonderful. She smiles ruefully and starts talking about one of her daughters, who is too headstrong and doesn’t listen enough to what her mother tells her. I nod sympathetically, and the topic turns to the woes of raising teenage kids. Still, the faint odor of pity hangs in the air long after she’s left.

Christmas also happens to be my birthday. And the 28th my mother’s birthday. When I was young, the holiday season was a rapid-fire succession of celebrations, so many that by the time we got past Christmas, we were stumbling over them. The Christmas season was the time my immediate family — my mother, father, older brother, and me — spent together. At Thanksgiving, we usually visited extended family in Mississippi, or they visited us, which was joyful in another way. Bodies camped out on sofas, wisecracks and laughter in the kitchen, and prayer circles around tables loaded with rich Southern cooking made up my memories of Thanksgiving. But Christmas was always at home in North Carolina, in my parents’ house. It was a fragrant fir tree weighed down with mismatched decorations, and a Nativity scene my grandmother had made, with ceramic figurines painted in copper glaze. It was midnight mass at Duke Chapel, omelets for breakfast, and my favorite spice cake with vanilla frosting for dessert. It was presents, movies, popcorn, eggnog, cookies, all the ingredients you’d find in any family sitcom holiday special.

Most importantly, Christmas was a day when I shut out the rest of the world and relished the company of the people I trusted and loved, the people who made me feel safe. In a place like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this sense of safety was not to be taken for granted. Chapel Hill was my hometown. It had a low crime rate and clean neighborhoods and great public schools. It had farmers’ markets and dance studios and places where you could learn to sew. But it also had cops that patrolled the neighborhood and pulled over people who looked like you. It had teachers who favored white kids over you and certainly not because they were smarter. And it had boys, lots of boys: boys who laughed at you at the local swimming pool, boys who whistled and honked if you were walking alone down the street, boys who sat with their legs spread wide, their testicles peeking out from their shorts, boys that joked about the size of your nose, the bend of your lips, the darkness of the pores on your shins, boys that didn’t see you as Black but then imitated the way they thought you talked, right in front of you, and never imagined that it might bother you, and if it did, why didn’t you just say so?

Christmas was a break from Chapel Hill. At Christmas, the place I called my hometown vanished into a blur, and my focus sharpened on what was happening within the cozy confines of the house on Hemlock Drive. It was as if we were in a giant capsule that, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, closed tightly around us, sealing us in, regenerating the sore and broken parts, and releasing us back into the world refreshed and recharged.

That was Christmas as I remember it the first seventeen years of my life. After my mother’s death, the first cracks started to appear in the capsule. My brother, father, and I did our best to go through the motions and even put our hearts into it, when we dared to. But in truth, our coming together only reminded us more that my mother was gone, the proverbial re-opened wound taking its place among the kitsch and cliché of holiday tradition.

Then one Christmas my father invited to our house the woman who would later become his second wife. She was anxious and kind, and clearly loved my father, but her all-American southern brand of whiteness and the easy way my brother and father folded her into our home — as if our mother had never existed — was the hammer that shattered the capsule beyond repair. The family festival I had once looked forward to was now a season I dreaded. Christmas became an ordeal.

Year after year I tried to find a way to recreate the joy I had once known at Christmas. Usually this meant latching on to someone else’s version of the holiday: Christmas with boyfriends’ families, Christmas alone with boyfriends, Christmas with friends who were avoiding their own families, Christmas with anyone who’d take me, whether they loved me or not, valued me or not. There were Christmases in the suburbs of Frankfurt and rural towns in Denmark, Christmases in gray London and by the sunny Caribbean Sea, Christmases on the ground floors of warm brownstones and the top floors of walk-ups in Brooklyn. One of the boyfriends was a self-proclaimed agnostic who declared “we don’t do Christmas”  when I ventured to give him a Christmas present. One would, maybe even hope, that seven years with him would have cured me of my nostalgia for the holiday season, but it didn’t. For a couple of years, I even tried Christmas with my brother, but by that time, our father was also dead, and my brother had found his own means of distraction — means that, like mine, resembled nothing of what I remembered and longed for.

This year, I decided to give it all a rest. No more distraction, no more running, no more fanfares and fantasies. Time to get real.

My friends shopped for their kids, made travel plans, negotiated who was bringing what to dinner. I shopped for myself, ordered a gift card for my brother, and planned a Christmas feast for one complete with duck breast and a half-bottle of Rioja. On Christmas day, I read, wrote, watched movies, ate popcorn and chocolate, played computer Scrabble, and went for long walks. No doubt I missed my family. I missed them so much, it took my breath away. Their absence was palpable, the void left behind cavernous and dark. But now, instead of trying to go around it, I was stepping inside. It wasn’t an especially pleasant place to be. But it was honest. And after so much pretending, so many failed attempts at re-invention, honesty comes as a relief.

Back at work the day after New Year’s, things will likely be slow getting off the ground. There will be wishes for a wonderful 2020 and stories about the trip to Spain, Christmas dinners, and willful teenage kids. I’ll smile and nod and act delighted as my colleagues talk about what they did, who they saw, what they ate. And if they ask how my Christmas was, I will say, in all honesty, that it was fine. Not joyous, not horrible. Just fine.