The Best Christmas Present
Aside from Christmas, my family had few other "special" times.
It's weird to note now, because it seemed so normal growing up (I guess you only know what you know), but my family didn't eat dinner together except on special occassions. My father was raised in a rather old-fashioned, comfortable, WASPish manor. The children had a nursery and a nanny. The parents had cocktail hour and dinner at 8. When my father became an adult, he maintained that "civilized" people -- a ridiculous notion if you ever witnessed his utter lack of basic table manners -- didn't eat before 8 p.m. Thus, growing up, my sisters and I ate between 5 and 6, a dinner my mom made us but didn't join us for. She would then prepare an entirely separate meal for my dad, who would take his meal to his room and the two of them would eat away from us.
Our eating habits would shift when we were on vacation, though. We didn't go away a lot, but when we did it was really...cool. It meant spending more time as a cohesive family, and in my memory, that especially meant usually we all ate dinner all at the same time.
Thus, as a "cohesive family" we traveled a handful of times to DisneyWorld; otherwise, the only other place we went was Nantucket.
For over a decade, my grandparents rented the same house on Nantucket, and visited there for nearly a month each summer. When we could manage it, the five of us would join them for a week or so, coordinated to be there with my Aunt Kathy and my cousin Nate and his brother, Matt.
I'd say we went maybe three times altogether, and they were great trips. Our days consisted mostly of getting up, packing lunches into coolers, driving out to a beach with surf, and spending the day on the sand and in the ocean. We'd read, chat, play games, bodysurf, eat lunch, build sandcastles, dig holes (why? we never knew), and soak up the sun.
We'd then return to the house, shower the sand and seaweed off, and prepare for dinner.
My mom, setting the table, clearly not expecting me to photographing her.
I was using my snazzy new "Kodak Disc" camera.
Later, when we were all a little older, after my grandparents had stopped going to the island, my mom had the grand and romantic idea of going to Nantucket for Thanksgiving. Tres New England and all that. Her idea led to a huge coordinated effort among several families who decided to come along, too. The lot of us rented three big houses along the same ocean-adjacent road, and spent our days days eating, drinking, and being merry. I remember it snowing on the beach on Thanksgiving.
I also remember, in particular, a moment on the ferry ride out. There were a whole bunch of us, including a few cynical teenagers, and it was well below freezing and windy and damp. Yet as the boat approached the island, my mom insisted we all go outside to watch. We resisted, until she laid down the law: "Get the hell out there and make a friggin' memory!"
Only my mom could force teenagers to make a memory.
It worked, of course.
I want to be clear here, though. I think sometimes when I mention my childhood trips to Nantucket, it gives the wrong impression. It's not like we rented multi-million dollar houses without blinking an eye, or that Nantucket was just one of many rich-and-famous destinations we traversed to. My family only traveled every few years, and only when special opportunities came up (like being able to share the cost of the house rental, or having friends supplement our hotel bills...).
I think that's why those special occassions, trips and Christmastime, remained so special. And when I got married, I wanted to recreate those feelings I had as a kid. I wanted to have an event that reminded me (and gave my guests the feelings) of love and warmth that I felt when we could all be together. Which is why I was married on Nantucket.
My Nantucket wedding. Neat, huh?
All of this is merely to provide context for why choosing Nantucket for Christmas this year was a good, special, cool idea.
Although until we got there, I had no idea how it would feel. I assumed it would be "nice," but I was afraid it would be sad, or weird, or simply too nostalgic. Would I miss my family of years before? Would I think only of how happy my wedding was? Would it feel like we were imposters?
You aren't the family you once were, so stop trying to get it back!
But I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't like that at all. In fact, it was kind of amazing.
Somehow we got ourselves together and to the island and to a most gorgeous house. It wasn't like any place we'd stayed before or any place we'd ever had Christmas, so it had nothing to live up to. And without set expectations, we were able to just kind of "be."
My Aunt Kathy (my dad's only sibling) and her son, my Cousin Nate; Brian and Healy and Charlie, and Brian's mom, too; and Sam and Mike; and, yes, even Ish hunkered down for our first "offsite" Christmas.
There were pounds of food, fresh and spectacular, expertly prepared by my cousin (who has been known to moonlight as a chef). Cases of wine, and select bottles of glorious other potent potables (because my cousin is also known to moonlight as "Boozy Clause").
We played games. We connected. We laughed. We lived.
Ish stayed only until the 24th, as he still has his own family obligations, but the night before he left -- perhaps with some encouragement from Knob Creek, who's to say -- he performed a good 20 minutes of his stand-up material. It's maybe a small point, but for me, it was a living, breathing showcase of my past and present lives converging.
And while we were all milling about the house, Charlie, my cool-ass nephew, started walking. Really walking! All things considered, it was an enormous achievement for him; I like to think that his being surrounded by so many people who love him had to have helped.
We did not speak much of my parents. Where would we start?
When Christmas dinner was served, after a morning's worth of gift-opening and an afternoon of lolling about, watching videos and playing games, Nate volunteered to say a few words. We bowed our heads, and Brian's mom, Carol, reached out her hands. We followed suit, and all of us held hands around the table -- something my family has never done -- as Nate gave a blessing of sorts.
He spoke eloquently, almost as though rehearsed. Words poured out of him as he spoke of family and love. Of the beauty of the island. Of my grandparents, strong and willful and great, the ones who began most of our traditions.
And when he spoke about my parents, John and Linda, and how their spirits will always be with us -- especially at Christmas -- we cried.
But not for long. He finished, and we wiped our eyes and began our meal because that's what we do. And only minutes later, we launched into our merry tradition of toasting to just about everyone and everything (oh, how my family loves its toasts!). And amid our boisterous toasting and cheering and announcing, we got some fabulous news.
Sam and Mike told us that they were engaged.
Earlier that afternoon, Mike had taken Sam out to the beach, and gotten down on one knee, and asked her to be his wife. And when she said yes, because of course you say yes, because she loves him and it is the beach on Nantucket on Christmas, he offered her a most gorgeous ring.
This Christmas was one of the best I have ever experienced, because it was about -- forgive me, please -- what Christmas should be about. We were together, regardless of how the "we" has changed. And boy, we done good.
I believe my mom would say "we rallied."
So look at that. Life is moving on and it's not how I pictured it seven years ago or ten or twenty, but maybe it never is.
We made the absolute most of what we have, and it turns out that the best we could do was pretty great.
It was a lovely Christmas present.