I called my grandparents' house in Oregon, and it was the same—loud and crowded, the little kids playing in a cardboard box, preferring it to whatever had been inside. I'm sure there were annoying things going on, but I couldn't hear them. My advice: If you decide to escape from a family holiday, don't call home.
Last year there was no hesitation about going to Montana. My boyfriend—he's now my husband—loves it there too. It was an off year for Oregon, which made things simpler. We even skipped the stockings, out of pure weariness of presents. My father, who keeps a secret stash of embarrassing artifacts from our childhood, gave me an autobiographical poster I'd made in school at 7 or 8, a self-portrait with ketchup-colored hair framed by spiraling text: Something special about me is I am helpful. I feel nervous when I have something that I think will be hard. My mother made tourtières. My sister had a new boyfriend everyone loved. My brother wasn't home, but we crowded around the computer to watch a video of his baby playing with a giant plush monkey.
At the big lake outside town, the ice had expanded in thick sheets up onto the beach, jutting at an angle into the air, so we had to clamber over and slide down the other side before putting on our skates. Someone sailed an iceboat by at 50 miles an hour. We played hockey with no lines, racing after loose pucks, my uncle guarding the makeshift goal in his snow boots. The mountains turned pink on the other side of the lake as the sun started to go down; the ice was black underfoot with fine white cracks, and silvery blue in the distance.
This will be our first married Christmas, and we're going to horrify some people by spending it apart. For my grandparents, the essential thing about Christmas is midnight Mass, and the birth of a child who shall be called Prince of Peace. For my mother, I think it's the solstice and the fact that the days will get longer, the light will return. For my father it's Santa Claus, the spirit of abundance and generosity. But for me, it seems to be something at once simpler and more complicated than all these things. So my husband will go to New York while I'm in Montana, and then together we'll brave the little flights to Oregon. I'm slow, but I learn. Someone else can have the empty freeways and the waves; I'm going home.
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