by KARA VANDERBIJL
Christmas Eve was an excuse to get out of the house. Shortly after lunch, we’d pile into the car with some idea of a place we had never visited and a vague sense of how to get there. Dad drove. Even after the invention of compact discs, we listened to a cassette my parents had picked up during their honeymoon in Indonesia, a black market recording of Boney M and The Eagles singing carols.
When we lived in California we returned each year to Balboa Island, which is the West Coast’s idea of Venice, Italy, all charming wrinkles removed. Celebrities and business tycoons and doctors and lawyers and heirs and the deeply deeply in debt build lavish homes along complex cul-de-sacs of water canals that eventually lead to the Pacific. We walked, jaws slack, fog-chilled hands wrapped around cups of hot chocolate, along the narrow sidewalks between the mansions and the water and looked through wide-open windows as strangers enjoyed their Christmas dinner and opened their presents.
Far from any relatives of our own, we spied through panes frosted with spray-on snow, attempted to understand what it is like when people and their loved ones willingly stay in one place, go through the same golden motions all silent, holy night. We each picked a house we would live in, given the chance, a spot on the map in which we’d want our story to take place.
Some years later we were stranded on an island a few miles off the Bay of Marseille. My father had asked the ferry attendant whether or not there was anything open on Christmas Eve on either of the two islands we were to visit, one of them home to Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, the other a sad strip of summer condominiums and a small convenience store; the man had said, yes, yes, of course, everything is open, restaurants, bars, the Chateau! The prison was indeed open for our visit — boring, empty, drafty — and as our stomachs rumbled in anticipation we climbed back onto the ferry and drifted further from the city towards the second island, where a restaurant reputedly served a Christmas duck just for hungry VanderBijls. When we finally realized that we'd been hoodwinked — that the only thing barely open on the island was the convenience store, cashier nodding off into the dusk, the ferry had turned its back on us, not to return for two and a half hours.
It almost never snows in Southern France but it gets cold, especially on the water in December. The mistral howled against tightly-closed shutters. My mother purchased chocolate, gone chalky with age, from the little store and we huddled in a small shelter on one corner of the island waiting, hungry, foreign and terribly alone in the deepening darkness. By the time the ferry came back, we were dancing and belting carols at the top of our lungs just to keep warm.
In subsequent years we returned to resort towns like St. Tropez, small enough that most people around for the holiday could crowd eagerly into cafes to have a croissant and a hot chocolate at 4 PM, hours away from the beginning of the festivities. They’d return home in plenty of time to grandparents and the traditional thirteen desserts, one for each of the disciples and one for Christ, which they would lay lovingly on the table before attending Mass at midnight, turning up the corners of the tablecloth so visiting saints would feel welcome to partake in their absence.
Our own return home was quiet. We came together, later, around the table, just like our neighbors’ scavenging saints; it was laden with a few reminders of my mother’s Mennonite childhood — ham, potato salad, pfeffernusse, cold fruit soup. Before bed my brother and I were allowed to open one gift, but we could not choose which one. This was a reconciliation between my mother’s traditions and my father’s. She grew up opening gifts on Christmas Eve to Julie Andrews records, whereas my father opened his on Christmas morning in the house his father built in the Indonesian tropics. Joel and I would pull the last chocolate from our Advent calendars, let it melt on our tongues as we blew out the candles and said goodnight.
For the past few Christmases it has not been the meals or the music that I have missed as much as the excitement we all felt climbing into the car on our way to whatever sense of home we could find. And how is it fair that we can’t do it this year? When we learned so early on that nothing mattered but being together, and because we were together we could face the many moves and the foreign language and the wind blowing across the Mediterranean? When thousands of other families won’t even look at each other across the table, will spend their time staring into screens, dragging fingers under the sharp folds of shiny paper?
I had never had to limit my imagination by telling myself that I may never return home: I sincerely believed we would settle, even if it were just two or three of us. But last year we reunited in Marseille for the last time, two-thousand twelve's map already charted and exploding in diverse directions. And had we ever considered that visiting a place for the last time is a lot like visiting it for the first time? My mother pushed trinkets from our home into my hands, possessions that she and my father planned to give away before leaving for the Middle Eastern desert. My brother waited for a call from his Air Force recruiter. On my last morning, he fried me an egg and sat across the table watching me eat and cry. We drove to the airport, and I looked long at the smallest details, opening the window to catch the last of the marine air.
There is nothing fair about the leanness of this time of year, when we must drag ourselves back to our roots to be counted, pulling our baggage behind us. Some of us will sleep in bedrooms converted into gyms or offices, others in caves (because there was no room for us), exiled by quarrel or by choice or just by growing up. So if you get the inkling that you may have come home this year, even if it is just for a moment, leave your curtains open. Turn up the corners of your tablecloth.
Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about seeing other people. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.
"Bitten by the Night" - Jenee Halstead (mp3)
"Garden of Love" - Jenee Halstead (mp3)