My childhood bedroom is cold. Not austere or scrubbed of memories or redecorated with a generic theme or converted — as is the case with the childhood bedroom of one woman I know — into another wing of a mother’s closet. I’m talking arctic or at least wintertime in the snowy, subzero Midwest. The windows are old; the room is poorly insulated. A few nights ago, when we were tucked in beneath a quilt and an afghan and chilly sateen sheets, my husband asked me, “Are we outside?”
It feels like camping — not glamping — to come home for the holidays, and I’ve never been outdoorsy. The experience is an exercise in surrendering control and in recognizing and remembering that forces of nature can collapse the tent I’ve worked so hard to pitch. I like preparing my own food; my parents have become consummate restaurant-goers. I like the papery stillness of a library; the loud beckoning of one person on the second floor for another person who's in the basement is pervasive in their house. Frivolities, too: I like sleeping until 7 and I’m pretty sure my mother, downstairs, has been up since 4. Does anyone else’s coffee ever taste as good as my own?
I jest — my mother’s percolator does fine.
Yet the older I get, the more I ignore these temporary discomforts. In fact, I seek them. Is it recognition of my mortality? Theirs? Bolted with hubris, I tell myself they’re delighted to see me. Is it maturity — to endure, to survive long stretches of emotional tumult on moxie and sojourns to the gym? Or is my newfound peace with coming home for the holidays one of those reactions engineered by nostalgia for something I’ve never known?
It was and it wasn’t intentional: A few years ago when my husband and I planned our honeymoon, we decided to be away — as in, on another continent — for Christmas. We were in agreement; this would set a precedent for our families. We wouldn’t be those people bound to travel halfway across the country for awkward gatherings and forced photos, upholding meaningless, mercenary gift exchanges. Our marriage would be about us; our holidays would be about our traditions.
We tried a few. We watched “Home Alone” one Christmas Eve, after preparing personal cheese pizzas (“just for me”). We decorated our loft — exactly 1,300 miles from the closest set of relatives — with a 12-foot tree, the only thing that didn’t look absurd with our ceilings. We baked 10 types of Christmas cookies, packaged them in enough tissue paper and bubble wrap to protect 10 settings of bone china and overnighted them to anyone with a mouth. All of that was easier and leagues more fun than taking long flights and enduring the giant meals. That’s what I told myself, anyhow.
I’d spent most of my adolescence in a sustained flinch during the holiday season. From November through January, there were tiny chocolate Santas from Fannie Mae to avoid and disappointments beneath the tree to weather. Even though I’d always enjoyed the hunt of buying presents, I was miserable at receiving them. By high school, I’d read enough Adbusters to diagnose my problem with gifting and, by extension, the holidays: It was all about consumption — consumption of meat (ham and turkey, at one table I’ve frequented), consumption of sugar, consumption of trees and wrapping paper and curling ribbons and cinnamon sticks. Consumption of gifts, consumption of time, consumption of patience. The holidays were a hell of materialism; Santa was an anagram of Satan.
My rage wasn’t just against the machine, but myself. If I fought with my parents all year, why did the holidays obligate me to play nice? If I was so sad that “Silent Night” could make me bawl, why did I have to turn the other cheek and have a “holly, jolly” anything? Really, I wish I’d been able to explain how fragile life becomes in winter, especially if you have an eating disorder or depression. Instead, my flinch turned into a grimace that grew up and went to college and eventually relaxed into a honeymoon in Europe.
“Monterey looks nice,” my husband said a month ago. For the first time since our honeymoon, we would have a winter break that might allow us to travel. We tossed around cities, checked out a few flights, and marveled at the concentration of wineries before deciding — no, no! — we’d spend nearly a month with our two families.
As the first week of our trip comes to a close (and we acclimate to the arduousness of sleeping outside), I suppose it could be easy to second-guess our decision. “We’re not campers,” we might say. “Have we lost all sense of ourselves?”
Instead, at night when everyone else is asleep, my husband and I talk. We talk about our parents and the age of their houses. We talk about habits, they way the stick and stay. We talk about the coziness of downstairs — it really is warmer — and how good it can feel to be warm inside when it’s snowy outside. These conversations are gifts, small reminders of the preciousness of life. The thing to remember about camping is that everyone’s in a tent, making do and trying their best. Despite subprime temperatures, even the outdoors can be fun.