Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Black and Gold Christmas

What is it they say?  If life hands you lemons, make lemonade?  Well, in Pittsburgh my guess is that the saying goes more like this:  if Mother Nature denies you a white Christmas, have a Black and Gold one instead.  But, I don't think they've had to say it all that often before this year.  It's as though we brought some of Texas with us and spoiled this winter wonderland.

Greg, who has to pay close attention to the weather since he drives out in it every night, reported the other day that Pittsburgh was headed for an all-time low in snowfall for December, with that total being essentially none.  There have been a few days when snow danced around the air like little white fairies, teasing the locals, and once or twice an actual dusting of white remained on the ground for a few hours, but in terms of measurable snow:  nada.  Part of me is okay with it.  I've worried about Greg driving on winding, narrow streets covered in black ice hidden under a blanket of snow for months now, and I have to confess it was challenging enough sitting on cold, hard plastic at the last two Steeler games I went to despite three layers of clothing and some natural insulation in the posterior region without adding moisture to the mix.  But, let's face it, if there is no snow, then there are no scenes like this one:

Varykino, the Gromeko's dacah from David Lean's Dr. Zhivago
Of course, with no snow there are no scenes like this one either:

Blizzard in Boston in 2005
Life is full of trade-offs.  Do you want to shovel your car out from under a mountain of snow in sub-zero temperatures every so often to be able to stand outside in the morning after a night of fresh snowfall and feel the crisp air on your face and see the blinking of thousands of tiny diamonds hidden in a blanket of white under the winter sun?  And, truth be told, twenty-six degrees in snow feels a lot warmer than twenty-six degrees without snow.  There is just something almost insulating about the snow.  Twenty-six without it is just gray and depressing.  Bottom line:  snow is both wonderful and terrible.  A lot like life itself.  I was hoping to embrace its wonder on my first Christmas here.  Alas, it was not meant to be.

However, if the weather was a little Texas-like, that was about all that was.  Whatever our absence meant for the family left behind, it also meant a major change for us, no matter how much of the old trappings I had placed around the house or how many customs I tried to replicate.  And that seemed evident at first.  We - maybe just me - seemed a little lost as to how to begin without the familiar structure and pattern that had long been established in Greg's family - whether at his boyhood home or once things shifted to our house.  There was an order that was followed, a menu that was presented year after year, and always an incident or two of family dysfunction - someone was horribly late, or having a meltdown, or simply sick- that threatened that order, as though it were as much a part of the tradition as anything.  But, for us, this quiet little family of three plus a mini-zoo, the slate was completely clean now:  we could do anything and on any pace.  We had no one else to answer to but ourselves.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to begin the story when confronted with a blank page.  And whatever awkwardness was caused by being characters in this unwritten story, it was - and likely always will be - complicated by the individual not with us as much as anything.  Greg in particular wears his grief like a heavy cloak, and it can feel uncomfortable and almost disrespectful to experience any happiness in the face of it.  Whether this will always be the case or not, who can say, but it is a larger elephant in a smaller room when it is just the three of us; that seemed evident early on in the day.  Everything seemed in doubt at first.  Do I serve breakfast first or let Marissa open her stocking first?  Do we do that in the living room and then move into the sun room where I had set the tree?  Do I clear the dining room table, which seems to be the natural collector for all manner of this and that, and set up the china, or do we just grab plates from the cabinet and balance them on our knees around the tree?  And where do we all sit in the crowded little sun room anyway?  How is Greg, tired from a night of work, going to handle all of this?  Sounds silly, but it's all the things you just naturally do in a family with strong traditions - you don't think about it really.   Now it's completely up to you to begin anew, and that can be a little daunting.  What you do when writing is just set the pen to the paper and begin.  Write anything.  You can change it later, but just get started.   Because once you do the words will tend to come, eventually flowing and forming into a story.  And so it was with us.  A little trial and error to be sure that will be refined with the next year's event, but once we just got moving, psychics took over and we remained in motion.  Presents were unwrapped, cider was consumed (by me), pictures were taken, the mess was made and then cleaned up, and we retired to the basement to watch Star Wars on Blu-Ray, not worried any longer by the lack of snow because we were transported to a galaxy far, far away.

All in all, if you try not to focus on the acting, Episode I is not all that bad - certainly worth the viewing for the pod race and the duel at the end with Darth Maul if nothing else.  And so it was with us.  Not a perfect day.  There may never be a perfect holiday again - there will always be that void.  Always.  But, a day in which the balance of this little band of travelers were together as a family.  That was worth the price of admission.

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