There’s a four-inch thick blanket of hospital-white snow on the ground, and I wonder if its puffy construction is absorbing all the sound. It’s so, so quiet out here. There’s no smell, either. The air is inert. Can snow absorb scent? I file these queries away for later, when I’m in a place where accessing Google is possible.
I am standing in the middle of nowhere – Nebraska, to be general. To be specific: I’ve stopped my rental car on the outskirts of Bennington at the edge of what I assume is a farm; I assume this because I’m leaning up against a rustic, handmade fence that surrounds an impressive property, and I can see a barn in the distance of that property. That barn mostly obscures a cozy two-story home, which I’d have missed completely if not for the chimney belching out delightfully bucolic smoke. I imagine the quaint brick fireplace in the farmhouse’s living room, because…what farmhouse doesn’t have a brick fireplace in the living room? What would be the point of THAT omission?
I push back from the fence, which looks to have been constructed sometime during the Civil War. It stretches all fence-like for as far as my eyes can see. Half a mile, maybe? That’s a lazy guess. It’s dusk and my eyelids are freezing, so honestly, I can’t see much. And it occurs to me in this moment that there was no Civil War in Nebraska, because there was no Nebraska during the Civil War. Not in any meaningfully incorporated form. Nothing official.
The rest of the landscape is so flat that train tracks, distant in the other direction entirely, seem an oddly prominent geological feature.
I take a step sideways and feel the snow pack beneath the boots I specifically for this trip. You can tell a lot about snow by the way it transforms when underfoot. Is it that instant powdery descent into tundra, like stepping on a pillow that’s fallen to the floor? Or is it that resistant, satisfyingly damp crunch that renders tightly-packed flakes into an icy mold? This is that satisfying crunch, and all of a sudden this stop was worth it, even if my eyes frost over. At least my feet are toasty – the socks I bought with the boots are not messing around. You forget how vital socks are when you wear sandals for ten months of the year.
Thinking about sandals makes me realize, for some baffling reason, that I’ve not only left the car running but that I closed the door when I got out. I have literally no idea how this Brobdingnagian SUV that Enterprise gave me – under the guise of a “free upgrade” – works. Not in the details. And it dawns on me that this story could end with me dying out here in the cold, hilariously, all because I was eager to stop my gigantic, artificially-warmed monstercar to look at a farm in the fading daylight.
And what the hell am I doing in Nebraska, anyway?
Knowing the keys won’t be there, I reach into the pocket of the only winter jacket I own to find my hand proceeding through, appropriately, a fist-sized hole contained within its lining. I’m down a compartment. That’s OK. I’m wearing gloves, and gloves are like pockets, but for your hands only. That profound notion dialed into existence, I take one last look around – like the main character would at the end of any good movie – and head back for the SUV. I’m relieved to find the door unlocked and my life not, in fact, headed for a popsicle’s end.
It’s the 19th of December, 2009. I am thirty years old. And I have decided to spend the Holidays in the Midwest.
It was an impulsive decision. My Xmases weren’t always this…esoteric.
In fact – and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – the Xmases of my childhood were, for the most part, idyllic. Like if SATURDAY EVENING POST covers were set in the 80s and 90s.
A caveat: when I say “Xmases of my childhood”, I’m really only speaking about less than half of the Xmases I remember. Obviously, unless you’re some kind of complicatedly weird overachiever, no one remembers their first few Xmases at all. So those are out of the conversation immediately. But also: we moved around a lot when I was a kid, so my immediate family (which started with just Me, Mom and Dad and over the years sprouted to include my three brothers) spent a majority of our Xmases away from my extended family in Pennsylvania.
I remember very, very little of any of these remote Holidays.
They weren’t bad times; not by any stretch of the imagination. I can grasp onto snippets of all of them except Pittsburgh. Denver, Colorado Springs, Kansas – they’re all there, but only ephemerally. Snapshots at best – certain gifts, certain dinners (one year we went out and I got horribly, rapidly sick and I puked at the table in a fancy restaurant). Hazy POV footage, banked in the temporal lobe, of waking up at 5AM and stumbling out to the tree lights softly illuminating a pile of wrapped packages. That I can’t remember more fills me with an almost comical amount of guilt. It’s not that I don’t want to, and it’s not that Mom and Dad didn’t knock every Xmas out of the park – they did. I might not have total recall, but I know that for sure. And when I think of those times, I smile. That’s kind of all that matters, I suppose. But sometimes I wonder if I’ve filled in the gaps with things I’m only wishing had occurred.
Also, that’s a bit of a cheat. I do remember something very specifically from those Xmases: the stockings my grandmother would send us in the mail. She had this tradition – which my family has kept alive to this day – of buying a dozen pairs of L’Eggs, cutting them in half, and filling them with treasures until they damn near burst. So, yeah, she took the whole “Xmas stocking” thing and pushed it to a defiantly literal conclusion. To this day it’s the most wonderfully charming act of simple Xmas spirit I’ve experienced.
Here’s the thing, though, and this is perhaps the main reason I remember the stockings so vividly: my grandfather smoked, at his most virile, eight cigars a day. Every day. And not good cigars – El Productos. Cheap, machine-made atrocities that basically consisted of the most adamantly rejected tobacco scraps, strips of forty year-old newspaper and a triple-dog dare. The second-hand smoke from those misfires alone could coat your lungs with tar in half an hour. My grandparents’ home was CONSUMED by it. It permeated everything.
So by the time those stockings got to us halfway across the country, everything in them reeked like the infected asshole of a necrotic wildebeest wallowing in mosquito mud. At the foot of every stocking? An apple and an orange. Eating them was right out of the question unless you wanted a mouthful of desiccated Skoal pulp. The candy bars didn’t fare much better. But the real show was the Sour Patch Kids, which my grandmother – who clearly must have hated us – would liberate from their sealed product bags and dump into unsealed sandwich bags. Of course, the cigars infected them too, and the gummies REALLY soaked that brown cloud in, and my brothers and I used to dare each other to see who could eat the most without crying. It was Gitmo-level torture. We used to laugh so hard watching each other struggle in common misery.
It was awful. Wonderfully, life-affirmingly awful. Because it tasted like home.
You would walk into my grandparents’ house on Xmas Day and be immediately hit by the most wonderful cooking smells. This alone was a testament to what a culinary genius my grandmother was: she roasted and baked so hard that the smells of turkey and rosemary and chocolate outdueled the cigar smoke. Which should have been impossible.
That was the first impact. The second was the sound of laughter.
They lived in a simple little Cape Cod that sat on a hill, and even its earliest days, my family ran about twenty strong. Not a single one of them – aunts, uncles, cousins – is capable of not being funny, and, to a person, they can spin a yarn. A typical gathering is replete with a series of stories, chaotic cackling, a slapping of knees, and then someone immediately attempting to top the previous tale.
You know how you talk about joy, and it’s usually an abstract concept that you reach for, but never catch, never really experience? Not for me.
But there was also pure, unabashed terror. Because all the presents – hundreds, THOUSANDS of them, it seemed – were locked away in the basement. My bastard grandfather, who was SUCH a bastard, wouldn’t let a soul into that basement until after we ate dinner. Imagine what that does to the psyche of a child who’s 8, 9, 10 years old. Your grandmother makes the most incredible food known to man, and you’re too sick with anticipation to eat it. All that matters. Is the stuff in the basement. Trapped underneath the wrapping paper. Imprisoned behind a door.
So we’d push the food around our plates at the Kids’ Dinner Table, shooting looks of white-hot malice at the Adults’ Dinner Table, where everyone was simply content to stuff their faces and gab. For what amounted to probably less than half an hour, these “relatives” were more hated than diabetes, our family’s greatest scourge. I’m confident that it’s a miracle no one was killed by a ravenously materialistic preteen.
Speaking of homicide: finally, dinner would end, mercifully, and every child in the family sought to murder every other child in the family in pursuit of getting through that basement door and down the stairs to the Goodie Room first. But: one needed contend with the slipperiest, most overly-polished wooden staircase known to man. Tread uncarefully and you risked a parabolic upending and a dreadfully-cracked noggin. I’m confident it was yet another miracle that no one was killed in pursuit of their own materialistic preteen desires.
But once you safely hit that basement carpet…it was magic.
Another smell managed to overwhelm the senses: that acrid, metallic tang of an electric train set, which my grandfather always set up to circle the base of a tree overloaded with lights and ornaments. The compulsion to rush over and try to touch it (or, God forbid, pick it up as it moved) was so strong that my grandfather ended up building a small fence to encircle the track and forebade any of us from getting within five feet of it. He was a larger man, and he doled out the presents, so this was one rule we were keen to obey.
And oh, the presents – so many at once! You didn’t even care that they weren’t all for you. It’s just that they were there, and goddamnit, they were going to GET OPENED. What else mattered? Lord Almighty, just get to it.
The Giving of the Gifts went thusly: everyone gathered around, taking a seat. The Adults sat on the furniture. The kids sat on the floor; if you were quick, you grabbed a pillow. If you weren’t, you learned to love that shallow carpet. My grandfather selected a gift, you pissed your pants hoping it was for you, and it usually wasn’t, but it was announced for SOMEONE, and it was either from another family member or from Santa, and he handed it to the anointed like it was the last loaf of bread in wartime, and then everyone held their breath while that person opened that gift, and then they unwrapped it and showed it to the group, and everyone yelled, “HEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY,” and clapped like monkeys as though your He-Man action figure was crafted in Heaven. It was, in two words, the greatest. In between gifts, the room filled with the warm noises of joke-cracking and idle, penetrating gossip.
Memory is a funny thing. I can see this scene so clearly that it almost hurts, but it’s now a singular diorama – all those Xmases have long since run together into a one velvety Rockwellian portrait. I see the faces of the people I love dearly. I smell burning metal of the train. I hear my uncles chortling and taste sugared walnuts, which I always ate a few of, even though I didn’t really like them. I can even feel my grandfather hugging me, the soft flannel of his shirt brushing against my cheek. But, while I always sat at the front of the room, as close to all those material items as I could get… when I see it now, I’m standing far in the back. Watching, but apart from it all. No longer “there”, no matter how hard I reach.
I’d love to tell you this is a memory that will perpetuate, but I can’t. For the time being, it’s still strong. Still vital. But I lose bits and pieces of it every year, almost as if my grandfather’s cheap cigar smoke is filtering in more and more, increasingly robbing me of a clear look at this beautiful projection that I worry will soon be slipping right through my fingers.
One thing I will never forget: right before my family left, every year, I’d make a quick dash to the old stone fireplace in the living room. At the base of the hearth, right smack in the middle, was a perfect keystone. My grandfather went to great lengths to obtain it and set it there, the story goes, to honor Pennsylvania, the only place he and my grandmother had ever called home. They were both born there. They’d both die there years later. I always made a point to lay my hand the keystone myself. Just so I could say that I was home too, even if only temporarily.
I left that house every year – whether I lived nearby or not – with a heavy heart, knowing there would be a whole year before we could do it all again. We’d step outside into the cold, and my mom tells me that I used to always comment that I wished there was snow. It just never seemed to show up on the 25th of December.
She also tells me that I always complained about how hungry I was. Ah, youth.
This genuinely surprised me, but: trying to recall even one gift I received there in all those years, I came up totally blank.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles now for almost fourteen years, and save for a few jaunts back East, I spend most of my Xmases here now. Sometimes with family, almost always with friends. There are no keystones lying about – no fireplaces either, really – but somehow it manages to feel like home now.
It was in the low-50s last night when I walked my dogs, so it was chilly enough already in my t-shirt, shorts. And then a cold breeze kicked through, and my toes bristled, and I smiled to myself. This is about as December as it gets in Southern California. Not much, but worth it.
I kept the dogs moving, and at one point, I looked down at my feet, clad in those aforementioned sandals. Suddenly it got much nippier, and everything went quiet. With each step I took, the crunch of snow underneath new boots got louder and louder inside my head, and I instinctively jammed my hand in my pocket. My keys were there.
I stopped, and my dogs looked up at me quizzically. I kept seeing flashes of things in my head,. I closed my eyes, trying to focus, struggling to wrap my mind around something elusive. I felt my memory – it’s a funny thing – scratching at the base of my skull. I held on, and suddenly, I was back, standing at the edge of that farm, in the cold, with the daylight creeping away and my rental gently humming nearby. I blinked, soaking in my surroundings, and remembered how I felt just then – very aware that I was very far away from everything. But especially far away from home.
A question floated right in front of me, but before I could ask it, the scene disappeared in an abrupt crash to black, and I opened my eyes. My dogs were sitting there on the sidewalk, annoyed. The breeze had died down and my skin was warm. Collecting myself, I started walking, and the dogs followed, and I looked down at my sandals, and all I heard was their flat flopping on the concrete. And then it dawned on me, and I started laughing to myself. It wasn’t particularly amusing revelation, nor was it much of a revelation at all, and I’m not sure that it matters anyway. But it was true.
I’ve read about it, I’ve seen it in pictures, I’ve flown over it, and I’ve even lived just a state away.
But I’ve never actually *been* to Nebraska.