It seemed like a great idea. A perfect plan. I would spend the Christmas holidays, alone, in a charming cottage in the Irish countryside, overlooking the glorious sea and being a stone’s throw away from the beautiful beach. I would only need to pack the 10 novels I’d leisurely read while on my holiday, along with some music scores because I was so sure this cottage would have a freshly tuned, grand piano. I would somehow cut down my own Christmas tree and decorate it with the most exquisite antique ornaments that I’d stumble upon in the attic. It would be at this very cottage, while cooking an elaborate Christmas dinner for one, where I would discover my previously undiscovered sophisticated culinary skills. The days leading up to New Year’s Eve would be spent in idyllic tranquility and whimsy, and I would watch a few back-to-back holiday classics followed by the Vienna Phil’s New Year’s Eve ball on the television before joining in the celebratory countdown, gleefully, drunkenly toasting no one but myself.
Where exactly in Ireland was this magical place? How would I get there? Could I easily walk into a travel agency on Yonge Street after pilfering my older sister’s credit card? Should I call the number advertised in the travel section of the newspaper instead? Should I ask my principal to sign my passport application or should I ask my G.P.? I was 16, alone, and without the internet.
“What do you mean you’re not coming home for Christmas?” my mother demanded, her voice getting more and more shrilly with every word. I tried to sound as nonchalant yet as mature and wise as I could. “I’m just not. There’s no point. It’s not like we celebrate anyway,” I snorted. So much for wisdom and nonchalance. I sounded like a petulant, rebellious teenager. I’d like to think that she hung up first, but I can’t be sure. It could’ve very well been me, for fear of escalating confrontation and unpleasantness, as well as out of sheer misery.
And so the three of us sat at the 24-hour diner on Christmas Eve, each of us having ordered the same $14.99 holiday special, each of us denouncing the holidays and our crazy families in between puffs of cigarette smoke, and feeling superior for being the renegades who were being hated by our families in that exact moment. A real high-five moment shared amongst people who genuinely cared for each another without the pretense of family and pressures of societal conventions. A newly-found “family” comprised of a 50-something aspiring artist-depressive, a recent divorcée who was estranged from his four children, and a drifting high-schooler who only aspired to be older and wiser, to fit in with her said evening companions. How the three of us came together is a different story altogether. We exclaimed, “Happy Christmas! Cheers! I’m so glad we’re doing this! I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be! The best Christmas! I’ll always remember this!”
And so I have, after all this time, remember the taste of the canned cranberry sauce, the institutional-tasting mashed potatoes, the burnt bottomless coffee. How did we end up leaving the diner at 2 in the morning? What could we possibly have had to talk about?
Depending on the year, overall mood, or the particular life moment I happen to be experiencing, I remember it as either the best Christmas or the worst; either I remember fondly of the people I surrounded myself with in times of need, or I recall the bittersweet holiday, coming-of-age stories with melancholy and chagrin. And sometimes, both.
The holidays are magical and tricky.