Today was the last day of classes. My only Friday class is (was) Biology at 9, so I came home afterwards, had an early lunch, and went back to the library to get a head start on preparing for my English final. Usually when I study at the library, I sit in a big common area on the first floor where there are lots of comfy leather couches and chairs, but today that area was crowded so I ventured up into the stacks and found a study carrel. When I emerged at 5:30, it was dusk already, and, as I walked out onto the big open plaza in front of the library, despite the fact that it's 75 degrees out, the particular light at that time of day blindsided me with Christmas melancholy.
Whereas for the first 40-some years of my life, Christmas was an anchor, a moment of absolute predictability and the purest rest I got all year, in the last several years it has become an emotional tangle that may never work itself out. Christmastime feels like a big hole in the middle of the calendar. It's not what it used to be, it's not what I wish it were, it's sort of nothing but memory and sadness.
The first concrete thought I had when I walked out of the library -- after that wave of indistinct nostalgia -- was of my second winter in New York. My first winter there, I was in school (1981), but I dropped out after a year and got a job at Pearl Paint on Canal Street, unloading trucks and stocking shelves. Because I spent most of the work day going back and forth from the overheated store to the frigid street, and because I smoked like a chimney and didn't sleep enough, I caught a bad cold which turned into bronchitis which, because I didn't have health insurance, turned into pneumonia. Late one night when I was coughing so hard I could hardly breath, my roommate and a guy I was dating at the time took me to the emergency room at Beth Israel a few blocks up 1st Avenue. If I remember right, that was the first (and only, until recently) year that I didn't spend Christmas with my family in Indiana. I couldn't afford the trip.
(I'm sure the reason that experience came to mind is that I have a mild cough today, due to allergies, and a few days ago I strained a chest muscle at the gym and it still hurts. The combination of the two unrelated symptoms echoes -- faintly -- the feeling of pneumonia.)
I should say that I don't think I ever celebrated Christmas, really. We called it that, and we celebrated on the 25th, but my family was not religious. My mother attends a Unitarian Universalist church now, and she and my dad were Catholic when they were younger, but ours was a secular household. Christmas was about the tree, snow, lights, candles, food. We didn't use the word, but it was a pagan holiday at our house. We celebrated the Solstice.
When J and I had a more traditional relationship (at least in the eyes of my family), we went together to Indiana every year. And my brother's longtime companion would be there, and my sister's husband. My mother baked insane quantities of cookies (she still does). We spent long evenings talking and eating. We went out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve and came home and exchanged gifts. Many years, it was the one time that we were all together.
Three things converged to change everything: 1) The last year and a half before J and I separated, we had a third partner, R. My mom had a hard time with it. J and R and I were together for about 17 months, which spanned one Christmas. My mother told me that I couldn't bring both J and R home that year. I'll save the whole story for another day and just say that it was a very painful time in my relationship with my mother. (We avoided the issue by booking a high paying gig in Aspen on Christmas. They put us up in a ritzy hotel, and I spent a very surreal Christmas Eve, sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi surrounded by snow.)
I don't want to create the impression that my mother is an intolerant monster. There's too much evidence to the contrary. She was the one I learned tolerance from. Some of my earliest memories are of her organizing neighborhood association meetings in the early 70s to fight racist realtors in Indianapolis when black families started moving into our neighborhood and everybody started moving out. Maybe because I grew up in such a liberal family -- when I was 20 and still hadn't come out, my impatient mother left a book called something like "How to Talk to Your Gay Son" in a magazine rack in the family room where I would see it -- maybe because my mother always spoke out against intolerance and bigotry and small mindedness, is why it was such a blow when she refused to accept my unconventional relationship.
The result was that for the first time in my life, my chosen family was not automatically incorporated into my biological family. My whole notion of family, something that had never given me a moment of tension, was blown apart. Further complicating things in the succeeding years, J and I separated for a few years but now we live together again. Though our relationship was in many ways not much like a traditional marriage, in some ways it was. But now, who knows what it is? J ignores Christmas altogether -- his super-religious family ruined it for him, which I think is why he enjoyed my family Christmas so much back then.
(The first year after we separated, J and I took a road trip to Florida for Christmas. On the way, we stopped at a hostel in southern Georgia where all the sleeping cabins are treehouses in a swamp, and then we drove down and spent Christmas Day in Key West.)
The other two trends that have changed things are 2) my sister has three young boys, so their Christmas is now all about Santa Claus, etc. She and her family live close to my mom and dad, but a lot of their celebration centers around the kids, naturally, so logistically it's not effortless like it was when we all just converged at my mom and dad's house. And 3) I get more and more uncomfortable with exchanging gifts. My family is not too crazy with it, but as I've simplified my life (and gotten poorer) over the years, Christmas throws the contrast into relief and I'm never quite sure how to deal with it. I always end up feeling judgmental and ungrateful, so I just avoid it.
Lately, I've been thinking about my ex-boyfriend B, who I was with in my twenties. He's a Christmas fanatic -- and an atheist as far as I know -- but we always had a huge tree and lots of lights in our Brooklyn apartment. Christmas music playing all the time, the good stuff, like Waverly Consort or Emmylou Harris's Christmas album. I loved it. Maybe I should go spend Christmas with him. I wonder how his partner would feel about that? Or maybe I should track down that sweet guy who took me to the hospital and sat with me and rubbed my back while I coughed in the waiting room for 8 hours until a doctor saw me. We only dated for a few weeks. All I remember is that his name was Paul. I wonder what he's doing for Christmas.