How could it be the holidays without Santa, tinsel, tree trimming, snow scenes—real or imagined?And, of course, trips to all the places you call home.
It made perfect sense to me, a little kid living at the beach in south Florida, that, at Christmastime, every pale northern relative I'd ever met wanted to travel south to celebrate at my house and in my ocean. My mother, my father, my little brother John, and I had no business flying north for the winter holidays. We had thin, fringed jackets, not winter coats. We had sneakers and sandals, not boots. We had no gloves. Plus, our mom was a serious nurse—emergency room, surgery, gunfights in the parking lot—so we might have to spend Christmas lunch with her, in the hospital cafeteria. We never knew.
One Christmas in the late sixties, when I was three or four years old, my maternal grandparents flew down to Florida from Pennsylvania, and as I sat in the living room I was filled with an exquisite sense of anticipation. Their plane was in the air! They were going to touch down soon! Dad would pick them up at the airport! For the longest time, I hid my excitement, sitting very still, not messing up my hair, not shooting my cap gun. But finally, after I patiently explained to my dad's parents, who lived nearby and were part of my daily life of swim lessons and banana bread and new orthopedic shoes, that they'd have to "share" my brother and me with the Pennsylvania contingent, whom I barely knew, I jumped from the sofa and ran rings through the house, outlining the circumference of rooms, jetting in and out of closets, looping the dining room table, until I made one turn too quickly, thucking my head along the edge of a part-open pocket door, and half knocked myself out. I spent the rest of the afternoon supine on the sofa, a pillowcase full of ice clutched to my forehead, earnestly telling both sets of grandparents, "I shouldn't have got so excited."
The Pennsylvania grandparents had flown Eastern Airlines, and I was mesmerized by the postcard-sized drinks menu they'd kept as a memento: on it, the Eastern corporate insignia looked like a lonely bird flying across the moon, and there were bubble-filled cocktail glasses bunched in a corner, and a choice of Dry Sack, whiskey sour, Sanka, or beef broth.
Here was a routine for Christmas visitors: the beach, citrus groves, Burdines department store, a quick lunch at Lum's, where they steamed the hot dogs in beer, and dinner, at least once, at the Kapok Tree, a pass-the-platter family-style restaurant set in lush gardens. My Florida grandmother, if pressed, would take a carload of cousins and aunts to see the trained macaws at Parrot Jungle, a themed aviary that pre-dated Disney World, but it was always a relief to return to her home. Her astonishing hospitality made these frantic holidays work; she was a master of good-time logistics, from the dinners to the glowing Christmas murals she'd paint—with poster paint!—on the wooden front doors and sliding glass back doors.
Finally, the Northerners would pack their bags and return North, or we'd drive them to the cruise ship terminal, where they'd embark for a Caribbean voyage, latching one vacation onto another, the ultimate decadence. "See you next year!" we'd shout, and by the time I got back to the car, I'd forgotten them.
After my parents divorced, my mother, brother, and I moved away from the beach, up to my mother's hometown in Pennsylvania. We never traveled to Florida at Christmas, and I must admit that I didn't ache with longing for the beach, the broad blue skies, or my short career as a child clown in local theater. Christmas was more proper in Pennsylvania, with snow, holly, real fireplaces. Still, we found ourselvesat the airport every Christmas afternoon: the gifts from our last-minute father would arrive, two or three huge boxes, and we'd rush to the terminal to pick them up.
For 15 years I didn't spend Christmas with my father or my Florida grandmother, so I didn't know what to expect when I finally made plans for one holiday break in the mid eighties. I bused home from college, spent a traditional Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my mother, my stepfather, and the extended families, and then, just when we would have relaxed into after-dinner, after-gift sloth, my brother and I were dropped at the airport and on our way to California, where my father had moved, and where our grandmother was meeting us for Christmas. I had never landed atLAX before, and I loved it on sight, the way it was just like the rest of the city—sprawling lights, that warm wind I missed.
Dad picked us up alone so we could catch up during the drive down to Long Beach, where he'd set himself up in a high-rise overlooking the harbor. "Merry Christmas," he said once we'd escaped the airport gridlock. We said "Merry Christmas" back, and then there was a long silence until he turned up the radio and began to whistle along to Christmas carols. "So how's Grandma?" one of us asked. "Grandma's great!" he said. He thrummed his fingers along the dashboard, just as he had when we were little kids.
My grandmother had prepared a light Christmas buffet, heavy on homemade candies and cookies, and we ate ourselves sick, opened presents, and admired the ocean view, the blush-orange spotlit islands offshore, industrial but lovely in the night. She told us our itinerary, just as she always had. We would go skiing up at Big Bear Lake, where my father had a house. We would go shopping—"so many good stores out here." And we would drive down to Tijuana, where she had a contact, a man who could get her picture frames cheap. She had begun a new career as a seascape painter, and was always looking for a way to up her profit margin. "You're a smuggler now, Grandma?" I asked. "Oh, it will be an adventure!" she said, clapping her hands together so her jewelry jangled.
My grandmother could talk for long stretches without interruption, inhabiting multiple personas, bringing a chance conversation to life—with a border patrol officer, a Beverly Hills salesclerk, a man who painted murals on the side of his car. But when it was your turn to talk, she listened very carefully and always reminded newcomers that I, her grandson, had been the five-year-old author of the unpublished book The Ice Cream Cone That Talked.
After a long evening of reminiscing, Dad and Grandma started to make noises about going to bed. "Two Christmases in one day," Grandma said. "That's got to be tiring. I don't think I've ever done that." We came in off the terrace, yawning, and she pulled the sliding glass doors closed. I kind of barked a little laugh, and then I almost started to cry. She'd spray-painted the glass with an elaborate Christmas scene, swirls of snow, trees, reindeer, glittering ornaments. "Do you remember?" she asked. "Do you remember how I used to paint the doors in Florida?" I just stood there, nodding. When I don't want to cry, I blink. I blinked hard and fast.
"Benjie, do you remember?" she asked.
I nodded harder. I blinked harder. I'd had to travel all these miles so I could regain a missing piece of my life. I wasn't back where I'd started; I was somewhere new.
Of course. Of course I remembered.
BEN NEIHART is the author of two novels, Hey, Joe and Burning Girl, and, most recently, of Rough Amusements: The True Story of A'Lelia Walker, Patroness of the Harlem Renaissance's Down-Low Culture.