I want to tell you about the best part of Christmas, which happened by chance, and didn’t involve presents or the tree, but a middle-aged woman and a large aging dog.
For the weeks leading up to Christmas, every conversation I had with friends and strangers involved a sigh and “It’s only one day.” I have to wonder about that one day, since it seems to be preceded by a whole lot of other anxious, weary, and over-burdened days of preparation and reluctant anticipation. The complaints:
- family and the inevitable quarrels due to stress
- coming up with ideas for presents
- funding presents
- buying presents
- receiving unwanted presents
- pretending to be thrilled with said presents
- getting, making and eating of holiday foods leading to…
- the discomfort that follows eating badly under stress
I’m sure I’ve missed a few things there, but that’s pretty much the gist. Interestingly, I didn’t hear one person enthuse about Christmas or the Christmas spirit. At one time that would have surprised me.
This is where I’m coming from: growing up in a difficult household where the Christmas break was just more time to be trapped in it. But like a lot of other Jewish kids, my idea of Christmas was idealized.
I didn’t miss the presents. I really thought it was all about peace and goodwill (of which my kid’s life was in short supply)–what I saw in It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. I envied that, the music and the glitter that went with it, the decorations and OMG the tree!
As a young adult, I helped friends who were without their families celebrate Christmas, and in that way I perpetuated the idealism I’d acquired in front of the tv in the finished basement of a 1960’s house.
Now that I have my own family, however, I get the full experience, spending Christmas day with my inlaws. Our tradition includes an afternoon walk in the snowy ravine behind the house where my husband grew up. It was colder this year than last, mercifully so, since last year’s walk was cut short by rain. I wish I had taken my camera, but you’ll just have to imagine the Don River, frozen where the pool is deep, and gurgling in the riffles.
My kids, city dwellers, were thrilled by the sand bars and rocks and barely frozen water. (Stop! A and I both yelled at the same time as one of them clambored down a rock toward the water.) We walked up the path through the ravine on both sides of the river as it angled up onto a cliff and then down again by the river. One side was eroded by water, the other side forming sediment as the river shifted further into the bank.
On the way back, just as we’d be leaving the ravine, we saw someone crouched beside a dog. I didn’t pay too much attention at first, though it seemed odd, because it also looked oddly private. “Help!” she called. “I think my dog is dying.”
She was a middle-aged woman, maybe a bit older than me, with a pleasant face, lots of smile wrinkles, though she was crying now. Her dog had had a seizure the day before, and she thought he’d just had a stroke. “What will I do? I can’t leave him,” she said.
“Of course not.” I came closer, my hand out for the dog to sniff, but he growled and bared his teeth. “We’ll walk with you,” I said.
And so we did, slowly, the big dog walking stiffly, but managing. His name was Cyprus, and he was terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Suddenly he’d dropped and all he could think, I’d guess, was that it must be these strangers’ fault. I made sure my kids stayed back, behind or on the other side of myself, A and N, my brother-in-law. I spoke quietly, hoping to soothe Cyprus and his person, the middle-aged woman with the great smile, whose name I never did catch.
There was no winter wonderland. Snow was patchy on the lawns, slushy and brown.I don’t remember what we talked about, only that the content was less important than the connection between us. She wasn’t alone. And in that we all felt the peace of the day, the meaning of if in our walk through the quiet suburban streets.
By the time we got near her house, Cyprus was doing better and so was she, radiant in her relief. Her daughter had been Cyprus’s person until she went across the pond to the UK early in the year. She was visiting her mom, arriving in her car just as we turned the corner onto her street. She lowered her car window. Cyprus barked and wagged his tail at us. “I think he had a stroke,” the woman told her daughter.
“I told you not to take him for a walk,” she snapped.
Her mother’s face turned red; we smiled sympathetically. “Families,” I said, “they’re all the same.”
We laughed together. We turned back to walk toward my mother-in-law’s house.