It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.
A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.
It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.
Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.
You completely screwed up.
I used to love Christmas.
The rituals, mostly.
Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.
Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.
My family, together. My family, in love. My family, happy.
Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.
Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.
The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.
This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.
So I fled.
To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.
I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.
The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.
It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.
But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.
It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.
Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.
I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.
Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.
Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.
They are your real Christmas.