December 24, 2018
Driving south on Interstate 95 from northern Virginia to Petersburg is a grind. Switching to I-85 brings some relief, the highway goes to two lanes, the traffic diminishes, and the woods close in, tall oaks casting shadows on the asphalt, even in the dead of winter. We fly through that to South Hill, pass Lake Gaston and cross into North Carolina, still a long way to Greer, South Carolina, where we’re heading for Christmas with our kids and grandsons.
We’ve made this drive a dozen times since Mike and Marie moved with their two boys to Greer from Alexandria, where they were 20 minutes from us. Now it’s around nine hours on a good day. This stretch of I-85 plods past scrub woods and small towns until Durham, where it joins I-40 for a while, then farther west, past Raleigh, then turns into more relentlessly commercial-suburban bleariness. It then tacks south before hitting Greensboro, in the center of the piedmont, then Charlotte in another 100 miles. Sandy is driving all the way, since I can’t drive for another three weeks.
We’re looking forward to Christmas, although not the cruise through near-empty Carolina countryside. Now, for me, it summons memories of our short-lived summer road trip, before we started thinking so much about doctors’ appointments. Starting off, in mid-August, we schlepped through the green mountain jungles of West Virginia, climbing and descending, rounding those scary turns, making slow time. We saw places like Romney, Burlington, Grafton, Clarksburg, none of which we’ll ever visit again, but can say at least that we saw them (does anyone care?). The adventure continued through Ohio’s rolling farmland and small towns, Indiana’s industrial kitsch, and Illinois’ flat miles of corn. Then Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, etc.
What a difference four months made. Now we’re veterans of a half-dozen doctor’s waiting rooms and operating and recovery rooms in two hospitals. The country is different, too, as national leadership has gone delusional, good people abandoning it, the guttersnipes ascendant. Even with the sun shining today in chilly late December, perseverating on the darkness of the moment has become almost reflexive.
Yet we’re persevering. We scrambled a bit to get ready for this Christmas—not in the delicious panic of years past when the kids were small, but—a bit. We got some shopping done, at a lower level, having pretty much given up trying to get what people really would like. The fun of it, I used to think, was being bold, giving gifts I thought the recipients SHOULD like. That never worked very well, and within weeks the gifts I gave were mostly exchanged, and I couldn’t remember any of them. I’ve given up on that approach. After all, thirty-something adults don’t really need anything. So the gift-giving has become the trivial part of Christmas.
What matters now, as always, is Christmas as benchmark for renewal. The cards, Christmas Eve Mass, the bright lights, the travel planning, the food shopping—all that—makes us glad because it anticipates something else. Christmas reinforces our faith in its own truth, the birth of Christ, the wonder of children learning of the miracle conveyed by a church nativity scene. It draws us to the future. Seems that every Christmas we wonder what happened to the year since last Christmas—gone in a blur. So we promise ourselves that we’ll do great things in the coming year, and the promises are themselves worthwhile. To call them new year’s resolutions makes them banal. Christmas tells us who we are, or who we should be.
The best part of this trip for me is the stretch south of Charlotte, when you know you’re out of the urban mid-Atlantic and into the South, although aside from the weather and the politics, there’s not much difference any more. The interstate through the Carolinas is lined with flat-roofed glass-enclosed factories, more of them, actually, than in Virginia. If you press on for another hundred or so miles, you approach the red clay of north Georgia then get swallowed in the traffic cyclone of Atlanta.
Beyond that you cross into Alabama, where the tragic legacy of this huge swath of the country resonates. You continue west on I-20 to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, retracing our September route, or turn north at I-65 in Birmingham towards Tennessee, the southeastern corner where Sandy grew up, then to Nashville, where we lived for 12 years and where our three older kids were born. She and I remind ourselves that the move to the Northeast changed the trajectory of their lives, but they still have to acknowledge the Southern connection.
The point of all of this is that whatever you do, or wherever you go at Christmas, you confront possibilities, even obligations, for thinking about the past, including the regrets and mistakes that cannot be forgotten—but then also the promise of grace. You change scenery or stay home, you put up a tree and decorate it or not, you witness the grim battle between the retailers marketing from October to New Year’s and the imprecations from church billboards to worship with them.
But the truth of Christmas has the power to outlast all that, and the power to make whole the mistakes and regrets. We look back, we remember trying times, but also the incandescent love of those close to us. We look forward to coming weeks and months, maybe nervously. But Christmas comes to us and remains, year after year, offering memories and lessons, renewing hope that brings peace, and joy.