I’ve always been the kind of person who guards his Christmas traditions fiercely. Whether it’s pestering the rest of my family to wake up and open presents early on the morning of the 25th, or listening to that John Denver and the Muppets holiday album umpteen times, I’m a creature of habit when it comes to December.
But this past Christmas season drove me out of that comfort zone. This was the first Christmas that I spent with my girlfriend’s family.
During Crunchable’s recent hiatus, I began dating Janet, and six months later we’re doing quite well, thanks for asking. (Though we live exactly one mile apart from each other, we met on the dating site okcupid.com because the future is here, and it is weird and funny.) Janet’s parents, two of her siblings, and a good chunk of her family live in Charlotte, NC, where she grew up.
So, first we would spend a normal, sane Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Baltimore with my family (highlights included my dad’s traditional bacon-and-eggs Christmas breakfast, plus my parents’ gift of an amazing set of stainless steel trash cans with cat-proof, pedal-operated lids). And then, at 5:30 a.m. the next day, we would embark on the nine-hour trip to Charlotte.
We loaded up my Prius with our bags and Janet’s adorable dog Val and were on our way before sunrise. Janet would drive the first leg of the trip while I napped, switching when we arrived at her customary stopping point of Winchester, VA.
At least, that had been the plan, before I felt an uncomfortable rumbling in my stomach as the car came to a rest outside of the Winchester Starbucks. I don’t know if it was a sudden bout of carsickness, or just my body rebelling after a pitifully short night’s sleep. I dashed to the “customers-only” bathroom (their policy, not mine), hoping I’d keep down my granola bar and orange juice from breakfast. Unfortunately, a sudden wave of nausea led to an uncomfortably intimate encounter with a public toilet, followed by a hasty exit as I studiously avoided eye contact with the baristas and other customers.
I was still intermittently queasy for the rest of the drive. Janet, in her infinite patience and compassion, ate her breakfast sandwich and tater tots while standing outside in the snow, so that the smell of fried food wouldn’t set me off again. She also stopped to get me some store-brand Pepto-Bismol and a 20-ounce Sprite; I alternated swigs between the two bottles while she drove throughout the morning and afternoon.
We finally arrived in Charlotte around 5 p.m., but our travels didn’t end: Within the first six hours of our arrival, we had pinballed from Janet’s parents’ house to Old Navy to her 93-year-old grandmother’s house and back to the parents’ place. The next day we bounced to her younger sister’s house and a local soul food restaurant, then back to Grandma’s, the dog park, and her other sister’s house for pizza with the extended family.
I had never realized quite how much I’ve taken my own family dynamic for granted. My sister, my parents, and all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins live within about a 20-mile radius, and we see each other all the time. But Janet’s kin are more spread out: This Christmas, her brother came up from Florida, and there were cousins coming in Colorado, Georgia, and Tennessee. Everyone came through the hub of Grandma’s house, and I’m still amazed at how gracious she was to her parade of guests.
I’m also used to being part of the youngest generation at my family’s Christmases. It’s not so with Janet’s family: At her older sister’s house, I inevitably ended up on a play date with Janet’s nieces Hayden (age 5) and Harper (age 2½). During my first visit with her family in October, Aunt Janet had helpfully informed them that I was extremely ticklish. There’s something very humbling about writhing on the floor and begging for mercy from a pair of pint-size children.
Hayden then handed me a red-and-green cap with pointy elf ears and requested that I hide from her. It’s been a while since I played hide-and-seek, and I’ll admit that I was disappointed when she discovered me pinned behind the closet door in her bedroom.
Despite the whirlwind of travel, I’m glad I got to experience someone else’s holiday festivities. I got to taste-test growlers of craft beer with Janet’s brother-in-law. I got to visit her favorite yarn store. (Knitting is her chief hobby, though it approaches a life’s philosophy.) I grew into my role as Hayden and Harper’s “Tickle Monster.” I saw more of who my girlfriend is and where she came from, and I even felt at home with her family.
Oh, and the trip back? I did all of the driving, and we made it back in less than seven and a half hours. With no vomiting.