Smells like Christmas Spirit
It didn’t snow.
The woman who answered the phone when I called to book our room at the Aster Inn was kind enough to give me her account of the situation: “There’ll be a little white on the ground for you when you get here, honey – but we haven’t had a flake fall down in days and they say it’s supposed to be clear and bright all the way through the new year.”
Last year at the Aster, 18 inches fell overnight and the crazy lovesick couple in the unit next to ours woke up giggling like children. Times were fatter then so we were staying on the courtyard, instead of out front next to the freeway. I had to shove my weight into the door to get it to open and when I finally did, the world was marshmallow fantastic.
The lady from the lovesick couple waded out into the drift in her slippers and pajamas, hair in a shaggy ponytail, her lover’s hoodie around her shoulders. She was still laughing as she turned herself into a human plow, carving out the shape of a heart before throwing herself down in the middle of it and calling back into her room for John to come and see.
“She’s nuts!” Sal whispered from the bed behind me. I shut the door.
“Confirmed.” I said.
I pulled my camera from the bag and slapped on a wide angle lens.
In the end it wasn’t a good photo.
We called my father for a ride and he showed up in the old black Jeep to shuttle us up to the cabin that my parents call home. Sal built a swooping sled run. I dressed up as the Sasquatch and hid in the woods hoping someone would catch a glimpse of me. When my family finally proved too oblivious, I made my way to the back porch, cracked a Rainier beer and sat on the stoop.
For the record, I hate Rainier beer.
The Sasquatch-in-the-snowdrift act was an exclamation point at the end of a dramatic winter that caught all Pacific Northwesterners off guard. Portland was buried for over a week and everyone was forced to slow down and actually look at one another for a change. The effect was startling. The snow sent people out on foot. Impromptu orphan-Christmas celebrations popped up everywhere. The Potluck ruled the day and secret family recipes were wielded with bravado and pride.
The snow forced the issue. Holidays were mandatory. Slow the fuck down and drink a glass of mulled wine, ok?
But this year? Nothing. Not a flake in Portland and an unprecedented dry spell in Cle Elum.
The lack of storm left the roadways clear, so we took the back way up to the cabin heading North on 97 through the center of Washington State with big, barren landscape stretching out to the left and right. At the Aster we checked in to learn that we were the only guests for the next two nights which is to say that most people probably don’t spend Christmas in a po-dunk motel on the side of a highway.
The thing is, during Christmastime my parent’s cabin is a 700 square foot wooden structure with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room a bathroom, 8 human beings, 5 dogs and 2 cats. Things can get a little tight.
On top of that, my dad (god bless ‘im) sleeps with a darth-vadar machine strapped to his face to stop the monstrous snoring that terrorized me in my youth. It sort of works. Sometimes. And the walls are thin.
This year, my mother offered to “try an adventure she and Dad had always talked about”. Her plan was to sleep on the porch to create more room inside the house. This is funny for many reasons, not least of which the average temperature was predicted to be a balmy 10 degrees. But what was really hilarious (and kind of disturbing) was the fact that, if encouraged, I knew she would make good.
I can almost hear her: “No no, honey – it’s plenty warm. Look, we have Grandpa’s old army blankets.” (We’re not the sort of family to have fancy sub-zero sleeping bags laying around.)
Let the record show that my mother is 60 years old. And she’s going to hate that I published that on the internet.
It would be different if the cabin were actually a cabin in that romantic way that most people tend imagine it. A nice, weekend getaway outfitted with rustic furniture, carefully selected for the perfect degree of implied rustic-ness. A cozy little escape where we all converge for a few days and then disperse back to our otherwise urban and suburban existences.
Not so quick, bright eyes.
Sure, the cabin is nestled in the woods and yes, by all means, it’s cozy. You’ve even got a wood-stove and a few rustic light switch plates in the shape of moose. But at the end of the day, the cabin isn’t some dreamy second home. It’s the only home. And it’s got a well that never quite has enough water, a cistern that perpetually breaks, and a small hot water heater that never quite gets the tub hot enough for mom’s liking, forcing an endless procession of saucepans filled with boiling water.
The “driveway” freezes over at the slightest drop of the mercury, leaving a luge-worthy death trap of an incline (a personal point of pride for my mother who values isolation and interprets the treacherous passage to her home as a kind of modern winter moat).
I phone Dad when we arrive.
“How’s the driveway?”
“Sheet of ice. Need a taxi ride?”
“Yep. We’ll see you in fifteen.”
We’re probably pansy-asses, but in 2001 Sal put the CRV into the ditch on our first attempt at reaching Cabin Summit. I phoned up and Dad was on his way down in a matter of minutes hauling a huge sack of cut-rate kitty litter on his shoulder, two shovels in his hand (my dad has big hands), and a coupla two-by-fours under his arm.
I walked the rest of the way to the cabin and left them to it. I figured it was good man bonding time.
They got the car out that day, which was better than my sister did a few years later. She lodged her All-Wheel-Drive Volvo in so tightly that all the 100% Poppa Certified Kitty Litter Two By Four Magic in the world couldn’t save her. When we called for a tow truck they explained that there was only one truck this side of the mountains with a winch strong enough to handle our predicament. That truck was in Wenatchee and, well, we’d just have to wait.
We decided to keep her company, mostly so we could mock her relentlessly, and by the time the truck arrived we’d killed a six pack of the good stuff. We cheered as he pulled up to our position and cheered again when the slow-moving winch begin to retrieve the wagon.
Putting cars in ditches can be entertaining when there’s enough beer, but I’d rather leave the CRV intact at the Aster Inn and call the Papa-Taxi.
He likes to gun it a little over the bumpy parts, just to give you your money’s worth. And when he isn’t sure that we’ve fully appreciated the thick sheet of ice upon which we are driving (studded tires, Jeep, 4WD), he slams on the brake to emphasize his point. The resulting slide is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying – just the way I like it.
[Dear Mom, if you're reading this then disregard the last paragraph. Of course Dad would never really send us into a semi-controlled ice skid for entertainment purposes alone.]
It didn’t snow this year, but up at the cabin my niece was still begging with big puppy dog eyes to get someone to let her open presents. Five dogs were running circles around each other to be the first to own us with a thick layer of slobber.
It didn’t snow, but we still stoked up a new bonfire big enough to take the chill off an eleven degree night as we sat outside watching Christmas movies projected onto a sheet. Dad baked enough cookies to choke a Godzilla-sized Santa Claus and there was a pumpkin pie in the oven. My sister stole half the skin off the 22 pound turkey before it hit the platter and her youngest demanded one of the drumsticks and then proceeded to eat it with ketchup. (Blasphemy!)
We ate off paper plates anywhere we could find a place to sit down and then shot each other in the head with Nerf guns.
It didn’t snow, but it was perfect.
Because sometimes the Christmas spirit doesn’t come in the form of a winter storm. Sometimes it hits you in the temple while you’re scooping a spoonful of the World’s Best Mashed Potatoes into your piehole.
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