I grew up in California. Snow was something you went to, for it was a very, rare occasion that it fell from the sky. I remember it happening once; snow fell during seventh grade band class. Mr. Wright, our very thin conductor with a dark mustache and a banana-yellow leisure suit, let us open the door and watch the snow drop. It fell like light confetti, drifting after the parade passes. My mother used to remark, as we sipped champagne in the warm sun on the back deck of our house, waiting for our Christmas guests to arrive, that Christmas sun was why people moved to California and never left.
I was the last of my mother’s children to leave the Golden State, moving to Mercer Island, Washington when I did. As children, my siblings and I had been split apart by divorce and other circumstances, so I suppose it was natural for us to try to be close again. One of my sisters, my brother and his wife, and I lived in the same apartment complex and my eldest sister lived in Redmond, which wasn’t too far away. Though we were close in proximity and spent many birthdays and holidays together, I was told that everyone needed their privacy and space and so we did not spend as much time as I had anticipated with my move. But I did have a beautiful apartment. It was situated on top of a hill, in the top-most floor of the building, and my daughter and I could looked out over Lake Washington and across to Bellevue, watching the lights pop on as the sun faded west while we ate dinner.
Wasn’t it my first Christmas on Mercer Island that I flew my mother up. She hadn’t had all of us together for that Holiday in years. As was our tradition, we would have Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding with gravy, and mashed potatoes. Non-traditionally, we’d have a green salad, roasted broccoli with lemon and butter, and my favorite dish – mashed rutabagas. I was the only person in my family obsessed with this vegetable. Anyway, I had purchased all the makings for our Holiday feast before my mother arrived, three days before Christmas.
The day after her arrival, we all had several discussions about what to do for Christmas Eve. I wanted to go to Midnight Mass, which was a childhood tradition, but my sister wanted to go to early mass at the Cathedral. Eventually, on Christmas Eve, both of my sisters, my mother, and the children, (including my daughter, I believe) went to mass. My brother and his wife didn’t go nor did I but we also didn’t spend the time together. After mass, we had soup and then, as was our tradition, opened all the packages from family, which cleared the tree for Santa.
In the morning, my mother and I awoke together. We walked down the hall, talking still about the church conflict and looking at what Santa had brought my daughter. Mom plugged in the Christmas tree, which stood just to the right of my big window and as she stood up, I pulled open the shade. We froze, each catching our breath. From where we stood, we could see the snow blanketing the little hill behind my apartment. The other buildings were covered in white, falling away to the frosty, black water of Lake Washington. Bellevue sparkled like an ice sculpture in the distance – a frozen city glistening on a gray-white horizon. We looked at each other. “This will be the best Christmas ever,” I whispered. “Yes,” my mom replied. So much for Christmas in California.
My mother had a look that we called, Despair. It was the certain aspect on her face when she wondered how we, her children, had come so far given the fact that what we were doing, at the time, something that, to her, seemed, well, dumb. I remember four distinct times my mother looked at me in this manner after I reached adulthood. Once, I was looking at her picture when she was about twenty-years old. I asked her why she dyed her hair dark when she was younger. Despair. I remember looking at her wedding rings, asking her why she didn’t wear them anymore. Despair. My eldest sister came in my apartment with my mother to drop my mother’s luggage off before they went shopping. My sister proclaimed that I had lost my keys AGAIN. I was always losing my keys. Never having entered my apartment before, my mother walked into my kitchen, opened the silverware drawer, rummaged around the back of it, and pulled out my keys. Without a word, Despair, dropping the keys in my hand as she headed out the door, followed, in awe, by my sister. Finally, the fourth “Despair”, was when I pulled out a gigantic rib roast from my refrigerator Christmas Day. “It never looked this big when you bought it,” I noted, with a shrug. “You didn’t buy a rib per person, did you?” she asked, squinting at me. I didn’t want to answer. I knew something terrible was about to happen. But when my mother looked at any of us that way, we had to answer. “Well – yeah.” Despair.
We hung a note on the door, inviting anyone who wanted to come in to do so, for we had half a cow. Only my family and my friend, Laurie, showed up. We sat down to eat, my mother and I looking out at the snow, sipping our champagne and at that moment, I noticed something happening across the table. My very, quiet sister-in-law, Amy, dropped a spoonful of the sad, lonely rutabagas onto her plate. I gazed at her over my champagne glass, watching her pour gravy over them. She put her fork in the vegetable, stuck it in her mouth, and it was then, though I didn’t fully comprehend the profound implication at that time, I found my sister-friend. Bound together, we are, by the root – vegetable.