Well, it’s all over. The holiday chaos, the Christmas rush, the wrapping and unwrapping, the ooohing over the hideous sweater, the aaahing over Aunt Betty’s inedible gelatin salad (and, can I just ask — Jello, or salad? Make up your mind!) the cookies are gone, the tree is a shadow of its former self, and you’re wishing Jimmy Stewart would just go ahead and jump off the bridge already! (And, of course, you’ve gained a little holiday weight and are now the size of a Toyota Highlander.)
But, most importantly, the traveling is over. You’re home, stretched out on the couch, sipping the very last of the eggnog with the very last of the bourbon, huddled under a warm afghan, possibly watching Ohio State (woohoo!) crush — well, you fill in the blank, and beginning your post-holiday decompression. Because, this is the time when all grown “children” begin to question yet again how they could possibly have survived the family from which they sprouted.
Going home for the holidays is sort of like deep sea diving: It sounds beautiful in theory, but the instant you enter the water — or your mother’s house — you will ask yourself, “Why am I doing this, when I could simply stick a ski pole through my head?”
As you sink into the depths, the light fades, you’re surrounded by darkness. And, although you might get to see some interesting plankton (like your Aunt Barbara’s new nose, or your second cousin Tony’s girlfriend who once posed for Playboy) after a while it’s just too much to take in, and the longer you stay down there, the more panicked you’ll become, until you’re clawing your way to the surface and the safety of your own boat.
You pay no attention to the repeated warnings against coming up too fast. You kick those feet as hard as you can — or, maniacally heave your clothes into the suitcase and sprint for the car — forgetting that you need to decompress slowly. Otherwise, going home for the holidays — followed by the feverish scheming to get the hell out of there — can definitely cause the bends.
Now, being the kind of fun gal who can take a simile and beat it into a coma, I think of post-holiday bends as those pangs you get while driving through West Virginia on your way home. If you can’t find a good book on tape at Cracker Barrel, and there’s nothing but preaching and bluegrass on the radio, you will inevitably begin to have painful flashbacks that will stab your heart like a thousand teensy machetes: Your mom’s hearing is starting to go (stab!); your baby niece just received her master’s degree (stab!); your son is starting a business in probably the worst economy since someone invented the word economy; and your sister is looking … well, to be honest, middle-age and tired … and she’s younger than you (stab! stab! stab!).
Yes, my friends, diving into family and resurfacing too quickly is a dangerous combination. Preventing serious injury requires the aforementioned eggnog, bourbon, afghan and cozy couch — although the football game is nonspecific. In the safety of this decompression chamber you can slowly replace those stabbing thoughts with others that, while a tad frightening, at least validate your choice to live far away from anyone who shares your DNA.
Example No. 1: Mom’s hearing is not as good as it was, and that’s sad … then again, when she asked me to set the table for Christmas dinner, and I was moron enough to fold the napkins instead of using the napkin rings, and when I put the wine glasses on the wrong side of the water glasses, and when I wore that “appalling” blouse instead of the lovely turquoise snowflake-covered sweater she’d given me … well, that little hearing deficit covered a few muttered — and distinctly non-Christmas-like — observations on my part.
Example No. 2: You can choke back tears remembering the Christmas Eve luncheon that has been a family tradition for 45 years, everyone from your 84-year-old dad to your 1-year-old granddaughter was gathered together, laughing, hugging, exchanging gifts … or you can recall the toast your mother gave when all 29 of you were seated at the long table:
“A good friend of ours just died a couple of weeks ago. She was fine one day, the next day she had a stroke, and the day after that she died. She never had a chance to say goodbye and that’s so sad. So, just in case anything happens to Daddy or me — goodbye!” (Naturally, we now start every conversation with her by saying “Goodbye, Mom!”)
And now, after a long holiday visit with family, you can finally sit back, take a good look at your family of origin, and ask the question on everyone’s mind: Am I adopted?
Vicki Wentz’s column, which appears here on Sundays, is published in newspapers across the country. She is a high school teacher who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Readers may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.