Home for the holidays: A personal essay and reading list

When I was a kid, the holidays were about grandma’s house. On Boxing Day we would pack the whole family into our rickety minivan – my sister and I in the middle and my brother pulling our hair from the back seat – and drive an hour up the lake to Grandma N.’s house.

My grandmother had eight daughters and no sons. Her husband was a Russian Mennonite fur trapper and farmer, a massive, grisly man with whiskers that could scrape the skin off your cheeks. He died when I was a baby. All my aunts and their familys would converge on my grandma’s tiny house at Christmas. It smelled like baking bread, cigarette smoke and perm oil. My grandma would always eat the turkey neck at dinner. It was her favorite part, so her claim to it was an immovable tradition.

1997: I’m reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I hide an entire box of chocolate brandy beans under grandma’s couch and nibble my way through them  when no one is looking.

I was an incredibly shy child and a total bookworm. The boisterous laughter and gossip of the women around the kitchen table, punctuated by my grandma’s strange Low German curse words, was intimidating to me. When my cousins weren’t around to play with, I hid and read books– pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I continued this personal tradition throughout my childhood and teen years, and so many of my memories of the holidays revolve around a particular book I was reading.

 2004: I’m reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. My cousin, Morgan, and I barely talk all day, even though we were once inseparable playmates. We’re getting older, growing apart.

Apart from exercise, reading is the only thing that calms me down. In middle school I began to experience a lot of anxiety. Reading was a constant in my life that let me escape and focus on one thing only. It let me feel in control of my own mind.

In my late high school years, my grandma’s health began to deteriorate. She moved in with my aunt’s family who lived just down the road from her old house. One day she didn’t recognize me anymore. I would take her hand and sit with her and she would smile. She knew I was someone but not exactly who. With that many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to keep track of, I don’t blame her.

2009: My older brother shows up late and high as a kite to Christmas dinner and falls asleep next to me on the couch. I’m reading Anna Karenina.

I moved away from my family to go to school across the country. Around the winter holidays, I start having dreams about my grandmother’s old house. Except that in my dreams it’s much bigger, almost palatial. I’m running through all the rooms, rooms I don’t remember being there before, but they still smell the same. It’s snowing outside. I usually end up in my grandmother’s bedroom. It’s still the same – dark wood paneling, fuzzy carpet, her vanity mirror on the dresser, little shelves with dusty figurines. A small window looking out into the garden. It’s snowing….

2011: I’m home for Christmas after my first semester at university. I’m reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  An ex-boyfriend calls me, drunk and incoherent. I hang up.  After Christmas dinner I go down to the lake to watch the waves roll in. 

There are some traditions that you lose forever. My grandma died two years ago at the age of 93. She was the matriarch of our family, and her passing left a fixed void in our family, especially felt around the holiday season. No one’s ever going to bake bread like she did, or slather it with quite as much butter. We don’t know what to do with the turkey neck anymore – it seems wrong to throw it out, but equally wrong for anyone else to eat it. My student budget means I won’t be traveling home for Christmas this year, but reading is a tradition that I can always return to during the holidays.

Of course, books are not cure-all – if you are experiencing serious or debilitating depression, stress or anxiety, please seek out the help of a qualified mental health professional). But reading can be a coping mechanism for the pressures of the season, a way to pass the time during the dark days of winter, and in my opinion, the best way to alleviate the loneliness of being away from loved ones during the holidays. See below for a list of fiction to keep you company over the holidays, whether you’re spending time with family, or maybe even going it alone for the first time. These books are ones I happened to pick off my bookshelf. Much of the reward of reading is the joy of discovery. If you have any you think should be on this list, feel free to leave recommendations in the comments below.

[I]mage courtesy of Blankets by Craig Thompson