Last year we stayed in Verona over the holidays, having blown our bank on a stateside trip during the month of August. It was a full immersion Italian Christmas with Mary the dog, hunkered down in the warm kitchen with all our cooking, strolling among the winking lights in the piazza, wonderful to be sure but man we missed home —and I think folks really missed us too. This year we’ll be arriving a week before the Big Day so we can help Peg and Mr. Spera stand up the “real tree” and decorate the house.
We carry boxes and boxes of ornaments and decorations down from the Spera’s attic to their assigned areas on the first floor. Peg knows where everything should go.
One of these days I’ll call my father-in-law by something other than “Mr. Spera”. Lawren and Peg tease me about it. It’s interesting, though. For example, I would never have called my Dad by his first name; though Paul Spera is not my father, of course, I’ve come to have a real filial lean towards him. I give him the same deference and respect I’d give my Dad too. Somehow “Mr. Spera”, though it sounds formal, seems the right kind of honorific to express this- and of course I use it with great affection.
Lawren has a joke that I’m the son Mr. Spera never had; we’ve become buddies it seems, he and I, doing our runs to the landfill, the little fixer-ups around the house. We made a diorama for Chuck and Miranda’s boys, the twins Ian and Aaron, so they could move their toy soldiers around on it —I think it was Peg’s idea. She supplied us with sticks to make miniature fences, little trees you can buy in the craft store, rocks and green fluff and a glue gun. I think Mr. Spera and I had more fun making it than the twins will ever have playing with it.
Among and around the bright moments and warm feelings we can all find, even in the hectic middle of the holiday season, there’s a lot of yeoman’s work that has to be done in creating and sustaining the Christmas atmosphere you’ve always enjoyed. If you’re Peg, this means baking and shopping and wrapping for a ton of friends and family; unpacking and arranging hundreds of decorations; the dishes and silverware, the hosting, the table setting. It’s not always fun for her and it gets harder as she and Mr. Spera get older, but Peg is disinclined to entertain any suggestion that she might scale back her activities.
I completely respect this drive of hers and even relate to it, this need to set yourself a series of tasks and get them done inside your own timetable. It makes you seem a little mad if you’re really pushing yourself and others can’t see why. It’s easy for us to say we don’t need so many types of cookies and I’m sure Peg knows that Christmas won’t be cancelled if she fails to produce all twenty varieties. She makes them by hand, year after year, because it’s beautiful and because she expects it of herself- and of course we expect it too, in the end.
I go running in the early mornings through the winter woods of Virginia*. What a beautiful, poignant smell. I close my eyes and breathe in that air and a flood of memories like flashes in a stream of water just hits me —I can feel memory.
At nightfall, I stand outside in the five o’clock winter air with the moon already rising as the sun smolders behind a wooded screen- it’s one of those perfect cold evenings; all you hear is the sound of your breathing as the plume cracks through the blue dark and the sky is like a great glass jar containing every tiny moment of every life lived here in this place.
* Lawren note: we both went running most mornings, but Steve did a longer trail run at Camp Hilbert.