Whenever I drive from Chicago to Missouri, I always score my drive using the same pattern. I begin with a handful of cds I like (this trip it was Mark Ronson's Record Collection, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, and random Girl Talk mixes), then peruse the radio for hidden gems (a college radio station, an 80's hour, etc.) and usually finish my trip with NPR. I think this method is effective for many reasons (the radio keeps me awake, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me keeps me laughing), but I had a small epiphany during my last trip home, and it was directly related to this formula.
It seems that if you listen to more than an hour of any classic rock station, you're bound to hear Bryan Adams or Bruce Springsteen at least once. Bryan Adams is probably less likely, as he has less commercial hits and more ballads, but "Summer of '69" is a frequent presence on southern Illinois radio. In addition to "Born to Run", "Born in the USA", "Dancing in the Dark", "I'm on Fire" (this isn't played that often, but I really love this song), and a lengthy list of other hits, "Glory Days" is also seemingly in constant rotation. Both of these songs have a wonderful karaoke bar quality to them, but more importantly, they represent the power of retrospection and regret.
As a carefree college student, I would listen to these songs as I drove up highway 70 and think about what crybabies these two working class tough guys were. So your high school band collapsed after one of your friends decided to get hitched. BFD. (You said so yourself that the band would never get far!) Your girlfriend split up with you because you left her standing on a porch forever. That's on you, Bryan. Although Springsteen had a little more credibility in my eyes (I have a soft spot for people from New Jersey...well, some people from New Jersey), I still didn't understand what there was to miss about high school. As a man in your thirties, shouldn't you be looking forward to the rewarding aspects of life that come with marriage and having a family? I know the song is comprised mostly of vignettes about other people, and that "Summer of 69" is really just an extended memory, but it was hard for me to empathize with these songs. As someone in their late teens/early 20's, I felt that the best times were ahead of me. Drinking at the VFW while reminiscing about things I can't change was pathetic, cliched, and light years away from the success college promised.
That being said, after this past Christmas, I listen to these songs differently. I don't consider myself to be more nostalgic than the average person, but my sense of tradition is freakishly potent during the holidays. For me, Christmas and Thanksgiving have always been the constants during an otherwise unpredictable year. With the exception of last Christmas, I have spent both holidays with my family almost every year. Something about eating the same food, with the same people, is a comfort that, for those few days, makes the rest of life melt away. Homemade Christmas cookies, the opening of a single gift on Christmas Eve, and presents tucked into stockings (yes, I am 26 and still have a stocking at my parents' house) are things I look forward to during the entire year. I know this is weird for someone my age, but I fucking love Christmas.
Well, I used to fucking love Christmas.
I knew that going home had the potential to be awkward; my parents are seriously considering getting a divorce and their ability to get along is directly proportional to how much stress surrounds a particular situation. In other words, I should've seen my visit as an emotional landmine months ago, but assuming that my parents' marital problems would be brushed aside in the name of Christmas, I went ahead and stepped on it anyway. Bad move. I came home on the 20th to find a tree only half decorated with lights, no plans to make cookies, and a house that was mostly empty. Between my dad's work, my mom's job, and my sister's internship, hardly anyone was ever there. (Nick was home occasionally, but spent most of his time with Sharon or at bars.) When people did get home, they ate in separate rooms, tvs blaring, and hardly spoke.
As the oldest child, I took it upon myself to bring my family together for the holiday, so I made dinner, decorated the tree while everyone was at work, and wrapped presents. I turned on White Christmas, went shopping with my dad for cookie supplies, and waited for the magic to happen. However, my plans backfired horribly, almost hilariously, when the tree fell over the morning of Christmas Eve. I woke up to find a massacre of ornaments (seriously--I found one Santa's arm about a foot from his body) and a pile of wet presents. I woke up my dad and spent half an hour cleaning up pine needles, picking up glass, drying presents, and trying to glue together a broken Baby's First Christmas. My mom made a brief appearance to complain about who put up the tree (my dad) and declare that this was "the shittiest Christmas ever" before going back to sleep.
Her tantrum reminded my dad that the family hadn't bought my mom her "big" gift yet, so we headed to Coach to buy her a wallet and purse and ran a few other errands. I met a friend for lunch, and when I got home, my mom was pissed. She wanted to know where we'd been, why my dad wasn't buying groceries for the Christmas meal, and why we didn't answer our phones. (I had called her and left her a message letting her know we were out, but I guess that was overlooked.) She yelled, swore, declared that she was leaving, and cried for about an hour. I tried to comfort her, but it was difficult because I was 1. pissed off and 2. really confused. According to my sister, my mom had made these outbursts a pretty standard occurrence in the Powers house, but this was my first exposure to them. (I've been receiving "he said/she said" phone calls for months, but nothing this crazy.)
After everyone ate Chinese food for dinner in front of their respective tvs again, I tried to generate some excitement about the Christmas Eve gift opening. My brother left after my mom's freak out, so I texted him our plans to open the customary one gift around 9. I didn't hear from him until 11, and the weight of overall unenthusiam crushed me. I know that reading this, missing out on the Christmas Eve tradition doesn't seem like a big deal, but it was to me.
Somehow I managed to get through Christmas and the rest of my visit. I found myself using any excuse to get out of the house ("I think we're out of milk!") and absorbing as much satellite tv as possible. Without knowing it, I had adopted the coping mechanisms of my entire family, and I didn't realize this until my drive back to St. Louis. As I was pulling out of a Culver's in Springfield, "Glory Days" came on. While I initially wondered why more songs don't use harmonicas, I found myself looking back on all of the wonderful Christmases past. I thought about spending a day making frying pan cookies and seven layer delights, laughing at Grandma's creepy singing Mrs. Claus (long story), and waking up to my sister's incessant knocking and yelling on Christmas morning. Then I thought about this Christmas, and how I woke up before everyone else, quietly placed the presents in piles, and had a cup of tea. There was no yelling, no breakfast, and no stockings. Just polite thank yous and lots of tv.