Christmas in the Berkshires
Sunday, December 25 2005
setting: rural Hurley, Ulster County, New York
Gretchen and I are selling our Prius and have bought a simple 1997 hatchback Honda Civic on Ebay (it cost us $3000). Today, as part of a Christmas foray into New England, we would be picking up our used Civic in Hampton, an Atlantic beach town in New Hampshire and then doubling back across the northern tier of Massachusetts to attend a small Christmas dinner party in the tiny rural town of Hawley, Mass. This is where Mary Purdy's parents have a country home for those occasions when it proves necessary to get the hell out of Manhattan.
We abandoned our dogs without a walk at about 8:45 this morning, knowing their Aunt Andrea from up the street would be coming by to take them for a spoilage-rich sleepover. Our drive across Massachussetts (in our first Honda Civic) passed without difficulty. While Gretchen did all of the driving, my most notable accomplishment was the conversion of a quart of cold coffee into a similar volume of warm urine, which ultimately ended up in the same cranberry juice bottle that had held the coffee. It didn't stay there for long, though. The word for urine-filled containers thrown from a moving vehicle is "trucker bomb," but I didn't actually throw the container, just its contents, which quickly formed a golden aerosol in our wake.
In Hampton, New Hampshire, we knocked on the door we'd been directed to, and an apple-shaped man dressed in shorts came out barefoot to show us the car. Beach temperatures were in the high forties, so he wasn't too uncomfortable. The car looked to be in better shape than our Honda, at least in terms of its paint job. It started reluctantly, indicating an imminent battery replacement, and on the drive out to I-95 I noted the familiar pulsing of warped brake rotors (these plagued both the Punch Buggy Green and Bathtubgirl's old Volvo). Once I was up to speed on the highway, another vehicular idiosyncrasy manifested: a vibration appeared at 75 mph that later vanished at 80 mph. I should mention, by the way, that I was driving this car completely illegally, having slapped on a New York plate borrowed from the Prius (which didn't make any sense in the context of its New Hampshire State inspection sticker).
Hawley is a village in the Berkshires not far south of the Vermont line. Its rural hinterland is a tasteful array of old farms, sugar maple plantations, and vacation cottages. According to Mary, the countryside surrounding the cottage belonging to her parents hasn't changed at all in 30 years, defying the gravity of everything from Citgo to Walmart.
Over a year ago Mary's father Peter suffered from a freakish attack of Meningococcemia. Bob Lujano, one of the members of the Paralympic Quad Rugby team documented in the movie Murderball, had the same disease at the age of nine and ended up a quadruple amputee. Peter was relatively lucky, only losing his legs below the knee and the tip of one of his fingers. But he's still not entirely adjusted to his artificial legs. But he's not letting them get in the way of his life; he and Mary's mother will be traveling to the Galapagos soon.
I've become so familiar with Jewish get-togethers that the relative WASPyness of tonight's festivities made for something of a cultural shock. Mind you, the tradition from which I hail isn't Jewish and could even (at least on my mother's side) be characterized as WASPy. But there's a distinct strain of pragmatism tinted with Depression-era frugality, obligatory generosity, and a thick clot of Asperger's Syndrome in my family that tends to take most of the chill out of its rituals, replacing it with something possibly more alarming: narcissism. Interestingly, the only thing nostalgically familiar to me in tonight's Christmas dinner was a preoccupation with food-cleanliness, something I haven't observed in any family except my own. Then again, the man of the house recently lost both of his feet to an infection, so even if irrational, such concerns had their own logic. (Despite all the ancient Jewish rules about food cleanliness, in practice none of the Jews I know are any fussier about food hygiene than average Americans. I'm referring to such possibly-suspect acts as sharing drinking glasses, touching food with unwashed hands, and multiple people eating from a single plate.)
Though it was a Christmas dinner, it was a completely secular affair. Some sacred music occasionally wafted from the stereo, but more often than not it was some novelty version of a familiar song, done (say) by a group of Indonesians only glancingly familiar with Western major scales.
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