Friday, December 30, 2011


For Christmas this year, Alex gave us a board game entitled The Settlers of Catan. It involves earning victory points by building settlements and cities across an island map. You trade cards which represent sheep, ore, brick, wood and wheat. On one level the game is like Snakes and Ladders, or that polar bear game where you jump across the ice floes. On another level it's more like Risk or Chess.

So apart from the cooking and the celebrating and the giving out of presents, we've huddled around a game board all week long, asking questions like "Who has any sheep?" and "Who has wheat for wood?" I've enjoyed asking questions like this. I like how wood and wheat, even virtual wood and wheat, have come to hold new meaning. I've embraced our addiction to the game, and I think we all admit we've been addicted - me and Rozzie, Alex, Elliot and Ali, to our huddle around the table.

For me it was mostly about camaraderie. I haven't formed strategy so much as rolled the dice and bought what I could - the odd Development Card, piece of road or settlement. Rozzie pointed out that she could almost imagine herself taking a country walk along one of the roads she'd built -past fields and woods and meadows full of sheep.

For me, it was very pastoral, the settling of Catan. It was mentally challenging too, but above all it was pastoral.

We needed few breaks. When Atli telephoned from England, Rozzie asked him to phone back later - "Sorry darling, I'll explain later. We're playing a new game call the Settlers of Catan!" When Alice suggested taking us all out to dinner, we happily ordered in, and ate our take away Chop n Chicken while we played. And once a game was over, after a walk or a game of ping pong, we found ourselves a little antsy until someone had the courage to ask if we were up for another round.

Several evenings, after Ben and I went to bed the kids continued playing until the wee hours of the morning. Ali looked it up on line and read about championship games - and decided that our most recent game was on the same level. Ben said the house had taken on the quality of a ski lodge. Ali pointed out that in several days he had only been out of the house once when we went to the cinema to see The Artist.

But the final game we played was not the same. Maybe it was a defense mechanism on my part. I was sorry to see the beginning of the end of this game time together.
I suffered a heavy blow when Elliot cut my road in two -"sorry Mum" but he needed to win some points. Then Ali won. After Rozzie won. And Alex won after that. And I had a profound realization - This was the story of my life.

It felt as if I had been playing Snakes and Ladders all through my life - happy to be one of the players in a game entirely determined by chance - while other people had minimized the element of chance by strategizing, and setting their sights on winning from the get go. They started out with one aim in mind and that was to win. They didn't care how cute the game was, or about the feeling that we were wandering down country lanes. They played the odds to their advantage - they captured ports and traded heavily, building up their cities and their holdings.

Christmas was coming to an end. All of us, for several days had been in Never-never land. And suddenly it was over. Today Clare left to go to Iowa, and Alex went to New York, and Ali returned to Canada. Rozzie has gone back to Oxford and Alice is back in Hingham Massachusetts. In one fell swoop they have left the house.

Ben and I spent the day vacuuming and mopping floors and doing loads of laundry. Apart from the Christmas tree and a few remaining mince pies, the house is restored to its pre holiday status. Elliot is still here for the next two weeks, with his friends all home from college. But all that cooking and drinking and giving of presents is over now - and so is all the settling of Catan.

Hey - anyone up for a game?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I was in the Giant supermarket for a carton of milk, when I saw a local character – I’ll call him Charles – leaning on his zimmer frame walker, in the next but one check out line. I wasn’t in the mood for Charles, and I was in a hurry. I wanted to get back home to the house that has recently filled up with family. I’ve been acquainted with Charles for maybe fifteen years. I often stop to talk to him – or else he stops me. Sometimes I drive him back to his apartment, because he relies on the kindness of people like me to get where he is going. He is old and fairly immobile. Sometimes he asks or hints at his limited means, and I give him a little money. But I was in a rush, so at first I didn’t acknowledge him, thinking perhaps he might not see me. Since it is Christmas I felt well and truly ashamed, as I carried my provisions past where he was standing.

Then he noticed me.

“Hey!” he called.

“Oh hi Charles,” I said. “How are you doing?”

Turns out, he was hoping to buy some new corduroy trousers and needed two hundred dollars – he needed three pairs of trousers and they were expensive, “and I never seem to have any money.”

“It sounds very hard,” I said.

“It is,” he said. He was waiting for somebody else, there at the supermarket, somebody who had promised they might be able to help him.

Outside the Salvation Army guy was ringing his bell – and wearing an apron emblazoned with the words I am a bell ringer. “I would have thought that much was obvious,” Rozzie had observed.

“Charles,” I said, remembering the Christmas spirit. “I might be able to give you some money. But I don’t want the Giant employees to see us here and think that you are panhandling.”

“I don’t want that either,” Charles said in his shaky voice.

So I gave him what I had and we chatted a minute or two longer. He told me he was celebrating Christmas with people from the church. “Oh that sounds good,” I said. We parted on our usual friendly terms. And yet I felt ashamed. I wondered if I had given him the money to make myself feel less guilty. Or if I was doing what I could – or if I was doing something less than I could- because all Charles needs is human kindness, dignity and the ability to cope with his needs. That's what we all need, so why should I patronize. But there again, I could do better than I do.

The following day, Rozzie, Elliot and I along with my good friend Helen went to Old Town Alexandria to see one of my students in a production of A Christmas Carol. Before the show we wandered around King Street and did a little shopping. Rozzie found a spectacular blue parrot studded with beads and feathers to decorate our tree, and feeling very happy with the purchase, Helen said she’d treat us all to cupcakes. At the coffee counter in a little buzzing establishment off the main drag, Rozzie tried to get the waitress' attention, and gasped. “Jane?”

The girl behind the counter startled. “Roz!” she cried.

What a strange coincidence! It was an old friend from college who she hadn’t seen for several years. They exchanged pleasantries and decided that since Rozzie is back for the next few weeks, they must certainly get in touch. Yes, they absolutely must. Rozzie took Jane’s number, we said goodbye and left with our coffees.

Then as we were heading to the theatre, Roz remembered. Jane might have unfriended her on Facebook a few months back, although she couldn’t be sure. And wasn’t it a little strange, I put in, that Jane didn’t remember having met me, since she was our house guest in Rome for a week several years ago? Maybe Jane was feeling awkward. After all, she was at work. Or perhaps she was down on her luck. What did Roz and Jane have in common any more, we wondered. Was it a good idea to get back in touch?

Today Ben, Alex and Elliot moved a tall shelving unit from Elliot’s room, back to the basement, which Ben and Alex have recently remodeled. They moved a chest of drawers into Elliot’s bedroom, and a small table out of it, then a drafting table out of Alex’s room and into the basement – and a desk from the basement into Alex’s room, and a bedside table from the basement into Elliot’s room and a drum kit out of Elliot’s and into the basement.

At the end everyone felt irritable and uncomfortable. Elliot became a bit stroppy. He didn’t like it. Rozzie hugged him. “What’s the problem,” Ben asked. “We moved the stuff into your room as a temporary measure when we were redoing the basement.”

It turned out that it was just that Elliot’s room was getting further away from being his room. He’s been away at college and is understandably less invested in it than he was before. He sees now that the house and he are moving in different directions.

I know how he feels. Rozzie knows and so do Alex and Ben. That’s what happens when you move forward with life.

The Christmas holiday requires you to step back into a person you might have outgrown, or you might not feel like being just now. Sometimes you aren’t sure you want to reconnect. Sometimes you’re sure you do, but how can you do it, when you are a different person? You struggle to be charitable because that’s the Christmas spirit.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Last Christmas Eve it was too cold to stay outside on the terrace under the string of colored fairy lights. So we went indoors, and still dressed in coats, sitting in the narrow living room, the tree a haze of light, ornaments and the smell of pine, we decided on a game. We’d pick a Christmas, any Christmas, and go around the room telling stories.

Alex began by recalling the Christmas we spent in Venice. He was about twelve at the time and in his search for holiday gifts, went to the Christmas market in the square to join the bustle of Venetian last minute shopping. It was here he found a cloth bumble bee on a spring, bought it, wrapped it, and thought it just the thing.

Next Rozzie told her recollection, also of that Christmas spent in Venice. We had gone to San Marco Square. How cold it was with the smell of the canal. We went to Florians for tea. And she saw on the narrow lane near the bakery, a sock emporium, a place with beautiful socks for sale. In the window a mannequin’s leg, with toe pointed, had made a deep impression. It showed off a beautiful stocking, and at fourteen, she said to herself: This emporium is where I must buy socks! I must be a person who buys socks in a place such as this!

Elliot’s memory was also of that Christmas – of opening his present, a bag of plastic soldiers, which he played with all Christmas morning.

When I think of that Christmas, I remember it as bitterly cold and damp. The flat had heavy curtains and we ventured into the narrow streets and meandered wherever they took us, over bridges in the cold, filling our nostrils with the smell of canal water.

I had a cold. I remember feeling that I wanted to tap into something beyond ourselves. In visiting Florians Café, I was hoping to pick up some of the aura that Henry James had felt a hundred years before. I knew it was a stretch and that I had to force it in order to make myself feel what he had felt. Unfortunately Ben had been unwilling to play along, thinking the place too expensive, which of course it was. This is what must have put him in a mood.

So my children and I remembered that Christmas in Venice. What we wanted it to be and what it actually was. And somehow as we remembered, our stories combined with the story of the first Christmas itself, and with the story of that Christmas soon to be, in Falls Church, Virginia.