We arrived at the cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park around quarter to four, almost exactly the same time Beth’s mom and aunt Carole did. As we were driving into the park YaYa texted to say they were at the lodge picking up the keys, so we drove straight to the cabin and started unloading our copious luggage onto the porch while we waited for them.
By quarter to five Beth and Noah had the tree in its stand, North had decorated the mantle, YaYa and I had put food into the fridge and cabinets and we were pretty well settled in, so everyone but North went for a walk up the park road. Carole and YaYa were ready to turn back before Beth, Noah, and I were, so we continued to the Pendleton Overlook where we took in the lovely view of the canyon and a vivid sunset. As we walked there, Beth noted that although our cabin seemed to be the only one occupied in its cluster of five, the next two groups of cabins seemed more have cars parked in front of most of them.
“No one wants to be near us,” Beth observed.
“It’s because we’re so loud,” I said. “The party house.”
Back at said house, Beth defrosted the frozen chili we’d brought from home and made a pan of cornbread. After I’d done the dinner dishes, we all watched The Year Without a Santa Claus and I risked a few bites of white chocolate Chex mix. (After I checked my bedtime blood sugar, I told Beth, “I could have had more Chex mix,” which made her laugh. Healthy eating seems to come more easily to her than to me.) North, Beth and I were all in bed by 10:30 because as Carole said, we “retire early.” Not such a party house after all, but Noah and the elders stayed up for a while after that and he answered their questions about drones and other things.
Friday: Christmas Eve
Beth went for a walk in the woods, then went shopping and came home with many bags of groceries and cautionary tales of a supermarket in which she was the only person masked. Everyone else stuck to the house. Noah and I read a couple chapters of The Space Between Worlds and watched a couple episodes of What We Do in the Shadows. North was still reading The Shining. Beth strung lights on the tree. After lunch, YaYa and Carole left for a walk and the kids and I made gingerbread cookies.
I’d forgotten to bring cookie cutters and whenever I do this (no, it’s not the first time) they are surprisingly hard to find in stores. Beth looked when she went shopping but didn’t see any. So we cut the dough into circles with glasses and shaped the rest by hand. We decorated with dried cranberries, nuts, and bits of broken candy cane and made six in the shapes of everyone’s first initials. As soon as we’d baked four trays of gingerbread, North got to work on a batch of chocolate-peppermint cookies. I went for a walk along the path behind the cabins and then circled back to the park road while North was baking.
Next it was time to decorate the tree. Carole exclaimed over our extensive collection of ornaments, to which she’d just contributed two pretty wooden snowflakes. North seemed especially pleased to see the ones they’d picked over the years—the passport from the year they went to Colombia, the theater masks, etc. With everyone pitching in it only took about a half hour to finish and there was some spirited singing along to “Feliz Navidad” which took me back to when the kids were in elementary school in a Spanish immersion program and how that number was always on the programs of the Holiday Sing.
I was the designated Christmas Eve cook and I made salad and two pizzas (with grocery store dough). One had mushrooms, garlic, rosemary, and vegetarian Canadian bacon. The other one had the same toppings on one half and the other half left plain. The evening’s entertainment was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. YaYa and Carole, who are not in the habit of watching the same 1970s stop-motion Christmas specials every year, tried to remember if they’d seen it when their kids were small, and expressed delight at the voice acting cast, which includes Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney (as they had for Shirley Booth in The Year Without a Santa Claus the previous night). The kids, who do watch these shows every year, sang along with several of the songs with great brio. They know every word.
After the show, everyone but Noah (who objects to this practice) opened one gift and when we’d finished our illicitly premature gift opening, he read “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” to us. Carole said he has such a nice reading voice he should record audiobooks.
Beth and I were the first two awake on Christmas morning, before seven, but North was up soon after, and they got busy in the kitchen, making our Christmas breakfast of scrambled eggs, vegetarian Canadian bacon and sausage, a fruit plate, and a delicious lemon-cranberry loaf. Noah was the last to rise, shortly before nine, and when he did we opened our stockings. We’d brought a stocking for Carole and she said she hadn’t had one in since the last time she’d spent Christmas with her daughter and granddaughter and she seemed pleased to have candy and little gifts to open.
After breakfast we opened the presents under the tree. Many books, socks, clothes, candles, packages of tea and flavored sugars, jars of jam, bars of soap, and Amazon gift cards were exchanged. Plus Noah got extra propellors and filters for his drone and North got an air fryer (or rather the news that one had been purchased and left at home because it was too big to fit in the car).
After presents were opened, people scattered to take walks, read, nap, and work on the puzzle Carole had brought. It’s a map of West Virginia with illustrations of various attractions and Beth and Noah got to work on it in earnest that afternoon. I’d been intending to take a walk after lunch, but the steady drizzle we’d been having all day had turned to a hard rain and I thought I’d wait to see if it let up a bit.
Yes, it was raining on Christmas in a place where we can usually count on, if not a fresh snowfall, at least some snow on the ground, enough to say it was a white Christmas. But on the drive to Blackwater when we got to the elevation where there’s almost always snow, there were just a few melting patches here and there and a little ice on the roadcuts. I thought that was bad sign and when we got to the cabin, while there was snow on the deck—which I should have photographed because it melted that night—there wasn’t much anywhere else, and no snow fell during our stay. In Ashland, Oregon, where my mom, sister, brother-in-law, and niece live, and where snow is pretty rare, they did have a white Christmas, so I guess they got ours. I’m glad for Sara because she’d been hoping for this for years. And while Beth does love snow, she said it was fine, as long as she was in the hills among the evergreens and rhododendrons, and I will take her at her word.
I decided to brave the rain around 3:30 and I picked a good time to leave because while I was walking, the drizzle petered out and then stopped altogether. I walked down to Pendleton Lake, first to the beach and then over the dam. The day was gray and misty, and the silver, rippling waters of the lake and tall, dark trees were pretty in an austere way. I walked for an hour and didn’t see another soul until I returned to the house and saw YaYa and Carole setting out for their own walk.
When I got home I curled up in bed with a book, not one of my many Christmas books, but one of the last ones I had in my to-read pile before Christmas, The Pull of the Stars, and read almost a third of it before dinner. It felt quite luxurious to read that long. (I finished it two days later.)
YaYa and Carole made YaYa’s famous spinach lasagna for dinner and we all re-grouped to eat that with salad and vegetarian sausage. We toasted to a merry Christmas with wine and sparkling cider or white grape juice. Somehow we got to talking about college—mostly North’s future plans (they want to go to culinary school) and YaYa and Carole’s reminisces about what college was like in the fifties and early sixties, with dorm curfews and dress codes and such. The current college student had the least to say about college of anyone. Then we watched Christmas is Here Again, the last Christmas movie in our regular rotation (though not the last Christmas movie we’d watch at the cabin).
Sunday to Wednesday: A Blur of Days After Christmas
The day after Christmas was the only day we were at the park that rain wasn’t forecast, so we made the most of it. In the morning Beth, Noah, and I hiked down to the bottom of Blackwater Falls. It was beautiful, as always, but there were none of the interesting ice formations we often see along the rockface of the gorge or on the rocks at the edge of the water. I do have to say it’s a much easier descent when the wooden staircase isn’t encased in ice, though. We lingered a while on the lowest platform so Noah could take pictures. When we’d climbed back up, he tried to launch his drone but the wind was too high. (He wouldn’t be able to fly the whole time we were there because of weather conditions and technical difficulties.) Later on, all six of us took the accessible trail to view the falls from the other side of the canyon and Noah used his tripod to get a group shot.
After lunch, Beth and I headed out for the third and longest hike of the day, up to Balanced Rock. As you may guess from the name, it’s one boulder balanced on another at the top of a ridge. We started at the lodge and hiked past Elakala Falls and through the forest of towering rhododendron bushes, hemlock and spruce—their needles are what stains all the waters in the park gold to reddish brown. The trail was lined with ferns and moss and lichen-covered rocks.
Like the falls trail, it was also an easier climb than when the trail is covered with slick, packed snow, or obscured by deep, powdery snow, or covered in ice with water running underneath and a camouflaging layer of leaves on top, which are just a few of the conditions in which we’ve hiked it. It was quite muddy, though, so we had to watch our step. It took almost two hours to get to the top and back down. The day was quite pleasant, sunny and in the mid-forties, just about the right temperature for a moderately strenuous hike. Unlike on my solitary walk the day before, everywhere we hiked that day we encountered people and dogs, all taking advantage of the clear day, I guess. (And I made a discovery that day, which is that if you hike for more than two and a half hours, you can eat cookies with almost no impact on your blood sugar. I had a gingerbread cookie at the bottom of the falls and a chocolate-peppermint cookie after we finished our descent from Balanced Rock and they barely showed up on the graph on my diabetes app.)
I spent the late afternoon and early evening reading and folding laundry and reading some more. North made a very elaborate and tasty mushroom Wellington for dinner and we watched the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol because YaYa had fond memories of it. Noah was impressed with the transparent Jacob Marley and wasn’t sure how they did with the technology of the time.
On Tuesday Beth went for a three and a half hour walk on top of the ridge by the lake in the morning and in the afternoon she and YaYa and Carole went for a drive. I took a shorter walk, back to Blackwater Falls, but this time I only went about halfway down the stairs, to the first platform, for another look at the rushing, amber waters. The rest of the day I spent in the cabin, reading and watching tv. I finished three books (two I had in progress and this Frog and Toad parody I recommend if you read Frog and Toad as a child or as a parent of a small child and you’re curious how the amphibian friends have been getting along during the pandemic). Beth bought it as a gift for me and the kids. To top it off all this completion, Noah and I watched the last two episodes of season three of What We Do in the Shadows. Meanwhile, people were working on the puzzle on and off all day.
Noah and I made baked cauliflower with cheese sauce for dinner and afterward we watched two short films, one he helped shoot and edit while he was home last year (because Carole hadn’t seen it) and his final project for his Cinema Production II class this past semester, for which he’d been the audio and color editor. This led to questions about how color grading works and he explained by showing us another school project on that topic. Then we all looked at all the photos he’d taken during our week at the cabin and split into groups to watch an episode of Dickinson or work on the puzzle.
YaYa and Carole left in the early afternoon on Tuesday, after a concerted and successful effort by the sisters, Beth, and Noah to finish the puzzle. (At YaYa’s insistence, North and I each put one piece in so we could say everyone helped.) There were two reasons to finish it before they left. First because YaYa and Carole had been working on it all along and wanted to see it done, but also because the card table we were using as a puzzle table was YaYa’s and she would be taking it back to Wheeling with her.
After we’d all said our goodbyes, North set to work taking ornaments off the tree and there was laundry and some initial packing and more reading. Noah and I started one of his Christmas books, King of Scars, and then I started Nothing to See Here, which promises to be interesting. I took all the decorations off the mantle and carried the evergreen boughs out to the woods behind the house and swept up the needles. Beth unwound the lights from the tree and she and Noah carried it out back. Taking the decorations down is always less fun than putting them up, but it’s part of the holiday cycle.
That evening we had a fend-for-yourself dinner. I had a salad and some leftover pizza. Then we rounded out the evening with a Dickinson-Encanto double feature.
The next day we packed up and drove home and unpacked and I had a nap because I hadn’t slept well the night before. I was feeling down and unenthused about getting back into my usual routine, but we got Chinese takeout and on the drizzly drive to go get it, we saw some Christmas lights in yards I hadn’t seen yet this year and that perked me up a bit. I always like to imagine what kind of festivities other people are having in their party houses.