By JULIA PIKE
Garrett County, Maryland
“Kinder, es endet noch schlecht!” my grandmother cautions my cousins, who are wrestling near the fireplace. “Kids, this is going to end badly!” She laughs as she says it, though. Everyone is scattered around the living room, the nucleus of the big house. Cushioned benches run the length of two walls, and there’s a big fireplace elevated in a square stone fixture in the center of the room. A giant cylindrical black flue descends from the ceiling to catch the smoke and carry it outside.
My grandparents, whom we call Omama and Opapa, sit side by side on one of the benches. Opapa is tapping away with unnecessary vigor on his Samsung Galaxy, which I’d reset to English that morning after he had accidentally changed the language to Korean. Omama alternates between reading and cringing at my cousins’ antics. My mother, sister, aunt, and I cluster in one corner of the room, setting up our traditional Christmas tree, a deadly mixture of wood, fire, and lead when complete.
We’re hanging the ornaments, red and silver balls and wooden figurines of the strangely thin German Santa Claus, who drops off presents a day early for a reason that’s never been clear to me. We then remove individual pieces of tinsel from their wrapping, careful not to tangle the thin strands. My grandmother bought this tinsel sometime in the sixties, and it is pure lead, which, she insists, hangs better and is far sturdier than plastic, non-poisonous tinsel. The lead tinsel is heavy for its size, and ties itself into impossible-to-untangle metal knots if you’re not careful. The children of the family (none of whom, really, are children anymore) are reminded numerous times to wash our hands after decorating the tree.
Last come the candles, cylinders of red wax in little tin holders that clutch the branches. The house is wooden, and out in the middle of the woods, so this tradition is a leap of faith. I top the tree off with a straw angel and we step back and survey our work. The tree is backlit, the sun setting in the long windows behind it. Omama laughs quietly, pleased.
The house was thought up by my grandparents and five other couples in the late sixties. They met at a party in Cold War D.C., drinking wine and talking, idly at first, about building a house out in the woods—a place where their children could experience nature, a place where the threat of bombs didn’t loom quite so large, a place the fallout, they hoped, would not reach.
Two of the men in the group were architects, and one began drawing up blueprints on graph paper, bringing a fireplace and an attic loft into being in his thin script. My grandfather, a lawyer, drew up a timeshare agreement. The six families drove out of D.C. on weekends, the parents surveying plots of land in Western Maryland as their kids dashed around in all the unfamiliar open space.
Finally, they found it: 375 acres of rolling hills and cornfields north of Accident, Maryland. One edge of the property was marked by the Mason Dixon Line, and the great joke became that people were always chasing one another all the way to Pennsylvania. For two summers, the families slept in tents by the fledgling house at night and worked on it during the day. Finally, it was finished: a hulking, rustic cube of gray-painted wood with huge windows all along the front. In daylight, the house looks haunted—a gray shack with empty dark eyes—but at night, when the yellow lamps are on in the living room and the chimney tosses sparks out into the night sky, the house beckons you in from the cold.
The parents were all Tolkien fans, and so they called the house Rivendell: the last safe place for the elves.
Days stretch out long here. There’s no Wi-Fi, so you have to drive to the McDonalds in Keyser’s Ridge, a tiny town right by the somehow still-un-renamed Negro Mountain, if you need to download your email. To occupy our time, we read, cook, go for walks. Sometimes the other Rivendell families are out with us, and the kids will play endless games of Monopoly and ping pong, but mostly for Christmas my family are on our own. Everyone becomes project-oriented—we find our tasks and routines and stick to them. My mother sorts through the many shelves in the kitchen, throwing out marshmallows from 2011 and bags of tea so old they are parchment-thin. One of my cousins climbs onto the roof and sweeps off the dead leaves and branches. Dorothy, the daughter of one of Rivendell’s architects, fixes the toilet by the dining room, which we’ve affectionately dubbed Dorothy’s Toilet because of the amount of plumbing-energy she’s expended on it. My father and another cousin play seemingly endless games of chess on a rough wooden board seared with square-shaped metal that my cousin made himself a few years ago. I sketch the shelf of found things in the living room: feathers and a deer skull and an old blue bottle.
For the younger generations at Rivendell, who have grown accustomed to constant stimulus, living this way is novel. To the original generation, days at the house are a welcome respite from a world that’s rushing ahead at breakneck speed. Here, things remain constant—Rivendell promises not to leave them behind. There’s a video from fifteen years ago of Omama holding my sister, who, at two, was a tiny towheaded menace. Behind them, the house looks exactly the way it does today, the squeaky screen door visible at their backs. They’re sitting in a patch of grass and Omama is picking up plants and sticks, holding them up so my sister can grab them, saying things to her that are too quiet for the tape to pick up. This is Omama’s magic—in her eyes, everything is beautiful, and when you’re with her this feeling spreads out, clouds your vision perfectly too. She grew up outside of Berlin during the war, never possessed of the certainty of food and safety that made my childhood so shining and simple. She never talks about those years, but I can see them resonate in the way her plate is always clean after dinner and in the way she hands my sister a yellow flower like it’s something to be cradled, kept.
On Christmas Eve we gather in the living room after dinner. Someone fills a big pot with water so we can feign fire safety, and then we light the candles on the tree one by one. We turn off all the other lights in the house.
We sing Christmas songs in German (most of us don’t know the words), and Omama’s singing voice, which sounds like a more emphatic version of her speaking voice, louder but not necessarily more melodious, rises above the mumbling. Sometimes, these days, she can’t remember what she’s had for dinner, but she knows every word to Stille Nacht.
Every year, my grandfather reads from Bible scriptures in German. My family is so atheist that I had to Google ‘part of the Bible that talks about Christmas’ to find the word ‘scripture,’ but there’s something ceremonious about it regardless.
This Christmas, my grandfather forgets to bring the passage. He is flustered, unsure how he could’ve forgotten to pack it, but says that he has some of it memorized. He starts to recite, and it becomes clear that he has almost all of it preserved perfectly in his head. Omama settles back, pleased. We are all quiet, listening, looking at the flickering tree. My sister and I don’t speak German. My father started to teach it to me when I was a baby but gave up, exhausted, after my sister was born and kept my parents up all night for two years. I still remember bits and pieces, but it doesn’t really matter. The shimmering light, the sound of my grandfather’s voice—pausing, at points, sure he’s forgotten the rest, and then continuing—this is enough.
The next day we walk the Loop, as we do nearly every day. We head down the driveway, past cornfields and woods, along a road scattered with houses. The route, the views, are as familiar to me as my sister’s face. We pass the tiny, charming bridge someone has built over a slight dip in the hills that used to be a stream, the stunted tree that was struck by lightning, the rust-orange pond where the old mine used to be, the spot where The Hermit used to live, now marked only by the tires of a long-gone pickup truck. The Loop doesn’t change from year to year—the bridge always mossy, the pond always orange.
Garrett County is not the typical destination for a vacation home (and the phrase vacation home feels wrong, too, for Rivendell). It has few of the typical attractions. It’s Appalachia, rife in the past few years with Trump signs and confederate flags. In the fall, men in blaze orange tromp through the woods and dead deer are splayed out in the backs of pickup trucks along the highway. I love Rivendell and its place, but our relationship to it is not uncomplicated. We are all city people. The Rivendell founders are architects, lawyers, teachers, coming out for holidays to farm and mine country. I worry that the neighbors resent this difference in us, see us as shiny and city-sure about things we don’t really understand. Rivendell will always feel like mine because my height is marked on the doorway in the kitchen and because I could walk the Loop with my eyes shut, but I’m beginning to realize that the romance of the place is an illusion available only to those who call somewhere else home. I know that I will always come back to Rivendell, but as I begin to understand the complexities of my relationship with it, I feel its hold on me change and loosen.
Though the house’s shutters are crooked and the roof slopes more every time we go out there, on the whole it’s changed remarkably little since it was built. The same can’t be said for Omama. She used to take my sister and me on meandering walks, slowing to point out a particularly big mushroom or a bright fall leaf, but now a trip down the driveway is an undertaking that can only be accomplished with the help of her walker. Worse is the alarming pace at which her memory is flickering away.
We sit in the living room. I am drawing, and she’s watching the fire.
“What are you drawing?” she asks me.
I turn my sketchbook, show her the half-finished outline of a bird.
“Beautiful,” she tells me, and there is real happiness in her eyes.
A few minutes later, she turns to me.
“What are you drawing?”
I turn my sketchbook and again she tells me it’s beautiful and her face lights up.
She is the same in some ways, still full of love to give, but she’s stuck, looping. Inside her head, the roof caves in, the shutters fall clean off.
A few days into the New Year, when there is a light dusting of snow on the ground, we take the bare Christmas tree out into the driveway. Time for the culmination of our pyromaniac Christmas. We dig a small hole in the ground for the trunk and prop it up with sticks, keep a pot of water on hand. It’s dry and brittle, needles beginning to shed, and we’ve stuffed pages of twisted up newspaper in between the branches to help it along. People make concerned noises as my cousin approaches it with a lighter, but he’s confident it’s fine.
It catches with shocking speed, and we back up as heat radiates from the conflagration. I turn and Omama’s face is worried-looking, the fire dancing in her eyes, but she looks up at me and smiles. From afar we must look like we’re carrying out a Satanic ritual; burning our tree is, admittedly, the fulfilment of a strange impulse, like pushing on a hurting tooth. It feels right to rid ourselves of Christmas dramatically, though. In this place where nothing changes except for the people we love, the burning of the tree is a reclamation of something we’ve lost, something we’re still losing. We stand around in the cool night air as the tree burns itself down, slowly. Finally, it’s just red embers and sparks trailing up into a night sky already blinding with stars.
Julia Pike is an Editorial Assistant at The Common. She studies English at Amherst College.
All photos by the author.