After my first semester of college in Missoula, I drove home to New Canaan, Conn., to spend Christmas with my family. This was in 2005, the year of Bush, YouTube, Benedict XVI, Katrina and the first human face transplant. It was also the year moviegoers watched handsome cowboys make out on the big screen, and the year I started to hate Christmas.
In New Canaan, the wealthier you are, the higher you live on the hill. The town of 20,000 people sprawls across undulating hardwood forests 50 miles from New York City, and the smallest homes on the smallest plots of land are near the bottoms of those hills, while the hedge fund managers live on top. My grandfather called the people on top “Ridge Runners.” I called him Big, because he was tall. He was a venture capitalist who got his start on Madison Avenue back when handsome Don Draper-type dudes made capitalism and chauvinism classy. Eventually Big earned enough to move to the suburbs and became a Ridge Runner. He and his wife, Henrietta, who was a poet and civil rights activist and who I called Little, raised their three children well above sea level in New Canaan. When I was 8 or 9, Big gave my dad a plot of land just behind his home, where my dad built his own house. We—my dad, my mom and I—lived in Big and Little’s backyard.
That Christmas in 2005, my dad’s family convened at our house. Big and Little had died within months of one another years before, and though a hedge of evergreens had been planted to separate our home from the new homeowners up the hill, I think my dad and his two sisters liked to spend Christmas in New Canaan because it felt like the only place their parents could still join us. By that time, I had also become aware of the fact that my parents sort of despised each other, and that my mom felt anxious around my dad’s sisters and that my aunts didn’t take my mom and her afflictions very seriously.
My Aunt Kathie—a Manhattan therapist whose partner, Betsy, is a Manhattan photographer—and I were sitting in the living room talking about my experience in Montana. She asked me if the fishing was as good as I hoped. She asked me how my writing was going and if I had met Judy Blunt, the author of that incredible book about growing up on ranches. The questions bothered me. They seemed less an inquiry into my life and more an effort to reveal the novelty of my decision to move to Missoula. I didn’t want to respond because I didn’t want to give the questions credence, but also, I didn’t have good answers. I had fished very little. I had written nothing outside of my requisite composition class. My inaugural months in Missoula were spent more or less distracted by the sporty people, music in parks, keg beer, pot and long lines of tan-legged girls waiting for ice cream cones. To that point, Missoula had been a satisfying college cliché, and here on Christmas, my aunt was making me feel shitty about it. Then she asked if I’d seen Brokeback Mountain.
I saw it the week before on my way back from Montana, somewhere in Wisconsin or Chicago. I was impressed by the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger and the scenes where they wrestled one another into moments of intimacy. I knew it was beautiful and that it did something. But as an 18-year-old freshman, I didn’t like the movie. I thought it was long and too quiet and slow-moving to make it worth the price of admission. I said this to my aunt, and although I was being genuine, I aimed to antagonize her.
Not long after that Christmas, my parents moved to Massachusetts and divorced. My half-sister, Kate, had a daughter before her marriage also ended. Aunt Kathie’s son moved to California, my other half-sister to Maine. And I was living in Missoula, where the shape of my life was comfortingly malleable. By my early 20s, I decided family wasn’t a good enough reason to ever leave.
Holidays are strangely powerful days on the calendar when we are expected to feel things we might not be ready or willing to feel, spent with people we are meant to love but may not see often or know very well. Just as each family has its own makeup and stories, each family also has its own holiday expectations. When you are young, as I still am, and your perspective is limited, this is a complicated proposition: Even as family changes, the time spent with one another is meant to feel the same. Or at least this is how I have felt since the Christmas of 2005.
As my dad finished smoking two chickens and my mom’s chocolate chip cookies cooled on paper towels, Aunt Kathie sat in front of me considering my review of the movie. She put her hands on her lap and leaned back in the sofa. She had rimless glasses that moved up on her face as her smile grew larger. Suddenly, I wished I had just said I liked Brokeback Mountain. Suddenly, she wielded a power only family members of an older generation—people who remember Christmases when you pissed your pants and built block forts for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures—can wield.
“Well,” she said, “it sounds like someone has been spending too much time in Montana.”