Every year at Christmas my family makes the long trek on I-95 from New Jersey to North Carolina. We know where the first Chick-Fil-A is and always stop at the Circle K after Fredericksburg to avoid traffic and eat red slushies. When I was seven, we discovered a crab shack on the other side of the Bay Bridge in Maryland where you can watch the sunset; it became our regular stop. We would watch orange clouds stretch for miles and eat beer battered shrimp with salty French fries.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, my mom would pack up our Honda pilot, strategically placing our Christmas presents towards the back. And just like that, we would take off into the Friday night holiday traffic—the red lights from bumper-to-bumper traffic providing a unique Christmas charm. My dad connected a small TV to the cigarette lighter in our car, and my sister and I would watch Eloise at Christmas Time exactly five times until we pulled into our grandparents’ driveway lit with rainbow Christmas lights.
As an air-force pilot, my grandpa made 50 dollars a week. My mom grew up all over the U.S.— her childhood a blend of different ecosystems: desert, ocean, and mountains. She walked to kindergarten barefoot in Hawaii and made sandcastles during recess in Albuquerque. With very little, my grandpa gave everything. My mom describes one Christmas where they drove by a homeless family in the desert. My grandpa stopped and made my mom and her siblings give their new toys away. My mom describes the bittersweet moment as something that shaped her character and perspective as a child.
When my mom was in high school, they moved back to North Carolina, and my grandpa used his savings to build the house my family would gather in every Christmas. It was a small, cozy three-bedroom house with a wraparound porch that sat on five acres of land. The house was furnished with gatherings from my grandpa’s tours— china elephants from Thailand, colorful bowls from Vietnam, and a painting of Neuschwanstein from France.
Every year when we rolled in, my parents would honk loudly, and my grandparents and cousins would come onto the porch to greet us. All the cousins would gather in the basement, and my grandpa would tell us to close our eyes as he pulled down two beds from the wall in what, as a young child, seemed like magic. The beds were outfitted with green and red Christmas sheets and transformed the basement into our own Christmas world where we snuck chocolate from the kitchen, jumped from bed to bed across a pit of lava, and imagined our own Narnia. To us, the wall beds were our own magical wardrobe, taking us into the depths of our imaginations.
Every Christmas morning, my cousins and I would race up the stairs to open presents and eat sausage dipped in maple syrup. To my grandpa, gathering as a family in one place for a couple of days was a priority. Even though his house was small, he wanted to create a place that would foster a unique family intimacy. And so, he did. My cousins and I snuggled on our magic wall beds and spent Christmas week laughing, playing, creating, and imagining in our own universe. To us, our beds were trees, cliffs, buildings, castles, and boats.
One Easter, we deviated from our regular trip to my dad’s family and decided to go down to North Carolina. We packed up, headed south on 95, and ate shrimp and slushies. When we rolled into the driveway, it looked different from the naked landscape of winter. The yard was blanketed in pine needles, and blueberries were blooming from a bush I never knew existed.
My sister and I immediately headed to our grandparents’ basement. When we got downstairs, the beds were already pulled down and scattered around them were suitcases filled with adult clothes. My grandpa explained that a German couple my grandma and he befriended many years ago was travelling throughout the U.S. and would be staying with them for the week.
But the basement is for kids, I thought.
That night Uta and Johannes —the German couple—had returned from their outings to join us for dinner. My grandpa recounted the story of their meeting. My grandma and grandpa were on vacation in the Grand Canyon and Uta asked him to take a picture of her and Johannes. A picture turned into a two-hour conversation that ended in exchanged phone numbers. When my grandparents were travelling in Germany, Uta and Johannes offered up their house as a home base and even travelled around the country with them, showing them hidden gems.
I thought it was odd that my sister and I would share our basement with grownups. It had always been the kids den—a place where all of us felt immune from the pests and annoyances of grownups. Sharing the space with adults seemed against the rules of the world my cousins and I created. Yet here we were, my sister and I on our bed with Christmas sheets and the adults with their suitcases and clothes on the other.
As we were getting ready for bed, Johannes turned to me and my sister and asked if we knew any German. We did not.
“Gute Nacht,” he said in his thick German accent, “means good night. You try,” he said looking at us.
My sister and I continued to repeat the words, botching them every time. Despite our terrible efforts, Johannes kept teaching us words: “vielan dank”,“guten nachmittag,”, “Weihnachten.” My sister and I would try all the words failing to pronounce them correctly. We were determined to get Weihnachten—German for Christmas. And so, Uta patiently coached us through pronouncing every syllable until we said it with ease.
When Johannes went up to brush his teeth, I explained that there was a pit of hot lava between the beds that only kids could see. They both continued to hop around the floor with immense animation, making scared faces as though their feet were on fire. My sister and I rolled around the bed laughing so hard our bellies ached.
The beds aren’t just magic for kids, I thought, but for adults too.
As adults, my sister and I travelled around Europe, and Uta and Johannes opened up their home to us, just as they had to my grandparents. We stayed in their basement, and they gave us the insider suggestions that provide the real joys and unscripted experiences you can only hope for on vacations. They told us of an ice cream store in Inzell where you could get ice cream that looked like spaghetti, of a bratwurst place in Berlin with the best homemade mustard, and a park in Cologne where you could watch the sunset over the city. Our favorite moment from the trip was sitting on a blanket in the Cologne park, drinking beer, and watching the sky’s pink clouds stretch out across the gothic buildings towards the horizon.
Recently, my sister proposed a weekly video chat with our family. Every Wednesday at 8, is family time— all 15 of us in grid view. On a recent Zoom meeting, my cousins and I recalled one Christmas when we took mounds of chocolate from the jars in the living room and hid it under our beds. We stayed up–what felt like all night— on Christmas Eve eating peppermint bark and pondering what our presents would be.
In his eloquent and wise way, my grandpa responded by telling us why he loves the Christmas story. He described how Mary and Joseph wandered around a packed Bethlehem looking for somewhere to stay until someone offered up their stable. He went on to tell us of the many people who had stayed in his basement on the beds with Christmas sheets— how he valued the authentic connections that came from sharing a roof and meal with friends and strangers.
The deep bonds between all 15 of us have carried into adulthood— something I credit to my grandpa. I talk to my aunts like I do my mother, my uncles are second fathers, and my cousins are some of my closest friends. One recent Christmas, I remember going into the basement, and the beds were up; the shelving held pictures of our whole family. And I thought of all the magic and memories behind the wall—how two murphy beds had shaped my childhood.
What's your favorite family holiday memory? Any traditions that helped shape your childhood? Let me know!