We left DC on a sunny afternoon with delicious sandwiches in our stomachs from SUNdeVICH. The less-than-an-hour trip to Baltimore was a refreshing break from the long haul out of North Carolina, and we settled into a comfortable Airbnb on the frayed margins of the city. Our adventure was a double-whammy, as so many things on this trip have been. Our focus was not Baltimore—indeed, we spent a few hours downtown charging, and that’s about it—but Hampton’s mom and her house on a hill in the leafy northern suburbs, and an early Christmas, which would be her and Gary’s first meeting. It was a nice chance to meet her husband Sheldon and his sons Grant and Zach, too.
Our time there in Reisterstown was lovely. Hampton and I were tasked one night with preparing a meal, and he ran with the opportunity to lay out a breathtaking spread of vegetarian pub food that, as Paula put it, “looked exactly like the pictures”—and tasted better than anyone saw coming. We had an abundance of great food, hearty Christmas punch and hot chocolate, and exchanged presents. Tegan liked exploring the grassy slopes around the house, and tolerated being kept in a bedroom while Hampton finally met Paula’s best friend, Grace (who was terribly afraid of dogs!).
We embarked on a ridiculously long 14-hour drive down from Baltimore all the way back to Monroe on the Sunday before Christmas, dodging interstate traffic and the mad dash on everyone’s part to head home for the holidays. It started raining when we got to North Carolina after dark, which made for a beautiful last few hours as we revved across the glistening pavement. The next morning, we were in for our second round of Christmas, enjoying a typically relaxed time with Stu and Vonnie (and little Darla, whose full fluff we got to see for the first time after a bath). On Christmas Eve, we delivered delicious homemade snacks to the neighbours, carolling as we went, bedecked in fun Christmas costumes over our weather-appropriate shorts and flip flops. We all opened gifts around the tree and laughed our way to another restful night before a big drive.
On Christmas morning, we woke up and immediately piled into the car for another trip across the state. The Neal family’s Christmas was back at Hampton’s grandparents’ house, a nice return to pleasant Thanksgiving memories—albeit with a much larger cast of characters. The day kicked off with Hampton’s closer family, and soon turned into a multigenerational spectacular with every branch of the tree represented. All the Neals know how to eat and to make good conversation. I made a point of FaceTiming my parents, back home in Barrie, as they did our annual drive to gawk at the light displays in our subdivision. It was an interesting feeling to be sucked out of one tradition and thrown into another. The next few days were consumed with Hampton’s grandmother’s surgery—which went well, fortunately!—and some last exploring of the Raleigh-Durham world.
We drove back to Monroe to get another dose of family Christmas under our belts—this time, Hampton’s aunt Sandra (on his mom’s side), who also hosted the Thanksgiving where I met all of the Simpson side. There was boisterous fun over good food—starting with Paula’s Favorite Things, a riff on an Ellen giveaway spectacular which we had been roped into back in Baltimore. Paula, FaceTimed in on the TV, announced a series of (hilarious) gifts—aprons, dishtowels, Rain-X, individual Breathe-Right strips, Q-tips—and we acted as her elves, throwing them at the assembled family before wrapping up with Amazon gift cards for all. We came away from the White Elephant gift exchange with a S’mores kit and a hammock for our future camping adventures.
We capped off the holiday season with a trip up to Beech Mountain with Big Stu and Vonnie to visit and explore a vacation unit they decided to buy—a beautiful trundle through the Blue Ridge Mountains and an ascent up ski slopes in the warm, misty, climate-crisis winter. We ate so well—including the broccoli Vonnie grew herself in the garden!—and were ready for the New Year.
I’m still waiting for the fifth and final Christmas of the season, with my parents, when I have the chance to head home in March. Can’t wait to make that happen and enjoy a belated Extendapalooza with the folks I’ve spent all my other Christmases with.