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As quick as the twinkle in Santa’s eye, our first Christmas back in North Carolina has come and gone. The tree will stay up for at least a few weeks—but the gifts underneath are now free of their colorful wrapping and await our attention to organization. Leftovers litter the refrigerator and my son plays quietly in his room with his new laptop computer (“Mom! This is THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER!!!”). The world outside, caught in a fit of global warming, is blanketed in thick, heavy snow—threatening to knock out our power for good. Later, I shall brave the underplowed roads and risk life and limb in my ancient Subaru to get Li and bring her back here. The two miles that separated us last night seemed ever so much farther than the 900 that separated us for the first six months of this year.

Our plan this year was to be in the mountains from Thursday until Sunday. My parents’ second home offers room for 16 (tightly packed, of course), and I was looking forward to a warm fire, a complex puzzle set up, and my mother playing Christmas carols on her hammer dulcimer. The forecast altered our plans, however, and we spent Christmas Eve down the road with Li and her mother. The four of us, feasting on turkey and baked beans and potato salad, napping and then watching Bell, Book, and Candle (a Christmas tradition that I’ve kept since I was younger than my son is now) before heading  home to play Santa. Li graciously offered to eat the cookies and a few of the carrots set out for the reindeer although my son professes disbelief in Santa Claus now.

Christmas day found me waking in a panic, a mere 15 minutes before Li and her mom were scheduled to arrive. I’d anticipated being woken up at the ass crack of dawn and having to tame my child until 8 a.m. but I had to rouse him from a deep sleep and we rushed around like maniacs, opening the door still clad in bathrobe and bedhead. We took turns opening presents and dined on quiche and sweet rolls before they took their leave for an hour or two. When the snow began earlier than expected, we all decided to start our half-hour trip to my parents’ home at noon.

When I was younger (in my thirties perhaps—before I had a child of my own and began to appreciate the wisdom of my parents), I would accuse my mother (behind her back, of course) of trying to orchestrate Hallmark moments. I bristled when she wanted everything “just so.” Yet the older I got and the more I began to entertain, I craved similar times. There, in the warmth and beauty of the home I grew up in, I envisioned a minivan pulling into the driveway. I imagined my sister and her family getting out and my tentative steps out the front door. I pictured the two of us, with tear-streaked faces, hugging tightly and apologizing to each other over and over again.

But Christmas came and went. I never heard from my sister or spoke to my nieces and nephew. My mother never once said that she wished we were all together for the holidays. Years of reality has shown her that Hallmark moments can’t be created, don’t truly exist. We make our moments where we can—we usually find them in the most unexpected places. The easy laughter at the dinner table; the sudden hug from my child; Li’s warm hand reaching for mine as we open gifts; the tender goodnight spoken on the phone when the storm keeps us from being together on Christmas night. I can continue to hope for reconciliation, but hope is all I have. Someday, perhaps next Christmas or the one after that, maybe we will all be together. But family is variable and fluid—and in my world, right now, it is an ever-growing circle of love and peace and harmony.