Family Friends

Christmas Past and Future

I’m one of those people who never reads a book twice or doesn’t like to see a movie again.   But twenty years into my marriage, I broke my rule to re-read “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner.  

The book had originally been a bridal shower gift from a friend of my in-laws, and I’m embarrassed to say I can no longer remember who she was.  But I vaguely recall that the accompanying note said it was a mandatory tale for anyone embarking on marriage; a simple story of commitment and friendship amidst the backdrop of life.   It sounded banal enough that I set it aside and in the throes of wedding planning, it was left behind with my in-laws.  The day after our September wedding, my new husband and I left for China.

“Peking” in 1988 was still a relatively backward city. Residents wore Communist Mao suits and bicycles were the major mode of transport.  Bob was teaching at the Chinese Law University and our living conditions were Peace Corp poor; a concrete dorm room, jungle toilets down the hall and no potable running water.

If at first this all felt like an adventure, by December, I was missing my family desperately.  One of my sisters was pregnant, and this would be the first Christmas I wouldn’t be there.  The fun of paring our lives down to the basics had worn off with the advance of the holidays in our drab and secular surroundings. 

When our first big package arrived by sea from Bob’s Mom, I enthusiastically assembled the foot-high fir tree with attachable ornaments, and hung the stockings she had included.  Snuggled under a few holiday music cassette tapes was the paperback “Crossing to Safety.”  I was eager to open it, desperate to connect with anything familiar back in America.

The tale of a husband and wife on the cusp of their new life together and their burgeoning friendship with another couple quickly absorbed me.  The novel moved from Wisconsin to the apple orchards of Vermont, familiar territory for me growing up in the Adirondacks.  And then, with time, the challenges began, the things that life often hides under its skirts when we first take our vows.
The simplicity of the story and the sparse eloquence of the writing captivated me. There was no sex or violence, no swear words, dystopia, or green aliens.  It was a tale about life the way it is really lived, with loss and love, successes and failures, disappointments and triumphs. The characters came alive with Stegner’s beautiful prose.
Two decades later, I was a seasoned wife with four children in various stages of leaving the nest.  The world had left its mark on us all.  When my journalist husband was injured in the Iraq war, we were all tested.  We celebrated in his recovery, while coming to terms with the preciousness of time together and the importance of resilience.  We were no longer the doe-eyed couple who believed that one’s path in the world could simply be forged from the sheer force of good intentions and hard work.
I had decided that re-reading “Crossing to Safety” would be a wonderful way to honor our twenty year anniversary and yet I was slightly worried that it might disappoint.  This second time, I was determined to re-read the story without any rose colored glasses.
Devouring the novel as a young bride far from home, I had originally identified with the newlywed couple at the beginning of the story.  Twenty years later, it was the older couple, the road-tested version of the newlyweds, with whom I felt a kinship.
I empathized with what life had thrown at the characters, the medical scares, the dings and dents, the disappointments, the strength of the women’s friendships, the determination to go the distance and see things through.  The gift of “Crossing To Safety,” I understood in hindsight, had been receiving a blue print for life.  At the time, I had simply been too young to comprehend.
Looking back now at that first Christmas with Bob, I am nostalgic.  Life in China was simple and unencumbered.  We had no children or mortgages, no mound of bills, savings or possessions, just the strengthening foundation of a growing love.  We would need to call upon that in the years to come, to summon up what we had worked hard to construct.  But as I write this, 24 years down the road, I am grateful and proud that we have done more than simply survive.
I can still see that stark Beijing dorm room, feel the thrill of devouring a great book that has more than stood the test of time.  Although I couldn’t have imagined then what course our lives would take, as I now prepare to gather the brood for another family holiday complete with traditions, music and food, I wouldn’t trade places with my old newlywed self for all the tea in China.


Happy Holidays and may they be filled with remembering what’s important.

Lee   twitter@LeeMWoodruff 


  1. Lindsey

    December 21, 2012 at 12:34 am

    Crossing to Safety is one of the books I cherish the most; I haven't read it in a few years, and think it's time – I imagine I will, just as you describe, relate to an older version of the couple now. I love the novel both for its honest and realistic depiction of long marriage, but also for the way it lovingly describes adult couple friendships, in all their beauty and complexity. Going to pull Crossing to Safety out tonight! xox

  2. Ann Leary

    December 21, 2012 at 1:02 am

    What a beautiful post, Lee. Thank you and I too will be rereading this classic! xxoo

  3. M. Imbrescia

    December 21, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Greatly enjoyed your post. 'Angle of Repose' by Wallace Stegner is a favorite of mine, but I've never read 'Crossing to Safety'. I've added it to my must read list, for sure. Merry Christmas.

  4. ann connolly

    December 21, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Lee, this is one of your best essays. Have a lovely, family Christmas.

  5. Glenda

    December 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Definitely on my list to read. I too was a young bride moving from NYC to CA and my hubby's boss and wife (older than us) took us under their wings. Can't wait to dig into this book. Now I"m sure I'll relate to the older couple as well, being married 29 yrs, but I love books of love and journey's. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Grown and Flown

    December 23, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    I could not agree with you more. Crossing to Safety is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I too moved to a place where I knew no one as a young bride (London) and on my first reading could not relate to the older characters. Twenty-two years on, I too am there. Thanks for reminding me, it might be time for a reread. Lisa

  7. Diane LaRue

    December 24, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    I have this book on the nightstand right now! So many people have said that it is one of their favorite books, I went out and bought it. This is a lovely essay, I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  8. Amy K.

    December 26, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I knew immediately I needed to read Crossing to Safety. I read the entire book on Christmas Eve, as my children were with their father and I was home using my solitude to try and heal from a long year of a divorce, that still has yet to come to an end. This book made me both happy and sad, happy for the couples that don't just survive, but fight to make it. And sad, because I lost something so precious. Thank you for sharing so much with us readers.

  9. Aidan Donnelley Rowley

    January 15, 2013 at 1:06 am

    So beautiful. I must read this book. And I will.

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