When one has a difficult mother, it can become essential to distance one’s self and family, particularly at the time of significant holidays. If one has a courageous husband, he may announce, as the parental car pulled out of our Princeton driveway after a particularly grueling visit, “That’s it. We are not letting her ruin another Christmas. We are going skiing at Waterville.”
My husband, Werner Oscar Joseph Edelmann (for full effect say with German accent) was 100% Swiss. Although he had not grown up skiing, we took it up as a family, the year we moved to Princeton – 1968. Shore friends, sitting on their dune-cushioned deck, insisted that our families learn together. It was August and steamy. Winter? WHAT Winter. We said yes.
I secretly hoped some disaster, like a broken leg, or death, would intervene before that crucial February challenge. None did. So we all began to learn to ski. The girls were in kindergarten and first grade. At Killington, they looked like bunnies in their fuzzy snowsuits and fat mittens, among a gaggle of other little beginners, huddled at the base of ‘the bunny slope.’
They, being half Swiss, did not remain beginners very long. In the year of our deliverance from my mother, they were teens who preferred ‘bombing the black lines’ – the expert slopes. Especially “Oblivion” in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. The White Mountains were Werner’s choice for our runaway Christmas, because their ski school and an authentic Swiss lodge were run by Paul Pfosi. All Paul’s instructors were Swiss. Extremely demanding. “Ski marks on the inside of your ski boots” to prove you had your legs close enough together. Off-slope, they all delighted to converse in their native (unwritten) language with this tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed very determined American skier. Stein Eriksen in those years was our hero, our model.
No one would mistake us for Stein, but his example formed Pfosi’s Instructor Corps.
Swiss Copper Cheese Kettle in situ
Pfosi’s Lodge held the huge copper kettles we’d first seen in Emmenthaler, in which magnificent Swiss cheeses were precisely concocted. Only Pfosi’s kettles overflowed with silky evergreen boughs from nearby endless forests. Swiss Christmas music, such as relatives had carefully sent to Diane and Catherine over the years, pealed from hidden speakers. Conditions were ideal on the slopes, and for any number of days we almost forgot it was Christmas. But not quite.
Our family, over the years, had no experience of that Holiday beyond our own formal tree and hand-made-ornament tree, one by the living room fireplace, one by the family room’s slate hearth. Heaven to us was a fire in each room, the three of us in long plaid skirts and white lace blouses, playing our guitars and caroling for Werner in the family room. There’d always been the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, and caroling in the neighborhood near Princeton’s Snowden Lane. Could Christmas find us in New Hampshire?
There was a tiny church in the village below the lodge. It felt very odd to go to church in ski clothes and apres-ski boots. Instead of a jungle of poinsettias in the Princeton church, but two tiny ones ‘decked’ this austere altar. Instead of instruments sustaining voices back home, a motley choir with cracking voices sang in a small wooden balcony high overhead. But it was Midnight Mass, and it did hold all the magic we needed. And the quivering voices underscored a somehow more memaningful reality.
We drove back up the mountain, past the restaurant where we’d had Christmas Eve Supper. We’d sat next to a live birch tree, somehow able to live and thrive indoors, reaching for the midnight sky. Between dinner and church, we’d been astounded by stars beyond counting, which seemed nearly blinding. But between church and the lodge, no stars. Instead, white swirls, glistening to be sure, of new snowflakes — no more welcome blessing in ski country at Christmas.
Back in our rooms — it must have been near 2 a.m. by now — we found dark Swiss chocolates wrapped in bright gold foil upon our pillows,. Pfosi’s had signed lacy old-fashioned Christmas cards with gilt arabesques, such as those which arrived every year from Tante Li, Onkel Joni, Cousin Vera and the rest of the family in and near St. Gallen. I cannot spell their Christmas message, but we all knew how to say it in Swiss — it sounded like FRO-LIKKA-VIE-NOCKTEN. One said this with certain notes in our voices which the girls had heard since babyhood..
Diane’s and Catherine’s room was right across the narrow hall from ours. They burst in, laughing all over. “Come Quick! Come Quick! Carolers!”
We “thrust open the windows, threw up the sash” onto a scene I will never forget. Snow circled, enfolding us as though we had been transported into the Milky Way. itself, Horses snorted and their visible breath mingled with the flakes. Yes, sleigh bells jingled. Tucked into hay in an old fashioned sleigh were male and female carolers, dressed as we had been for Mass, in ski parkas and ski mitts and knit hats. These voices sounded like tiny silver chimes, like bells, rising into the heavens in celebration.
And we’d thought Christmas was only in our family room…
It wasn’t every Christmas morning that opened on a trail named “Oblivion”!
May each of you find your special holiday exactly as you need it this year — and may its real message of Peace on Earth, Good Will, suffuse our entire planet.
Here is an ad from the 1970’s, when we were there:
ski watervi w va NEW HAMPSHIRE PFOSI S LODGE Willkommen! Paul Pfosi, Director of the Waterville Valley Ski School, invites you to enjoy the Swiss-American hospitality of Pfosi’s Lodge. Alodge unique in every way combining old world charm with the most modern American accommodations and conveniences; …
The future would bring Christmas in other realms:
In Aspen, we could ski through forests.
In Zermatt, the Materhorn always tantalized:
But the slopes held the magic:
BUT NOTHING EVER TOPPED CAROLERS IN THE HORSE-DRAWN SLEIGH OUTSIDE THE OPEN WINDOWS OF PFOSI’S LODGE OF WATERVILLE.