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November 27, 2012

Lee Woodruff on Her First Christmas in China

Posted by tom

For Lee Woodruff --- co-author (with her husband, Bob Woodruff) of IN AN INSTANT and whose most recent book is THOSE WE LOVE MOST, her debut novel --- the gift of Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY was a comfort to a newlywed bride who felt displaced and homesick spending her first Christmas in China. She clung to the novel, desperate for any connection back to America. However, re-reading the book 20 years later, she realized it was a blueprint to her marriage…and to her life.


I’m one of those people who never reads a book twice or doesn’t like to see a movie again. But 20 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 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 20-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 young 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 blueprint 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.