Last Saturday afternoon, every surface in my usually-neat kitchen was covered with condiments, vegetables, spices or soon-to-be-cooked meat. The scent of roasting chicken wafted from the oven and meat sizzled in a pot as my son browned beef cubes in oil for a stew. My daughter stood at the counter next to him, handing him the ingredients he needed.
Christmas for our family was hijacked by COVID, as it was for many families. None of us contracted it, but my son had been exposed and was waiting for test results. Different factors and scheduling conflicts meant that we could only get together last Saturday. None of us wanted to try to re-create Christmas. The tree and decorations were long-gone and we all wanted to move away from 2021 and, hopefully, to a better 2022 for all of us.
So we chose to do a cooking day – a Saturday spent prepping meals for the week. We each chose recipes and bought ingredients to make enough for all of us. Ben picked our daughter, Luce, up at the train station around lunch time. Erik, arms laden with bags of food, his own pots and pans and an impressive cutting knife arrived shortly afterwards. He quickly (and efficiently) usurped my place at the stove and I didn’t mind a bit.
Ben sat at one end of the kitchen table creating a colorful mosaic of chopped vegetables for a recipe: vibrant-orange carrots, bright yellow and red peppers, translucent white onions and the soothing pale-green of celery. I slipped into the chair next to him and watched my daughter and son deep in conversation. They leaned their heads closer together to be heard over the whirring of the stove fan and the sizzle of the meat. “I guess we’re not really needed here,” I said to Ben. He knew I meant this in the best possible way. He lifted his eyes from the cutting board and glanced towards our adult children just as they laughed about something one of them said. “No,” said Ben with a smile. “We’re not.”
There was no fancy table setting, no uncomfortable holiday outfits, no Christmas carols, no turkey or stuffing and no expectations to make this a perfect day. Instead, the day was a chaotic jumble for the senses: a rainbow of colored veggies, the smell of meat cooking, voices raised in conversation, music, a warm fire in the next room and laughter. At the end, we all had containers filled with hearty soup, chicken in a spicy red sauce, a rich brown stew and chicken enchiladas in salsa verde – all made with love. It felt pretty perfect to me.
Yesterday was not a good day. I had myself a sublime pity party because we are on lockdown for the holidays. I stayed in my dressing gown for hours, moaning about the fact that Christmas without family was the saddest thing ever. Sorrow bubbled up and leaked from my eyes in the form of tears. They rolled liberally down my cheeks because I won’t see my kids over the holidays. Then, not to be outdone, guilt kicked in.
Let’s be honest. We all know someone who will break the rules and have loved ones around their table. But no matter how much I want to, I just can’t do it. I don’t want to be the one whose family member ends up sick, possibly even fighting for their life, because I wanted a traditional Christmas. I don’t want to be the one who gives frontline workers one more person to care for – because I wanted a traditional Christmas. (They don’t even have a day off, never mind dinner with family.) And honestly? I don’t want to be the one who gets the dreaded virus just because I wanted a traditional Christmas. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sick with guilt that we won’t be together because I’m a rule follower.
But today, all was right with the world again. Christmas won’t be traditional, but so what? We’ll take a walk with our family (outdoor activities are allowed) or raise a glass on Zoom (I know, we are all so over Zoom, but it’s been our lifeline to others for months. What’s one more day?) And, if the stars all align the way we are all hoping they will, Christmas 2021 is going to be one heck of a celebration.
Quebec is on lockdown again as the second wave of the virus sweeps through our province. That means we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving with our adult kids, visit my elderly mother or see our friends. But we decided to have our turkey dinner anyway (yes, we will be eating leftovers for days) to celebrate going through this unprecedented time together. Our future wasn’t always a given.
We came together as a blended family when our kids were four and six respectively. Anyone who is part of a blended family knows that it’s hard. It comes with its own set of challenges that we didn’t see for the rose-coloured glasses. For those considering embarking on this journey, I would say: Go for it. But just know that there will be times of heartbreak as well as times of great reward. We weren’t always sure we would make it. But we did. And we’re grateful for that and for the little moments of deep contentment that now make up a shared life.
It’s those small moments in a day like having someone to say “Good morning” to or to ask the mundane question “What do you want for dinner?”. It’s being able to watch television in the evenings in different rooms (he likes sports and I like the Gilmore Girls on Netflix) knowing there is a comforting presence nearby.
Ben has been working from home for over a decade. So in the early days of the pandemic when I started to work from home, I was afraid the enforced togetherness would drive us crazy. But we fell easily and naturally into a new, companionable routine. Both those words – companionable and routine – sound staid and boring. But they also sound steady and sure. It feels a little like having both our hands on the wheel, steering in the same direction. Occasionally, there is a minor dispute about that direction. And, if I am honest, occasionally there is a not-so-minor dispute. The important thing is that, so far, we have been able to agree on where we are going and get back on a shared path.
So tonight we’ll raise our glasses to that and to the things we have instead of focusing on the things we have lost, at least temporarily, to the virus. And we will toast to the specter of better days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving Canada.