A Good Night for the Good China

Most years, we have or are company at Christmas and Christmas Eve feasts for which all the stops — good china, good silver, family favorite recipes – are pulled out. This year, with Covid raging, ‘company’ is our little nuclear unit, and we were grateful to have it.

We knew this year would be different. No grandparents and no cousin means a smaller meal. Our little unit is a good deal more casual than my parents’ pod was, so we knew there would be no coats and ties, and I even thought I’d forgo the good china.

Then a few weeks ago, Thing1, our twenty-year-old who has spent the fall quarantining in an apartment with his cousin, texted that he wanted to make Beef Wellington. He and the Big Guy, now retired and indulging his own love of cooking through the pandemic began texting back and forth with ideas for a casual, but culinarily adventurous Christmas.

But, our four-person unit agreed, there would be no coats and ties. There would no fanfare.

It’s Christmas Eve as I write. Thing1 is assembling the Wellington, indulging in eighth-grade, low-brow jokes with his eighth-grader brother, Thing2 as they put together tonight’s over-the-top entree. The Big Guy is making popovers, occasionally contributing an inappropriate joke or two to the cooking banter.

We’ll still be casual this Christmas, but none of us can remember a warmer one. Sweatpants still seem like appropriate dinner attire for this crowd. However, as the boys joke and putter in the kitchen, concocting what I know will be the best Christmas Eve feast of our lives, it has suddenly become a good night for the good china.

Some Things Stay the Same

Not belonging to any religion — organized or not- our nuclear unit reconfigures most holidays to fit our wants and needs. The fourth Thursday in November is no exception, especially this year.

Like many Americans, the Big Guy, Thing 2, and I have been recreating, working, and schooling from home since March. Thing 1, needing a break from being parented, decided to run away from home with one of his cousins and quarantine in an apartment Connecticut where they did their classes online all fall.

Our autumn of isolation followed a summer devoid of our usual family reunions in Michigan or even a day-trip to see siblings in nearby Connecticut. My septuagenarian parents and the Big Guy’s sister have also been staying home to avoid becoming disease vectors, so when Thing1 and his cousin announced they would join us for Thanksgiving, we knew what this holiday would be about this year — and probably for the next twenty years.

Twenty-year-old Thing1 and my twenty-one-year-old niece (the pig-tailed tyke featured in my first and only book, A is for All-Nighter) drove up Wednesday afternoon. Thing1 and his brother had put in their request list of favorite side dishes. We had all agreed to keep everything but the food casual, and I had most of the meal prepped and ready to go into crockpots by the time they arrived.

The crowd at the Thanksgiving-eve dinner table was half the usual size, and the kids took advantage of a dearth of parents and complete absence of grandparents to indulge their inner eighth graders (much easier for Thing2 who actually is an eighth grader). By the time Thing1 went to the kitchen island for thirds, Thing2, who had been saving up his best fart jokes for an appreciative audience for nine months, had our tiny crowd roaring.

I played Exploding Kittens with the kids after dinner for a few hands before turning in. Thing1 and my niece, now used to studying until dawn, played cards with Thing1 until the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. Their shrieks of laughter occasionally penetrated our bedroom door, and as we quietly laughed into the darkness, the Big Guy and I tried to recall experiencing a better holiday.

Some things were the same. My niece and I still managed to burn the bottoms of the crescent rolls (I felt like I was literally passing her a torch of some sort). Thing1 still insisted he wanted me to make a quart of cranberry relish. Thing2 assured us he’d be taller than Thing1 by Christmas. And, even though it was a much smaller gathering, the weekend was still about family.

We Zoomed with parents and siblings who had to stay in their states, missing the warmth of a large family gathering, but the fact that any of us could gather at all made this weekend special. I know American Thanksgiving (along with much of our history) is fraught with controversy, but, for our family, any event marked by four days in a row of gathering and giggling with our kids, especially over burnt crescent roll bottoms, is a holiday worth celebrating and being thankful for.

Partners in Crime

Thing2 has been experimenting with the digital projector I use for presentations at school. He’s been projecting video games and Avengers movies on the ceiling and underneath the TV. here’s an idea man, so it should’ve been too much of a surprise when the two of us looked at each other and said, “let’s have an outdoor movie night.“

The other family members were out of the house when the idea got started, and, by the time everyone else got back we had collected a makeshift screen and two plant hangers from which to hang a curtain rod.

Immediately we agreed that we should all watch the original Star Wars. The kids have never seen it on “the“ big screen, but I think this one will be just as good. We just have to rig up THX in the yard before we screen Empire.

Fathers and Sons

It’s interesting watching fathers and sons connect. It happens in the very beginning, but it seems as if, during those early teen years, a chasm sometimes appears. 

When Thing1 was eight or nine, he and the Big Guy bonded as father taught son and then sons the fine art of burping on command and then advanced topics like the alphabet.  Thing1 got into computers a few years later and entered his own little world — a world he’s making his own now. The Big Guy isn’t anti-computer, but, for him, they’re tools. He doesn’t love to get under the hoods.

While Thing1 was focused on computer camp and making mods on programs, the Big Guy, an engineer at heart, focused on his interests. He still supported Thing1 through school and healthcare troubles every step of the way, but they didn’t commune over common interests until Thing1 got interested in driving. 

Thing1, always interested in how things work, got into cars in a big way. He test drove as many cars as dealers would let him. He researched the workings under the hood. He even started a car blog for a very short time. He helped the Big Guy with a few jobs on his ancient Mercedes. Then, as he prepared to take custody of the keys to our 20 year old Volvo, he and the Big Guy had the ultimate bonding experience as they replaced the radiator together, the Big Guy teaching Thing1 new vocabulary every step of the way.

Thing1 finished his online classes last week and, with no way to work for a while, decided to work on the car that he bought last year. He turned on the hard rock station and took his car apart, demonstrating his command of the colorful vocabulary he’d learned in Home Mechanics 101 a few years earlier. And, every so often he’d call the Big Guy over for a bit of advice but also a bit of bonding over their common ground.

By the second afternoon, his car was mostly back together, and the two of them were sharing car repair war stories. Maybe the sun was in my eyes as I was watching them, and, definitely, the love was always there, but watching the ‘like’ grow was something special too.

Organically Grown

Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.

The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys. 

The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.

We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.

Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.