Those Lazy, Crazy Days of Winter
A holiday out beats a holiday in
As the writer of the monthly advice column for one of our nation's most venerable women's magazines, I am available to rule on any personal question my readers face. Yet often it seems the issues on which I am most qualified to hold forth do not arise. Like, which is better: a gay husband or a straight husband? (If only one could have both.) During which month of pregnancy are you most likely to get away with a shot of grappa? (Never before the eighth.) What can you do about teenage children who punch holes in the dining room walls? (Send kids to anger management counseling; hang framed artwork over holes.)
Now, as the leaves drift to the ground and Jack Frost nips the air, the mailbag fills with inquiries related to the holidays. Too many guests at Thanksgiving. Too much cheer at Christmas. The impossibility of finding a babysitter on New Year's Eve. But here's the question I'm not seeing: My mother died, my husband left me, I just moved; I was diagnosed with cancer, then laid off at work; my son got expelled, my daughter's in rehab, we have two mortgages, and there's mold in the basement. Everyone is counting on me to make the holidays festive, but I don't feel like cooking or shopping. What should I do?
I wish I didn't know, but I do, Blanche, I do. And while there is an argument for the comfort of ritual in the face of chaos and crisis, this argument is usually made by those not responsible for producing these rituals. Often, the bereaved, the abandoned, the ill, and the otherwise beleaguered are tired. Very tired. Too tired to spell the word ritual much less enact it. Also, you'd be amazed at how absent people are when their actual chairs are empty, or how many tears you can cry into your dead mother's favorite creamed pearl onions, all of which is why I'm saying, change it up.
Once upon a time, it was November of last year: the beginning of my first holiday season in the proud city of Baltimore, to which I had moved in the wake of various unexpected and not very positive life changes. Not only had I lost my mother and my second husband in a row (first one died, second one quit), I was having my premiere post-divorce holiday experience and understandably enough, Thanksgiving was not my day. The idea of waving farewell to my 9-year-old daughter on Turkey Eve sucked out any oomph I had left. Meanwhile, her 19- and 21-year-old half-brothers, who would be flying home from college to the empty nest for the occasion, consider Chik-fil-A and cheesesteaks to be the height of gustatory ecstasy, and they don't pay much attention to fine wine selections or napkin-folding. Mainly, they are just hungry. Was I gonna cook for three days and clean up for another two with a 20-minute break for dinner in between? Well, maybe not.
I seemed to remember hearing they serve Thanksgiving dinner in restaurants. I looked on the Internet, and by God, it was true. When I called to make the reservation, I was nervous about it, like I was getting away with something. Thirty-plus years of roasting turkeys and mashing potatoes is a hard habit to break. I fear I may have given the reservation clerk a little more backstory than was required.
But then Thanksgiving day arrived, and there we were on a soft leather banquette at a big round table with a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau smack in the middle. All I had to do was plop my lazy ass down, eat, drink, and give my credit card to the waiter. I sat there with my two boys for almost three hours talking. We talked about past Thanksgivings, about our relatives and friends. We talked about food and wine and the difference between hotel restaurants and regular restaurants. We talked about college and travel and various pet projects. We talked about the spinach-jalapeño casserole I usually make for Thanksgiving dinner. That seemed to be the only thing anyone was missing. I said I'd make it later in the weekend. It would be my pleasure.
Pleasure! Wow! Weird! We, like, totally forgot to have a huge blowout argument and punch holes in the wall!
The holidays can mean a crazy amount of work for parents, particularly the female variety of parent, and I guess I've run this hamster trail about as hard as anyone. After all, I have to prove I love my family, right, and that I am a decent human being, and for many years I seemed to have believed these things were measured in ergs. But after my super low-energy Thanksgiving Day, I was hooked. I got right back on that Internet and booked us all two nights in a hotel on the beach in Florida, arriving Christmas Day! We had Christmas dinner from a Subway we passed on the way to the hotel, then opened our shared gift, Trivial Pursuit Family. We played it until the sun rose over the Atlantic, which we couldn't actually see from our discount room, but no one seemed to mind. We just went outside.
Author Marion Winik teaches writing at the University of Baltimore, writes the "Answer Lady" column for Ladies Home Journal, and currently reviews books for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.