It's Tuesday, December 21, late in the evening. Dan and I are racing around our Silicon Valley town in search of rapid test kits. With Omicron on the rise and twelve people coming for Christmas, we've asked everyone to get tested in advance of their arrival, and to do it again once they get here. But, some out-of-town family have reported that the stores near them are out of stock so, we've decided that it's on us to buy two test kits per person.
Here we are at Walgreens. No luck. Wal Mart is a bust, too. But we strike gold at Target which has thirteen kits and we buy them all. CVS also has kits but limits them to one-per-customer, so Dan exits the store into the darkness of night with one test kit in hand, as I stealthily enter to buy a second test. We feel slightly bad. But we need tests. And we haven't hoarded a single thing during COVID; in fact we're those people who were never able to find even a single bottle of Clorox in stock locally for like six months. We will end up getting enough tests. And everyone will test negative. And we will feel Okay, we can do this.
It's Wednesday, December 22, early in the morning. Six masked workmen are tromping from the street to our backyard and to their trucks again, transporting flooring, poles, plastic walls, cement anchors, heat lamps, cables and wiring for the tent they're building out back. For years it's been a dream of mine to create an outdoor room at the holidays–our house has an "open floor plan" so everyone is pretty much on top of everyone all of the time which can get to feel like a bit much. COVID makes me feel that this unusual expense and elaborate effort are justified.
With one day to go before family arrive, Dan and I are scurrying around the house trying to transform it into a thing of comfort and beauty for our dear ones. Stacks of boxes are moved to the garage. Papers are sorted, tossed, or put somewhere to be dealt with after the holiday. Murphy beds are pulled down. Blow-up mattresses are inflated. Couches that become beds are called into active duty. Stuff is moved and the crud behind the stuff that got moved is vacuumed up. Towels are folded in neat stacks on every new bed, like we're running a small inn, and the soaps and toilet rolls are checked. My left knee has been acting up–a result of my overzealousness on my walking treadmill in the few days before work yielded to the holidays, so I'm limping a bit as I go.
At about 11am on Wednesday the 22nd, I scamper up our u-shaped staircase to put sheets on the murphy bed. As I round the bend on the landing, my body gathers momentum. When I get to the third-to-last stair, the bad knee doesn't lift as high as it should so my big toe catches on the carpeted edge. I try to regain my balance but fail, and my left shin smacks into the edge of the top stair. I careen forward like a running back pushing against the defensive line. A wall with framed photos is ahead of me but my hands hit the ground before my head hits the plaster. I roll onto my left side and fall into the laundry room opening where I come to a halt on my back. Somewhere along the way I've yelled "SHIIIIIT."
My tumbling body and voice awaken my two twentysomethings. In a matter of seconds, they're hovering above me like parents peering over the rails of a crib. Their eyes and mouths are round with curiosity, but they don't look worried, which I take as a good sign. Oh no, what happened? They coo. Are you alright? I stare at the ceiling and wonder Did I really just fall *UP* a flight of stairs?
I tell the kids what I did, assess myself, and am glad for the absence of nausea which might signal a sprain. I sit up and roll onto my right knee, and reach out for a hand to help me stand. Nothing gives out on me or squeals in pain. I've spared my bad knee from serious injury, thank goodness, and on my next trip to Walgreens I get a knee brace. However, my shin and calf are a bit worse for the wear.
I'm pretty sure my mother once told me Haste makes waste. The effort to get everything done really quickly definitely slowed me down. But it ended up being a little reminder from the universe that I needed to take it easy this holiday. And to be a person of ease. And to create ease for others.
Which brings me back to the tent. But first, more on the house.
The "open floor plan" in our house means that there are no walls dividing the kitchen, living room, and dining room. It's efficient and communal, and as a matter of "no wasted spaces" architecturally-speaking, it's all good. But, particularly when we've got a houseful of people, it means you can't find privacy, whether for a sensitive conversation or just for some alone time. Instead, at Christmas, the jigsaw puzzle-doers are jammed into a corner behind the football-watchers who are vying for volume with the Spotify playlist, while the conversation about why so-and-so did such-and-such can only take place outside under the eaves, and the person who just wants to read a book or be on their phone or tablet for an hour or two has only their bed as a place of retreat. Oh and one more thing, we don't have a fireplace, so we have to hang the stockings from the bookshelf!
Then there's the cooking, which is largely my task at the holidays, and one that I cherish. I love to set the mood by putting on my apron and my Pandora Indigo Girls station, lighting a bunch of thick creamy candles, and then for two to three hours it's just me, the flickering flames, the pounding harmonies and audacious lyrics of my favorite lesbians, and my ingredients, bowls, pans, and pots. But it's hard to get into that mood with umpteen other things happening around me.
So, this Christmas, culminating a(nother) year of chaos and distance and sadness and inexplicable refusals to arrive at decisions that benefit all, I set out to create and hold space for others to experience what they need this Christmas. Of the twelve, three are rarely with us and are coming from far away. I want to make their effort worthwhile, while folding them into what normally happens around here at Christmas. A few weeks back I sent an email (re)introducing everyone to everyone and connecting these less-familiar-family dots. In that email I call us the "Christmas Twelve" to begin to build belonging.
My hunch was that the secret to a persistent state of ease at the holidays would be to provide The Christmas Twelve room for both separation and togetherness. We have the togetherness thing down pretty well, so, I set out to give people space (myself included). Right after Thanksgiving I'd tracked down a local events company. In the first week of December the event director had come out to measure the yard and listen to me describe my dreams. Next thing I know, it's Thursday December 23 and the guy and his colleagues have worked their magic and we have a toasty outdoor room with a jigsaw puzzle table ready to go, a television flanked by comfy couches, boxes of games to play and poufs to lay about on.
It's colder than usual in Northern California this Christmas, but The Christmas Twelve are cozy. At times, it pours, which we're grateful for given our terrible drought, and we sit in the tent and smile at the pounding of the rain all around us while we stay dry.
Some of us watch football out here, and Netflix, and some fall asleep mid conversation, and some sleep here the entire night. We attempt a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the sun, which after two days proves to be all but impossible even for seasoned jigsaw do-ers such as we. I plunk an easier puzzle down on what I term the "JV" table to give us the ability to complete something together.
We play our regular games: Chronology, Telestrations, and Taboo, and a new game called "Muffin Time." And, I try to follow along with "Coup," believe me I do, but it's really a game for people with better memories. My eighty-two-year-old mother eases into a story about Daddy, who, back in the late 1930s, was the Chinese Checkers Champion at Bates College, complete with a "second" who massaged his fingers between games. She then teaches the younger set how to play this old game, and we get a six-way round going. And there are many, many conversations which are always my favorite, about things that make us laugh and things that make us sad. We cry. We hug. We laugh. We hold hands.
Some major story telling goes down on Christmas Eve when, as the meal wanes, I invite The Christmas Twelve to speak one at a time of something they feel good about and want the others to know of, and also of something challenging they need family to know about so they can get support for whatever it is. We speak up about frailties of bodies and minds, of efforts fleeting or failed, of the ravages of time, of jobs that could be better than they are, of financial challenges, and of plans hoped for and plans fading. Some speak up to wish that other gatherings could make space for this kind of vulnerability and knowing.
When at midday on the 25th it comes time for me to leave the tent and get my apron on, the vibe is just right. I get my coals going out on the side patio off the kitchen, stuff my turkey with plums, sew it up, season it, and get it secured on the spit just like my Daddy used to do when I was a child. I press the button on the rotisserie to start it turning, and as it plays its gentle grinding noise for me it becomes a lullaby that reminds me of Daddy, gone now twenty-six years. We eat the meal and it is good and I'm proud of myself for learning over these decades how to make a meal with seven dishes for twelve people and have it all come out on time. I used to have an elaborate white board to record what gets cooked where, and when, and for how long, and what serving dish it goes into. Now I just scrawl the brief name of each dish on a post-it note and trust that I've got it. And I do.
After Christmas dinner, Dan and I gift everyone a hand-drawn card made by my artist friend and colleague Clarice Cho, the front of which reads "YOU are the gift this holiday" and the back of which is personalized for each recipient.
Then we hand out grey hoodies we've designed for The Christmas Twelve, which bear the simple message "X 2 1". We've guessed the sizes correctly, which feels like a goddamned Christmas miracle in and of itself, and we gather for photos, and the love continues into the night.
The next day comes with a bit of brouhaha among family not with us, and it triggers some deep stuff in me and I do my best to hold my shit together in response. And I do. And I am supported in doing so. And we cry, and hug, and laugh. Another family member here with me, one of the ones we hardly see, squeezes my shoulder as if to say I see you going through some shit that doesn't even pertain to me but I'm going to hold you in this moment with my hand. A few days later, everyone is gone. The blow-up mattresses are deflated, the murphy bed goes up, the bed becomes a couch, and Dan and I can have sex again. The tent is taken away. It's almost January which is a very hard leap for my mind to make, but somehow each year, I make it do.
The whoopses and wows of Christmas for me this year boil down to: 1) don't act in haste (or you might bang up your body, or hurt someone's feelings); and 2) make the necessary space (whether for emotions, or bodies, or just for being). I'd love to know how yours went. Share in the comments below! (And if you need to share anonymously, call 1-877-HI-JULIE.)
And one last thing. When I was out there at my grill in the dark night and the rain was falling on my hair and onto the turkey as I checked its temperature and its beautiful dark brown exterior glinted in the light of a hanging bulb, I felt Daddy near me, felt him feeling proud of me for learning this craft he only taught his sons. Taped to my grill is a photo of him at his grill. I may need space every now and then. But there are some things I want closer than ever so that I can feel like Daddy's little girl again.
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Cover Photo Credit: Getty Images/Klaus VedFelt/DigitalVision
All Other Photos: Mine