As You Like It: Holiday CheerBy Joan Florek Schottenfeld
Holidays are funny things. Thanks to our Norman Rockwell-Hallmark state of mind, we expect that they will be all American perfection complete with abundant food, well-behaved children, and gifts that we’ve always longed for. No one argues; no one is cranky or dissatisfied or sad. We create a minefield of disillusionment for ourselves. Every year we think our holidays will live up to some ideal, and every year they fall short. What is the saying? Madness lies in doing the same thing over and over again and always expecting a different result?
I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to holidays. When the girls were little I’d decorate the house within an inch of its life. For Halloween, every piece of the living room was covered in pumpkins, witches and ghosts. During Chanukah, menorahs and dreidels were everywhere — in the window, on the fireplace, in the front hall. Even Valentine’s Day wasn’t safe from my expectation that this time everything would be chocolate-and-roses perfect.
And of course it never was. It couldn’t be. Something was always missing. We were lucky that it was never the essential comforts like food or shelter, but rather something that we never got around to doing or saying or accomplishing. A curse of ridiculous expectations.
I always felt that Thanksgiving was especially disappointing, perhaps because it is the quintessential American holiday with visions of large dining room tables crammed with happy people waiting to dig into a magnificent turkey. Problem was, we were never a big family — it was usually just the four of us sitting down to the smallest bird I could find. There were a couple of years when we were invited to friends’ houses, but Lisa and Mariel rebelled. They wanted to stay home and never get out of their pajamas until I called them to the table.
As they got older, though, things got complicated. They each had their idea of what we should be eating, especially after they became vegetarians, and they wanted to help cook the meal. Now I know that sounds like a fantastic scenario — the entire family cooking together — but the reality was not so rosy. Mariel would insist on making at least three or four different breads and desserts, all of them requiring the oven, while I tried to figure out how we were all going to share said oven and our limited counter space. And Lisa would also come up with her specialties, which required major preparation and, of course, the oven.
So the day would disintegrate into a constant chorus of: “When are you going to be finished in there? I need to peel the potatoes, cook the stuffing, mash the yams, bake the corn bread…” Eventually it all culminated in the great soup debacle when we ended up eating at 7:30 at night, cranky, miserable and generally out of sorts — not exactly the feelings you want to associate with Thanksgiving.
Every year I dreamt of having Chinese takeout for Thanksgiving dinner, or having the whole meal catered, or simply going out to a restaurant, but every year I got voted down with the words, “Don’t worry Mom; this year it will be much better. You’ll see.” Sigh.
So this year, once we invited our friends Mike and Mary from Georgia to join us for the holiday, I knew that it would either be a disaster or the holiday that I was always longing for. I didn’t suffer under any delusions that it was going to be perfect since I had no time to even think about anything until our friends got off the plane. Steve and I cleaned the house, ordered all the food and drink, and figured it would work out somehow. And to my utter delight, for once, it did.
This time we had one more chef in the kitchen to add to the usual mayhem: Steve, who took on the chore of the salads and veggies. I took a deep breath, made up a prep schedule, brought in an extra table for a work space, and we were off. It helped that Mariel got up at 4:30 in the morning to bake. That girl is nothing if not determined when it comes to her baked goods. We told her that she was crazy to bake so much since we had an apple pie for dessert. Afterwards, when we realized that the pie had somehow never gotten into our shopping bag, she flashed an I-told-you-so grin at us. I promised everyone apple pie for Chanukah.
We sat down for our meal at 4 p.m., exactly when we had planned. That has never occurred in our entire history of Thanksgiving dinners. Lisa wanted to take a picture of the clock. And we did all the Hallmark things — we made toasts giving thanks for our good fortune, we stuffed ourselves, we laughed, we ate, we relaxed. For the first time that any of us could remember, it was truly perfect. I still have no idea why. Was it because we were so excited to have Mike, Mary and Mom with us that everything else just fell into place? Was it our perfected cooking skills and schedules? Was it the wine?
I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that when people ask me how my Thanksgiving was, for the first time in a long time I smile and answer, “Perfect.” Because it was.
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