Especially as the pandemic continues to escalate, going home for the holidays this year doesn’t really feel like an option.
Sure, we all ran the scenarios, trying to figure out how we could quarantine beforehand, get tested, wear masks, the whole shebang. But at the end of the day, there’s a really clear worst-case scenario here that I’d like to avoid, and it’s not me missing Christmas.
Of course, every move during a pandemic is a choice, a calculated risk here, a small concession there. So I could just do it, and book a plane ticket, and Uber to the airport, and fly home, and pretend everything is normal because I want to. But I’ve tried to be so careful since the start of the pandemic that the idea of bringing my big city germs to small town upstate New York, where my parents and sisters will be celebrating, seems like an obviously bad idea.
And when I think about the decision to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas without my family, on the surface, it’s OK. I take a deep breath and remind myself not to push my luck, that it’s a miracle I haven’t felt the effects of COVID up close and personally, that it’ll be worth it next year when we can all be alive and healthy and together. I still have the best partner in the world, and with two new kittens, we’re creating our own little family for holiday celebrations.
But then it’s like the devil appears on my other shoulder, telling me to just say, “fuck it, life is short and the world is ending anyway.” I see people on social media taking vacations, enjoying restaurants, and seeing their parents, so why shouldn’t I? (I know why.)
So I’m stuck in this incessant loop, but I’ll stay in Chicago, missing for the first time the Christmas traditions my family has cultivated over the decades. I’ll miss waking up too early in matching pajamas, eating cinnamon rolls as first breakfast and casserole as second breakfast, watching my dog search for presents under a tree decorated with a string of lights as old as I am, hanging on by a wire. My mom recently called it a double-edged sword, the fact that I was raised with so many rigid and beloved family holiday traditions. They’re the best to celebrate and pass on to next generations, but when you lose them, it hurts twice as much.
But in the end, I’d rather lose those traditions temporarily than permanently, so I guess that’s that.
Food has always been what brings my family together. When my folks call to check in, more often than not it devolves into 15 minutes of rattling off recipes, peppered (pun intended) with phrases like “it’s the fresh lime that makes all the difference” or “the secret is just a smidge of mustard.” Even before I stepped into the kitchen to start regularly cooking for myself (a recent quarantine-induced habit), I have been a culinary confidant to my father as he planned out family meals, especially as the moments that my siblings, parents, and I can all be gathered in one place are fewer and farther between. And the most elaborate of those meals always come around the holidays, a menu of mythic proportions featuring a mix of traditional Wellen-family dishes, a trendy new Food Network recipe, and at least one serving of cranberry sauce still in the shape of the can. It takes weeks to plan, days to cook, and only minutes to disappear into our pieholes. The meal will barely be over before talk of what we can try next year begins.
Up until now, there’s only been one holiday family meal I’ve missed. In 2018 I was visiting my best friend in Portland, Oregon, during Thanksgiving. We did in fact have a homecooked dinner of our own planned, but the chef in question ended up being too sick to host. So instead my friend and I found ourselves wandering through a drizzly Portland neighborhood looking for somewhere, anywhere that was open and willing to serve. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a Chicago-themed bar that was simultaneously playing the parade, the dog show, and football on TVs perched on the walls. Surrounded by Cubs memorabilia, we ordered hot dogs and beer. The owner brought us slices of pie and we chatted about our favorite Chicago things. The night ended with a visit to check on our sick friend, where we drank hot toddies while watching Christmas Vacation to cure her ailments. It’s one of my favorite Thanksgivings, one that shifted my perception of what a “traditional” holiday meal can be.
This year, of course, there will be no hot dogs in bars. My family and I have decided to not gather in-person at all, let alone over our usual smorgasbord. This year instead, my parents will send me and my siblings pizza money, and we’ll enjoy our slices with each other during a virtual game night over Zoom. In a way, not making it about the food is making it more about our time together. And while I have no doubt that once we can be together in the same physical space again we will enjoy one of the most extravagant dinners we’ve ever eaten, there’s something to be said about stripping it all away and redefining our traditions.
Louisiana feels like it’s a world away, sweltering in the December sun. I always overpack because by the time snow starts falling in Chicago my skin has lost all the warmth of August. I forget how to plan for a 65-degree day and end up with trench coats instead of sweaters or bikinis instead of T-shirts.
These days it’s hard to think about air travel without conjuring images of William Shatner in The Twilight Zone, with the coronavirus acting as the specter on the wing inching its way toward us. So, we’ll drive. We’ll move down through the country watching frost melt and accents thicken like gravy. As we drive deeper into the country, we’ll see fewer masks and begin to wonder if our two-week quarantine was enough, or, conversely, even worth it. Every convenience store we enter will be another point of possible contagion.
Our grandmother, deep into her 90s, will await our arrival anxiously. She can’t attend church any longer and feels more lonesome than ever. By the time we reach her our masks will need cleansing and our bodies will ache. A heated argument will take place within me, one screaming the depths of my irresponsibility while the other asks if this is the last Christmas I’ll ever spend with her. Then again, maybe it is my presence in her home that guarantees that?
She’ll serve us biscuits dripping in butter and give us updates about distant cousins we’ve all but forgotten about. I’ll fight back yawns and relish in the familiar banality of this tradition. She doesn’t have Internet so we won’t be able to obsess over global crises. Instead we’ll delve into neighborhood gossip and laugh over her amazement of Zoom.
At long last, the new year will send us back north. We’ll promise to call and, like our new year’s resolutions, forget until next December.
Adam M. Rhodes
I used to say I loved being alone. After a long day of work, I relished coming home, smoking some weed, and watching mindless television to unwind from a stressful day of reporting. I used to say I was alone, not lonely. But I don’t think I really knew what being lonely was until now.
Quarantine hit nearly halfway into my graduate degree. The friends I had made from September to mid-March suddenly fled to far corners of the country and the globe as borders closed, flights were canceled, and any sense of normalcy was halted. There’s little confidence that I’ll see some of them ever again, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel robbed of these friendships.
The walls I so meticulously decorated when I moved into this apartment now feel like they’re closing in. The tchotchkes I’ve collected over the years have stopped bringing me joy, and now they just feel like dust collectors and paper weights. This apartment feels like a coffin, and it’s hard not to be afraid that it will become one.
But despite all of that, nothing has made me feel more profoundly lonely than having to call my mom to tell her that I won’t be coming home for the holidays. I, like millions of others, have had to make a tough choice that a shitty holiday in my apartment alone is infinitely better than exposing my immunocompromised mother and nonagenarian grandparents.
One season of holidays alone is worth even the possibility of more to come; but as the realities of climbing cases and a basically abandoned federal effort to manage the pandemic set in, this loneliness has turned at least in part to contempt for those flouting basic safety guidelines, and a fear that the loneliest days are still ahead.
I frankly don’t know how we come back from this, from a world where so many people put their own comfort and convenience over the safety of their neighbors; a world where people are stabbed, beaten, or spit on for asking others to take minimal safety measures; a world where people would happily sacrifice neighbors to be able to drink in a bar again.
I’m afraid that divide we face now seems irreparable. How do I look in the face of people who have ignored the pandemic, people who have been so insulated by privilege and self-interest that a medical mask feels like a straightjacket? How do we trust each other again? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, frankly.
But my biggest fear is that the world ahead looks even more lonely than it does now.
The toughest part of any crisis is when the matter at hand starts to tear apart the quilt of compromise that had previously been covering up the essence of each interpersonal relationship. My friend who doesn’t live in Illinois wants to come visit me after Thanksgiving. We’ve been going back and forth about it for a while, mostly me concerned about that person spending money on travel, but then they texted, “I want to drive out but I’m going to wait till the last minute to decide (because COVID numbers) but I’m not even sure what we’ll do when I get there.” Are we able to have a conversation without a turkey in front of us? Will this friendship survive not having an outside activity? And now that the text lives in my phone, I look at it now and again and think, oh shit, is this a good idea to begin with? We’re much better when we’re standing together looking at a band playing in a bar, or at the very least trying on discount pants together with our respective stashes of Kohl’s Cash.
Before I can worry too much about my culpability in this friendship, I chat briefly with a relative who always throws a kickass, huge December holiday social, the kind where there’s no real guest list and everyone brings extra people and you all end up solving the world’s problems in the wee hours of the morning while sitting on the front lawn. I ask them, what are you doing this year instead of the party? “I guess we’ll just have dinner with a few of us, you and your brothers can come over, but I’d rather have the party, I like the party.” I’m not sure if I want to come over; can we plan for a video version just in case? “Oh sure,” they sigh. “I guess. It’s just not the same.” And they’re right. It’s not really the same on video.
Maybe I won’t do anything social for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but honestly, it wouldn’t be the first time that ever happened. I’m happy to do midnight mass at home, watching online. I can eat a turkey TV dinner and fall asleep early.
I do plan to decorate the crap out of my house. I’ve been doing this for the last few years: after a period of depression kept me off balance for a few months, I opened a box and found some Snoopy holiday flags and got hooked. I’m single, I don’t have kids, and I own a Department 56 Christmas Village. I can’t get a tree because my dog will pee on it (he’s cute, not smart), but I’m going to do the lights and make a wreath for my front door. I have no plans on anyone coming over to see it. I’m not interested in taking camera photos of it to assault my Instagram followers with. I’m just going to enjoy what I have and be grateful for whatever happens next. I think that’s all anyone really can do.
Buying a car was the latest action in a series of what I like to call “pandemic bingo”: I cut my hair, quit my job, baked bread, cleaned out my closet, started a new job, bought furniture, adopted a cat (@phantomcatchicago), “redid” my home office, scrubbed my mini-blinds, started a podcast, and made a major purchase. All since March. I have not started dating anyone, thankfully, so I’m not yet hitting a full COVID-19 bingo card. (Additional bingo squares include learning a new language, crying in public, taking an online class, gardening/buying plants, and dating a neighbor.)
In a normal year, I’d feel productive and accomplished, like I’ve really made strides. But let’s be real: What’s normal, at this point?
Normally, I’d fly “home” for Christmas. But my mom died last year, and I sold the house, so last Christmas in Virginia was the first, of what I expected would be many, bounce-from-house-to-house holiday weeks.
I’ve already dealt with the first wave of uncertainty that comes from losing my home base. In 2019, I didn’t have a clear plan for Christmas dinner, my tree, or family ornaments, or even my old traditions. And I was recovering from major abdominal surgery, and the death of a friend. (Seriously, 2019 sucked.)
So uncertainty about plans, and where to sleep, and who to see? I can handle it.
Here in Chicago, I haven’t seen some of my closest friends since March. We talk about “friendsgivings,” but COVID-19 cases/percentages are too high for me to feel comfortable enough to pierce a bubble. All of my extracurriculars are shut down (God, I miss comedy shows). And if I’m going to be alone in my apartment through December, why stay here? Why not head south for the winter, and come back hopeful for the spring?
So, I bought a car. Because I can drive to Virginia (with my computers, cat, and three months’ worth of comfy work-from-home clothes) and stay with my best friend. I’ll isolate, and get tested, so I can spend Christmas morning with my friends and their kids.
Thanksgiving will be a low-key affair with just my best friend, I think. But on Christmas Eve, I’ll sleep in a small guest room in southeastern Virginia. I’ll stay up too late laughing and talking about TV and movies with The Great British Bake Off playing in the background.
My goddaughter will wake me up at the crack of dawn, and I’ll watch her and her sister open presents, the youngest goggling at the world because everything is so, so new and she can barely hold her head up, as their dad cooks breakfast. Hopefully no one pees on the floor, like last year.
This year is so unpredictable, that’s the best plan I can create. And it’s subject to change. But isn’t everything in 2020? v