September 25, 2021

SMH

Santa Maria History

Lileks: The difficulties of this year’s holiday letter

The annual holiday letter is going to be a bit different this year, isn’t it?

If your letter just consisted of AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! monospaced in tiny type, people would understand. Pro tip: Put a space between the H’s, insert a few paragraph breaks, and indent the first lines so it reads easier.

You wouldn’t be surprised to get a letter like this:

“Well, that was a heck of a year! January through March just seemed to fly by. In April we learned to make bread! This was a real family togetherness thing, because John and the boys went out at night looking for flour, because there wasn’t any in the stores. They broke into the house of a grain executive, thinking he’d have some flour, and they brought some money to leave on the counter — John’s like that, he always used to say, ‘I’m not the sort of man who steals another man’s grain products,’ and I guess he meant it. Didn’t really think it would ever come up, to be honest.

“Anyway the man woke up and was angry and scared, said who are you and what do you want? John said, ‘Mister, me and my boys are just here for some flour, that’s all. We need to make bread, and we know you have some. My kids are desperate. They’ve seen all these YouTube videos where people are spending the pandemic bonding as a family by making bread, and, sir, there just isn’t any to be had.’

“Well, the man took pity on John and gave him some flour from his safe, which was real kind. He was so proud when he brought it home! Then I asked him whether he got any yeast, because there wasn’t any of that at the Cub, and he sighed and grabbed his keys and went back to the man’s house. He was quiet for two days after that, and when I asked him what happened, he said, ‘Never ask a man what he had to do for yeast.’ But he’d been saying that for years, so I paid it no mind.”

The holiday card picture is a different matter. Old holiday pictures: happy family shots in a vacation setting. Here we all are smiling on a trip to Venice, looking perfect and cultured and happy even though we’d just had a huge fight about something stupid because everyone was tromping on everyone else’s last frayed nerve and Jeff was up all night barfing spaghetti alle vongole, but hey, we went to Venice and everybody’s going to know about it.

That was last year. Maybe that’s next year, for some. But perhaps the happiest moment of this year wasn’t something from the performative collection of Perfect Family Happy Live Laugh Love, but something that was wonderfully mundane.

This year was wretched, right? People say it was a dumpster fire. But eventually someone shows up and puts out the dumpster fire. This was more like a landfill fire, a big heap of garbage that simmered and flared and burned, with every day having a new aroma as the flames found something new to incinerate.

“Yesterday’s breeze had notes of charred organic matter, but today has a distinctly toxic tang, as if the flames found a buried stratum of plastic.”

Some did OK, and adapted. Some didn’t do OK at all, because you can’t Zoom a janitorial job at an office that shut down or “work from home” at a gas station that was burned to the ground. Some didn’t make it out of 2020 at all.

But there’s a good chance everyone had a day when everything felt OK, despite it all. Maybe there’d been good news about something. Maybe the day hadn’t had any bad news at all. Maybe you’d all ignored the news completely. Everyone was together, and you sat down for supper.

We had a Castilian exchange student living with us the first half of the year, which was a joy. Daughter had come home from college, because they’d closed the dorms, and while that was disheartening, it was good to have her home. Wife was working at home, because they’d shut down the offices. The big event of the day was supper, and it meant something special in the spring. Bonus: The exchange student was obliged to pretend to like everything I cooked.

The amazing thing about the dinners? We managed to come up with conversation about what we’d done that day, even though no one had stirred from the nest. The smallest things mattered. A photo of everyone at dinner, in the depths of the endless lockdown, laughing: That’s the Venice shot.

Any normal year, you’d never send out a Christmas letter that says “In late March, we all enjoyed spaghetti, and the fresh bread was especially delicious.” But this wasn’t normal, to state the blindingly obvious, and perhaps we all learned a lesson about the virtues and joys of the mundane and the normal. For that we should be grateful.

Also, please let it be over.

[email protected] • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

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