My son-in-law arrives tired and hungry for his annual holiday visit. Winter storm Hercules, followed closely by a record-setting Arctic vortex of extreme cold, has left thousands stranded in New York City but he managed to get out and fly to Houston following a harrowing day in an airport filled with desperate traveling strangers.
He joins the rest of us in Galveston at my mother’s house where we have gathered as a family every Christmas and New Year of my children’s lives. When they were babies, the holiday gathering was a chance for their grandmother and aunts to assess their growth and development, for them to bond with their baby cousins, and for all of us to indulge in an orgy of gifts. As they grew older, the annual holiday gathering became a time to fish and play mini-golf and linger over puzzles in a rented beach house and watch endless hours of movies and escape from the pressures of growing up.
Always the holiday gathering has been designed to honor my mother by gathering in her house — laden with all the family’s memories, good and bad — and eating her food.
Out here in the middle distance, now that the kids are grown, the holiday gathering has morphed into a time for all of us to escape our busy lives and lay eyes on one another in a shared, neutral place that is home but not home. Honoring grandmother becomes more the focus as she ages and weakens. And it strikes me, watching my son-in-law arrive, that the holiday gathering takes on a new significance as our lives are lived farther and farther apart for longer periods of time.
It is late and my son-in-law has not eaten since the evening before he left New York. I warm up the leftover lasagna and the New Year’s black-eyed peas and a lone slice of cornbread and he eats it all plus a slice of lemon pound cake. I haven’t seen him for a year, and in that year my daughter has started a new career and he has expanded his own. They are urban and hip and dyed-in-the-wool city dwellers utterly foreign in this little Gulf coast town lost somewhere in the 1970s. He has made the considerable effort to be here because he loves his wife.
We bond over what we share in common. His connection with my mother is easy: they are kindred NBA basketball fanatics who share stats and player trivia endlessly. With my sons and their cousin, he shares deep knowledge of obscure music minutia. With me, he shares a love of books and particular authors. We bond sitting in a room together reading silently, looking up from time to time to share a tidbit.
This morning we partake of the ritual sausage and biscuit breakfast at my mother’s house before he and my daughter leave tomorrow for his parents’ home in North Carolina and the holiday gathering there. The biscuit dough has been made and has risen and been flattened and rolled and cut and the sausage, imported to Texas from an old farmer in Tennessee who still smokes it the good old way, has been sliced and fried. Expectations are high. No one is allowed to not like this meal or to not over-indulge. Strict vegetarians need not apply.
We lean back in our chairs. This holiday gathering is nearing its end and we have passed it without surrendering to grief over who is not here — two sons, a daughter, a father. Around the table, the grateful, relieved faces of the living.
How is it, I want to ask my son-in-law, being you being married to my wonderful, complicated daughter? What does it feel like to make music in the world’s most exciting city? What does your life together look like? I want to tell him that I can never thank him enough for coming here with her, for eating sausage and enduring long airport waits and talking basketball with my mother. I want to tell him it matters more than he knows.
I try to remember holiday gatherings before this one but I can’t. There is only this one, it seems, and maybe the next one. The dishes are cleared and in another day there will be airplanes taking off and landing on time. A southerly breeze warms this afternoon and gulls circle the sky. Clouds pile up over the western tip of the island but it will be hours before they dissolve into rain. There is still time for a walk on the beach, still time.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.