Come Christmas morning, I had no salsa.
Let’s back up. I’ve been hosting Christmases, and Thanksgivings, and dinner parties, on and off for 30 years. I’ve roasted, sauteed, stir-fried and baked many a foodstuff. This year, having returned from Hawaii on December 23rd, I was quite tired. How vacations tire one out is a question for another day.
Right now, we’re talking salsa.
We had all determined that East Bay sister, her husband, and daughter, would spend Christmas Eve at my house. As has happened before. They celebrate Jewish holidays, so I provide some red and green round my way. We had also determined that we’d spend Christmas Eve with my father and his wife.
As it turned out, my brother and his new wife were in town, so they came to the festivities too. As it turned out, we had Christmas Eve dinner at a Chinese restaurant, to honor the Jewish tongue-in-cheek tradition, to recognize the Asian member of our extended family, and to release my father’s wife from the requirement to cook for this clan yet again. She has done her part.
Fun was had. Raucous fun, respectful fun, honeyed-golden-my-god-don’t-we-love-each-other and aren’t-we-fortunate-fun. But I’m still considering that missing salsa.
My daughter and I ran to Whole Foods the morning of December 24th. Remember, we had gotten home the night before, after 10pm. We circumnavigated produce, dairy, boxes, meat. We made a new arc for each considered meal, as there was no way I could plan with the usual list. I’m 55 and I was just too tired. Or so it seemed, as we and the entire town of Palo Alto, California shouldered our carts to checkout in a giant, harvesting push.
For Christmas lunch, I bought quantities of brisket, latkes, brussels sprouts and salmon. When you decide to abrogate your own tradition, room is created to honor someone else’s. As far as Christmas breakfast, all I could do was point and mutter, “Eggs. Milk. Bread. Ham.” The foundation of High WASP mornings. Absent a breakfast direction, I clung to landmarks.
I only knew what I couldn’t do, i.e. plan. I had no one in mind to make happy, at that moment, only my own stamina to preserve.
When Christmas Day dawned, the lunch of brisket and salmon was fine. For breakfast, my brother-in-law stepped up to scramble eggs. But when I told the crowd that anyone could have tortillas in place of toast, my son’s enthusiasm deflated upon hearing that we lacked salsa. I’ve always made him breakfast burritos, and burritos require salsa to be any good at all.
It’s a question of knowing what matters. Serving people, making them happy, isn’t just an obligation. My son by now has forgotten, I’m sure, the lack of Christmas salsa. I have not. For while I was right in thinking that I was too tired to surprise everyone with perfectly charred beef tenderloin, or turkey con Peruvian chiles, I forgot that a large part of holidays and family gathering joy, for me, has been my own skills. I like to make other people happy.
Taking myself off the hook for Christmas meals made a good deal of sense, at the time. It felt like I was taking care of myself. Sort of, not quite.
Let me hasten to assure you, this is not a story of the Mother Who Trashed Christmas When She Forgot The Salsa. Only a reminder that in the New Year, we can resolve to enjoy, again, taking care of those we love. To revel, again, in all the ways learned to fold laundry, change sheets, and make Nina Simmond’s Chicken Hot And Sour Soup. At 55, years of good work give us the right to ease up, but we can also serve without obligation. Teasing out those specifics is the greatest privilege of our later years.
Always doing better, always knowing why.
I made Simple Gingered Chicken Soup for my office, a few weeks ago. Might have to bring in another pot of something soon. The dual strands of service and pride lit up like Christmas, twinkling.