Friday, December 29, 2023

A Bear Grylls Christmas

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

We were looking forward to going to Tennessee to see my family for Christmas this year. It’s been a while since we were all together for that – with blizzards, plague, and study abroad years it hasn’t happened since 2018 in fact. We missed seeing everyone, and this year we had Plans.

As the old saying goes, however, “Man plans, God laughs.” Whatever version of a deity you happen to find suitable for your needs and however broadly you define “man” to include some, most, or all of the wide panoply of genders, the sentiment never changes.

In the end our holiday didn’t look a whole lot like how we thought it would go, but we did get to see everyone we’d hoped to see and we had a lovely time doing so. I like to think Mr. Grylls would be proud of us, even if endurance hiking is not something my family generally includes on our list of things that make for a good day.

The original plan was fairly simple.

We were going to drive from Wisconsin to Tennessee, where my aunt and uncle live, on the 23rd – the first day we could get away after the semester. It’s a long drive but an easy one and we’ve done it enough that it presented no real barrier. My brother Keith and his family would fly down from NYC to meet us, as would my cousin Chris and his husband (also Chris). My cousins Elizabeth and Paula and their families live close enough to their parents that they would make their own arrangements. And since we are now too many to stay at my aunt and uncle’s house all at once, we’d stay elsewhere. Kim found a fantastic B&B about a 20-30 minute drive away where we and my brother’s family would spend our time in Tennessee. It’s actually a horse ranch, and I can testify from personal experience that there were in fact horses there. We’d head over to my aunt and uncle’s for Christmas Eve (the big holiday in my family) and Christmas Day and then do something else the next day before returning to Wisconsin on the 27th.

Easy. Lots of moving pieces, but fairly straightforward as these things go.

The Tuesday before all this was scheduled to happen, however, Aunt Linda let us know that she had Covid. She would be cleared for public activities on Christmas Eve so we could keep our schedule pretty much unchanged but Chris and Chris decided that it would be better for all concerned if they stayed with us at the B&B and fortunately it was a big enough place that this was not a problem. Their flight got down there a day before we would arrive so Kim made arrangements with the host for that.

We set out on the 23rd fairly early, as one would want to do for a long drive, and other than the fact that it was foggy for pretty much the entire state of Illinois there weren’t any real challenges. We didn’t even stop for lunch. We’d packed all sorts of snacks and beverages and picked up various other foods and drinks at our gas stops, and we all wanted to get there sooner rather than later. Chris and Chris were already there. Keith, Lori, Josh, and Sara arrived not long before we did. We headed up to the upstairs living room to hang out and enjoy everyone’s company and the chili that one or more of the Chrises had made.

This is when we found out that Plan had been altered. Linda was still testing positive and not feeling well, so Christmas Eve would be moved to the B&B. Christmas Day? Not determined, but probably moved as well. So: new Plans.

First we needed a menu. How many of the Seven Kinds of Fish could we pull together for Christmas Eve? What kinds? Who would make what? Was the grocery store even open on Christmas Eve to get supplies? And what kinds of pots and utensils did we have to work with? Fortunately we are all the sorts of people who pitch in and solve problems, and pretty quickly we figured out we could do five fishes – the odd number being the most important thing, though if we had ended up with an even number we agreed we’d just note how odd that was and go from there. My group – the only ones on site who hadn’t had to fit everything into a plane – had also brought cheeses and salami to set out beforehand. And the Tennesseans were bringing things as well. We had a PLAN!

The next morning started slowly, as we filtered out of our various rooms, congregated in the big dining room of the downstairs apartment – the B&B actually had two separate apartments, though we had both of them – and discovered that nearly all of us play Spelling Bee and Wordle. It’s actually kind of nice to sit there with other people playing along with you, trading notes. Chris and Chris had already done one big grocery run so there was breakfast.

Eventually we set about preparing for the day. It turns out that even in Tennessee you can find an open grocery store on Christmas Eve morning. It was in fact doing land-office business – I’ve never seen a grocery store completely out of cocoa powder before – and we looted the place. We got back and then it Was ON. We had two different kitchens and put both of them to good use making smelts, scallops (a quickly cobbled together recipe that involved a number of substitutions and turned out quite well by all accounts), a potato and fish dish called Jansson's Frestelse, and Caesar salad, which has anchovies in the dressing so that counts. I volunteered to make the spaghetti with clam sauce. Food arrived with my Tennessee cousins. When you have a good crew willing to put in the work, you can do pretty much anything. Somewhere in there Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda also stopped by for a short visit. It was warm enough for most of that to be outside.

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

It was a lovely dinner, with good food and good people all around. You can’t ask for more than that out of life, really. There was a moment, sitting there, when it really hit home how fortunate we all were to be sitting there, together, amid the noise and hubbub of conversation and food. We’ve all moved up a generation now, and the traditions continue.

This year only the youngest cousins had the traditional Christmas Eve gifts, though. Eventually they too will graduate to the Dice Game, and won’t that be a time? For those new to this space, the Dice Game is an easy and vastly entertaining way to simplify the gift-giving season. You set a budget – usually around $35 total – and you buy two gifts, one nice and one funny. You wrap them up and arrange them all into six piles. You roll a die, pick and unwrap a present from that numbered pile (accompanied by appropriate reactions, which vary widely depending on what you end up with), and pass the die to the next person. Eventually everyone has two gifts and then the action really begins. You set a timer and get several pairs of dice, and once the timer starts the dice go flying around the table. Anyone who rolls doubles can swap something with another person. And when the timer stops, you get what you have. Of course that’s when the real horse-trading begins, so it’s never quite over. But that’s the gist of it.

We had a grand time.

Eventually people went home and it was just the B&B crew, and we spent the evening playing Codenames and generally hanging out. It was a good end to a good day.

The next morning was warm and rainy, and we ate breakfast and did our Spelling Bee and it was a calm start to the day though I was happy to see Wolves win. When everyone was up and moving we did our family gifts, including the stockings, and got ready for Christmas dinner – macaroni and meatballs, fittingly enough. My uncle had brought over a vat of gravy (spaghetti sauce to the rest of you) and we got everything ready for when my cousins came over. I made a pitcher of Aperol spritz, because why not. We watched the Eagles pull out a narrow victory over a far inferior team, which doesn’t bode well but a win’s a win after all. We did crafts and played with gifts. And we did another round of the Stair Photo, which will get a separate post of its own. And when it was just the B&B crew left we played Codenames again and hung out. Eventually it was just me, Keith, Lori, Lauren, and Oliver around a coffee table, talking late into the night. We’d made it through the events of the holiday, and perhaps the next day would be low-key.

And then the power went out.

Lauren and Sara were the first to notice, since they were up hanging out with each other, and after a while they came in to let us know but since it was the middle of the night and there was nothing we could do about it we figured we’d just sleep. Surely things would be repaired when we woke up. This turned out not to be true, as blown transformers take a while to fix.

Kim and Chris went on a coffee run for everyone who enjoys coffee, and as the house got slowly colder we came up with another Plan.

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

Step one of the plan was lunch. There was a diner that Chris and Chris had found before we arrived and which a) was open and b) they recommended, so we went there for lunch. Oliver found a fellow Sleep Token fan and we had more good food and conversation, so three cheers for step one of the plan.

Step two of the plan was to spend the day over at Elizabeth and Brian’s house, which we thoroughly colonized. We had more games (Taboo and Mexican Train Dominoes being the main ones) and general hanging out together. Aunt Linda and Uncle Bob came over for a short while. And rather than stress people out with another big cooking adventure we ordered pizza.

Win all around, I say.

They fixed the transformer by midafternoon, so we were able to go back to the B&B without any further backup planning.  We packed up and cleaned and the next day bright and early we all headed back to our respective places, another holiday successfully managed. Though why it is so tricky to drive through central Illinois, I don’t know.

It was good to go and see everyone. It was good to come home. It will be good to go back.


Ewan said...


David said...

Thanks! It was a lovely time.