Having joint custody means the holidays don’t look like they once did. It means letting go of some traditions: taking turns or trading off; setting priorities and compromising. Above all, it means considering what is best for the children. What traditions are important to them?
Last year, Halloween fell on one of my ex-husband’s days with the kids. It was the first year I didn’t take them trick-or-treating, but my little superhero and artist stopped by my house for hugs and photos, and of course they grabbed some candy from the enormous plastic pumpkin I fill to the brim each year. They trick-or-treated in my neighborhood instead of near their dad’s new place because this is where they have always trick-or-treated; this is where their friends live, and where the neighbors have known them since they were babies.
Was it strange to see them go off without me? Yes, even though Halloween has never been one of my favorite holidays. My dear friend Wendy walked over from her house across the street, and we briefly handed out candy together on that windy night. Then I headed to Giuseppe’s, one of my favorite local restaurants, to meet another friend for a nice dinner. I wasn’t home alone feeling melancholy watching the other families all night; I was talking and laughing over cacio e pepe. I knew enough to make my own plans for the night.
But this year something other than divorce has thrown a wrench in the works. The pandemic has turned everything upside-down. It occurred to me recently that in a way, while the novel coronavirus has taken so much from us this year, it’s also perhaps taking the sting out of losing some family traditions because of divorce. After all, many of these traditions are not possible right now anyway.
Large family gatherings and shared meals will need to be paused, or at the very least, dramatically modified. Despite the pandemic, my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, and our children have continued our tradition of Sunday dinner at my parents’ house, eating outside where we can socially distance from one another. We’ve begun to talk about what we’ll do once it is too cold and wet here in Ohio for us to gather outdoors. No more Sunday dinner until spring? And what about Thanksgiving and Christmas? Family meals at my parents’ table are such a large part of the holidays for me and my children.
Every year, all of us on my mother’s side of the family — my parents, my sisters and brothers-in-law, my niece and nephews, sometimes my aunts and uncles and cousins, and when they were alive, my grandparents — gather around my parents’ kitchen table (or at a card table in the living room, or on TV trays in the family room, because the table is now too small to hold us all). And every year, my mother cooks all day. As the token vegetarian in the family, I stuff myself with side dishes and pie. I look forward to all of it — the sweet potatoes, the cinnamon dinner rolls, the broccoli casserole that reminds me of my grandmother, the pumpkin pie — but really, it’s not about the food. The most important thing is that we’re together.
I won’t have my children on Thanksgiving this year, and I would typically be steeling myself against the idea of having dinner without them; on the years they are with their father, their absence is so obvious and painful, the one variable that stands out against so many constants. But that large family gathering won’t be possible this year. I’m still not sure how I’ll spend the day, but maybe, just maybe, doing something completely different will help take the sting out of missing them.
Because of the pandemic, so many traditions are impossible this year, but I’m trying to look at this time as a chance to make new traditions. I’m trying to use this time and space to reflect, reprioritize and realize what is really important. When I stop and think about the time I get — and don’t get — with my children, it’s perfectly clear: we are together even when we are not in close physical proximity. Both the divorce and the coronavirus have taken plenty from our lives, but why not take stock of what we still have despite what we’ve lost? Why not celebrate what is still possible?
The other day, apropos of nothing, my 7-year-old son walked into the bathroom where I was brushing my teeth and said, “Santa will probably wear a mask and gloves this year.” In that brief moment, I thought about how much I missed having him and his sister on Christmas Eve last year, and about how lonely it was waking up that morning without them. And I thought about how glad I am that they will be with me this year, whatever Christmas during a pandemic looks like.
Even if we can’t do our usual Christmas Eve dinner with family, we’ll be together. We’ll have our usual Christmas morning breakfast — cinnamon kringle — and we’ll listen to the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers Christmas album, as we always do, and as I did with my own parents when I was a kid. And best of all: They will be here this year. It will be different, but we will be together. The coronavirus cannot take away that.
So I told my son that yes, Santa would know enough to wear a mask and gloves this year. And I told him that magic means anything is possible.
Maggie Smith is the author the book “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change,” and of “Good Bones.”