My son isn't feeling well. He seems to be fighting the flu. He's been curled up on the couch under a blanket most of the day, sleeping while his sister and I went out and did last minute shopping. It's freezing cold out there. Now we're back home, most of the gifts wrapped, and we're puttering. At this moment my son is watching Naruto on his computer. My daughter is on the other couch browsing recipes, and has decided on one that calls for almond meal. I have no idea what recipe this is, but she says it's very challenging and wonders if she's up to the task. "You know when he hasn't been to the gym and his race times are slipping because he's out of practice?" she explained, referring to her brother. "It's like that. I'm out of practice in the kitchen." But she seems to have decided to take on the challenge because now she's on the phone calling neighborhood supermarkets to see if they have almond meal.
She's found one that has it and now she's pulling on her boots to go and get her ingredients. She's scrawled on the back of an envelope a shopping list so intricate it makes my eyes hurt. My husband, meanwhile, is at Christmas eve service, the church warden, having already done the grocery shopping for the dinner we will make tomorrow. It will be just the four of us, a quiet Christmas. I said to my daughter earlier, "Is it okay that we're having such a low-key Christmas?" She replied, "I don't know why you ask us that every year. We always have a low-key Christmas. It's what we do." Her response surprised me. I hadn't realized I fretted so habitually over the quietness of our Christmas day. I suddenly realized that the very simplicity is what makes me feel like a failure at this time of year. My son not feeling well is almost an excuse for me, a reason to embrace having a quiet, low-key day.
It's very different from the way I grew up, this simple Christmas. In my childhood, there were huge and festive family gatherings every day from Christmas through New Year, tables overflowing, adults laughing and telling stories, children racing through the house and around the yard. It was non stop celebration, and deep down, I feel my inability to recreate that for my children as a sort of failure. Never mind that we have very little family in New York now, just Aunt Winnie across the courtyard, confined to her bed. And the shape of things back home—in Jamaica or Antigua or St. Lucia, with elders frail or no longer with us—is forever changed. The cousins I am closest to, the ones who are like my sisters, all live far away, and so low-key is the way our Christmas is when we stay in New York. My daughter loves this. Her perfect Christmas, she once told me, is to wake up slow, open gifts, stay in pajamas till noon, then dress and cook an elaborate Christmas meal together, watching movies or ballgames or playing Wii games as a family. This is exactly the way my husband likes it, too. It's what we do.