Is there anything better than sitting around the table with those you love, sharing laughter and a good meal? Although I’m French and live up to the cliché of being a bon vivant, we’re not the only ones who love to break bread together. Most humans do; food is both necessary to survival and one of the easiest ways to honor the bonds that unite us, regardless of means.
In France, we have an idiomatic phrase that pays tribute to our food culture; for special occasions, we “put small dishes into big ones.” I grew up hearing this during holidays and whenever anyone showed up unannounced around dinner time because there’s always enough for an extra guest. Or two, or three. You just serve up smaller portions and cobble up something extra with whatever you can find in the cupboard and fridge.
My mother raised me on her own and was a public service worker; she had protected status and job security but a modest salary. Toward the end of the year, fancier items would slowly start appearing in the pantry as she began to stockpile ingredients in advance for the réveillon and Christmas lunch. The latter was important: it symbolized a truce between my feuding parents whose exchanges remained tense for years after their divorce.
But for one day a year, my parents would set aside their differences and we’d share a celebration meal like a normal family.
And yet, my mom has always disliked cooking and hosting while my father is her polar opposite. To him, every meal is a celebration of life and he wears it well; my stepmom is similarly wired and wears her appetite well, too. In fact, her physiology has a lot to do with how she’s been able to withstand relentless chemotherapy since September 2018.
Because we have chemo on Dec 23, we haven’t made any plans this year but my parents went to the farmers’ market this morning as they do every Saturday. “Hey, kiddo, I’m cooking you jardinière for the réveillon, will that do?” my stepmom told me and I nearly lost the composure I’m finding increasingly difficult to maintain. Even sick, she has never stopped being the nurturing mother figure I spent my entire childhood longing for. And she knows I adore this dish, which is a spring classic as it’s when fresh peas are in season; in winter, you just use good quality frozen peas and it works well.
Of course, she has already checked with my stepbrother, a classically trained chef who worked in some of the best kitchens in Paris.
More than likely, she won’t be able to eat any of it because chemo side effects are brutal and last for days. But she wanted to be sure I’d have something vegan and homemade while she and Dad will have seafood, or rather, Dad will and she’ll pick at what she can. Come Dec 24, I’ll don a long, white apron and offer to do prep if she lets me, but chances are she will shoo me out of the kitchen as she always does. While I’m a decent cook, offering to buy or make something would have been an unthinkable insult to her so I knew better than to even suggest it.
This year, she’s upset at being too sick to go Christmas shopping, something that the transport strikes paralyzing France and especially Paris would have made impossible anyway. Both my stepbrother and her reminded her we’re grown-ups who no longer have any illusion about Santa and it made her smile. That she’s still around is the greatest gift of all and truly all we could ever wish for; it is all that matters to us and to my father.
He’s already organizing tomorrow’s pre-chemo medication schedule and planning the post-chemo one. And of course he knows exactly who’s on call on Dec 25 if we need medical assistance; planning everything meticulously is how he copes.
And yet, I can clearly sense my parents are a little lost with me around and would have much preferred I weren’t. My stepbrother and his girlfriend won’t be joining us as they’re spending the holiday with her family, and I wasn’t expected — or expecting — to be here either. So much so that I’ve followed their cue and I’m doing my best to do exactly what I normally do, namely work as much as I can until I return to the Netherlands.
It’s a strange time for all involved but anxiety is intensifying ahead of Monday’s hospital visit and the much-dreaded update. Chemo is something we deal with in the same way we deal with unpleasant obligations but an oncology consult is something else altogether.
I’m struggling with the season but I cannot let the distress within show and have to isolate whenever the pressure of the season gets too much. When I told my stepmom this morning that my train to Amsterdam next week wasn’t on the list of cancelled services for that day, she looked relieved.
It’s not that my parents do not want me around, it’s that they’re concerned about my ability to handle, well, all that I’ve been handling for the last year. On the one hand, I still haven’t accessed therapy for chronic depression because I’ve been living out of a suitcase since December 2018. On the other, they also intuit something went badly wrong in the US and although they don’t pry, they can’t help worrying, based on what little I share.
In short, they hoped I’d still be able to enjoy a rest and a happy holiday season because they know their current circumstances are stress-inducing and preclude festive cheer.
In my family, we look forward, not back even though extensive travel has made us all into storytellers with a deep fondness for anecdotes. We recall funny moments so they might give us the strength to carry on but we don’t squander the present wishing for the past. When a new day arrives, we make the most of it even when it goes spectacularly awry, which it is wont to do on occasion.
In fact, my father has coined a new concept this year, something he calls the nonstop réveillon and my stepmom is happily going along with it. In short, they got a head start on the winter holidays and started enjoying festive foods at the beginning of December. As Dad explains it, “If Christmas turns out to be a wash, at least we’ll have already celebrated it by eating well.” In practice, the minute he finishes lunch he’s already planning what to have for dinner; the shorter the break between meals, the better. And when not around the table, there’s innumerable kinds of candy around, from candied chestnuts to artisan chocolates.
Because food is a love language.
And even though I still only eat one meal a day and it is entirely plant-based, they’ve not forgotten me. “Daddy got you some walnuts,” my stepmom told me with a wink when I got back on Thursday because they both know I am infinitely fond of them. So I immediately cracked one open and it was delicious, organically grown in the Périgord region, no less.
“Merci, they’re wonderful,” I told Dad. “Eat up, kiddo, there’s five kilos of them and we’re running out of storage space here,” he said, patting his stomach, also lovingly referred to as “the abdominal”, singular, never plural.
We won’t be exchanging gifts this year because being together is everything. Plus there’s no longer an ocean and an enormous landmass between us, and that, too, is quite the unexpected gift. As is my smiling more often and having a shot at a new, healthy, and creative life thanks to those who have been holding me together throughout 2019.
And who somehow became part of my family, too.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.