Head shot of masked Crystal

The reporter’s daughter Crystal organizing ornaments to decorate the Christmas tree. The family tried to stay safe over the holiday by wearing masks and eating in separate corners.

I glowered as we picked away at our beautiful Christmas dinner, each in our distant corner of the living room — pandemic masks like napkins alongside our plates.

I sipped my wine and nursed my disappointment after having surrendered to my paramedic daughter’s ground rules for a socially distanced holiday.

But I couldn’t keep visions of a traditional Christmas from dancing in my head.

I’d planned the day for months, the turkey, the side dishes, the laughter sparkling with the candles. I wanted a Martha Stewart-worthy table, with perfect decorations to complement the family china and silver.

But the pandemic intervened.

My parents decided not to risk the trip.

We couldn’t have the entire group remain completely isolated for two weeks before dinner.

And then my daughters offered refuge to a school friend, who couldn’t go home because his parents feared they had COVID.

My oldest daughter was frantic.

She’s a geology graduate student at the University of Alaska, moonlighting as a volunteer paramedic. She had agonized about coming down at all — torn between the need to see her family and the risk of bringing the virus home as she passed through three airports.

So, she isolated herself at my parents’ empty second home, along with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.

She said she would only come over if we all wore masks — and insisted we couldn’t eat together.

“That’s not Christmas,” I said.

“It’s to protect you,” she said.

“I’m not going to slave over dinner only to have you put it in a doggie bag and go home,” I sniffed.

“I’m not doing this to upset you,” she said miserably. “I’m doing this because I love you. It’s your friends or family members you have dinner with that spreads this virus.”

I got so hot under the collar we couldn’t finish the conversation. Instead, we scheduled a mask-less Zoom call to hash it all out with the aid of body language.

We ended up talking over each other, wounded in ways we didn’t understand.

Brooke finally said, “It hurts me to see my family so upset, but it would hurt worse if one of us got sick and died.”

I finally relented, thinking of my sister, thinking of my parents — so far away.

“We can wear masks,” I said, feeling the whole holiday slipping away. “But can’t we eat together?”

So we did. Six feet apart. Scattered around the room.

We moved one at a time through a buffet-style kitchen line in masks, filling our plates before retreating to our socially distanced spots. We ate furtively, a mere interlude before masking up again.

I understood — more or less.

In fact, my own sister came down with the disease shortly before Thanksgiving. She’s in health care in North Carolina. Her office suffered an outbreak among staff. Suddenly, a story I’d been reporting for months felt personal and threatening.

Throughout the summer, it was easier to forget the threat. Case numbers remained manageable because people met up outside.

Gradually, we took more risks, dined with friends alfresco, attended events without a mask and invited friends to spend the night.

So many quit paying attention to who’d been isolating and who’d been out and about — the results have been disastrous. Since Thanksgiving, the number of cases has soared, including my sister. Three friends have lost their parents.

Still, my husband and I have lived a monk’s life for months. I go out once a week to gather groceries and cover meetings here and there.

I do my best to stick to the CDC guidelines — avoid indoor gatherings, wear a mask within six feet of other people and not more than 15 minutes in close proximity with anyone without a mask. Well. Mostly.

But that wasn’t good enough for Brooke. The virus travels on the breath, she said.

I know she’s right. I’ve watched the video that shows the swirls of breath with their invisible droplets of moisture on which the virus travels. Just talking carries the virus. And whatever you do, don’t sing. Don’t laugh.

So we sat in our separate Christmas corners, donned our sweaters and opened windows and turned on ceiling fans to move any viruses out of the house.

I let go of my plan and ate Zach’s potatoes and Brooke’s squash soup and Crystal’s gluten-free vegan brownies, while Brooke recounted the day she capsized her kayak looking for a friend’s hat and it dawned on me.

I had it all wrong.

It wasn’t about the perfect dinner.

It was just watching them from across the room — my brave, beautiful girls. I was hungry for the sight of them, thinking of my sister still tired and short of breath and of Betty who has left Payson now to bury her father and tend to her mother.

We had a family Zoom call on Christmas Day — my parents in Laguna Beach, my niece in London, my dear sister in North Carolina, my aunt in Northern California. People wandered in and out of the call, tending to the vegan side dishes and the turkey for the besieged meat-eaters.

And it’s true: I spent my Christmas masked.

But we still opened presents.

We prepared the meal together.

We played board games.

We disagreed about politics.

We laughed at Crystal’s jokes.

And at some point I realized I’d forgotten we were wearing masks: I could see everything I yearned for in their eyes.

In fact, I felt exactly what I’d so wanted to feel.

Connection.

Family love.

And the spirit of Christmas.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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