Never had we been so organized. The local Sylvestros were coming for an early Christmas gathering, and with three-year-old Eleanor and almost-two Taylor in tow. We’d planned a prompt 5:30 dinner to get them home and to bed on time.

Dinner gathering at Sylvestro house rekindles memories of Christmases past.

Our preparations had launched days before. Lists #1 and #2 — groceries, errands, and gifts — had been checked off and discarded. Lists #3 and #4 — menu and timing — waited on the kitchen counter, demanding attention and compliance.

Throughout the week, I’d decorated the house. The plastic bin parade had descended from the attic, and our collection of Santas, angels, nativities, and elves unearthed from between layers of tissue. Old friends of fabric, porcelain, and felt returned to their traditional spots around the house, each piece sparking the flash of a memory or beloved face.

Just as Pandora’s music selection can swing from the annoyingly jolly “Frosty” to the solemn power of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” so my mood in December can shift from festive to wistful. A video text from my daughter, Casey, of Eleanor jump, jump, jumping in excitement while decorating their tree filled my heart with all the magic Christmas holds. The velveteen Santa my parents gave Tucker on his first Christmas conjured images of Mom and Dad dressed in red and green holding court during Christmases past. And I smiled, even as tears prickled, while setting the table with my grandmother’s silver, a mundane task made moving in triggering thoughts of my Byeo.

When the day of the dinner arrived, Dave and I rose early. Food is a complicated arena in our family, and allergies, favorites, dislikes, and traditions require a smorgasbord of options. The alternative roast for the non-meat-eaters, the chicken for those who do, the bean casserole, cheese bread, and stuffing, all called for different oven times and temperatures, so we mapped out a sequence that would work. We cooked several dishes in advance to re-warm closer to dinner and put the chicken in the oven at 2:45. We looked at each other, triumphant and amazed.

While I was raised with a strict adherence to schedules, Sylvestros are rarely on time. Dave and I often have terse exchanges before departing for any event as I am ready at the door, arms crossed and thin-lipped, as he takes his time brushing his teeth, looking for the right tie, or trying to find his keys. And there have been times as hosts when I’ve greeted guests while Dave finished dressing, yet on this day, we had time to shower and relax before everyone arrived.

When our family members trickled in, we had everything under control.

Oh wait. The hors-d’oeuvres! We’d forgotten to assemble the platters. With the chicken in the oven and casseroles in a queue awaiting warming turns, we’d been at ease, checking our phones and emails. No worries! Dave poured drinks, and I grabbed the cutting board and holiday bowls to dish up the humus, home-made salsa (no onions), Tostitos and crackers (both gluten-free), and cheese (the lactose intolerant folks would just have to steer clear).

Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby sang their respective versions of “White Christmas,” and everyone settled in the living room. The children opened their gifts, reluctantly sharing amid the tumult of ripped wrappings as encouraged by their moms.

When the dinner hour drew near, I took a tour through the kitchen to check my list and begin the re-warming process. Dave had taken the chicken from the oven to baste it, and I eyed it with concern: the skin was still pale.

“Do we have a baster?” Dave asked peevishly as he clattered about in the utensil drawer.

“We used to. Maybe it was tossed out,” I said. “What-EVER. But you’re letting all the heat out! The chicken doesn’t look anything close to ready.” Organized or not, we were closing in on the finish line, and we were off-schedule. The clock is my mistress, and I strive, however shrilly, to please her.

The chicken, spoon basted, was returned to the oven. The side dish line-up remained, chill to the touch, on the counter. No point in checking the timetable, my inner harpy snarled. Might as well throw that list in the garbage.

Shortly after, I noticed that the oven temp was reading 220 degrees.

“Dave?” I called, my voice accusing. “Did you turn down the oven?”

“No. Why?” With brows knit, he joined me and turned the dial to 350. A small crowd had gathered by then, all staring in dismay at our traitorous appliance. We waited, hoping to see the numbers rise. But no.

Sigh. A broken oven during a holiday dinner, sadly, was not a first in our home. We’ve had blown stove tops and toilets flooding cascades of water prior to parties before.

“Turn on the grill!” said PJ, my son-in-law. “We can finish the chicken outside. And call your neighbors. I’m sure they’ll help.”

We have the best neighbors ever, and when I called Laurie, she was on it. “What temp? I’ll start heating the oven now.”

PJ and Dave took care of the roast. Casey and I took the dishes to Laurie’s. She finished the cooking for us, and when we returned to pick everything up, she’d even sprinkled the fried onions on the bean casserole to brown them.

The little girls’ fatigue was starting to show, although nestling into “the fort” under the dining room table was a good distraction for a while. And thanks to teamwork and good neighbors, dinner was served, hot, delicious… and only an hour late. Despite the dance through the food gauntlet, the blown oven, and tired children, the evening was all one would want: time together. A year of loss and pandemic caution has been a harsh teacher in exactly how precious that is.

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