One recent morning, my daughter, Madelaine, came downstairs looking unhappy. After having had her college graduation ceremony canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’d just found out that the graduate program she enrolled in for the fall — something she was excited about and was looking forward to — had canceled all in-person classes. Even her student teaching assignment at a high school in Cambridge, which was supposed to begin with the new school year, was suddenly uncertain.
“All these accomplishments I thought would be so amazing and meaningful don’t seem to mean anything,” she said. “It makes me feel like nothing I’ve accomplished matters.”
Never having experienced anything like what she is going through, I can’t say I knew exactly how she was feeling, but I know what she meant. There have been many occasions in my life — birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas mornings — that, according to conventional wisdom at least, were supposed to have been full of significance and a lot of fun, but for one reason or another were kind of a letdown. It’s one thing to have a bad day, but when that day is your 40th birthday it makes you start to question the point at which you might have taken a wrong turn in life.
Thinking about this, I was reminded of one of my favorite films. Directed by Jodie Foster and released in 1995, “Home for the Holidays” is about a 40-year-old single mother, Claudia, played by Holly Hunter, who travels from her home in Chicago to her parents’ house in Baltimore for Thanksgiving. The entire holiday weekend is a disaster, beginning with Claudia being fired from her job in the movie’s opening scene. Claudia’s conservative sister, Joanne, announces to the family that their brother, Tommy, is gay during Thanksgiving dinner. Claudia’s aunt admits to having been in love with Claudia’s father for the past 50 years. Finally, Tommy and Joanne’s stuffy banker husband, Walter, get into a brawl on the front lawn. Claudia’s father breaks up the fight by soaking them with the garden hose.
Early the next morning, Claudia finds her father watching old home movies in the basement. He asks her if she remembers the day in her childhood when he took her and her siblings to the airport tarmac to watch a plane taking off. Claudia’s brother and sister were terrified.
“But there you were,” her father says, “holding on to no one, eyes wide open just like your dad. You were fearless. Fearless. It was a great moment in my life; 1969; 10 seconds tops. I wish I had it all on tape.”
Whenever I watch “Home for the Holidays” I’m reminded that the best moments of our lives, those that are truly full of meaning and define who we are, often are not the ones we have on film. There have been many “regular” days in my life that have been exceptional. I have vivid, joyful memories of times spent with my family and friends — afternoons at the beach, hikes in the woods, conversations over leisurely lunches — that make me glad to be alive.
Among the things I’ve realized during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the great expectations we have for special events and milestone moments in our lives, as nice as they can be, are often unrealistic. Regardless of how carefully we plan the menu or the guest list, our attempts at creating meaningful experiences often fail to conjure up the type of magic that materializes on its own when the conditions are just right.
Rob and I might not have been able to watch Madelaine receive her diploma from her university’s president, but in the time we have been quarantined together — the first time in years we have all been in the same place for a significant amount of time — we have had the joy of getting to know the sophisticated, articulate and thoughtful young woman Madelaine has become. We’ve played cards on our screen porch on warm nights, cooked familiar recipes using unfamiliar ingredients when certain groceries were hard to find, and had revealing conversations while waiting in the seemingly endless drive-thru line at the bank.
I’m still disappointed about the things the pandemic has taken from my family and the world, and probably always will be, but the crisis also brought unexpected gifts. Learning to recognize them is a gift in itself.