I arrived back in Austin on Monday after a 17 hour drive from my hometown. The week was full of freezing temperatures, familiar faces, and enough butter and sugar to last me for all of 2018. For the first half hour after leaving Cincinnati, we drove in silence. Fat, cold tears streamed down my face, as they always do when I realize how far I live from my family. I stared out the window at I-71, ever conflicted, feeling oh-so-many things.
I haven’t cooked in weeks. Sure, I probably threw together a salad here and there, maybe checked on a couple things in the oven while I was home, but the week leading up to Christmas and the week following was full of meals prepared by someone else. I miss cooking like crazy, and I’m itching to create something, but in a very real way, it was wonderful to leave my normal life behind. For the first time in YEARS, I fully embraced the change of pace, the week away from normalcy, the hustle of the holidays. Hell, I even enjoyed it.
Over the past decade, Christmas has become a running joke between my sisters and me. We roll our eyes about the stress of making it home, of spending hours in the car on Christmas Day to make sure no family member feels slighted or left out, of our parents’ neverending reminders of our long lost childhood and the traditions that they still so desperately wish to keep. Christmas arrives like a little storm cloud, filled with expectations and tears and lots and lots of unnecessary spending. We breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over, proud of ourselves for “making it through.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Christmas used to be about hoping for snow. It was about that amazing Christmas song compilation playing loud in my mom’s car. It was about pointsettas and fat colored light bulbs and my grandma’s applesauce and real cloth ribbon and the little red boot we placed on the top of the tree. Tears were shed, mine especially, but it was more often over which Christmas tree we would be saving from woodchipper oblivion than stress or money.
Yes, when parents split up, holidays become something different altogether. But that’s not why the holidays changed for us. At some point along the way, childhood ended. The holidays became less about the magic of it all and more about the reality of how much work it takes to create that magic. As you get older, you notice things like bad moods and traffic dilemmas and scheduling nightmares and last minute CVS runs. You start to watch your bank account balances dwindle and experience the kind of anxiety that comes with not having the faintest idea what to buy for a loved one so that they understand how much you care. As an adult, cynicism is just easier.
So, on our way up to Cincinnati, about halfway through the first day’s drive, Marc and I are making those very same cynical jokes about the week. “Deep breaths,” we say, laughing, “we can do this.” And then, on a whim, we stop for lunch at a place that changed my mind about all of it, derailing my cynicism and replacing it with something else entirely.
It was called Sullivan’s Diner. Yelp highly recommended it and a little internet digging allowed to us to take a look at the menu. Thai food. In Benton, Arkansas. Probably terrible, right? But it wasn’t fast food, it wasn’t out of the way, and the locals seemed to love it.
When we arrive, the sign immediately grabs us: “Sullivan’s Diner: Burgers and Thai Food,”
We walk into the quaintest building I’ve seen in a long time. It looks like it was someone’s house at one point, but now it is filled with tables covered in checkered red and white tablecloths, an old fashioned menu overhead and a man behind the counter who looked so much like Santa Claus I thought I was dreaming.
The menu was simple – maybe eight dishes altogether, if that. I ordered the Pad Thai, Marc ordered the Tom Yum, and we waited patiently as our fellow patrons devoured the plates delivered to them. We quickly learned that Sullivan himself was the white bearded man behind the counter, that his Thai wife worked in the back, and that Mr. Sullivan had served in Vietnam and moved back to Arkansas after a long stint overseas. We eavesdropped shamelessly as he told his story to the surrounding tables, amazed and dumbfounded by the gem of a pit stop we had discovered, even before the food arrived.
I’ve eaten so much Thai food in my life. It was my mom’s favorite takeout option during the early post-divorce years, and even my dad liked to indulge on the stuff every once in a while. Pad Thai was never something I craved; the noodles are always mushy or dry, lacking in sauce, it is almost always overloaded with peanut flavor in a way that can make it smell like dog food. But it’s an old faithful, and Mr. Sullivan assured me that it was a speciality at their diner.
And sure enough, the plate that arrived in front of me was the best damn Thai food I’ve ever had in my life.
The noodles were al dente – yes, AL DENTE – not overcooked but not undercooked either. They had substance to them, a true bite, and were much fatter than the ones I’d had before. The dish was SAUCY, like really saucy, and so flavorful I couldn’t stop mmmm-ing. The peanut flavor was on point – real, fresh peanuts crushed up in the sauce and still crunchy. Bean sprouts on top for extra texture. The perfect amount of food. I was so impressed I could have cried. Marc’s soup, a generous portion of creamy coconut-y Tom Yum, was equally outstanding.
We talked to Mr. Sullivan afterwards, even got to meet his brilliant chef of a wife, and I felt a warmth inside me that I haven’t felt in a long time. We swapped stories, he made a couple of jokes, we learned that he had lost multiple family members in the past several years and that he and this diner are what they left behind. I gave him a hug as we left, promising to return and meaning it.
During my week back in Cincinnati, I was reminded of the gazillion things I have to be thankful for. I sat around a dinner table with my dad and sisters and ate raclette and drank French white wine and played a nerdy board game with my dad as my teammate. I tried on outfits with my mom and talked about life while eating buttery chicken chili and fresh Italian bread in her cozy kitchen. I was served donuts and Spanish cava and given the most generous of gifts at a gorgeous wedding shower my mom had slaved over for weeks. I sat with my grandmother as I unwrapped an old teaspoon set I had loved as a little girl, one that was a staple at our granddaughter-grandmother tea parties of my childhood. I visited the recently-purchased homes of two of my closest friends in the world. I embraced old friends and teachers and role models. I spent a night on the town with two of my favorite people and drank way too many martinis. I taught spin classes at my old fitness studio. And for the first time in our almost five year relationship, Marc and I woke up next to each other on Christmas morning.
Maybe all of that goodness came back because I let it come back. I can’t have the holidays of my childhood again, and maybe it took me a few years to accept that. The season will never be sunshine and roses if I get too wrapped up in the tedium of it all.
I arrived back in Austin on Monday with a nasty cough and the worst kind of chills, and it still hasn’t fully subsided. There’s nothing like 3 days on the couch, feverish and alone, to put things in perspective.
And so, my new year’s resolution is this: I want to complain less. I want to start expecting the best possible scenario instead of the worst and not take the good things for granted. I want to roll my eyes less and listen a little more. I want more meals like that one in Benton, Arkansas, ones made even better by the stories behind them.