"Ew, Michael, Grandma can see you. Moooom! Make him stop."
I resisted the urge to add to the screaming. This day had already been so long.
"Michael, go to the bathroom and blow your nose, and wash your hands. Thoroughly."
My four year old dashed down the hallway giggling the whole way.
"Go with him, Katie. Make sure he washes his hands."
Twelve year old Katie trudged after her brother, grumbling about disgusting brats and weird computer Thanksgiving. I was sympathetic. The last thing her father and I wanted to do was have another video conference, even if it was with my parents. Working from home sounded much more flexible and wonderful in theory than it was in practice. Sure I'd been working in yoga pants for eight months, but maintaining a functional office or classroom for every member of the household was a job in itself. I was beginning to hear the words "you're on mute" in my dreams.
On the computer screen I could see my mother putting a beautiful bouquet of mums and rosemary sprigs on her table. Dad was in the background poking the logs in the fireplace. Their dining room looked like a greeting card, or one of those syrupy holiday movies. I glanced over at the pile of ironing I'd shoved behind a recliner and groaned.
"Honey, are you okay?"
"Yeah, Mom. It's just been a long day, and let's just say the kids have been less than cooperative."
"Well, it's hard for them. It's hard for all of us. I'm just glad we're all healthy and we can see each other, even if it's on a computer screen. I remember when you had to pay a lot of money to make a long-distance phone call. Holidays have always been tough. I think we're just more aware of it now."
Katie and Michael came back into the room, parked themselves at the table and gave me their most angelic smiles.
"Five minutes," I yelled.
"Right here with the holiday cheer," my husband put a bottle of cheap champagne next to my plate and filled the kids' glasses with sparkling apple juice.
I expected to hear my oldest thundering down the steps. The sixteen-year old walking appetite never missed a meal, or a snack, or a nibble in between meals and snacks. However, he was just as unenthusiastic about our virtual Thanksgiving as his siblings. Their grandparents' house was a kid paradise. A huge yard with a garden, a tire swing, a few laying hens, and a house filled with a vast book collection as well as a state-of-the-art entertainment center, and they were missing it. None of them had seen their friends in person in months. All three of my kids were moody and volatile, and I didn’t blame them one bit. However, I was getting tired of wrangling discontent.
"Let's just get started," my husband poured us both a glass and began a toast.
"To our safe and socially distanced Thanksgiving."
Everyone took a sip, okay I probably had a gulp, but the alcohol was a godsend at that moment. Plates were filled, and a lively discussion about the merits of roasted or smoked turkey ensued. Michael stuck his finger in Katie's mashed potatoes. I was on my third glass of champagne. My mother kept the conversation going, the perfect hostess even through a digital connection.
"Your setup looks so good, Mom. Did you have any trouble with the video chat software?"
"Oh no, Grandpa has been using it for months for his book club meetings, and I moved most of my piano students to virtual lessons over the summer."
I gave my husband a look, and bless him, he returned with a second bottle of wine. We were all resigned that my eldest was sulking, and I was wondering if I should bring out dessert soon. My son slunk into the room.
"Sorry I'm late."
"Lateness is very disrespectful, son," my husband was using his basketball coach voice, "but since you apologized, you're forgiven."
"What kept you?" The look on his face made my sulking teen theory seem less and less probable by the minute.
"I was talking to my lab partner."
"Oh, homework," I said, "then you are certainly excused."
"It wasn't homework. His dad just died."
There was a clanking of silverware hitting plates all around. We waited.
"They had to say goodbye on the phone. No one was allowed at the hospital. The whole family just sat there, staring at the screen…watching him gasp...and then nothing."
I could hear Katie sniffing. Michael didn't really understand, but he was patting his big sister's hand.
"Are you okay?" My father's voice was less of a rumble through the computer speakers.
I looked at the awareness and sadness in my son's eyes. On the verge of adulthood, he was still my baby, and I longed to make this hurt go away. I knew I couldn't.
Everyone poked at their food. The kids were quiet, and I got up to retrieve a pie and a cake from the kitchen. Maybe sugar would make it better. When I returned, my husband and father were collecting the dishes in their respective dining rooms. My mother was holding an antique doll up to the web camera for Katie to appreciate. I passed out sweets based on everyone's tastes. Cake for Katie. Pie for Michael. Both for my husband and teen, but with the frosting scrapped off for Hubby. I decided to wait until I had some fresh coffee for my sugar rush.
"Mom," I looked over to my almost grown son, "I know it's kinda corny, but I heard about this Thanksgiving thing. Everyone at the table says something they're thankful for. Could we do that? Or is it too weird?"
The video chat continued for hours. Michael eventually curled up on the sofa where he could still see us, until his four-year-old body succumbed to carbs and excitement and he fell asleep. Mom and Dad told funny stories about getting stuck in a muddy field and having to bring out all their friends from high school and a neighbor’s truck to get loose. It took the kids a while to realize that lots of adventures happened when “just call on your cellphone” wasn’t an option.
My husband recalled the Thanksgiving he’d spent on duty in the military, and the dry turkey dinner he and his troops had been grateful for in spite of its taste and smell. To the kids’ surprise, I took out years’ worth of hand-turkey drawings from my desk. All laid out on the floor, we could see the size of the finger feathers growing each year and how each child had mastered spelling and printing their name.
Eventually we called it a night, and my eldest decided to help with cleanup and dish duty as a further apology for being late for dinner. We worked quietly. As I was setting up the morning coffee and wiping down the counter for a last time, he came up behind me and hugged me.
“Could we do a video dinner with Grandma and Grandpa every week? You know, even if there’s no holiday?”