As a means of staying creative and connected during this pandemic, my dear friend, Kate Suhr and I, created a series of shows called The Verandah Society. The concept was a simple one; bring old-fashioned storytelling and music directly to people’s homes. Over the summer we were lucky enough to visit about eighty verandahs to entertain small groups of bubbled friends and family. During a dark time, it saved our souls. People ask us where we got the name “The Verandah Society”. The truth is, like all great artists…we stole it. It’s the title of a story written by my great uncle, Clare Galvin. In his story he mused about being a child, growing up in small town Peterborough, Ontario, in the 1930’s, before the advent of telephones and televisions, when people spent more time outside in the company of others.
It was a story about the tradition of gathering on front porches or verandahs, where folks would share simple moments from their daily lives. It was a story about the tradition of connecting with family, friends and neighbours, at a specific time, in a specific place. It was about the act of creating community and in so doing, they gave meaning to each other’s lives.
So, we stole the title! Because it’s so fitting to what our world has looked like for the past (almost) year. Collectively, we’ve been gathering on our verandahs and back decks and garages and barns and driveways, to chat and catch up and yes, to give meaning to our lives. And our verandahs have expanded. They don’t necessarily require two-by-fours and lattice anymore, they’ve become virtual. We’ve adapted and have created small, square, verandah boxes on computer screens. We’re still connecting, just from the collar bones up. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Our human need to connect with each other is so profound that we’ve invented new and somewhat mystical ways of doing it. If I could time travel and tell my ancestors about Zoom, they’d throw their arms up and say “Shure! You’re having a go at me. First you tell me you flew across the Atlantic Ocean in a great metal bird, and now you’re talking to people on some magical box – bah, you’re madder than a bag of spiders!”
Though it is very necessary right now, and I support the effort, philosophically speaking, it is counter-intuitive for humans to “self-isolate”. We are social creatures of interdependence, habit and tradition. Regardless of your beliefs, affinities or denomination, it’s hard to escape the fact that December is a month chock-full of tradition.
In my own childhood, I waltzed through December in that anticipatory glow of Christmas. I have been lucky in my life, and I know it now more than ever, because Christmas to me means family, food, fireplaces, gifts and time spent with people who love me, and whom I love in return. Many people do not share the same blessings.
Our family traditions were innumerable. For one, we always spent time with both sides of my family, the Peterborough Murphy’s and the Toronto Mulvihill’s. My Toronto Nana was an amazing cook, (no offense Nana Murphy, but seriously, cream of mushroom soup does not count as a ‘sauce’). Nana Mulvihill looked an awful lot like the Queen with perfectly coifed black hair, a silk blouse that tied in a loose bow around her neck, and beige nylons under a tapered wool skirt. She’d don an apron over this ensemble as she cooked the turkey and glamorously stirred the gravy. It was all very…Toronto! I remember the year I was deemed old enough to join the adults in the pre-dinner shrimp cocktails. They were served in a flute-type apparatus and served on a bed of lettuce, with cocktail sauce and finely chopped celery. I felt so grown up and refined.
We had another tradition of cutting down our own Christmas tree. We’d drive to a farm on the outskirts of town and for a whole $20, we’d get a sleigh ride out to a field, where we’d wander around judging nature’s bounty as suitable or not as our yuletide tannenbaum. We’d leave our hats and mittens on trees that we wanted the others in our brood to see and consider as the chosen one. Eventually we’d settle on a spruce…that looked exactly like all the other spruce. My dad would lay in the snow and saw through the trunk, while one of us complained about our frozen toes and another cried “no one ever picks my tree!”. Then we’d enjoy a watered-down hot chocolate around a campfire and pick little bits of ash out of the whipped cream, before tying the tree to the roof of our station wagon to head home and commence the decorating. Inevitably, the trunk wouldn’t stand up straight, so we’d have to screw an eye hook into the baseboard of the living room, loop a rope through the hook, wrap it around the trunk and fasten the other end to the leg of the sofa and pray it stayed upright for the entire season.
We used to lay newspaper out in front of the fireplace and spread ashes onto it, that way we could catch Santa’s footprints when he came down the chimney. One year, his coat must have snagged on his way back up, because he left behind a little piece of fur as evidence of his existence.
Traditions are important. Just like verandah chats, they give meaning to our lives. They are touchstones that mark the passage of time. They provide a structure, so we know how to move within it. They set our expectations and help us relate to one another. If we have nothing else in common, at least we have our traditions. The thing we’ve always done. The thing we can rely on. The thing we know how to do.
I have always loved traditions until…I didn’t.
My dad got sick when I was 20 and that really threw a wrench into things. See, traditions only work if everyone agrees to stay healthy. How dare he!? When he got sick, we held on even more tightly to our traditions. We were nostalgic for the past, even as we made new memories in the present. There was an inherent pressure to absorb all of the meaning wrapped up in our traditions for fear we would never experience them again.
The first Christmas after my dad passed away was a strange one. My grandmother – Nana Murphy, was struggling with the grief of losing her son and she said, “I just wish this Christmas I could wear my housecoat and eat off my knee.” We looked at each other and shrugged, and said “Why not? Wish granted.” So that year, we had a “Come as Nana Christmas”. We wore pyjamas and got old lady permed wigs and fake pearls and we ate off of gravy-soaked paper plates and we made a new tradition – the tradition of doing what is best for each other.
The following year, my sister and her new husband hosted our family Christmas dinner. Halfway through the cooking of the turkey, their stove conked out. She’d put a lot of pressure on herself, so she panicked and felt disappointed that her first Christmas as a married gal hadn’t gone as planned. We transferred the bird to the BBQ, and we ate appetizers and a bag of seasoned insects that had been stuffed in my brother-in-law’s stocking as a joke, and we consumed all the wine in sight. By the time dinner was ready at midnight, we were pleasantly pickled and starving and had laughed our heads off at the ridiculous situation! We’d been disarmed by the breaking of our tradition, which meant we were free from our roles. Free, to just be.
When my mom passed away, a new challenge emerged. Who would be the new matriarch and patriarch? Older aunts and uncles? Older siblings? Let’s be honest for a second, I don’t have any kids, so my vote, when it comes to holidays, is non-existent! No one cares what Aunt Jackie thinks when it comes to Christmas! It took time and fancy dancing to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. And it took, surrender.
I realized, I wanted to break up with my traditions, in their formal sense. I love tradition, but not the way it used to be. I wanted to keep the quirky bits – the stockings, the jokes, the unexpected raw turkeys. I love talking about the people with whom we made the original traditions. I love asking my sisters what my folks would say now. But I don’t want to be married to the traditions themselves anymore. It’s too hard when you lose them. And quite frankly, traditions are just a framework for the people who exist within them. Sometimes, they’re actually a hinderance, because we don’t have to be truly vulnerable with each other if we’re just doing what we’ve always done.
2020 is the year where any and all traditions we’ve ever known have been thrown out the window. Whether it’s how we grocery shop, or dine out, get our hair done or visit our loved ones, there is nothing normal about this year. In terms of Christmas, there’s no sitting on Santa’s knee at the mall, we carol behind plexiglass, there are no finger foods at Christmas parties, (I miss meatballs on toothpicks). There is no shaking of hands, no office Secret Santa, and no sharing of serving spoons at dinner. COVID does not care about our traditions.
The question becomes, how do we keep the essence of our traditions, while allowing them to morph and evolve into something new? How do we become more attached to the feeling within our traditions, than the activities themselves? Rather than simply grieving the customs we’re missing; how can we shift our focus to the new and meaningful moments we have yet to create?
We can start by sharing our stories. We can talk about Christmases gone by, look through old photos, give life to fond memories and then we can challenge ourselves to create new, and potentially funny ones. We can remind ourselves that often our best memories were born of situations that went completely awry.
Our traditions are only as valuable as the people with whom we make them. And at the risk of being sued by Mr. Rogers – those are the people on your verandah. Whether that verandah is made of bricks and mortar, or pixels flying through cyberspace – the people are the tradition. This year let’s celebrate our people traditions, in whatever way we can, because they are the most important part. This time will pass, as all things do, and we’ll be together again soon, in real life, on the real verandah.
Kate wrote this beautiful song for our Christmas show. She also has a new single available on Apple music and Spotify called “Better off Together”. Stream to your heart’s content and please, spread the word! https://linktr.ee/katesuhr