Fourth of July

There are high hopes for a celebratory Fourth of July. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Coronavirus stole my Thanksgiving. When my son tested positive, my extended family members canceled their trips. It robbed my Christmas. My husband's parents couldn't consider setting foot on a plane.

Even Easter, which held so much hope with increasing vaccinations, ended up a bust, with my nephew stranded abroad in mandatory quarantine and me stuck with a brimming basket of See's chocolate eggs, unhidden.

Let me just say, this soul-crushing pandemic better not destroy my Fourth of July.

I know I'm tempting fate here. But is it too much to ask, after so much collective loss, so much sacrifice, so much isolation, that, finally, we can celebrate a holiday together?

I'm pinning all my yearning, pleading, pent-up hopes on it.

I have it all planned.

My brother, Geordie, and his family are flying in from Colorado. My sister Suzanne and hers are driving up from Southern California. My brother Peter and his family live nearby. We will load up the station wagon and, with my 90-year-old mother in the back seat, head down to Monterey County, up a winding road into the Santa Lucia mountains, through the light and shadows of a redwood-studded canyon and, with groceries to last a week, navigate a rickety footbridge to the family cabin.

It's barely 650 square feet, perched on the edge of a creek that spills into a little lake stocked with fish, canoes and a swimming platform. My parents bought this place 20 years ago when my two brothers and sister and I were just starting our families. It's part of a 100-cabin community called San Clemente Rancho owned by the Dormody family, who clear the roads, maintain the hiking trails and keep a stash of life jackets at the lake.

My mom likes to describe it here as "one-step above camping." My dad wanted it to be our together place.

He and my oldest brother, Peter, rebuilt and shingled the 1960s-era cabin, expanding the loft to fit an extra bed and pushing out a wall to make more room at the dining table. It still has just one bedroom and one bathroom with an old tin shower. When the eight cousins were little, we somehow managed to sleep all 18 of us in here, wall to wall. Sleeping bags rolled out on the living room floor. Two of the cousins slept end-to-end on the window seat; another claimed the spot under the dining room table; at least one pair of adults hunkered down in the screened gazebo, where the wildlife sounds of slithering, creeping, and burrowing kept you up at night.

My dad was always the first up, making coffee and his special, creamy scrambled eggs. Standing in the kitchen, holding a spatula, he waited for everyone to rise.

How we managed to squeeze everyone in became a point of pride, a bragging rite, and in many ways a testament to our closeness.

All that is impossible while six feet apart.

With Memorial Day upon us and pandemic restrictions being lifted, many are anxious to re-embrace their summer traditions. Family reunions on the beach. Backyard barbecues. Block parties. Maybe even a parade.

In Palo Alto, Joyce and Hillard Tavrow, both in their early 90s and living in a retirement community, haven't seen some of their children and grandchildren since the pandemic began "except on Zoom," Joyce said.

They had to cancel last year's family reunion — which would have been their 25th —  and have rescheduled it for this July.

"We're big bocce ball players and at night it's bridge or another card game," she said of the 15 family members who gather each year. "It's simple stuff that we all enjoy. None of the grandchildren has said they don't want to go."

Cheryllyn Romero of Sunnyvale missed the births of her first two grandchildren because of the pandemic but "snuck out of California" last summer to travel to Oregon a couple of months later to see her infant granddaughter. Waiting that long "almost killed me," she said. "COVID makes you lonely in ways you don't really know."

The Romeros are making plans to return for Fourth of July and again in November, when their third grandchild is due.

"We're all going to be together," she said, "no matter what."

Rod Reyes is looking forward to his extended family meeting his new girlfriend this summer — a delay that has worried him, especially since his grandmother is in her late 90s.

"With every celebration, whether it be a graduation or a job promotion or holiday, we usually have barbecues and large family gatherings that involve food," said Reyes, 37, the chef and owner of Barya Kitchen in San Jose, who is often on tap for arriving with Filipino staples like adobo or lumpia that feed 50 or more. "We haven't had that. I want her to meet everyone."

Not everyone is anxious for a return to their pre-pandemic parties.

Miguel Enriquez and his wife, Anita Enriquez Rexinger, have committed to downsizing. For years, they've been known for their huge theme parties attracting up to 60 people each: the "turkey and Scotch" party at Christmas, the St. Patrick's Day party in March and a Labor Day party where Miguel pulls out his 20-gallon sous vide water cooker for tri tip and brisket. Going forward, they plan to invite no more than six or eight.

After the death of a close friend this past year, Miguel said, "I got to evaluate what's important and who's important and whom I want to spend more time with.

"We're seeking deeper connections."

It's a sentiment that can get lost in the pending pell-mell rush to gather.

High expectations can also be dangerous. Maybe this year of isolation has warped our memories, built up our fantasies of how things used to be, helped us forget that smoldering "family dynamic" that can send you storming out of a room or breaking down in tears. Perhaps it's the kind of longing that is destined for disappointment.

I'm plowing ahead anyway.

Like most families, mine has had to adjust to heartbreaking change. Our extended family of 18 that somehow fit into the cabin dropped to 17 when my dad died of cancer at the start of Memorial Day weekend three years ago. His imprint is everywhere — every shingle he hung, every martini glass he swirled. His list of closing-up instructions is still taped inside the cabinet door ("leave it better than you found it!"), and his voice still echoes from the answering machine.

A sense of melancholy and loss still wells up here, but memories of the eight cousins — now all in their early 20s — embarking on river walks and waterfall hikes, stargazing and S'Mores-making keep me going. It's drawing every one of them back for Fourth of July, too.

"I'm in!" my nephew, Anthony responded to a text confirming plans.

A year after my dad died, Anthony stood at the head of the cabin dining table and presented my mom with a gift, a folk-art poster of a large family gathered for a picnic in a forest. It reminded him, he said, of the "blissful nostalgia" of our family summers here. We hung it right there.

If all goes according to plan on Fourth of July, cabin families will gather like they do every year at the top of the road and decorate bikes, wagons and pets in red, white and blue. Then Bruce Dormody — who with his brothers Hank and Erik dug fire lines around the rancho during the 2016 wildfires and saved the cabins and the summer friendships that go along with them — will fire up one of the bulldozers. His 87-year-old mother, Donna, will climb into the front bucket and will lead the home-spun parade.

We will wave American flags and sing, "Three cheers for the red, white and blue" as we go. Then we will gather here in this forest — all 17 of us — for a picnic.

After all we've been through, that shouldn't be too much to ask.


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