More friends than usual stuffed a catch-up annual letter this year into their holiday cards and emails.
Perhaps this is because the coronavirus prevented us all from seeing the friends and loved ones we usually see at least once a year. The letters are a way of staying in touch. How many friends have we all drifted away from once personal visits cease?
Too many… is the answer.
A big obstacle for wife Gosia and me was the 14-day quarantine we’d have to endure at a costly hotel before we could even reach our acres in Alaska or our country cabin in Poland northeast of Warsaw. So all year we stayed in the Midwest like many of you did.
We did not visit our Alaska lands to go dog sledding. Nor did I attend the Iditarod dog race as we always have done.
If we passed a covid exam at an Alaska airport to bypass the quarantine, we had to cough up $250 each. That’s a big chunk outta the monthly Social Security check.
Our getting to Poland from the U.S. was equally problematic. It meant that the festive Christmas Eve family celebration was cancelled for the first time. Plus, this is the first time in 29 years my wife and her daughter Natalia won’t have a Christmas together having marathon record-listening sessions with the holiday songs of Elvis Presley, Jose Feliciano and Michael Steven Bublé on all day.
For Natalia, a scientist-researcher in Micronesia with the World Health Organization, it is because she is grounded by government order. Micronesia is one of the few places in the world without the virus because it has sealed the borders since February.
Then this week, my wife and I got some bad news from Alaska. A five-minute drive from our remote place north of Tok, a Fairbanks corporation won the right to dig an open-pit mine to swoop gold out of the ground.
Some locals there in Tok on the Facebook page are celebrating. They say it will bring jobs to the area. In one week, I noticed on Zillow that house prices seemed to be going up. I’ll bet property rentals will also skyrocket soon with new workers coming in droves.
Will it be long before a Wal-Mart and fast food emporiums come to pleasantly back-in-time Tok and drive out the cafes and local trading post?
No, and it won’t be long before we try to swap our land for a piece of lonely, heavenly acreage in the Brooks Range.
But sitting around and grumbling just isn’t our style.
So much of this week, we’ll hit the walking paths in Darke County and Harter Park in Union City.
We’ll spend Christmas in a state park cabin eating my wife’s scrumptious cheese, onion and potato pierogis for lunch, plus elk stakes on the outdoor grille for a light evening meal.
We in Poland at the end of Advent have fresh herring on a day we can eat no meat by tradition. But since we could not find fresh herring in Darke or Randolph County, we’ll enjoy halibut or cod shipped to us bi-monthly from Alaska.
Before the Christmas Eve meal, we’ll celebrate with a religious tradition of my family’s and wife Gosia’s.
Namely, we’ll open a colorful envelope containing a Christmas wafer or Oplatki (pronounced Oh-pwah-tki) as it is known in Polish. It is a rectangle-shaped white wafer with Mary and Baby Jesus superimposed on it.
The city of Bethlehem has several meanings. We Polish persons like the Hebrew translation of “House of Bread.”
We break the wafer into small pieces, and we exchange with family and friends. With each exchange, we say we are grateful for friendship and unity. Often, we wish one another a blessed year ahead.
My wife’s family exchanges kisses on the cheek. I had to get used to that. My own family on our farms in Western New York never practiced that European custom.
This year, my wife and I will have to break bread with one and all in absentia. We’ll hope for snow and pretend that the Midwestern cabin is in either Alaska or Poland.
We invite you all to join us in the eternal procession of family members both present and deceased.
Our packet of “angel wafers” says this: “There is a universal longing by men (and women) to be always with one another, with God.”
The terrible lesson of 2020, the year of a terrible pandemic, is that even those of us who love the outdoors, tranquility and Mother Nature, still need one another and to wish each other the traditional quest for an ever-better year ahead of each of us.
My wife Gosia and I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Frohe Weinachten and Wesolych Swiat.
OK, Gosia, I am ready. Let the Elvis, Jose and Michael Christmas carol marathon begin.
Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.