I come from a large extended family. I am one of 4 children and my mom is the oldest of 9, so warm bodies have never been sparse on the holidays, even after half the fam moved to the Northwest. And my husband’s family, though initially smaller, has grown exponentially the past few years, both with new littles and adopted extended members, so no shortage there either. I also come from families of doers and helpers on both sides— everyone pitches in by bringing a dish to pass, assists with food prep before the meal and form s a cleaning assembly line of sorts afterwards.
While the kitchen on holidays is a fun, festive place to be, filled with lively chatter, as a person with vision loss it can be an anxiety-inducing entity. I have often found myself in the conundrum of desiring to help but unable to physically see what needs to be done. “Well, just ask,” most sighted people are thinking, but those with compromised sight understand what 2 scenarios asking usually unleashes:
1. Someone gives you a job, such as “you can set the glasses out— they’re over there on the counter”. The well-meaning person is probably pointing, though you don’t know it, so you spend the next several minutes bumbling about the kitchen, trying to locate the glasses. If you’re lucky, you eventually find them, your stomach in knots over whether you’ll bump into someone and break one. If you’re less lucky, in your excitement over spotting them, you’ll knock a “hidden” one off the counter, hence getting yourself shooed from the kitchen faster than a mouse.
2. Someone gives you a pat on the shoulder and tells you just to relax, go check on the kids, or have a seat. This scenario, while initially providing some relief, inevitably leaves you feeling left out, dismissed and not very useful.
I was finally able to admit this— both to myself and a friend— last Thanksgiving at an intimate gathering over a glass of wine. Having moved to California, we were invited to spend Turkey Day at a good friend’s house, a small enough group for all the adults to fit at one round table. As my husband and I stood at the kitchen island with the hosts, working on the final meal preparations, the kitchen did not feel crowded, yet I still found myself wondering how I could help. Then I remembered the harvest salad I brought needed to be dressed and tossed. I poured the tiny container of balsalmic I had brought with over the greens and grasped the tongs in my hands as if they were surgical forceps for a very important surgery I was about to perform. I moved them around with intense concentration, and just enough gusto to make myself appear VERY occupied and helpful. Unfortunately, this only took 30 seconds, though I was able to draw it out for another 45 seconds. Still, I did not want to appear idle, so I asked “Anything I can help with?” but before anyone could answer I quickly interjected, “oh, the salad needs tossed a bit more!” eyeing the salad as if it I had just now noticed it was there.
My friend Sara, a “marble jar” friend (Brown fans out there, note reference!), caught on to my antics immediately, and we started laughing. Between laughs, I told her about my holiday kitchen phobia, and “just keep tossing the salad” became one of several jokes of the evening. It felt good to admit my insecurities and even better to laugh over them.
Some people have nervous tics- nose wrinkling, head twitching, eye blinking— for me it is salad tossing. It’s something I can do with my hands to distract my mind from false thoughts of inadequacy. Something that makes me feel of the prep, part of the laughter part of the group.
This isn’t to say that I never had a sense of belonging or camaraderie at previous gatherings. Lord knows both the Kuhn and Thomas family holidays have been filled with laughter and connection. There was just a freedom I felt last year in naming the elephant in the room, even if I was the only person who felt or noticed the elephant.
Tossing the salad is something I will continue to hold in my back pocket, no matter how large or small the gathering. Weight is lifted when we can be vulnerable enough to express our insecurities, and when we are met with empathy, we can feel light enough to laugh over them.