My first real job in the world of art was in the main office of a local chain of popular ice cream stores. Officially, I was the "art director." In reality, I was the entire art department. I sat in a little cluttered office, churning out ads and signs and displays — all without the aid of computers or the sophisticated printers I have used in more recent employment. After many months of service, I was rewarded with a token of thanks as the holiday season approached. No, it wasn't a bonus check or monetary compensation of any kind. It was big turkey made out of ice cream. The owner of the company was the slimiest, most conniving and deceitful person I had ever met. When he bestowed this misshapen frozen gift to me (with his nicotine-stained hands), it was as though he was handing me a gleaming gold brick — at least that was the impression I got from his wide, nicotine-stained smile.
So, I drove home with that frozen turkey replica on the front seat of my car and soon silently presented it to my wife of just over a year. She frowned. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and we had plans to celebrate the holiday at my in-law's house. My wife's parents keep a strictly Kosher home and — without going into the intricate edicts involved in the observance of kashrut — a meal that includes meat may not be capped off with anything that includes dairy. Period.
Faced with several pounds of turkey-shaped ice cream and no where to pawn it off, the ever-resourceful Mrs. Pincus hatched a grand idea. ("Hatched!" Ha ha! Get it? — Uh... on with the story.) She decided to use her stellar baking skills to whip up a few supplementary additions to the frozen faux fowl. Then, we'd invite a few folks over to our tiny Northeast apartment to help us consume the whole shebang. This would all go down the night before Thanksgiving and after everyone had eaten dinner at their own homes.
And so, a tradition was born.
Our very first dessert party was an impromptu gathering of a dozen or so family and friends crammed into our narrow townhouse apartment on the night before Thanksgiving 1985. It has become an annual occurrence that has since blossomed into a warm and beloved (by most) affair — bringing together family, extended family, friends and, in some cases, strangers. The venue has changed to our much larger suburban home, which is able to accommodate more guests more comfortably. But, we haven't missed a single one since that first one in '85.
Over the years, the guest list has expanded and evolved from family and friends to friends of our son to new-found friends, a changing parade of co-workers and — curiously — less family. Also the number of guests has increased considerably. One year, we had nearly 75 people jockeying for even a spot to stand in our living room and dining room. One of my favorite games to play every year is "Who is This in My House?" I like to quietly scan the crowd and pick out a person whom I have never seen in my life, standing in my house, happily shoving a piece of my wife's celebrated pecan pie into their smiling mouth. We have also had guests — unfamiliar with the houses on my street — wander into a neighbor's house, before realizing that they transposed some numbers in my address.
Of course, over a span of 35 years, we've had our share of mishaps. One year, with a kitchen counter covered with various ingredients and our then-infant son reclining in a baby seat, one of the cabinets just dislodged from the wall, sending its contents — coffee mugs and dishes — crashing into the sink and eventually the floor. Another time, I had assembled our newest addition — a real, two-tier chocolate fountain — incorrectly. When I turned it on, it spewed melted chocolate all over our kitchen like a delicious Mount Vesuvius.
Mrs. Pincus and I are the only two people that have attended the dessert party every single year. Some longtime guests missed a few years here and there, due to illness, other logistic complications or, sadly, death. Others have been stricken from the guest list for one reason or another, replaced by new friends or newly born-family members. Our son missed the first few because he had not yet been born. But, he was not present at a few during his teenage years, as he attended a conflicting annual dance held by an organization of his contemporaries. A few days prior to last year's party, my brother noted that he had never missed a year. Sadly, due to an emergency within his family, he was forced to skip the 2019 gathering.
Which brings us to 2020. Goddamn 2020.
Back in the spring, Mrs. P and I mulled over various scenarios that would enable us to continue a decades-long tradition in the time of a global pandemic. We optimistically envisioned this whole thing being over by September, leaving plenty of time to make arrangements in the same manner in which we were accustomed. But as summer became fall, it was clear that COVID-19 wasn't going anywhere and was determined to ruin our tradition. Mrs. P alternately cried and fumed. She was determined to have a "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party and inject a bit of normalcy into the near-chaos that this virus wreaked on our lives. The problem was that our house tends to get fairly crowded at the peak of the evening, with guests standing elbow-to-elbow not the least bit unusual. In the time of "social distancing," this was going to be tricky. Mrs. P proposed staggered admission, assigning small circles of guests different arrival times and asking them to leave after a pre-determined period to allow for the next group to safely enter. My wife's older brother (who has chosen to live outside of the day-to-day tedium of family concerns and remains a mysterious entity to even some of our close friends) volunteered to drive all the way in from his remote location to serve as a bouncer. He cheerfully offered to kick people out of our house who have overstayed their allotted timeslot. We passed on his gracious offer.
We were very satisfied with the entire evening. It could have been more fuel for the fire of disappointment that has burned through the past nine months. Instead it was a glimmer of hope for what lies ahead in the coming year. This time next year, I hope to be complaining about a house full of unruly people who don't know when it's time to leave.
And be thankful for them, Y'know....just like normal.