Survival Guide: A Pandemic Winter in New England

Winter in northern New England isn’t easy. It’s cold, it’s snowy, it’s overcast far more often than it’s sunny, and it gets dark before 4 p.m. We’re not talking just a few weeks here either… it’s like this for months. I know there are a lot of native ski-lovers and such who would disagree with me, but the northeast is just not my happy place during the winter months. I find myself uncharacteristically lethargic, unmotivated, and just kind of sullen. That said, New Hampshire is where all my family is, and it’s still somewhere I love to visit for a couple weeks at Christmas. This year would be different, though. Instead of a couple weeks of festivities and parties with friends and family I don’t see often enough, we’d be hunkering down for a couple months COVID-style.

While the winter weather isn’t really our jam, we were thrilled to finally be seeing family after a year without visits! My first niece was born in February, just weeks before all pandemic hell broke loose here in the U.S., and I hadn’t seen her since her birth. In addition to a newborn with an underdeveloped immune system, Stephan and I both had high-risk parents, so we were super paranoid about potential exposures and refused to visit. Nine months later, we knew a holiday visit was still not without risk, but we thought we could pull it off safely. After driving 2,200 miles back across the country, habitually bathing in disinfectant along the way, doing a full quarantine in North Carolina, receiving our negative PCR results, and pooping in the woods of Pennsylvania on the drive to New Hampshire to avoid all human contact, we felt slightly more comfortable walking through my parents’ door… albeit with masks still cinched tightly around our faces and Lysol spray in hand.

Like every other person across the globe, my parents were feeling some serious pandemic fatigue. They were first-time grandparents and couldn’t spend time with their new granddaughter the way they wanted to; they couldn’t see friends and family; and nine months later they were beyond over it. With their patience running exceedingly thin, Stephan and I were hellbent on making the next couple months both fun and safe. They could either join us willingly on this quest for controlled fun, or we would drag them kicking and screaming. But one way or another, we were going to have one holly-fucking-jolly, CDC-compliant winter. This begs the question: How exactly do you survive a pandemic winter in New England?

Bake Christmas cookies

This is one pandemic-safe holiday tradition I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. My dad rolls out enough dough for six-, eight-, even ten-dozen cookies, we cut them using the same seven cookie cutters we’ve been using since the 80s, and I carefully sprinkle on red and green sanding sugars, attempting to create semi-realistic wreaths and stockings. All the while, Christmas music is blasting in the background. It used to be Alvin & the Chipmunks, but it’s gradually evolved to more adult tunes… like the Muppets and Dominick the Donkey. As the process finishes, I habitually snag the last piece of dough and shove it in my mouth before my dad can attempt to eke out one last cookie. It’s one of my favorite traditions.

This year, it was a literal shit show. Just before getting started, I heard someone announce that the toilet was plugged. Pretty typical if you’ve ever been to the Stone house. As I was in the living room putting the finishing touches on a festive, hand-tied bow, I heard the sudden clang of porcelain, a bunch of swearing, and my mom’s voice, “you’re getting shit all over the walls!” I ran to the bathroom to find my dad shoulder deep in actual shit. The clog was more significant than he thought, and his makeshift plumbing snake from 1903 hadn’t gotten the job done. Too impatient and panicked to consider a more reasonable solution, and too cheap to get a better tool, he ripped the toilet off the tile and went head-first into the soil stack.

As usual, I immediately remedied the situation by inquiring with alarm, “oh my gosh, where is your face mask?!” I saw the look on my dad’s face but continued anyway, “Stephan and I probably had false negative results, and now coronavirus virions are being aerosolized all over the bathroom! After being so careful, THIS is how it’s all going to end!”

Thankfully, my highly-unlikely (yet scientifically-valid) paranoid prophecy was met with laughter and not yelling. With that, I took my still-masked self to the kitchen to make a cup of calming Yogi tea while my dad scrubbed shit off the walls and while Stephan, through all of the madness, tried desperately to attend a conference call in the dining room. As I poured the water, I took a deep breath and read the affirmation on my teabag. It was perfect.

With all human fecal waste properly cleaned and our master plumber showered and sanitized, we were eventually able to commence with the cookie baking. We even had a snazzy new cookie prep station this year, thanks to a busted wax ring during toilet removal. I mean, why not put the toilet where you eat while you wait to safely procure a new seal through contactless pickup? To all those who unwittingly ate our cookies this year, I apologize. I refuse to believe that Christmas cookie baking could get any more 2020 than this.

Have yourself a Merry [masked] Christmas

For all the pissing and moaning that went on about how Christmas just wouldn’t be the same, it really wasn’t that different. We ate, we drank, we opened presents… we decked them halls and were holly, jolly, merry and even friggin’ bright. We even had festive masks to wear which, in my opinion, were especially perfect for exchanging gifts. It someone got you a sucky present, you didn’t even have to fake a convincing smile.

All kidding aside, it was a great day. Our official celebration may have been on Christmas Eve instead of the traditional 25th, as we avoided having multiple families gather all at once, but it happened. We’d made it through nine months of a global health crisis and still had all our family members. We were all able to do a proper quarantine so we could be together on the holiday. We had a precious new family member to celebrate with. It may not have happened the way everybody wanted, be we sure did have a whole lot to be grateful for.

Rediscover an old passion

The last time I was on figure skates was 1999. Maybe 2000. It was at Cheshire Ice Arena’s open skate with my high school boyfriend. It was a pastime I absolutely loved growing up, but one I hadn’t considered reviving for twenty years.

While I was in NH, I had a video chat with my two best friends. We’d all grown up next door to one another, and spent our childhood winters skating on a small pond across the street. And by pond, I mean our neighbor’s small leach field that would seasonally flood and freeze. We didn’t care. When we were on that ice, we were Kristi Yamaguchi.

None of us had skated since at least high school, but Jenny announced she’d just bought a pair to use with her kids. I was inspired. I happened to see a pair of old skates in the garage that my mom said she was donating after she got vaccinated. The laces were ripped and shredded, but that was an easy fix. I ordered some snazzy, new, cotton candy pink laces from Amazon and gave those decades-old skates new life.

One day, my dad randomly suggested that Robin Hood Park might be a good place to skate. It’s got a small pond that’s regularly groomed in winter by Keene’s Parks and Rec Department. When he suggested the pond, I thought he meant that I should check it out. I never thought he meant we should check it out. I had no idea the man ever even owned a pair of figure skates, but he emerged from the cellar with a pair of floppy black blades in hand. I’m fairly certain I’d never seen him on a pair of skates, and he confirmed he certainly hadn’t been on them in more than thirty years. I was pretty excited for our outing, yet also a little worried this would end with an ER injury and void all pandemic precautions. But off we went anyway.

That first step onto that ice was slightly intimidating, and it’s amazing how much further away the ice looks when it’s been twenty years. I watched as a little kid in a snowsuit took a digger, but he popped right back up. Maybe it wouldn’t actually hurt so bad? As my dad took his first tentative step onto the ice, he looked a bit like Bambi. My first thought was that one of us would pee our pants laughing. My second thought was that his limbs would soon be flying in all directions, much like the cartoon deer. Luckily, they didn’t. Really wobbly turned into slightly less wobbly, and soon he was (largely) on his way across the pond.

I was shocked at how quickly it all came back, and how much I still enjoyed it. A few days later, Stephan thought he’d give it a go, and we shoveled ourselves off a good-sized rink on nearby Wilson Pond. I think ice skating will be a mandatory Christmas activity from now on. Next winter, hopefully I’ll get my little niece out there with me!

Be a kid again

What’s the best thing about winter when you’re a kid? Sledding, for sure. Having lived in the south for over a decade, I always felt bad when we’d get an inch or two of snow and you watched the kids try to sled. They’d have a cookie tray or some sad, little plastic disc and try to get momentum on a three-foot-tall hill with blades of grass sticking out of the fast-melting powder. Barreling down a hill and flying off the snow tube was the thrill of a lifetime growing up.

This year, my aunt and uncle built one heck of a snow tubing track in their backyard. It was their ticket to being able to see their grandkids and great-grandkids for a little bit of safe, outdoor, socially-distanced fun. Their yard doesn’t have much for hills, but I was shocked that you could get up some decent speed out there. My uncle would give a firm, socially-distanced, contactless push with the end of a snow shovel, and off I went. It was a hoot and, again, something I probably wouldn’t have found myself doing had there not been a pandemic.

Tubing apparently wasn’t enough of a visit back in time for my mom. She then decided that we really needed to relive childhood. She’d come across my old cheetah Halloween costume during some pandemic-boredom-induced cleaning back in the fall, and I guess our outdoor antics made her think I needed some warmer outdoor gear for our next cold-weather social engagement. She suggested it might make a great ‘snowsuit,’ and insisted I try it on. I resisted, given I was ten the last time I wore it. Surprisingly, though, it slid on pretty easily and I was instantly transported back to my fifth-grade self (although I think we overstuffed the hat). If you think you’ve reached the peak of pandemic fatigue but haven’t yet revisited outfits you wore in elementary school, I regret to inform you that you haven’t quite hit rock bottom yet.

Build a bonfire

At the start of the COVID crisis last spring, my mom declared she wanted a fire pit in the backyard. She didn’t think my dad would go for it, but was hellbent on building a small one so they could safely gather with a few friends outside. Surprisingly, he caved pretty quickly and I sent her a Home Depot gift card for Mother’s Day to put towards building materials.

It was the fastest project in Stone family history. There was no four-year planning session where someone hemmed and hawed themselves into a tailspin. There was no all-night budget session or bitch fest. Nor was there the typical mourning period for the hard-earned money that was about to exit the bank account. The fire pit was requested, planned, started and completed all within the month of May. It was pretty bad ass. For my isolation-worn parents, it turned out to be their most used item of 2020. A fire and a beverage on a mild spring afternoon, warm summer evening, or crisp fall twilight became their social lifeline.

While my winter-adverse mother probably never imagined sitting outside in the snow and freezing temps, the fire pit continued bringing people together into December and right on through February. We had seven bonfires while we were up there, allowing all four of us some short visits with friends and family. We had green tea and hot cocoa when the temperatures plunged. When my friend and her mom visited, I made individual goodie bags filled with treats from a local bakery. We laughed over smores as Kara griped about my ‘bullshit vegan marshmallows.’ One afternoon my uncle brought his popcorn popper to cook some kernels over the fire, much to Sanchez’s delight. Temperatures may have ranged from a mere 15°F to approaching 40°F, but we still had fun with our loved ones. As that Scandinavian proverb suggests, after all, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’ (though I think my mom might still disagree).

Party like there’s a pandemic!

So you can’t gather indoors. That doesn’t mean you can’t still celebrate. We enjoyed a whole passel of celebrations while we were up there, and tried to commemorate each with some fun game or small treat. We rang in the New Year playing a spirited game of Pictionary and drinking the world’s finest bottle of FU TWENTY TWENTY rosé given to us by my friend in Denver. For Inauguration Day, we put on our aviators and finest anti-Trump threads while we ate ice cream and held back tears of pride as our first female Vice-President took her oath of office.

We celebrated Sanchez’s Adoption Day with a peanut butter/mascarpone pup cake, and enjoyed some sweet (human) treats on Valentine’s Day. We marked my mom’s birthday with a key lime pie, and got my dad the carry-out version of his favorite appetizer from beloved local restaurant, Luca’s. The room may not have been filled with visitors and raucous laughter for each occasion, but it was filled with love… and, more importantly, desserts.

Hone your athletic skills…

What did I least anticipate doing when I got to New Hampshire this year? If you guessed participating in a cornhole tournament in February on the coldest day of the year, you win the prize!

Shortly after the holidays, my dad received an emailed newsletter from Frogg Brewing, a small nanobrewery in the next town over. Despite the pandemic, they were going to try to safely hold their annual winter cornhole tournament. It would be outside, with limited teams and attendance, masks and social distancing would be required, and each team would get their own bean bags to avoid communal handling. My dad’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas. He beseechingly asked if we could register, and I started to balk. With a couple of co-morbidities, he was the one I’d been most worried about this past year. That said, I also knew he was reaching the end of desperation and needed something ‘normal’… or at least, as normal as cornhole in New Hampshire in February can be.

My brain started whirring with risk assessment. I looked at his face and hesitantly agreed –  with conditions. (1) There would be no removal of masks, even outside. (2) Neither of us would enter the building, even though they had socially-distanced tables reserved for individual teams. (3) If he too closely approached or was approached by another person, I was allowed to scream and flail like a raving Muppet. (4) I would carry hand sanitizer on my person, and he had to comply with its use as often as I presented the bottle to him. He willingly agreed to the terms, and we were in.

The week before the tournament, we watched as the weather forecast slowly deteriorated. It was predicted to be the coldest day of the year, just above 0°F with the wind chill. My mom repeatedly avowed how ridiculous this was, but we were not wussing out. The day before the competition, we acknowledged reality and drove to my aunt’s house, each grabbing a pair of snow pants from her and my uncle.

My dad awoke the next morning to a temperature of -9°F. When I emerged from my snuggly bed, it was -4°F, trending upward. By the time we arrived in the brewery parking lot it was 4°F, so practically summer. All the other teams were sitting in the warm building with a beer waiting for the official start; but we were not going in. We picked up our designated bags, put on some gloves, and started practicing.

We did indeed stay outside the entire time, even with frigid temps rendering the few space heaters completely non-functional. The bartender and event coordinator regularly offered to get us beer and water, habitually stating, “you guys are the ones who stay outside, right?”

Four hours later, the winners were crowned. We placed a respectable third out of eight teams, just making it onto the podium. For someone who had played cornhole exactly once in the last five years, I only partially sucked. My dad was considerably better. More impressive than his cornhole game, though, was his dutiful compliance with my list of rules. He can be pretty wily and defiant at times, and I fully expected to embarrass the hell out of the both of us at least once.

In the end, I’m glad we played. It was a fun memory, a safe and thoughtful event, and a small piece of normal for my dad. Proud of our convincing effort, we claimed our prizes – a couple of cool Frogg glasses and beaded, green necktie trophy – and headed home to a well-earned cup of hot tea.

…And your cooking skills

When my dad unexpectedly found himself in early retirement more than a decade ago, he discovered a love for cooking. With my mom still working, he took up duties around the house and in the kitchen. To say I was stunned would be the understatement of a lifetime. I remember when my mom would travel on business trips several times a year. Each time she left, I’d get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. ‘You’re leaving us with dad for the week?!’ I knew what was coming – cube steak or chicken on the grill, four words that could instill fear in heart of any seven-year-old. The former was shriveled, rubbery, and an unappetizing shade of grey. The latter was typically dark meat, still on the bone and burned to a crisp on the exterior. The was not enough A1 in the world to get me through it. God willing, maybe we’d order an Athens pizza one night.

Decades later, my dad’s favorite TV channel is now the Food Network. He’s whipping up chimichurri, puttanesca and pesto, and sprinkling shit with fancy finishing salts and maybe a dash of fresh herbs from his plantings. It’s a far cry from the ghosts of meals past. And while I do give him crap on the regular about his unimaginable cooking evolution, I’m glad he’s found a hobby that he enjoys and that also benefits my mom.

Experimenting in the kitchen has become one of the most popular pandemic activities, and for good reason. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it creates an end product that directly benefits your family. While we were up there, we tried out a variety of new recipes and spice blends, and my dad even tried stretching his own mozz from a starter kit my mom got him. We also created a birthday extravaganza for my niece – with my dad churning some homemade ice cream while I tackled the three-tiered smash cake.

Additionally, when Sanchez comes to visit, priorities in the kitchen change slightly. Instead of crafting elaborate dishes to impress friends, he gets to adapt his cuisine to meet the nutritional needs of a Thai street dog turned pampered princess. Some of his best efforts this year (selected by Sanchez) included his cheesy ham omelet, bone-shaped meatloaf with rosemary gravy, homemade meatballs with hand-stretched mozz, slow-cooker pulled pork, pan-seared salmon, and vanilla ice cream. I think Sanchez is kind of partial to pandemics that result in bonus kitchen time.

Take a hike

Ahhh, hiking – the original social distancing activity. Our go-to activity over the last year of the pandemic, Stephan, Sanchez and I hiked well over five hundred (recorded) miles of national forests and parklands across five states. On many trails, it was rare to see more than a handful of hikers. We were outside and away from people, and it really helped us navigate the isolation with a positive mindset.

The Nature Trail

While we didn’t plan to do much winter hiking while we were up north, we were able to hit a bunch of short trails around my parents’ house on a regular basis. A short nature trail runs through the woods of the neighborhood where I grew up. My friends and I used to spend hours on the trail – splashing in the brook, climbing trees, and pondering the deepest thoughts that ran through our eight-year-old minds. Thirty years later, Sanchez has come to love the trail just as much. Consequently, Stephan and I spent nearly every day out there watching her sniff and romp in the snow.

Kilburn Loop and Reservoir Trail

Additionally, we did make it over to Pisgah State Park in Chesterfield one afternoon for an icy outing on a longer route. Finally getting to put our spikes to use, we chose a nine-mile stem-and-loop via the Kilburn Loop and Reservoir Trail. The first few miles of trail was quite pretty, skirting one end of Kilburn Pond and heading up Pisgah Ridge to Pisgah Mountain’s humble, 1,300-foot summit. After joining the Reservoir Trail, though, the hike was a bit lackluster. With the trail open to snowmobiles, that two-mile section felt more like walking down a flat dirt road rather than a meandering footpath (although luckily, we didn’t have to contend with any noisy vehicles). Once we rejoined the true hiking trail, the last couple miles were again enjoyable, and we never saw anyone on the trail. With no one around, Sanchez even got to run around on frozen Kilburn Pond for a bit, which she absolutely loved. While it was a nice outing, we’d probably try the six-mile Kilburn Loop in its entirety next time.

Total distance: 8.9 miles
Elevation gain: 1,085 feet

Mt. Caesar

Just before leaving New England, we met up with my friend and her dad for a quick hike up Mt. Caesar in Swanzey. It was another trail that was pretty much in my back yard growing up, though not one we typically ventured out on. It’s an easy trail, topping out around 1.5 miles with just a few hundred feet of vertical gain. While it’s kind of a stunted little hill, there’s a nice view to the east overlooking 3,165’ Mount Monadnock – the region’s most celebrated peak and one of the most climbed mountains in the world. It was such a treat to be out on the trail with friends on a sunny day, and also a celebratory moment as they’d all been recently vaccinated.

Support your local businesses

Keene’s a small city with high property taxes and minimal job growth. While it’s an incredibly community-minded town, unfortunately small businesses tend to come and go here with the wind. Having not lived in Keene for more than fifteen years, Stephan and I aren’t particularly familiar with the current food and drink scene, but we were interested to find out if any cool new spots had popped up.

One thing we’ve tried really hard to do during the pandemic, wherever we’ve been living short-term, is to support our local restaurants and businesses through carry-out and contactless pickup. We hoped we could do the same in Keene. Even with my parents being higher-risk individuals, we felt comfortable doing curbside service and having either Stephan or I head double-masked into town to collect it.

While none of these businesses are brand new to the area, we discovered a handful that were new to us. The first place we stumbled across in an online search was Fire Dog Breads, an unbelievable little bakery in the heart of downtown Keene. Judging by the repertoire of their baked goods, we assumed they were classically-trained in French pastry. However, we were surprised to learn that the owners were actually a former historian and anthropologist who abandoned academia to pursue a passion for baking.

While there were no vegan pastry offerings on the menu, my parents and Stephan loved everything they sampled. Each week they’d share a handful of items from the rotating menu – sweet pastries such as hazelnut cake, maple laminated brioche, and cinnamon twists; as well as savory options such as a ham, cheddar and pear croissant, Cuban sandwich, and banh mi. While they agreed everything was outstanding, the favorites included the blood orange croissant, cardamom bun, and saffron brioche. We clearly weren’t the only ones who were impressed, as the patisserie earned the titles of ‘Best of New England’ and ‘Best Bakery’ in Yankee and New Hampshire Magazines (2019, 2020).

Just across Main Street, we discovered that local brewery Modestman was making some really spectacular IPAs. They did a handful of hop-forward releases while we were in town, and we were able to try The Sun Rises in the East, Double Sunrise, Buhloone Mindset, and Double Buhloone. Seeming to favor hops like Galaxy, Mosaic, Citra and Simcoe, most of the IPAs and DIPAs we sampled had bright, juicy notes to them. Having tasted north of 2,000 microbrews over the years, we were surprised to find such great beer in the middle of downtown Keene. Stephan, my dad and I all agreed that their beers even rivaled some of Treehouse’s world-famous brews down in Charlton, MA. We really hope they keep it going.

A couple other local bakeries we found toward the end of our stay that deserve a mention are Eat More Cake and The Bread Shed. The former is located in the home of the old Piazza ice cream shop on Main Street, a favorite summer spot when we were kids. The tiny bakery makes stunning cakes and cookies, and the cupcakes we picked up for my dad’s birthday were a huge hit. Stephan and my dad both favored the dark chocolate raspberry, while my mom loved the coconut blueberry. Across town, The Bread Shed is a bit more hidden, tucked away in a small suite off Krif Road. That said, their breads can easily be purchased at a number or local supermarkets, and their giant soft pretzels can be found at local breweries (Branch and Blade, Keene) and golf courses (The Shattuck, Jaffrey). I was thrilled to find they offered a delicious whole grain vegan loaf, while everyone else enjoyed my dad’s famous spicy burgers on their seeded brioche buns.

If you’re in Keene or the surrounding towns and haven’t yet discovered these little gems, we’d highly recommend a visit. We will certainly be making future stops when we return for the holidays, and hope all these amazing businesses continue to have success as they navigate the pandemic and beyond.

Road trip it

Technically, traveling during a pandemic shouldn’t be encouraged. That said, a quick day trip can be a great way to avoid cabin fever if you’re following all the proper precautions. With both my parents climbing the walls of the house, I thought planning a few mini adventures would be a fun way to (responsibly) do something different for a few hours. We could find some cool new restaurants and breweries that offered contactless, curbside pickup, check out a local state park, and just see something new without ever interacting directly with another soul.

Our first excursion was to Waitsfield, VT. About 2.5 hours north, the small town sits in the Mad River Valley between the Green and Northfield Mountains. Having heard of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, a reputable microbrewery that only distributes a few of their brews to southwestern New Hampshire, our trip was primarily to procure some of these hard-to-find IPAs. Their brewery and restaurant are on a gorgeous piece of property in town, and my parents immediately envisioned returning for an outdoor lunch on a sunny, summer day post-vaccine. Just up the street, we stopped to grab (everyone but the vegan) a burger from Worthy Burger Too. They are known for their fresh ingredients and for using meats from humanely-raised animals. After lunch, we swung by the Wu Ledges Forest on our way out of town to check out the two-mile loop trail that runs through the woods up to a small viewpoint overlooking town. Some bright, afternoon sun helped offset the chilly temperatures, and Sanchez particularly enjoyed racing along the vacant, snow-covered trail.

A couple weeks later we headed 1.5 hours south to Sturbridge, MA. My only memory from the area is visiting Old Sturbridge Village in elementary school, where I learned to churn butter as costumed historians recreated colonial life in rural New England. Even at that young age, I imagined I’d make a pretty terrible colonial-era wife; churning butter while tending the fire looked like a major pain in the ass.

Backstory aside, the purpose of our visit – once again – was beer-centric. Over in Charlton, the next town over, sat the venerated IPAs of Treehouse Brewing Company. The microbrewery has exploded in popularity over recent years, and they churn out some of the best IPAs in New England. Pre-pandemic, you had to get to the brewery well before opening and stand in line for hours for a chance to purchase their coveted beers. Now, in the time of COVID, you could place your order online, drive to the brewery and, after just a brief volume-dependent wait, have someone deliver a freshly-sanitized dolly of beer right to your car door! I mean, come on… There’s always a silver lining to be found, am I right?

After grabbing a case of mixed IPAs and finally getting to see Treehouse’s famous operation first-hand, we headed back to Sturbridge for lunch at B.T.’s Smokehouse. While I dined on my usual bean salad from home, the rest of the bunch enjoyed some of the biggest servings of barbecue I’ve ever seen. My mom opted for the pulled pork, while my dad went for the beef brisket. Stephan was especially psyched to try their ‘bacon crack’ – crispy chunks of bacon tossed in a peppered cider syrup. Sanchez was thrilled with her dad’s decision, and thinks bacon crack should be an unconditional part of her daily diet. In trend with our previous road trip, we followed up lunch and a brewery with a little trail time. This time we headed to Wells State Park, a small recreation area beside Walker Pond. Although it was pretty frigid, we managed a 1.5-mile out-and-back up to Carpenter’s Rock, and a mile jaunt along the Mill Pond Trail.

At the end of February, we made our final road trip over to the seacoast to celebrate our favorite little munchkin’s first birthday. Having been unable to visit during this entire pandemic year, it was hard to believe that tiny, day-old nugget I held last February was already a whole year old. While visiting family technically falls outside the recommended guidelines, we felt that the risk here was fairly low. Stephan and I had been bubbled with my parents, and both my brother and sister-in-law worked from home and generally avoided non-essential activities with a new infant.

While we were in the area, the non-vegan crew grabbed lunch from Hop & Grind over in Durham, NH. For the Food Network enthusiasts out there, Hop & Grind is owned by Bobby Marcotte – repeated winner of Guy’s Grocery Games and owner of Tuckaway Tavern, a renowned butchery in Raymond, NH. With Chef Bobby running the show, everyone figured it would be amazing; and indeed it was. My dad and brother were huge fans of the Karate Pig (a Triple D feature), while Stephan was especially impressed with the Hog Marley and his Mexican cocoa malt. Similarly, my mom and sister-in-law enjoyed the Piggy Back and Honky Tonk Chicken. If you’re in Durham (or their Peabody location), be sure to check them out.

While the food was good, the best part of our time on the seacoast was obviously getting to see my brother’s family and my sweet niece. She is such a happy baby (toddler now, I suppose), and had a blast diving into her first cake and bowl of vanilla ice cream. Her favorite part seemed to be eating the buttercream with her foot, and she was cracking herself up the entire time. Although we didn’t get near enough time with them, we were so grateful to have even a few short visits, and to be able to celebrate our pandemic babe’s milestone first year. She may not realize it now, but her first year on Earth certainly was one hell of a doozy.  

Go mutts!

This is the final, but perhaps best, activity on our list of pandemic survival options – get outside and play with your pup! While most humans don’t seem to be thriving during the wearying months of social isolation, I have to think this is a dog’s dream come true. Their human companions are working from home, playing from home, going to school from home… basically never leaving home. With more belly rubs, more walks, more attention, and more treats, most dogs must feel like they’ve won the lottery.

Getting outside with Sanchez has certainly been our saving grace during this pandemic, and we were so happy to share that with my parents. Stephan and I would typically take Sanchez for a snowy walk through the nature trail in the middle of the day, and my parents would get in a mile loop around the neighborhood with her later in the afternoon. Having suddenly discovered a love for frisbee after eschewing toys for the last four years, Sanchez was also thrilled to chase her beloved disc through the mountain of snow every afternoon. While all this outdoor time was certainly great for our beloved little mutt, I think it was hugely beneficial to my parents as well.

That’s a wrap

So, how exactly do you survive a pandemic winter in New England? With a mountain of patience, a good dose of humor, a dash of resourcefulness, and the willingness to adapt… and chocolate and alcohol certainly won’t hurt.

Did we see everyone we hoped to see? Not even close. Was it the most exciting two months of activities? Definitely not. Was everything ‘normal’ or exactly how everyone hoped? As I was reminded repeatedly, nowhere remotely. But you know what? In some ways, I think it was better. I rediscovered ways to have fun in winter that I never even considered. We did things we hadn’t done in years… even decades. I mean, did I ever think I’d see the day my dad would put on figure skates and attempt to wobble across Robin Hood Pond?! Did I ever think I’d see my cold-loathing mom sitting outside freezing her ass off beside a bonfire in the middle of January?! The image of her huddled under an umbrella in 600 layers of clothes while it spit a few drops of rain will be with me forever. She looked like Bernie Sanders, all bundled up and hunched over cantankerously on Inauguration Day… but without the mittens.

In a few years, we’ll all be sitting around the Christmas tree with our wine or hot cocoa reminiscing about those crazy pandemic days. How many ‘normal’ Christmases do we commit to memory? For me, none. They kind of all blend into the same ‘perfect’ holiday we strive to create and recreate every year. Perhaps this imperfect, unconventional one – the one that no one wanted and fought so hard to deny – will stand the test of time. Given some of the ridiculousness described within this narrative, I’m fairly confident it will.

At the very least, hopefully this pandemic winter will have taught us to better adapt to whatever shit life throws at us. To embrace the anomalous and unexpected. To not constantly strive for this false sense of normality or perfection. And to appreciate all that we have, no matter how undesirable the circumstances. With that… Cheers to a COVID Christmas and pandemic winter! Cheers to reclaiming our livelihoods as vaccines continue going into arms across the globe! And cheers to remembering to cherish those imperfect moments, because one day they’ll make perfect memories.

2 Responses

  • Jenn- This is Mr. and Mrs. Mancini from the Bermuda-honeymoon story! We thoroughly enjoyed your blog about the Christmas holidays in the Northeast! Many of us were trying the same things as the pandemic wore on through the winter! Best of all, we, too, have memories of a very different holiday than most- and hopefully we will laugh at it one day! Enjoy your time in Washington! And thanks for sharing! Joe and Maureen Mancini and family

    • So good to hear from you guys, and glad you enjoyed the writeup! The holiday was definitely a challenging one, but I agree – some good memories will certainly come of it. Hope you had a wonderful anniversary getaway! Stay healthy over there!

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