The holiday season is upon us, and it is a time we gather with people. Well, to be honest, I gather with people year round. For me, holidays are more a way point, a place to aim for during the journey, and a time to take stock and reflect. When I look backward, I can see the faces of friends who have gathered at my table, at all my tables, and not just at the end of the year festivities. There have been Bastille Day dinners, and Friday night dinners, lobster feasts, and barbecues, as well as Thanksgiving meals. I don’t know that I ever really expected all those people I have cooked for to remain at the table year after year, but in reflection there they go, drifting off into new arrangements, seated around distant tables.

When I think about the holiday dinners I have made and attended, while the courses have remained the same, the people at the table have changed nearly every single year. Of course there is the family—my brothers, my mother, and while he was still alive, my father. My own family, the family of choice, has shifted over the years. Both my brothers are at or just past twenty year marriages and their wives, and then their children have held stable seats at our gatherings, but I have brought four or five different friends or partners or, in one case, wife to holiday meals. I’m not sure what my family thinks of this. I’m sure they were reasonably pleased that the revolving door had stopped spinning when I married, but then that relationship ended as well.

And before this all seems too mawkish and wistful, the holiday table has never been a place of “what was,” or “what if,” but almost always “what is.” And maybe because nostalgia, or its future looking younger cousin, desire, have provided no overwhelming gravity to either pull me back or towards some land other than the one in which I reside, holidays have not had for me that tinge of regret or loss. Still, I am cognizant of the changing faces, and I wonder where they have gone, and also wonder who might be at the table this year, or the next, or the next.

The only twinge I feel is that I do not think that this is what other people feel. Do other people have the weight of memory and expectation to draw them somewhere? What must that be like? What must it be like to spend twenty or more years gathered with the same people? I feel sometimes as if I am missing out on something, that I lack some key that will unlock a door to this experience.

And yet. And yet there is a simple untaintable joy in seeing new faces, even in imaging where the old ones may now be seated. I picture tables in rooms that I have never seen, with gatherings peopled by a mix of friends and strangers, and in some inexplicable way, I am there too.