Living Thanksgiving:  Making Our Way through Renovations and Happenings

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S.  Living abroad can make celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November (as proclaimed by President Abrahim Lincoln in 1863 and then passed into law by Congress in 1870) a challenge because the rest of the world does not forego a day of work in order to watch football, gorge on a gluttonous feast, and yield to a nap allegorically (though not scientifically) attributed to turkey-supplied tryptophan.  Instead, it is a work day like any other, so since moving abroad in 2016 we have tended to push celebrating Thanksgiving back into the actual weekend when we have time to spend the day cooking and baking together in the kitchen.

A couple weeks ago Brian found a perfect little turkey breast in the Riba Smith freezer section sent down to Panamá by the folks at Butterball.  Next to the huge turkeys that looked like they spent years working out in the gym, it seemed puny and lacking in steroidal enhancement.  Just the right size for our Thanksgiving twosome.  Add mashed potatoes, stuffing, carrots, green beans, Audrey’s can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce with ridges that make it taste better, and apple pie, and that makes quite a table for two whenever we get around to making it.

But our best-laid plans for a celebration delayed slightly by scheduling will require a little more flexibility from us than we expected.  On Monday some workmen came to fix a small leak in the fire sprinkler plumbing of our utility room off the kitchen.  In the course of jackhammering the cement ceiling that is the construction norm for buildings in Panamá, they somehow nicked the water tank of the apartment above us and Niagara Falls opened up a torrential shower that flooded the floors of our pantry, utility room, and kitchen.  The rest of Monday was spent trying to minimize flood damage.  Then they came back Tuesday to continue flood abatement and to finish the sprinkler job.  Except that, as this is Panamá, the one-day job interrupted by Monday’s flood has become a weeklong job that they say will try to finish tomorrow.  So any Thanksgiving plans we might have intended for today would have fallen due to the construction zone formerly known as our apartment covered in concrete dust.  And the likelihood of pushing Thanksgiving back past this weekend seems probable as well because we received a notice that water company IDAAN will shut off water in our area on Saturday to do some work.

No worries.  If the Pandemic had not schooled us enough in the need for decreased expectations and increased flexibility, the last several months of life at home in our apartment has led us to mastery of those skills.

In July we started what was quoted to us as a four-week project to install crown molding (because the previous owner took the molding that was here with him along with most of the lights, mirrors…we drew the line at taking toilets!) and painting the walls and ceilings in all our rooms.  Four months later, our four-week project finished.  For the record, we are thrilled with the work that painter and master-of-creative-solutions Alejandro did regardless of the time required to complete everything.  Not only did he do superlative work, his attention to detail and his careful cleanup were phenomenal.  And as he progressed from room to room, we kept asking him if he could add more things to what got dubbed “la lista de Audrey” (The Audrey List).  He never said no, even when her request was for him to climb out on a very narrow balcony to scrape off protective blue tape that had been left on the outside of our guest room’s window frames since our building’s construction a dozen years ago.  He just borrowed a safety harness from someone and tied himself to a rope running through a window and secured inside the guest room while he scraped from 45 stories high.

But as diligent as Alejandro was about mess management, we still lived in a construction zone for four months.  That made hosting visitors in July and August more challenging.  When Grandson Adam and his parents returned in July, we had to manage a two-year-old’s energy amid various rooms being off limits for Alejandro.  And our kitchen was out of commission for the entire time that our foodie friends John and Barb visited in August.  Brian endured the greatest long-term impact, as he had to be around and available nearly every day throughout the project.  That hindered writing, music, and other projects he had planned for September through November.  Still, the experience beefed up our flexibility and patience quotients.  And, better still, Alejandro became part of our family after four months with us.  Adam called him ‘Jandro and ultimately 3amo (“uncle” in Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect), and they formed a bond.  Before they returned to Morocco, Charlotte made a big farewell card for Adam to color and give to Alejandro.  He kept it taped up in our apartment for the duration of the renovation project, moving it from room to room as he progressed through the job, then took it with him last week when he cleared out his painting supplies that had filled our pantry since July.  And after four months of patience, in the end we finally have turned the apartment we bought into “our home” where we can live happily for years to come.

Helping complete that transformation was the arrival of our shipment from Bellingham of what we stowed prior to moving abroad in 2016.  Brian spent a fair portion of his time back in Washington State last spring preparing the contents of our storage units for shipping.  It all got picked up two days before he flew back home to Panamá, then was delivered in early July as the renovation project got underway.  Now we have walls not only painted in warm and comfortable colors, but hung with art we have not seen in six years.  Ditto for cookware, utensils, servingware, and other things making our kitchen a delight; tools to make Brian’s completion of “Honey Do” projects easier; and heirloom furniture and other things we have missed since packing them away until we ultimately planted somewhere that we would call home forever.

But chaos in our physical surroundings was not the only thing keeping us from finally settling into routine.  In July we had planned on Adam’s adenoid surgery (the reason for bringing them back to Panamá so soon after their visit in February-March), with a required four-week recovery before he could board a flight home to Morocco.  We did not expect to add a string of medical issues for both Audrey and Charlotte at the same time.  Then school started for Audrey, leading into the September celebration of the International School of Panama’s 40th anniversary.  Right on the heels of that came three weeks of conferences that kept us bouncing around Panamá and the U.S.  And a couple days after returning from the U.S., Audrey tested positive for COVID (her first time), followed a few days later by Brian testing positive (his second time).  Brian was supposed to go to Africa at the end of October to join a school accreditation team visiting a school in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that changed to participating virtually when he tested positive on the day he was supposed to depart.  Still, getting up at 1:00 am every day to sync with the DRC time zone plus dealing with COVID kept things crazy for another week.

As we slipped into November, we looked forward to the renovation project finishing, bringing an end to life in the construction zone.  Each evening we would sit in our finished living room and look at the painted walls with familiar art that we love hanging on them, and we would reaffirm to each other how nice it was to feel like we finally were home even though Alejandro was still knocking a few last items of The Audrey List.

To be honest, after enjoying a few days last week with Alejandro finally finished it has been frustrating to step backwards into construction zone status in the wake of the flood, especially when we now confront having to deal with the engineering company that caused the flood to repair our ruined wood floor in the kitchen.  But this Thanksgiving Day reminds us just how blessed we are to have what we have.  Not to minimize the material comforts of a place to live filled with things we enjoy, most important on that list is family and friends around the world whom we love and who love us, and professional circumstances that allow us to breathe easily even on days filled with disappointments.  One of Brian’s favorite political memoirs is by President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan.  Written after he beat cancer several times, “No Such Thing as a Bad Day” ranks his success in politics and government below the joy of simply being alive.  What an enlightened perspective that is.  In that spirit, we feel so grateful as we return to normal even though that process has taken much more time and involved many more hurdles than we anticipated.

So while today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., we will get to “do” Thanksgiving when we have our kitchen back.  Meanwhile, the day matters less than the attitude; and we will hope to be no less thankful today than on whatever day we end up roasting our limbless turkey-for-two, baking our pie, and preparing our other fixings.  Then we will head off to the parking lot of Super 99 supermarket to buy our Christmas tree.  That way we can have a decorated tree next month when we will thaw the ham in our freezer and invite Alejandro to join us for cena con jamón a la Navidad.  And we will seek to fill every day before and after with Thanks-Living, steeped in deep gratitude in a way that makes every day Thanksgiving Day.

On your mark, get set, here we go!