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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

My sister and I were comparing how we’ll use the three minutes we’re allotted during our extended-clan Family Day Zoom meetup. “I only have thirty seconds’ worth of news,” she texted. “You can have the rest of my time.”

“I got nuthin,” I texted back, because the intricacies of spelling and grammar are beyond me at this point. How to fill those endless three minutes when nothing’s happening? I could talk about the interesting thing the cat did that time, or the slightly more menacing thing it did that other time. Or perhaps I could share my observation that if you leave dirty dishes in the sink long enough, you can, like Victor Frankenstein, create new life?

When the first Canadian Family Day was celebrated, in Alberta in 1990, you know that visions of togetherness danced in legislators’ heads. Mom and Dad having a bit of a sleep-in before their adorable tots dragged them off for a day at the zoo or the ski hills, a rare slice of togetherness in this go-go world. Who could have imagined, in 2021, that Family Day would involve Mom staring blankly inside the dryer while one child wants to know how to calculate the area of a rhombus and the other screams that she doesn’t understand the difference between passé composé and l’imparfait. Dad’s in the picture, too, don’t worry: He’s just managed to find a quiet spot for himself, maybe in the attic or the garage, perhaps in a crawl space or underneath some floorboards he’s pried up in the middle of the night.

Welcome, Family Day 2021. Is it too late to pass legislation for next year, so that the third Monday in February is called UnFamily Day, a day when you are legally required to be at least five kilometres from members of your nuclear family? Because I would vote for that twice.

Family Day, which is celebrated in five provinces, was controversial from the start. In Alberta, it was greeted with suspicion and cynicism initially. When it arrived in Ontario in 2008, municipalities complained that they’d be stuck with huge bills if they had to give public-sector workers the day off. In British Columbia in 2013, small businesses worried that overtime payments would crush them. But none of the complaints foresaw a day when families, having been squished together for a year like layers of a sad lasagna, would want nothing more than to spend a day peeled apart.

In 2008, the premier of Nova Scotia, Rodney MacDonald, rejected the idea of a new holiday, declaring that “every day is family day in Nova Scotia.” Perhaps he had some strange vision of this year, when every [expletive deleted] day is family day. That is, for people who are lucky enough to have a family. And I do remind myself of this, from under the pile of dirty clothes at the back of the closet where I sometimes find myself. (Just when I need a little think!) This is where I count my blessings – a somewhat healthy family, a roof over our heads – and when the knocking on the closet door becomes very loud I come out and share this gratitude with them, before they can ask what’s for dinner.

Because, of course, many people are not lucky enough to be driven mad by boredom and proximity. A huge number of Canadians live alone, and may have gone months without human touch or company. Others live with the threat of violence hanging over their heads – a very real and dangerous reality for many women and children. Too many people have lost jobs and are worried about eviction. There are also people who have been stuck at home for a year with children who have complicated and unaddressed needs. Then there are those who go to work in hospitals or drug stores or seniors’ residences, and would love the luxury of sitting at home all day, staring at a potato until they’re sure it moved. My sister is one of those people who works in a public-facing job, and I worry about her all the time. (I’m pretty sure she’ll have enough material for three minutes on Zoom.)

But it’s possible to feel gratitude and despair at the same time, to have reached the place that The Washington Post recently called “the pandemic wall,” when “the quotidian cycle of pandemic living [becomes] overwhelming.” That is, the place that marathon runners hit, except instead of acid in the legs, we have developed an irrational hatred of the fridge and its many disappointments, and a longing for the outside world and its unfulfilled promises.

In winter, especially this pandemic winter, spring feels unimaginable. Originally, Family Day was meant to break up the dreary stretch between Christmas and Easter. This year it’s just another day to struggle through. I find myself thinking of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, a book my daughter and I read together, marvelling over the misery of having to spend months stuck inside with your freezing family. Now it feels like a documentary.

When I crawl out from under the dirty clothes to rejoin the bosom of family, I tell my kids that their only job is to survive this year. That they shouldn’t worry about thriving or excelling at school or knitting socks they can post on Instagram or learning to make headcheese. There will be time for all that soon enough (except for the headcheese). We just have to make it through as a family, without murdering each other, and celebrating the laughs when they come. Beyond that, I got nuthin.

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