A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘And when the world seems cold, you got to let your spirit take control’

A winter sunset in the North Country of Upstate New York. A winter sunset in the North Country of Upstate New York. Garret K. Woodward photo

Every-so-often, my girlfriend, Sarah, and I will find ourselves with an open Monday evening. A wild, rollickin’ weekend in the rearview mirror. The first day of the work week now completed. How ‘bout we motor over to Asheville for some fine Italian food at Vinnie’s on Merrimon Avenue, eh? Sold. 

It’s become this routine of sorts, as of late. With Sarah going through a lot of family stuff these days and myself just looking to decompress for a hot minute, what better than a bottle of pinot noir, fresh garlic knots and tantalizing chicken dishes all within a cozy ambiance of dim lighting, dark wood and the finest hits of the 1950s/1960s over the sound system?

To note, Mondays are half-off wine bottles at Vinnie’s. So, a dinner for two can be pretty friendly on the wallet, especially that of a wayward journalist in need of a good meal after another slew of rollercoaster assignments and interviews, deadlines and putting the newspaper to bed each Tuesday afternoon.

Emerging from the vehicle in the Vinnie’s parking lot, a bitter cold greeted us before entering the warmth of the beloved culinary establishment. Nearing 9 p.m., Sarah and I were some of the last customers wandering in the from the chilly depths for a meal. With the bar counter empty, we took refuge at the far end.

Order the half-off bottle of pinot noir. Toss in some garlic knots. Two chicken dishes: marsala and paillard. With a slight tap of our wine glasses together, cheers to the ensuing holiday season of people, places and things. Sip the vino with gusto. Take a deep breath of the moment at-hand with the beautiful lady in the dress.

With the rest of the Vinnie’s staff running around and cleaning everything up before locking the doors, Sarah and I found ourselves in this enjoyable space of silence and conversation. Just the two of us without any distractions, white noise or organized chaos of work and life itself — a rare slice of interaction between vibrant souls.

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Even though we live together and spend a lot our daily life within reach of each other, the dinner was spent catching up about nothing and everything. Sarah spoke of her new gig working in retail, hopes for the holidays, hopes for the near/long-term future, thoughts on current family situations that remain stressful with outcomes uncertain across the state in her hometown of Goldsboro.

I found my thoughts swirling back to my hometown up on the Canadian Border, more so that evening with the cold air licking the windows of the restaurant, the glass fogging up in a battle against Mother Nature’s fury and modern-day HVAC systems. Add a little more wine to each other’s glasses when the main courses arrived.

Memories started flooding my mind of Christmas back in the North Country. The old 1820 limestone farmhouse surrounded by endless cornfields that I called home until I graduated from high school and took off for the unknown horizon of the written word and adventures all in the name of irresponsible enlightenment.

In truth, I had a hard time trying to remember the last actual big Christmas gathering that my family had. Maybe 10 years ago? Perhaps longer? Those days of a house full of relatives and holiday cheer disappeared mostly with the passing of my grandparents in the early 2000s. Once those anchor points of familiarity and tradition went six-feet-under, so did our raucous gatherings.

These days, though most of my remaining family members live in the North Country of Upstate New York, everyone has become pretty scattered in their own respective endeavors. I mmediate family obligations. Day-in and day-out work things on one’s plate. Kids growing up and venturing out on their own. And, sadly, a few cherished figures once holding court at the holiday dinner table are no longer with us, including Nate, who was more like the older brother I never had than my first cousin until his untimely passing in 2021. 

Taking a pull from the wine glass, I think of those Christmas gatherings at the farmhouse, which was sold during my senior year of college. The icy horseshoe shaped driveway that my father and I would have to throw salt on before elderly relatives arrived. My duties being to greet them and help them from their cars and into the house, my little sister having to take their coats and throw them on my parents’ bed upstairs.

Some football game on in the living room, most likely the New York Giants or New England Patriots. Labatt Blue beer cans sitting on the cold side porch ready to be consumed. A massive feast for a couple dozen folks overtaking the kitchen and dining room. Adults at the main table. The rest of us at the kids table or back in the living room where we could sneak in a few more football plays to watch before dessert and opening Secret Santa presents. 

That space we all once inhabited seems like this somewhat forgotten dream nowadays, more so this memory of a life that, well, feels like a lifetime ago. I recognize that person I was, or was becoming as a teenager. But, so much has happened since, hopefully so much more to come, too.

I miss those faces and that farmhouse. I miss the icy driveway and the way the sky would erupt into bright yellows, oranges and pinks amid a North Country sunset in the depths of winter. The roaring fire in the living room. My uncles and cousins all huddled around the TV during the NFL broadcast. My old dogs, Maggie and Abbey, each looking for attention and food scraps from generous owners. 

And yet, with anything along the winding road that is the journey of life, one must, all at once, hold tightly to those faded memories of past holidays and make sure to create new ones, like this otherwise quiet Monday evening at Vinnie’s — two vibrant souls alone at the bar counter, half-off bottle of pinot noir, garlic knots, chicken dishes and nowhere to be but with each other.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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  • I miss all of this too....That limestone farmhouse of 28 yrs for us was the place to be on Holidays... All the animals who also called it home.....thinking of Christmas with Branches, our horse. .What a personality. ..yup.

    posted by Kathy Woodward

    Wednesday, 12/13/2023

  • I miss all of this too....That limestone farmhouse of 28 yrs for us was the place to be on Holidays... All the animals who also called it home.....thinking of Christmas with Branches, our horse. .What a personality. ..yup.

    posted by Kathy Woodward

    Wednesday, 12/13/2023

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