My mother came from a family of nine kids and Thanksgiving was a very big deal – a joyous event I looked forward to every year. We usually went to my Aunt Loretta’s and Uncle Jack’s because they had more space. There were two tables set up – one for adults and one for kids. Uncle Jack would say, “Humans at this table. Kids at that one.”
We begged him to repeat his corny rhymes and he obliged. One went: “On the shores of Giche Gunia/ there I met my sweet Petunia/now I’m paying alimunia/ Very funnia, very funnia.” The gatherings were loud and funny – funnia? – like my family, and most of us left as stuffed as the turkey. The main thing is that it was warm and loving.
But as the years grew, my family shrunk and dispersed. I had Thanksgiving with my husband’s side. It started with twelve people, moved to seven, then to five, and eventually to my husband Rick, our daughter, M, and me. Since Rick loves the whole megillah, we had the whole megillah: a full-sized turkey, spiced sweet potatoes and apples, savory and sweet stuffing, homemade ginger cranberry sauce and two pies. For three people. Not only was it a bit silly – although we did live off leftovers for days – it felt odd. The advent of social media made it tougher for me what with all the pictures of large gatherings around sumptuous tables.
Every year, I wondered why a holiday that fell in my favorite season and featured my favorite foods felt so empty. M pointed out that I was probably missing the big festive holidays of my youth and Thanksgiving is one occasion where more really is more.
Yet one of my best Thanksgivings was the one I spent alone with M. My sister-in-law had uncharacteristically invited us that year, warning me that if I had as much a sniffle, I should stay home. I had recently visited my dying Aunt Loretta who’d moved to Las Vegas with my ailing Uncle Jack. I got on a plane to Vegas in early November, took care of them as best as I could and said my goodbyes. I returned home a week before Thanksgiving thoroughly spent. Although my only sniffles were from grief, I did not feel up to the holiday dinner on any level: physically, mentally or emotionally. I told my sister-in-law I thought I was coming down with something but I urged Rick to attend. M eagerly offered to stay home with me and since she was never one terribly attached to the Thanksgiving traditions, we created our own. We went to the local supermarket and picked whatever appealed to us: for me, it was seafood salad, a large multigrain roll and cookies, for her it was peanut butter, crackers and a slice of cake. We rounded it out with fruit, cheese and cold cuts. We spread a blanket in front of the TV and had a picnic. In years to come, Rick, M and I had occasional gatherings with friends or small groups of family members. Sometimes we went back to our sad Charlie Brown sort of Thanksgivings but for a long time, my daughter told me that our picnic was her favorite.
This year, many people are facing solitary or curtailed Thanksgiving dinners. And like my daughter and me, they might have to approach this holiday differently and create their own unique versions. Unique, I found, does not have to be sad.
Take this year. Rick and I will not be able to be with M, who lives in NY, or Rick’s dad who lives across the state. But my husband and I were lucky enough to join a Meetup group for discussions and social events. We used to meet in person, now we Zoom. People in the group have kept all the events going, adding additional game nights. One of the leaders, mindful that many members will be spending the holiday alone, kindly offered to start a Zoom on Thanksgiving and to leave it open all day so people can come and go, exchanging recipes, cooking and eating “together,” having discussions and playing games. If I were asked to name what I am thankful for in this crazy terrible year, I’d have to put this group close to the top of the list. Family and community come in all forms. And sometimes even on screens.