This year, we are staying home for Thanksgiving. The past few years, we have traveled, and we will miss seeing family. But this is the first year that child #3 is away at college, and she would have to drive five hours home and then six hours farther and do it all over again a few days later. It’s too much.
Plus, there are things moms recognize about that first year away. She would need “normal.” She already feels she’s missed so much. To miss The Great Christmas Tree Cut Down, the decorating, the “home” feeling down in your heart that says it’s all still there and all OK—that would be too much. Sometimes, you have to recognize that the intangibles are the most real things in existence.
I remember the feeling. My first Thanksgiving in college, I, too, came home. But it was not the home I had known for eighteen Thanskgivings. It was a home without the mother who always cooked the turkey dinner. (Although really, I think dad did quite a lot of it. He was the better cook. Just like in our family.) Without her sisters and their busy families, because it was without the glue that had held those extended family units together. Take out the mother, and you take out a network.
So I did what I suspect my daughter would do. I cooked dinner. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, lemon merengue pie, pumpkin pie, cranberry relish. I don’t even like pumpkin pie. But the offerings hadn’t changed in eighteen years, and they must not now. I set all the good dishes out. I did everything to maintain the illusion that this was normal. This was dinner as always. Though the universe might turn sideways, this would not alter.
I had no idea what I was doing.
I mean, literally, I had no idea how to cook. Mom hadn’t taught me, although I’d gained basic knowledge by watching. But as mentioned, she was not the better cook of the duo that was my parents.
Beyond that, though, I had no idea that illusions failed. We hung on to the traditions, my dad and I, but we weren’t fooling one another. This was not the same, it never would be, and we had no idea how to navigate it into something else. I can’t say that we ever really learned.
This year is the first Thanksgiving with child #3 away at college, and it’s the last Thanksgiving with child #1 unmarried. Next year, she’ll have her own family with her own relationships and traditions to navigate, and we’ll have to learn a new dance. But—and here’s the big but—we will. (Yes, I did just say big but. I know you laughed. You can’t pretend.)
We will. I’ve learned some things since the fall I was barely eighteen.
Particular faces and specific dates alter with time and circumstances. Just like I no longer feel compelled to bake pumpkin pie because, in fact, we dislike it, some details no longer apply. As with the year we ate Thanksgiving burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe in the alternate universe called Orlando, or the Christmas dinner in Costa Rica involving coconut, pineapple, and spaghetti, traditions sometimes bow to present realities. And that’s OK. (Because, hey, we remember those two holiday dinners.)
The tangibles change. The intangibles remain the real things. That the things we do together happen, in some form, matters. When they happen or precisely how, not so much. That the feeling of home remains “it’s
all still there, and it’s all OK” matters. What the menu or makeup is, not really. That we recognize the fleetingness of “same” and express gratitude for the times we have matter. Whether there seems to be little or much to be grateful for does not.
Whether you’re sitting around a table with family Thursday or eating alone, swapping adult kids between tribes with the dexterity of David Copperfield or working all night to accommodate early (crazy) shoppers, stop. Find your intangibles. What matters? What doesn’t? When all is stripped away, what remains real? That’s what you have to be grateful for.