Thanksgiving: No Matter How Small or How Alien It Feels

Thanksgiving Table for 2

My dining room table comfortably seats ten. This Thanksgiving, I’m setting it for two. One at each end. This may sound like a meal shared by strangers, but I assure you it’s not. In this time of COVID, it’s easy to let the holiday feel foreign. Like something to be endured rather than embraced. Like feeling all grown-up and maybe a little too alone. But I see it differently. No matter how small or how alien our celebrations may seem, look at them as an evolution – no matter how limited – with lessons of their own and not so different than past Thanksgivings that shuffle through our consciousness.

There comes a time in life when you finally see the Thanksgivings of your youth for what they really were. Sure, we Americans were taught some dubious tales about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. We knew we were supposed to bow our heads and be thankful. Kids pick up these things easily. Like multiplication tables and home phone numbers – kids learn to be thankful at Thanksgiving by rote. Which makes for adorable memories and proud parents, but it takes some living to be truly thankful.

I can still see my mother beaming when I proclaimed to the entire table that I was thankful for a mommy and daddy who loved me. Such an easy answer. One I planned knowing I would be asked. I’m sure I meant what I said, but I didn’t really understand it. After all, I never knew any other life than the privileged life of a child whose mommy and daddy quietly loved him. 

Of course, as we grow older things change. My family moved from Michigan to Florida. Thanksgiving still marked a change in the season (hot and sticky October to warm and sticky November). But I wasn’t complaining, the teenager in me had spent enough time in Michigan to indeed be thankful for the Florida sunshine.

The weather may have been balmier but otherwise, the Thanksgivings of my teen years remained much as they always had. While I was less likely to let my parents know I was thankful for a mommy and daddy who loved me, I did begin to understand that it was possible to be truly thankful for my life.

Being truly thankful for your life is always the first step towards autonomy. I’m not a parent, but I see the signs everywhere. Teenagers begin to emotionally depart long before SAT tests. A teenager’s Thanksgiving becomes a celebration that must be endured for the sake of one’s parents. At that age, anything that has to be endured is not something to be particularly thankful for.

Once kids really do move out of the house (in my case to go to college) Thanksgiving becomes a reminder of just how separate from our parents or guardians we really are. Thanksgiving becomes complicated. At that age, my holidays were a maze of scheduling tasks. Could my mom’s stuffing (with crunchy water chestnuts) really be worth the tedious rideshare with a girl I went to high school with but barely knew? Certainly, my parents understood how thankful I was for a mother and father who loved me. Did it really require letting them watch me eat cranberries to prove it? These were the years Thanksgiving began to feel like a chore.

By the time I moved to California in the early 1980s Thanksgiving had basically lost all its meaning for me. These were the very first years of truly being on my own. I’m not saying I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, in fact, Thanksgiving was the perfect time to play at being a grown-up. Or maybe I should say practice being a grown-up. In either case, these were the years I began to covet a real dining room table but settled for matching plates from Pier 1. There was absolutely no thought of returning to my parent’s house for the holiday. They didn’t ask and I didn’t volunteer. Crises averted, right?

Which isn’t to say I didn’t need my mother at Thanksgiving. In fact, it took several cross-country phone calls to get the recipe for my mom’s stuffing (with crunchy water chestnuts) just right. She seemed happy to share the recipe and even took it in stride when I told her how I’d improved on her cranberries with the addition of pineapple marmalade. I swear I could hear her rolling her eyes across the phone line.

Well, as the years go by I’ve learned a few more things about this holiday. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the family I was born with or the family that I made along my journey. At the top of my thankful list is the joy I feel from the people who love me. Even if they’re not sitting at my table. 

Actually, that’s the first lesson I learned by rote all those years ago. It’s just taken me a while to see exactly what that means. And that, I suppose, is the real lesson in this holiday. Even now. Especially now. GREG

PS There’s no Thanksgiving recipe to share today. Call someone in your own family and get the thing you really crave.

Wild Turkeys, Mendocino, CA