As I’ve firmly established on my blog by writing about it more than once, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Here’s why:
- Making the meal. It’s not only about the process itself, but about the traditional things I make just on Thanksgiving and the way they connect me to people who are gone or just not with us right now. I make a cranberry jello my father-in-law loved and I try to make stuffing as good as my mother-in-law’s was. (I’m not successful very often at that. I’m afraid of it being too soggy so it ends up too dry almost every time.) The dinner rolls I make are from a recipe that my mom taught me when I was 12 or 13; even though I learned how to make them from my mom, they make me feel connected to my grandma Florence.
Apple pie is the dish that connects me to my mom the strongest. I make it almost exactly like she did, except I use butter instead of Crisco in the crust (I’m not sure she ever got over that) and I add brown sugar and more spices to the filling. OK, maybe it’s different, but still: it connects me to her. While I am cooking the ghosts gather, saying hello, giving advice. And not just ghosts, but memories: my kids’ baby Thanksgivings, the years one child or another decided to help me, Haley making the rolls with me for many years. Nathan’s first Thanksgiving when he was only 6 days old and Jake had an ear infection and Haley was just be-bopping around in her purple spinny velour dress and gold curls—that year I didn’t bake anything, just showed up and let everyone else take care of me. The first time I made apple pie and I was so anxious it wouldn’t turn out. Memories and ghosts, sugar and flour and nutmeg and berries.
- No gifts are involved. Even though there have been gifts some years, like the year my mom surprised us all with aprons she’d made, or the year Becky gave us appliqued tea towels. But usually, the stress of all other holidays—finding the perfect birthday gift, stuffing the Easter baskets, figuring out that one magical Christmas surprise—is gone. It’s just family and food.
- We had a few rough years when we were first married, negotiating when we’d go with each side, but usually it all worked out OK. It was a different feeling but I loved eating with Kendell’s side of the family as much as my own. Babies came, people got married, sometimes there were extra friends. Many years felt crowded with so many people, and it was loud and hot and happy.
But this year—this year. My mom is literally a ghost. Haley is in Colorado; she’s traveling to Utah in December but didn’t feel like she could swing two trips that close, and plus, it’s hard to get holidays off when you work in the medical field. Nathan is in Monterey. Becky’s at a soccer tournament with Ben, Suzette is eating with her husband’s family, Cindy is swamped with school and so her daughters are cooking for her. This year, it’s just me and Kendell, Jake and Kaleb.
I would’ve still cooked.
Except one day last week, Kendell found me crying in the kitchen. It was just a random Tuesday morning and I’d made a pumpkin protein shake and I started crying. Because everything is over, really. No big family meals anymore, but everyone else off with their adult kids and grandkids. I can’t go to my mom’s house anymore, or my mother-in-laws. I can’t bake pumpkin bread just because my father-in-law liked it. I can’t sit at the kitchen table in the kitchen I grew up in, with two extra leaves and still not bit enough for everyone, with my dad telling off-color jokes.
Four is such a small number when it comes to Thanksgiving.
So he saw me crying and he suggested that we just go to a restaurant this year.
Maybe next year it will somehow be different. Or maybe I will just be able to deal with everything without crying into my pumpkin protein. Who knows.
This year, it’s Thanksgiving eve and I’m not cooking. No yeasty smells are wafting in my kitchen. I’m sad about not cooking, but at the same time it is a relief. Because I know if I was cooking tonight, I would be grieving again. (I’m crying now, just writing this.) I would feel engulfed in conflict, telling myself to be grateful that I still get to spend Thanksgiving with Jake and Kaleb but also still feeling it, too, the gap of those who are gone.
And it’s not because of the effort—if just one kid said “Mom, I really want you to cook” then I would’ve cooked. But they don’t really care. Jake even said “Mom, it’s not only about what we eat. Mostly it is about spending time together.” And he is right, even if I am missing all the other people I’m not spending time with.
I will still bake pies. Probably I will make some homemade bread, too.
But this year, I am letting it go. I don’t want to pretend that everything is normal. It is different, so I am going to let it be different.
I’m not forgetting the traditions, the singing occasionally interrupted by a little dancing in the kitchen while I cook, the welcoming of ghosts.
I’m just taking a deep breath and remembering, yes, but also just being present with what is.
Maybe I will always miss those big Thanksgivings. Maybe I will eventually host my own. Maybe something I can’t even imagine will happen. For 2019, I am hurting, I am sad, I am missing people, but I am also grateful for the people I do have.
I will be OK.