When I was nineteen, I studied abroad in Israel. I took an Egyptian history class which culminated with a ten-day trip across the Sinai and down the Nile. On Thanksgiving, 1998, I had just been to the Museum of Antiquities and a few friends—a smattering of students from across the U.S.—were crossing the most dangerous intersection I have ever encountered and looking for a place to have our Thanksgiving dinner. The most American place we could find was a Pizza Hut. So, crowded around a café table with incessant honking and the wafting aroma of cumin and exhaust, I ate my least favorite pizza and discussed what we were all thankful for.
Thanksgiving is a confusing holiday, historically, anyways. These days, with a growing awareness for the con-sides of the founding of our country, it’s become a minefield to celebrate the holiday consciously. Even trying to acknowledge the sins of the fathers (who may or may not be your fathers), it can come across as inauthentic, affectation. But then again, even though holidays seem staid in their steeped traditions, they have always been a fluid thing. Easter and Christmas have morphed from sacred to secular, but then we hear about other less-sacred beginnings mashed up in even the old traditions. Thanksgiving, too, has changed in its observation and even its meaning, over the years. Currently, it is a holiday for three things: family, gratitude, and the onset of the Christmas season (so shopping, dragging home a tree, and cranking up the holiday music). Also, it is the foodie holiday, the foodiest by far, like over-the-top and competitively. I know, because I am guilty. But scrape away the gut-busting, groaning board buffets and the mad perusing of Black Friday ads, and you have a holiday somewhat divorced from its patriotic history, where families cross countries and continents to be together and ask the ubiquitous question from mouths and on paper tablecloths, potted tree ornaments, and painted pumpkins: what are you thankful for?
In 2010, I spent my Thanksgiving crouched in front of the oven in an embroidered, turquoise kurta and eyebrows plucked into a startled expression, having just gotten off a plane from India. I was jet-lagged, but supported by my two little children and a husband who unceremoniously broke my sister’s couch. I was counting my blessings after returning from a) a trip of a lifetime and b) humanitarian work among rescued trafficking victims. I also recall the one Thanksgiving that I spent Flaherty-style, in Rhode Island with a bachelor uncle, surrounded by new-family faces, new-family traditional foods, and real-live heirloom, polished silver. Only once, early in our marriage and before children, we spent a Thanksgiving with friends and I distinctly remember refusing to tell what the two secret ingredients in my mashed potatoes were, tasting butternut squash souffle for the first time, and watching a young man I wouldn’t truly know for years making bananas foster in an overly-crowded, townhouse kitchen full of loud conversation and mind-blowing alcohol-fume flames.
Perhaps my favorite Thanksgiving disaster memory comes from a long season when we used to order our turkey straight from a farm and pick it up a couple days before Thanksgiving, freshly plucked and butchered. A few days before, one year, I received an email telling me that foxes had gotten into the turkeys and that I might not get the turkey that I ordered (which was probably about 12 pounds for the extended family) because it might be in the belly of a fox. The four of us—the kids still little—pulled up over the rutted, dirt road and beside the barn we recognized from year after year. Ten minutes later, we were driving back down the road and I was in the passenger seat with the turkey wrapped in my lap, a shell-shocked look on my face: the turkey was no larger than the average chicken that I roasted up for dinner. And then we laughed. And I held up the chicken-turkey. And we laughed more. And we laughed when I dressed the bird and put it in the oven. And we laughed when we took it out and carved it up for something like eleven people.
For the past several years, Thanksgiving has been allocated, gifted to me, the family foodie who would prefer to spend all holidays behind a roasting pan and apron. I have spent those years acquiring punch bowls and chafing dishes as well as growing a menu that requires five days of prep work and a nod to the favorite dishes of thirteen different people. Last year, the day before Thanksgiving, I sighed and retired to my bedroom to sleep for days, letting my family know that they were on their own to rush to the grocery store on the night before Thanksgiving to cobble together their own meal. I had the flu. This was a bummer to me: imagine a singer-actor on the opening night of the year’s big musical where they are to star, coming down with laryngitis and sitting home instead on the couch with a thermometer and a mug of tea and a very large frown. This was me. This had become my day, the big show. My husband would also run to the grocer and grab what was still on the depleted shelves, including potato salad which he fashioned into mashed potatoes as my daughter—not feeling too great herself—gave culinary pointers from the kitchen barstool. For me, too bad, so sad. There’s always next year.
Of course, there wasn’t next year. In a year where nearly all traditions and normalcy have been thrown out the window and blown to smithereens, family Thanksgiving dinner went with them. After a summer of loosening restrictions, I planned Thanksgiving with a vengeance only to give it up in the eleventh hour and just in the nick of time as our little family of four would have not one, but two Covid scares during a week of unprecedented pandemic numbers. Our extended-family story is the same as everyone’s: we have two medical workers (including my husband on a Covid unit), two more frontline workers, two kids in actual school, and two people with compromised immune systems/lungs. So long, world. We’re in it for another city-, state-, country-wide quarantine (even as, yes, many people chose to just carry on). Still, I dove into days of prep—this time for just the four of us—blaring Christmas music early and with a vengeance, donning a different apron every day. At noon on Thanksgiving, my night-shift-working husband lumbered out of his slumber, put on a pot of coffee, and ate a few hors d’oeuvres that I had left out beside the punch. The kids and I set the table and dotted the needlessly-long table with the accoutrements and a giant pitcher of gravy and then waited for Kevin to come back for his coffee. He never did. The coffee sat there, cooled, was forgotten about and went stale as the kids and I ate Thanksgiving alone, chatted on Zoom with relatives, drank sparkling cider out of the bottle as we began a Christmas movie marathon that is month-long. Meanwhile, Kevin retired to bed and we sealed up the master suite. I moved to the family room couch. He went to a drive-through Covid testing site and we re-sealed the master suite. Now under quarantine and awaiting results, we didn’t go to drive through the Christmas lights, we didn’t head to Trosa to get our Christmas tree and decorate the house together, inevitably with popcorn and cocoa and even more Christmas music. We slumped and had our Christmas tree delivered where it sits, as yet undecorated.
For the past few years, I have used different mediums to ask the question, what are you thankful for? This year, we had a pumpkin left over from Halloween that never got carved. I painted it white with a gold stem and set it out on the Thanksgiving table. While whisking gravy and eyeing a foil draped turkey with no electric knife I begged my daughter to grab a Sharpie and write “I’m thankful for…” in a nice font on the pumpkin. She did. That night, before bed and with the day in shambles, only she and my son had written all over it. I sauntered over and read their list this year and added my own, noticing that amidst all this loss and stress and bewilderment this year there was a definite theme: it’s people we are all thankful for, each other. And in those last few hours of depressed confusion before we quarantined Kevin, I slept alone in my bed and woke up to a plate of weird leftovers. I made a cup of tea at our coffee bar and looked down at the abandoned coffee and the pumpkin. In the night, between sleepy stupor and discomfort, my husband had wandered through the dining room and like a shoemaker’s elf had left his unsung mark there in a small list on the side of the pumpkin: Devon, Windsor, Eamon. For us.
There’s little left that we recognize these days, and these many, small losses and sufferings take their toll. I’m tired of 2020 and there is only a small flame of hope left back there in the garret of my mind that is already planning next Thanksgiving in all its normal glory, a re-do of all the things that didn’t happen this year: the beach with Lauren, jumping from a plane, the Harry Styles concert, Windsor’s sweet sixteen, our anniversary trip, relatives who hadn’t visited in twelve years, a family reunion at Mackinac Island, school, church, tea with friends, hugs, interactions with strangers that didn’t involve plastic sheeting and suspiciously raised eyebrows.
No day has gone unscarred since March 13th. It is November 28th. We are not done yet. The four of us are still alive, thank God, Kevin still has work, and we have grown and made different sorts of memories which we can truly appreciate once we’re looking back and taking a deep breath. We have had our annual day of gratitude and we have scrawled each other’s names on the pumpkin. One more day down and one more Thanksgiving memory left in the dust.