That Time You Went Off Script--When giving thanks isn’t as easy as pie
I’ve always been an ardent member of Team Thanksgiving.
If your kitchen isn’t a disaster, you didn’t do it right. If your floors aren’t tracked by dozens of feet, did it really happen? And, it’s the one morning after when the answer to, “What’s for breakfast?” is a very serious, “Pie, of course.”
Growing up, Thanksgiving was always in Bay St. Louis. Our antebellum house had limited heating, so we’d crowd in the warm kitchen before sitting at the dinner table where arrangements of walnuts and fallen leaves gathered from the yard accented the casseroles, stuffing, and all the fixings. We lingered at those feasts with toasts and songs, capped off by Grandpa making tableside Café Brúlot. After Hurricane Katrina, I had my doubts that Thanksgiving could go on without the serenity of the Bay, until I found myself the new hostess. By noon my kitchen would be overrun with several hands stirring, mixing, and rolling out dough. The aroma of flavor-injected fried turkey would waft in from outside where Pop sipped a martini and read Model Railroader as my brother-in-law dunked another bird in bubbling oil. Bill would talk Mom into a second cranberry-mash cocktail. Grandkids would run amuck from the living room to the backyard and then back upstairs to God knows what fort they created in the playroom. Thanksgiving at my house is total bedlam, and we consider it success if the turkey is carved before six o’clock. As much as I looked forward to those gallant Thanksgivings in the Bay is as much as I have grown to anticipate the chaos of Thanksgiving at my house and the myriad reasons to be thankful.
This is the first year that I struggle to find thanks.
Never has the idea of clinking glasses over a plate dressed with all the trimmings required effort. Never has the idea of building upon memories made me ache. This is my first glimpse into seeing the holidays through dark-tinted glasses, and, while I’ve felt sorry for those who dread the holidays, I only now understand why some hearts need protection from this time of year when the signature recipe calls for relationships, laughter, and love.
Pop is now home with hospice care. Thanksgiving won’t go on as normal, no matter how we play it. For when the table is wiped clean and the china returned neatly in the cupboard, Pop will still have terminal cancer and the inevitable reminder will still be there, waiting. Returning to that realization from celebration hurts more than staying put in the dark tunnels where my thoughts wander.
I’ve read about people who ignore the holidays entirely, who pretend they aren’t even happening. I admit to having regarded them as sullen, sad persons who must never have known love. Otherwise, they’d embrace the holidays. I realized today, as I thumbed through pictures, ghosts of Thanksgivings Past, that it’s possible those people did know love and that’s why they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge a season dressed in tidings of joy. How could they when they are living on just a third of a heart? Letting the season pass them by is to avoid what’s absent.
As I write this, I find commonality with those I’ve misunderstood, who look at the first of January as parole.
But I also feel, somewhere in that remaining third of a heart beating inside me, that holiday dreaders aren’t just avoiding; they themselves are absent.
I resigned myself to turkey deli meat on Bunny Bread, paper plates, and frozen pies. If Thanksgiving dinner didn’t happen, the pangs of reality wouldn’t return. I could sell the idea to my kids that this year would just be different. But then my brother and his family came in town to see Pop. After long visits at his bedside, everyone gathered at my house. That familiar hum of family was so resonant, my house felt alive, present, just like the holidays.
When the topic of Thanksgiving inevitably arose, as soon as I offered the idea of dumbing it down this year was as soon as my dumb idea was shot down. Selling a novelty of no Thanksgiving to the grandkids was as insensitive as blowing Santa’s cover.
In spite of Pop’s absence, we need to build upon what will linger for our kids long after the last of the leftovers. Just like the smell of cloves and orange will always remind me of Grandpa’s Brúlot, the next generation needs their senses permanently triggered by the mayhem of Thanksgivings at my house. It’s what will pull them from the shadows that first holiday season when they don’t want to participate either, when the real world gets too real and love hurts for the first time.
I know enough to know that giving thanks isn’t scripted and needn’t roll off my tongue as easy as pie. It’s hard to say “thank you,” and to be grateful right now. Of course, I’m thankful for my children, family, friends, a roof, a full refrigerator, challenging work, and my own health. That’s the script, right? That’s what I’m supposed to say. And while it’s accurate, this Thanksgiving, I’m going off script.
This year I’m thankful that I got out of bed today and didn’t immediately cry. I’m thankful that I held back tears when I told Pop that I’d see him tomorrow so that he’d keep fighting. I’m thankful for car rides alone so that I can finally release all that is bottled inside me. I’m thankful for a husband who holds me, kids who hug at just the right moment, siblings who get it, friends who check in, a Mom whose resilience in the face of the unknown astounds me, and most of all, I’m thankful that I choose to be present.
It’s what Pop and those who’ve known love would do, should they move their eyes beyond the missing place setting.
Originally posted in New Orleans Magazine online.