Thanksgiving is the worst holiday. At least, that’s what I used to think. A holiday that revolves around food is easily a minefield for anyone with body issues. A holiday that revolves around family isn’t much better for somebody surrounded by dysfunction.
Growing up, I used to beg my mom to let us do something different for “Turkey Day.” We were very poor and on welfare, but my mother pulled up all the stops to create holiday feasts for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We lived off condensed soup and chipped beef on toast for months before the holidays just so mom could cook and bake up an excessive storm. On the upside, she was good at it. But the downside was this feeling that she cared more about the food than her actual children.
See, my sister and I would have been happy with just a fraction of the food our mother turned out. We would have preferred more family time. Or, we would have liked to do some of the cooking too. But our mother insisted upon doing everything herself — and then complained about never having any help.
While we were still young, we at least got to do the Thanksgiving feast with three cousins, two aunts, an uncle, and a grandmother. Yet, those were stressful relations. My mother’s family is among the most deeply disturbed set of people I’ve ever known. It was common knowledge that our uncle was a habitual liar who spun grandiose tales about himself at every turn. But the older I got, the more I learned he wasn’t the only one.
My mother, her mother, and her siblings all lied or exaggerated as if it was just another way of life.
Estrangement is also very common among those in my lineage, so, the family holiday feasts didn’t last forever. Eventually, my uncle, his wife, and their children quit coming around — which was both good and bad, honestly. Then our other aunt became estranged from the family after she was supposedly jealous about the microwave my mother gave their mom. And Grandma, well, she aged into an increasingly bitter old woman who pretended to be blind and wheelchair-bound.
I have few fond family memories of any of these people, actually. Our relations were always filled with some significant amount of strife.
Mom quit doing the holidays about 12 years ago. For years, she insisted upon doing all of it, complaining about it, yet never letting me or my sister into the kitchen to help. In my mid-twenties, however, she quit celebrating holidays altogether when her call to child protection didn’t turn out as she planned.
Our mom called CPS on my sister, who had four young children, an abusive boyfriend, and a bad drug habit. She clearly needed help, but when our mother decided to get the police involved, it — obviously — blew up in her face. Mom seemed to think that CPS would place the kids with a stable, local family and that she’d get to be the beloved grandmother every single day. Instead, CPS took the kids out of Minnesota and sent them to Missouri to live with the boyfriend’s family.
When that happened, Mom sank into something that looked like half depression and half adult temper tantrum. Our family shrunk down to me, her, and her mom in a nursing home, and Mom declared that the holidays weren’t worth celebrating anymore — not without her grandkids.
I was in my mid-twenties back then, and it didn’t really help with the whole “hating Thanksgiving” thing. I had undiagnosed autism and social regression that I didn’t understand. What wound up happening was that I only had somewhere to go for the holidays as long as I had a boyfriend.
If not, I typically sat alone at home.
Eventually, I developed an annual depressive episode that began with my birthday in August and hit its lowest point between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When my daughter was born in 2014, the holidays became much more complicated. In many ways, more depressing. It was uncomfortable trying to find a place to go each year if I didn’t get an invite.
It didn’t help that we moved around a lot or that I've never done too well with planting roots. I worried what Thanksgiving would be like for my daughter, especially when things went south at my old job and I lost my first friend in Tennessee because I dared to speak up about work culture.
With that friendship over, we lost a standing invite, and we became more reliant upon my daughter’s other grandmother, whose plans change every year. And here’s something you might not know about me — I don’t like to feel like a burden to anyone, so, I tend to withdraw when I’m struggling and rarely let anyone know what I need.
So, for the past few years, I’ve held my breath and hoped for a Thanksgiving invite from different people. I’m not really up to hosting at my place, but I’m always up to contributing a dish (or more). Though as time has passed, I’ve cooked less and gone out to eat or ordered food more.
As with most people, however, COVID changed things. I knew better than to wait for an invite since we and our small circle of loved ones are all still social distancing. I suppose, in a way, that took a lot of pressure off. At first. I asked my daughter how she felt about “a mama and Sophie Thanksgiving at home,” and she really liked the idea.
For a long time, I thought we’d do the quintessential southern thing and order our Thanksgiving meal from Cracker Barrel, but then we had an especially busy week where I picked up a curbside order for an easy school night dinner, and it was awful. When we got home, I opened the bag and discovered that our local Cracker Barrel messed up the whole order. They forgot my daughter’s pancakes, gave us the wrong sides — it was bad. When I called the restaurant to let them know what happened, they said I could drive back or have a manager call me to make things right.
I opted for the latter, but nobody ever did call. So, I decided against giving them more money for Thanksgiving.
At the same time, as I talked to my daughter about Thanksgiving foods, she expressed more of an interest in cooking together. I’m probably going to regret this, I said to myself as I thought about the stress and cleanup, but we should probably just do the cooking at home.
I told my daughter that I’d get her a little apron of her own to help make the cooking more fun. She asked if there could be a turkey on it. Maybe, I said, uncertain if that was even a thing. I made a list of recipes and put together an Instacart order. I tried to not stress out too much about the timing of recipes or taking even more time off work to make the holiday happen. This month, it feels like I’ve hardly worked at all because I’m so focused on cleaning and reorganizing our home. Guess I can prioritize the holidays too.
As I planned the menu, I wondered if I was biting off more than I could chew. Since becoming a mother, I sort of hate to cook. After all, I’m a single working mom who routinely struggles to juggle everything. Yet, something funny happened instead.
My daughter got so excited about helping out in the kitchen for the holiday, that I found her excitement contagious. Suddenly, a holiday that used to really bother became an opportunity and real labor of love.
The day before Thanksgiving, my daughter and I began assembling our recipes. We wound up making sweet baby carrots, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, and a few different casseroles — green bean, sweet potato, and a breakfast hashbrown one.
At the last minute, I decided to have a turkey delivered, and the Publix butcher kindly cut it up for me as requested. I simply stewed it for future recipes. My daughter liked helping me out in the kitchen, but her attention span was predictably that of most other 6-year-olds. When she got burnt out on snapping green beans, I wrapped up the rest of the prep while she played.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t as overwhelming or terrible as I thought it might be. I’ve always been a proficient cook, but when I say I quit cooking much of anything after motherhood, I mean it. The overwhelm I feel as a mom and Aspie woman is frequently off the charts.
This was different before I gave birth. In “the old days,” I loved to cook, even though I hated how the holidays made me feel so lonely.
The truth is I surprised myself this year. And I suppose that 2020 surprised me too.
I actually had fun. Don’t get me wrong — it was hard work and pretty exhausting, but I felt so good about doing it.
I didn’t expect to feel that way since the whole pandemic has turned 2020 into such a shit storm.
For years, I was so lonely about my family, relationship status, and the holidays that it never occurred to me I might actually like to be alone. Or that single motherhood wouldn’t be nearly as depressing as I’d thought.
Yesterday for Thanksgiving, my daughter and I woke up to watch the socially-distanced Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We stuck the hashbrown and sweet potato casseroles into the oven and had some for breakfast.
After the parade, we watched some of the dog show that followed, baked the prepped dishes, and had our Thanksgiving lunch. Then, I helped her call various family members like her dad, and both grandmothers.
We ended the evening with cheese and crackers, pumpkin pie, and finally, we watched Turkey Hollow in bed. I let her stay up late and we talked about everything that makes us grateful this year.
Most of all, “each other” topped the lists.
Several times throughout the (admittedly very simple) day, I was heartened to hear my daughter shout, “I love my life!” My heart grew bigger every time she said it.
Wow, I thought. There’s another cycle being broken. This is the first year my daughter is really interested in Thanksgiving, but clearly, she finds the holiday a joy. It’s such a different experience from my own childhood.
Of course, one of the best things about the entire holiday was that we got to choose our own traditions. She decided she wants to make the same foods next year, and share some food with homeless people — assuming the pandemic is under control by then.
This marks another new holiday tradition for us: “Christmas every day.” My daughter and I decided to do something “Christmassy” every single day beginning with the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s eve. Some days, that will mean a Christmas movie, Christmassy cocoa, baking cookies, wrapping presents, crafting, or having a holiday dance party.
Again, this is simple stuff, but it’s powerful too.
This year has been so hard, yet I’m so fortunate to have this kid who's been constantly reminding me that magic isn’t actually dead.
Even staying at home can be “the best thing ever” to a 6-year-old child during the holidays.
So, all those years ago, I guess I didn’t have to hate Thanksgiving after all. Though, to be fair, I didn’t know the best was yet to come.
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