Facing Thanksgiving in a Pandemic
It seems strange to remember this time last year. There were two new babies in our family — little Alex, my sister’s sixth child, who was 8 months old, and sweet Mabel, my brother’s baby who was only 2 months old. I remember how excited I was to have the whole family together with these new additions and how it was going to be noisy and rambunctious and exhausting, just like the huge family parties we used to have at my grandfather’s house when I was a little girl.
My brother arrived first, and proudly put Mabel in my arms. I feel horrible saying this, but as happy as I am to hold any baby at any time, I’m not actually a huge fan of newborns. I’m an aunt who has been through that stage eight times now, so the novelty has worn off.
Plus, I had already fallen head over heels in love with Alex by then, and he with me, so I paced the floor, waiting for my sister and her family to arrive, trying to pretend that I was fascinated by every twitch Mabel made.
When my sister arrived, holding Alex, I immediately reached for him with one arm while transferring Mabel to my sister with the other. She laughed, knowing my attachment to Alex and willingly surrendered him.
And thus began our wonderful Thanksgiving celebration of 2019 — one that would turn out to be very different than the one it preceded.
My mom has mostly been the one to host Thanksgiving throughout my life. My grandfather always hosted Christmas, Easter, and the 4th of July. My aunt hosted a few birthdays. But my mom liked to have Thanksgiving.
We had an enclosed patio for a time when we lived in Los Angeles, and I remember my parents setting up tables all along the length of it — enough room for the 30–50 relatives who showed up every year.
Once we moved to New Mexico, we were largely on our own. Most of our Thanksgivings were just the six of us, taking a walk, watching a movie, cooking, and eating.
I only spent one Thanksgiving away from the family, when I was living in Santa Fe and couldn’t afford to fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. But I was incredibly blessed that I still had a close friend in Albuquerque from my high school days and her family invited me to their dinner.
My sister and one of my brothers both got married in 2005, a few years later, and I was so excited to start having big holiday parties again, complete with little kids underfoot. My sister got pregnant right away and at the time, I assumed I’d be starting my own family soon, and wasn’t it all going to be so magical and amazing?
And it was fun and beautiful and happy, in ways I hadn’t predicted. We had friends join us throughout the years. Often, my dad’s distant cousins, whose parents had remained in Scotland when everyone else came to America in the 1920s, would come to visit and enjoy this American tradition with us.
And sure enough, eventually, it was all about the kids. Ben and Finn and Kai and Brynn and Keira and Felix…and eventually Alex and Mabel, too. Not my own kids. And my brother Jack hasn’t had kids yet. So the whole plan unfolded in very different ways than what I expected.
But still, it was lovely to have everyone together.
There is one shadow side to the holidays — Thanksgiving, in particular — that has always been a sore point for me. Something about it has always made me very anxious.
Some of this had to do with social anxiety. Big gatherings are sometimes stressful for me.
Then of course, was the difficulty of navigating a day that centers around food. As someone who has struggled with eating disorders for years, this was an emotional minefield for me. It was like an alcoholic being dropped off at an open bar. Twelve different options for desserts and my steely reserve to only choose one…and next thing I know, I’ve eaten all of them, have had to unbutton my pants, and know that it’ll be a week before I can crawl out of that hole of self-loathing.
The sensory overload also became an issue, though I didn’t understand that for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I understood that all the noise, people yelling for my attention, sounds of video games, television shows, music, and general chaos made me feel on edge.
I also think I could feel the cracks in our family dynamic even when I was a teenager. There was so much dysfunction in our family that we already swept under the rug and agreed not to acknowledge. Holidays were, strangely, both a respite from that, with everyone playing the part of the perfect family, but also a glaring juxtaposition to what was really going on. It was hard for me to witness that and keep forcing myself to pretend that everything was okay.
One of my coping methods during the holidays has been to indulge in obsessive-compulsive behavior and walk around cleaning everything. At Christmas, I regularly circle the living room, picking up wrapping paper, ribbons, packages, boxes, toys. At Thanksgiving, my respite is doing the dishes. After dinner, I can finally have some quiet time, a moment to decompress and ignore the food, to duck out of the conversations I might be too tired to have, and just clean every damn dish and bowl and glass and fork that’s been dirtied. With every cleaned item, I feel a little more in control. The world feels a little more ordered again. I can take a deep breath.
Thankfully, to some extent, these issues have calmed over time, thanks to constant inner work. I no longer have eating disorder flare-ups on Thanksgiving. I no longer overeat. I no longer torture myself about what I should put on my plate.
My social issues are a little calmer. I simply give myself permission to take breaks, go into the guest room and be alone for a few minutes here and there.
And though our family dysfunction is still alive and well, I’m learning to navigate it differently and with honesty and integrity. I’m learning to speak up for what needs to be said and to let go of and walk away from the things I cannot change.
Admittedly, though, I still obsessively clean during the holidays. Until Alex came along.
Last year, I spent almost the entire day holding him. A few times, I surrendered him to another aunt or uncle, or to his grandma, but within minutes, he’d start crying and reach for me again. What can I say? We are joined at the hip.
That was the first year in my life that I was able to fully disengage from the anxiety I feel during the holidays. I had all my focus on that little boy.
I still remember hearing my mother and sister joking in the kitchen that I hadn’t done the dishes yet and don’t I always do the dishes?
“She has Alex, so she won’t move from that chair until you all go home,” my mother replied, laughing.
This is the first time my family will be spending Thanksgiving apart. My mother and brother Jack, who live together, and are in strict quarantine due to my mother’s health problems, will be having Thanksgiving by themselves. My sister, who just moved 200 miles away, will be having a separate celebration with her husband and kids.
And with carefully considered risk-assessment, my brother Levi and I decided to spend Thanksgiving together with our father. My father lives at an assisted living facility here in town which is in a strict lockdown (not to be confused with a lock-in). Levi is the executive director of this facility and as such, has almost no contact with the public during the workday and is required to be tested for COVID twice a week, as a precaution. My sister-in-law, Viv, rarely goes out. And I, of course, only see my bestie, Sunny, once a month or so, on socially distanced walks.
So we feel comfortable that this is a reasonable decision and are excited to have even a little bit of family time this year…though it won’t be the same.
I’m very grateful for this opportunity and grateful that I have family to be with, but I am sad not to be able to meet everyone at my mom’s place, as we always do, especially now that my sister has moved away. We need a big family day more than ever.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen this year. And who knows when it’ll happen in the future?
I talked to the nieces and nephews last night, on FaceTime, and Alex, who often isn’t interested in the phone, was particularly talkative. I use that word loosely, since he can only say a few words, but he talks in other ways. He showed me his baby doll that he loves to cuddle. He walked around with the phone, grunting and pointing, as he used to do when I carried him around on my hip. He showed me how he can say “blue,” “yellow,” and “baby.” And he showed me all his new teeth (almost all of them have come in now). And best of all, he kept yelling “Hi! Hi!” and waving to me, even twenty minutes into the call. He was so excited.
It is so hard to imagine not getting to be with them all this year. I miss them so much. I couldn’t have imagined such a strange series of events last year at this time, when I was sitting in the living room at my mom’s house, ignoring the dirty dishes so I could play with Alex. I thought we had a million more Thanksgivings like that to come.
But again, I am grateful. I will still be with family. My sister-in-law was gracious enough to volunteer to host this. My brother will be baking up some delicious treats, as always. I’ll get to cuddle with Mabel (who is way more fun than when she was as a newborn) and play with almost 5-year-old Felix, who just the other day told me he was concerned about how badly our president is behaving and that he would like to meet him because maybe he could “help him change his heart.” How lucky am I to be able to spend a holiday with a kid like that?
It’s an adjustment. Life has changed. We’ll figure things out, as we always do. We’ll be okay.
And who knows what next year might hold. We certainly didn’t imagine this. Maybe next year will be equally — but more pleasantly — surprising.
© Yael Wolfe 2020
More on navigating the holiday season: