With our family sprawled all over the U.S., we tend to travel for Thanksgiving. This year, work and life have kept us home in New York. It doesn’t happen often that we spend the holiday in the city, but when we do, I am surprised and delighted anew by how the city meets the occasion: the holiday lights that had seemed silly and pre-emptive now feel festive, the tourists in their puffy coats who bob their heads from the sky to their phones as they try to capture the Macy’s Parade floats (which are far more awesome in person), the celebrity sightings (they, just like us, have children and believe in magic), and the ever-present scent of cider floating out of cafes.
And then there’s the evolution of the holiday, its own particular narrative arc, which when we stay in town always goes like this:
Early November: several relatives who live in various cities around the U.S. reach out. We begin the emails back and forth about the logistics of us all somehow getting together. Everyone looks at flight prices, and after the “wouldn’t it be so nices” and “I wish it could bes,” we all agree with great disappointment that no one can travel at those exorbitant prices. Out of sadness, I try to forget that Thanksgiving exists because right now it seems its purpose is to taunt far-flung families into wishing they could be together. The fact that report cards come out around this time is a good distraction.
The Monday before Thanksgiving: I realize Thanksgiving is in three days and panic. I usually am in a grocery store when this realization occurs, blithely buying normal daily foods like peanut butter or bread or garlic and then see someone with a turkey and cringe. I dash around and find a holiday token, something that is traditionally served on Thanksgiving (generally a tin can of horrible cranberry jelly) as a reminder to make a menu for my kids, husband and me, and then go out and shop for all the stuff.
The can goes on the kitchen counter, and I look at it, and rather than feel happy to know I have a can, I feel sad that I have a can, and that we’ll be such a small group this year without my extended family coming into NYC, and that the can will be just fine, which makes me sadder. Cans should not be just fine.
Tuesday: I decide to buck up and make the best of the holiday. I invite my mother-in-law. Look at blogs to find recipes for pie or poached pears. Stare at the can on the counter imagining rich fragrant compotes of cranberries and orange zest. Tell the kids it’s just us this year. Stall out and do nothing more. The can feels like an accusation of my neglect of this effectively very lovely-in-theory holiday. I should be more grateful for an opportunity to be grateful.
Wednesday: someone random calls from out of town and says hey, we’re in town. We invite them and their family. This doubles our party. We brainstorm and think of some local people who might not be leaving town. We invite them too, and they accept. Now things are happening. We borrow chairs. Scramble to buy a huge turkey, much larger than our oven should be able to handle. Suddenly, the holiday seems important, thrilling even – it has been so long since we’ve seen these people! We start to cook and joyously tell the kids that in fact, there will be LOTS of people at Thanksgiving, so many that some of us will have to sit on the floor (they roll their eyes).
Thursday: We are surrounded by family and friends, and the house is full of joy and gratitude. We realize we have more loved ones than we ever thought, and that even those who aren’t with us that night are still very much with us. The jelly bearing the shape of its can is squeezed out and eaten long before we tuck into the crazy walnut-cranberry-mint-cilantro-whatever sauce someone made from some gourmet website because the jelly reminds us of our childhoods when we didn’t have gourmet websites, or cilantro, and of Thanksgivings past when that can was what we could afford and what we knew, of visiting friends and relatives who thought the jelly was the best there was, of crazy relatives who ate the jelly with a spoon thinking that was how you did it, and of lonely Thanksgivings overseas when the jelly, now inflated to epic memorial proportions, had to be shipped or smuggled in, those times when the canned jelly was the only “traditional” dish that could be found at all and was all we had to tie us to home.
As writers, when we talk about using our essential selves, our memories, as material, we remember that which made us and are grateful to it, whether it bears rings from the can or not. I am reminded of this every year.
Stop by this weekend if you’re in NYC. Love to see you. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Milda is an award-winning author and the founder of Pen Parentis, a non-profit writing organization for writers who are parents. Find her work at mmdevoe.com, and if you’re a writer who is a parent, check out the salons, resources, and membership benefits with select partner organizations (such as One Lit Place!) at PenParentis.org.