The Thanksgiving table has changed considerably in the last two decades. Grandparents have passed. Relatives have become estranged. Children have grown. My husband’s chair is empty. My sister is off at her in-law’s. There are not many of us left.
Sometimes I am sad about these facts. I long to be the child again, playing and peeking in on the adults as they prepared food in the kitchen, asking how much longer it would be until dinner, wanting to fast forward to the pumpkin pie with generous heaps of whipped cream before calories were on my radar. Those were the days when I was surrounded by everyone: grandparents, aunts, uncles, baby cousins, siblings, parents, and sometimes guests. Back then it never occurred to me that anything about that Thanksgiving table would change. You just assumed it would always be that way.
Most of the time I am not sad about the impermanence of a dinner table; I am okay with reality. I’ve changed myself. My grandmother’s Thanksgiving dishes of the past are not something I would want to eat today as a converted vegetarian. Some of those people who used to eat at our table are better off not coming to our gatherings, and I do not miss them. There are some people I would like to see, but don’t for various dumb human reasons. It’s complicated. At any given moment something is changing–we don’t always notice these changes as they transpire. It’s difficult to say whether a person should be sad about not sitting at the dinner table of their childhood when everything about the scene changed, including you.
I did a vegetarian friendsgiving a couple days ago: vegetable pot pie, delicata squash and onions, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It is nice to pick the people whom you share a connection with, instead of being miserable with obligatory company. It’s nice to still have people who you can enjoy a meal and a conversation with, and who you want to come back again. It is powerful to know that you can build your own tribe.
Still, it’s difficult not to think about the Thanksgivings of the past. Your grandmother standing over the pot of rice. Your husband sitting next to you. The little cousins who once sat in your lap.
Whenever you are feeling despair about everything you have lost over the years, remember to also acknowledge the power and wisdom you have gained.
The people sitting at your table–cherish them. They may not be there next year.
The people who chose not to be there– that’s not your concern. A dinner table is not a prison.
The people who choose to share a meal with you– they are the ones that matter.
And this day? Sure, it’s nice to designate a day to eat and be grateful and share good thoughts with loved ones. But who sits at your dinner table the rest of the year? That matters too.
Next year’s guest list may include faces you can’t even imagine right now. Embrace the curiosity.
Today, I didn’t feel like doing anything. I got the cooking-all-day out of my system. Now I’d like to just rest. Be still. Feel no urge to do anything of importance, other than be with my family. I took the kids to the movie theater and we will have pie with my parents later. Simple and just the way we want it– at least this year. Next year may be different. One can never know.
We went to see Ralph Wrecked the Internet this morning. One of the characters, a girl named Vanellope, finds herself unable to race in a broken game. Despite having complained about how boring her game was and how the same three courses were memorized and too easy for her, she felt despair at the thought of not having a game to play. “Who am I if I am not a racer?” She can’t imagine her life beyond what she already knew, even when that familiar world was not fulfilling for her. Eventually they find themselves in a different place (the internet), and she has the opportunity to join a game that she loves, but she has to leave behind her best friend, Ralph. This new game is not a good fit for Ralph, but it is for her. In the end, she begins a new life in the new game, but also maintains a connection to her old world.
We are constantly doing this– blending old with new. Making choices about what world we belong in and don’t belong in. Adding and subtracting. There are sometimes circumstances beyond our control that force our hand, and then we choose how to respond afterward–or not respond. Everyone fears stepping into territory they do not know. We all fear permanent goodbyes. It is so strange how we tend to stay in an unhappy familiar world, rather than embark on the journey to find a place where we belong because we think it will be too painful.
I have to admit that I bristle when people tell me how much I should feel grateful. It isn’t something I even want to necessarily hear from myself, let alone someone else. My mind immediately goes to the obvious: are you telling me to feel grateful about being a widowed single mother of three who has to spend another holiday without my dead husband? Even though the objection is valid, it is not a thought that will get you anywhere other than stuck in yucky feelings. But getting out of those feelings is not the job for somebody else. It’s your journey, and forcing gratitude can make you resentful.
I think gratitude is important, but not in the cliche way forced upon us. I believe gratitude is remembering all of the positives in our life instead of dwelling on the negatives, which our brains have a natural tendency to do. If life is like the stock market, then we have to assess what our average is, not get stuck on the low numbers, and stay focused on the history and promise of our highs. Gratitude is remembering that we are still able to play in the game of life. We can still invest. At least in this moment, so seize the potential before it dissipates into the forward march of time.
Today, I am grateful for family, friends, health, and all of the opportunities and promise that my indeterminable number of tomorrows still hold for me.