When holidays hurt and changing up the tempo

It’s Thanksgiving Eve and unlike years past, there are no frenetic kitchen happenings at my house. Instead, I went out this morning and picked up a cinnamon-walnut coffee cake and pumpkin pie at the local bakery and called around looking for any restaurant that will be open on Thanksgiving Day. After a few tense moments, I was able to secure a reservation at the same place where we had Easter Dinner this year. That is the totality of my Thanksgiving preparations and I am quite fine with it.

My relationship with holidays has always been complicated, looking back on my childhood; I remember my mother and grandmother running ragged to create the perfect meal. By the time the food was ready to eat, we shoveled it in like inmates in the state penitentiary mess hall because we were half delirious from waiting all day to eat. Often my mother would be so tired after cooking a feast fit for royalty that she would grab a saucer of food, gobble it down and go to bed early.

Up until the time we moved to Maine, we celebrated the holidays with my parents unless I was scheduled to work (homeless shelters don’t close for the holiday). The upside being that as an adult, I knew the drill and prepared myself for the inevitable 8pm serving time so at least I was no longer half-starved by the time the food was served.  Yet despite my own adjustments, the family never made adjustments and most of the time, my mom was snoozing long before we left to go home.

Moving to Maine forced me to rethink my own relationship to the holidays, as it often was not feasible to fly back to either Chicago or Arizona where our families are located. So I became my mother, where the night before any major holiday, I could be found in the kitchen working fast and furiously. The morning of the holiday spent tethered to the kitchen and long story short, by the time we sat down to dinner, I frankly would have been just as happy to eat a bowl of cold cereal and call it a day. My irritation with cooking often spilled over to the other folks in the house and by the end of the meal, the bad vibes in the air were as equally as responsible for the indigestion as the food consumption.

My mother’s struggle with cancer took a nasty detour during the 2003 holiday season; in fact it was on Christmas Day that we learned her cancer had spread to her brain. It was the same day; I was hard at work trying to make good holiday memories with my then 12 year old son. That day ended with none of us finishing our meals as I had to make emergency preparations to head home to Chicago to help my Dad make hard decisions. My mother passed away not long after that and my father declared, he had had 33 years of good holidays and was done with them all. He has kept that promise every year since my mother’s passing. Last I heard, tomorrow he will grab a meal at Boston Market and watch TV.

Having kids, I have struggled with the holidays but several years ago my eldest told me he would rather we ate whatever and had a great holiday rather than the perfect meal steeped in emotional baggage. Kids are smart; I have mostly listened to him on this front. I am glad that I listened to him because at 21, this is a milestone year for him and for me (and his Dad). My son is celebrating Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family and then having friends over to his place. As a child of divorce, he has spent the past 19 holiday seasons having his time divided between his father and I and he is ready to live his life. Divorce aside, it comes to all kids, they grow up and want to live their own lives and create their own traditions. As a mother, my tears have been non-stop today but I also know that it took me years to assert my own will as far as where I wanted to spend my holidays and I am glad my son didn’t have to turn 30 before realizing he has a say.

With the holidays down to just me, the man and the girl child, even a scaled down traditional meal simply makes no sense. After many family discussions, we agreed to go out to Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. In casually mentioning it, I have been met with a level of dismay that frankly has shocked me. But in a world where traditional family and traditional ways are going the way of the rotary phone, I am not sure why a small family choosing to opt out of the holiday hubbub is shocking in 2013.

The holidays are beautiful for many but they are also painful for many, it is an idea that we pay lip service to but struggle with when faced with an actual person who chooses to abstain for personal reasons. In reflecting on the theme of thanksgiving, I am reminded that I have kept a gratitude journal for the past two years. I journal daily. It is my daily reminder of what surrounds me and unlike Thanksgiving Day, it doesn’t hurt as much as the 3rd helping of candied yams. There are many ways of expressing gratitude and giving thanks and all are valid. Holidays can be as individual as the individuals who celebrate then. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate nor is celebrating a holiday created on myth and misery even obligatory.  So take a deep breath, step back and if you are in the US, may this last Thursday of November be whatever you need or want it to be for you and yours.

5 thoughts on “When holidays hurt and changing up the tempo

  1. Great article Shay. As much as we all love family gatherings, there is so much pressure to make it ” picture perfect”. I salute your decision to have a non stressful meal with your family. For many years, I was separated from my family at thanksgiving and had wonderful gatherings with my single friends? I remember them fondly. I hope you have a wonderful, low key holiday.

  2. Thank you. Couldn’t agree more.
    Geez, I wish I could just dissolve the pressure we all feel sometimes- we need to do what works for us. Family or no family, turkey or no turkey, shopping or no shopping (damnit!).

    Take a deep breath, and love your life.

    As I offen find when reading your blog, I had a very similar experience. We decided to eat out this year for a few reasons. Ultimately, we realized our young kids want time with us, not time spent waiting for us to get out of the kitchen (cooking or cleaning). They aren’t really old enough to fully participate in cooking for any length of time, yet. So we spent time together as a family and went out for a very thankful dinner. We thanked the great folks at the restaurant for working. (I, too, remember working many holidays when I worked at a shelter- happy to do it at the time).

    We also decided years ago after rushed trips, delayed flights and sitting for hours in traffic that we would not travel much during the MOST traveled holiday. The time is too compressed at Thanksgiving.

    Thanful for this space of yours, cheers!

    • Although I loved our family celebrations when I was younger, in reading this article of Shay’s a think back on the notion that my mom wasn’t really “there”. She was in the kitchen!

  3. Great sharing! I’m all for eating out although I haven’t been able to convince my family of this. My middle child, after a few missed thanksgivings while she lived far away, insisted on cooking in my kitchen this year — she loves to do thanksgiving and had already done a friendsgiving a couple of weeks before. It was a little disorienting since I wasn’t crazy with the delivery of the meal, I even exercised and napped, we had no external relatives coming so it was much calmer, and we didn’t have turkey..we had brisket for the Thanksgivukkah celebration. Happy Thanksgiving!

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