The snowy, six-hour drive home when I was barely eighteen seemed endless, more so because central Illinois in November becomes whitewashed into one giant, monotonous landscape of flakes on broken cornstalks. It seemed longer that first year of college, too.
I knew I was going home to a Thanksgiving that would not be the one I had known for eighteen years.
It was a home without the mom who always cooked the turkey dinner. A mom who always shook her head at the men who fell asleep in front of football and arched her eyebrows at me in a look that I knew meant “dishes duty — now.” It would be a home, too, without her sisters and their busy families, because the glue that had held those extended family units together was gone. Take out the mother, and you take out a network.
So that year I did what my mother would have done. Probably did do, in fact, since she lost her own mom at fourteen. I cooked dinner.
Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, lemon meringue pie, pumpkin pie, cranberry relish. I don’t even like pumpkin pie. But the offerings hadn’t changed in eighteen years, and they would not now. I set out all the good dishes on the big farmhouse-style Formica table.
I did everything to maintain the illusion that this was a normal Thanksgiving dinner.
I had no idea what I was doing.
I mean, literally, I had no idea how to cook. Mom hadn’t taught me, although I’d gained basic knowledge by watching. (Honestly, she wasn’t that great of a cook, so lessons might have been counterproductive anyway.)
Beyond that, though, I had no idea that illusions failed. That the perfect china on the table would only intensify the feeling of something missing, not erase it. We hung on to the traditions, my dad and I, but we weren’t fooling one another. This was not the same, it never would be, and we had no idea how to navigate it into something else. I can’t say that we ever really learned.
This year, with my own family old enough for college and other life changes, Thanksgiving is different again. Child #1 is newly married. From now on, she’ll have her own family with her own relationships and traditions to steer through, and we’ll have to learn a new dance. She probably won’t be fighting over a wishbone with her sister ever again. Child #3 is studying abroad. While we eat turkey, she will be eating tapas in Spain, not present at our table for the first time.
Some things will be missing — but I know some things I didn’t know at eighteen.
Life’s waves move around us and upset things that always have been. But that doesn’t mean the things that matter are not still there. The tangibles change. The intangibles remain the real things.
Maybe we won’t all eat pie together. Certainly we won’t all go cut down a Christmas tree the next day together. We won’t all sit around eating cookies and laughing while my husband takes five hours to hang the lights because they Must. Be. Right. (And truly, they are the finest hung tree lights on the planet.)
I don’t like that these things won’t always be.
Yet I know, from those first days of trying to navigate holidays without the mom who held us all together, that the intangibles remain, as long as we remember to look for them.
We will be together, hanging ornaments, trading half-remembered stories of when we got them. When that happens or precisely how? The specifics don’t matter that much. We will be thankful together and find joy in God’s gifts. Whether that happens over stuffing or over Skype isn’t the important detail.
That the feeling of home remains — that intangible knowing that “it’s all still there, and it’s all OK” matters. What the menu or makeup or timing is, not really. That we recognize the fleetingness of “same” and express gratitude for the times we have matters. Whether there seems to be little or much to be grateful for does not.
I no longer feel compelled to cook pumpkin pie because, in fact, we all kind of dislike it. We don’t need it to feel like life is still normal.
It isn’t. It never will be. Sometimes, you have to find your sense of “normal” in the things you can’t put on a calendar or write into a menu. They are, in fact, the most real things in existence.