There are times of the year when being estranged from one’s unchosen family feels particularly pronounced. It likely goes without saying that Thanksgiving is one of those times. Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday, and I always made it a point to be with her for it (that is, until my wife and I began alternating Thanksgivings because compromise–although my mom thought she “should get Thanksgiving because Kim’s mom gets Christmas,” to which I replied, “Well, by that logic, you get Chanukah”). Even when I lived abroad, I came “home” for Thanksgiving.
I’m a vegetarian, and my mom would go out of her way to make sure I had a main dish that was just as good as–sometimes even better than–the traditional turkey carcass at the center of the table. Of course, there were veggie sides: creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potato pudding, the occasional green bean casserole, broccoli sauteed in butter, plus vegetarian stuffing and vegetarian gravy to drench everything in. But the vegetarian pièce de résistance, the buttery butterball-replacement centerpiece, was this incredible brioche loaf stuffed with chestnut pâté. It came from a tattered paperback cookbook she’d had since the 1970s, the pages of the recipe long ago detached from the spine (I want to say the book was The Vegetarian Epicure, which was a staple in her kitchen, along with Recipes for a Small Planet). I looked forward to that loaf every year–food is a love language and one my mom speaks very well.
In addition to the usual food traditions, my mom and I had a movie tradition. Every year, we would watch the 1995 Holly Hunter classic Home for the Holidays. I was in college when it came out (and when my mother married my stepfather), and no matter where we were spending the day–at my mother’s house, at my step-grandmother’s house–that VHS tape (and later, DVD) came with us. Sometimes other folks would join our viewing party; sometimes, it was just the two of us. It never got old.
Kim and I made our own Thanksgiving last year because Covid and kept it small this year with just her mom because Covid and immunocompromised. For the few years before that, we alternated Thanksgiving between Kim’s mom’s and my cousin Sarah’s in Brooklyn. Sarah is one of several step-cousins who’ve enveloped me into their chosen family and I’ve enveloped into mine, as much as I’m able; sometimes, I think I’m still learning to family. Sarah is also one of the few who’s seen my unchosen family from the inside with the same clarity as my own with regards to where lines must be drawn, where there is no in between, where there is no such thing as compromise.
In spite of that clarity–maybe in part because of it–I find the lead-up to Thanksgiving one of grieving. I miss the gathering of friends and family around my mom’s dining table. I miss the chestnut pâté and annual movie screening. I even miss my mom and my stepfather–or anyway, I miss the idea of them, the parents they should have been, the parents I thought they were. The thing about estrangement is that it’s not something that’s just done–it’s something you worry, chew on, revisit over and over. In my case, it’s an extremely painful choice that I keep making and rethinking and making and rethinking and making again. I didn’t–don’t–have parents who protected me, so I have to protect myself.
And that means sometimes Thanksgiving feels more like Thanks-grieving.
Jessica the Westchesbian
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.