I have just a few, vague Thanksgiving memories from my youth... like tracing my hand on construction paper for those crafty, grade school turkey projects... and waking up, mid-morning in high school, to the delicious smells of stuffing and roast turkey. But it was only during my college years that I truly came to appreciate the holiday and install some lasting memories.
Living away from home, there’s nothing like coming back and waking up in your childhood bed. I distinctly remember looking around the house, wondering how I hadn’t noticed all that my parents did for me. I saw everything in a completely new light. The pictures on the walls, the plants growing in sunny corners, the refrigerator full of food. How do they DO this? I remember looking at my folks thinking, My God. They look exactly the same, yet something feels so different now. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I’d soon come to realize they hadn’t changed at all – I had.
Then, during my junior year, I stayed at the University of Illinois for Thanksgiving Break. I didn’t want to miss the holiday with my family, but as a dormitory resident advisor, we had to divide up holiday coverage since some students chose to stay on campus. The way I saw it, Thanksgiving would be an easier holiday to miss than Christmas, so I volunteered to stay.
I still recall that morning in Champaign-Urbana, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, climbing out of my bed, opening the shades and scanning the empty campus below. What have I done? I asked myself, suddenly missing my family. I lived in a "single" as it was called, smack dab in the middle of Illini Tower's 15th floor. All but one of my residents went home that year, and the boy who stayed slept the entire day. This absolutely sucks, I thought. I wanted to be home. I totally regretted my decision to stay, feeling completely and utterly sorry for myself.
I couldn't smell any turkey, couldn't hear pots and pans clanking downstairs. Missing were the voices of my sisters and my parents, and I ached for my mom to call up to my room -- probably for the third or fourth time -- insisting that I get out of bed to help. I longed to sit by the fireplace with a plate full of appetizers, knowing there'd be hours of food still ahead. Instead, I’d be dining with the Resident Director and his wife downstairs, knowing they felt an obligation to invite me. I made some sort of dish to share that day, cobbled together in my dorm kitchenette, thinking the whole time about my kitchen back home, filled with all the people I loved.
As I stood in my dorm room that chilly Thursday morning in 1988, I listened to Margo Timmins singing Sweet Jane on my Discman, hardly knowing it was a Cowboy Junkies cover of an original song by Lou Reed. Growing up, I wasn’t immersed in music like so many of my peers. Top 40 was all I knew. Ugh. Still, the song spoke to my lonely heart, so I kept it on repeat, feeling deep…and wounded…and painfully alone.
...Anyone who's ever had a dream
Anyone who's ever played a part
Anyone who's ever been lonely
And anyone who's ever split apart
Sweet Jane, sweet Jane
Sweet, sweet Jane...
Such drama…but I was 20 and coming to terms with who I was. Originally, I’d believed I could manage the holiday alone – but faced with the reality, I changed my mind. I didn’t want this. Not this way.
Later, I took the elevator downstairs to have dinner with my hosts, carrying my dish and feeling like some kind of soldier. To be sure, I’d signed on to serve my time here, but this wasn’t how I thought it would be. I wanted to go home and watch Charlie Brown, to hug my family and read a book on the couch, to fall asleep with a full belly, then wake up for dessert, sharing my observations of college life, knowing that people would listen and laugh and love me, no matter what. Instead, I’d be with people I hardly knew, yearning for those I loved, trying to make the best of it. It felt like so much work, which was an emotion I’d never felt on this holiday.
Just after our Thanksgiving meal, the Director offered to let me call my family from his phone. In this time before cell phones and unlimited mobile plans, I jumped at any chance to put a long distance call on someone else’s dime.
My mom, of course, answered first, and the emotion in her voice said everything. I still remember her first words: “Chrissy? Is that you?”
My tears began to flow.
Thankful for long cords, I took the phone out into the sterile dormitory hallway, closing the door behind me.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to sound strong. “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“We miss you,” she said.
I could hear every crisp sound in the background – cutlery clanking on plates, laughter, Vivaldi – but I knew by her silence that Mom was crying, too.
“I miss you,” I said, wiping my eyes. “All finished eating?”
She cleared her throat…then cleared it again. The answer to my question, for now, would not come, so I filled the silence.
“We just finished over here,” I continued. “It was pretty okay. They didn't make turkey like you do, but it was nice to be invited.” Then I covered my mouthpiece, trying to catch my breath.
“I’m glad you’re with people,” Mom said, clearing her throat again. “Everyone here's excited to talk to you. I'll pass the phone to Uncle Bill…” And with that, I began the auditory rounds, each family member’s voice a salve to my heart.
When the phone finally reached Mom again, my tears were gone, and so too, it seemed, were hers.
“It’s not the same without you here,” she said, “but we’ll be together in a few weeks for winter break.”
“I know,” I said. “I miss you guys. I wish I were there. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said.
Her words had never felt more meaningful. And just like the song I’d been playing earlier, Mom’s last four words played repeatedly in my head.
Thirty years on, I’m a mother myself, with three children close to the age I was back then. I’m also newly divorced and recalibrating my life. Thinking back to my 20-year-old self, coming to terms with who I was, I can see that I’m in the midst of doing that all over again.
And I remind myself that, along with these new circumstances, I’ve already experienced – and will continue to face -- some major holidays without the ones I love. My 20-year-old Thanksgiving prepared me well for just such times, serving as proof that reconfiguration offers tremendous opportunity for growth.
I know firsthand how easy it is to yearn for the past…to ruminate over how things used to be. It’s all a matter of radical acceptance, living in the here and now.
Learning to accept any degree of reconfiguration isn’t easy, because change, as we all know, takes a lot of hard work. Like my 20-year-old self, I’m now back to the “single” life, looking again at everything in a completely new light. And in a way, it feels like I’m now on a new elevator ride, this time with buttons pushed only for the highest floors.
For anyone struggling with loneliness and change, I wish you peace, strength and faith. Change, while in process, can be incredibly painful, yet it’s also a gift to be appreciated down the road. Until now, I hadn’t though of my 20-year-old Thanksgiving with anything other than sadness and regret. Today, nearly 30 years later, I finally appreciate how it made me a stronger person. I took the opportunity to get to know new people, and to appreciate those I already knew on an even deeper level.
And later today, I will experience a Thanksgiving reconfigured. I will gather with my children and my extended family, surrounded by love and familiarity. I will hug my family. I will read some passages from the book I am now writing. I will battle the urge to fall asleep on the couch with a full belly. I will enjoy many desserts, one of which my youngest child is making as I type. I will also share my observations on life – knowing that people will listen and laugh and love me, no matter what.
I am, more than ever before, just so thankful.
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