I spent my first post-divorce Thanksgiving without my daughter (my ex and I were switching off years, and it was his turn), in Los Angeles with my boyfriend, in the apartment he shared with another twenty-something guy. It smelled a little bit like old socks.
I had been looking forward to getting away from Phoenix for a few days and to the holiday, but when we sat down to eat, I just felt like crying, which can't have been very gratifying for my boyfriend, who had procured some turkey and even some pumpkin pie for the occasion. It wasn't his fault. In my rush to get to the holiday I loved, because I thought it would make me feel better, I hadn't considered that Thanksgiving isn't only about having the right foods, like cranberry sauce the way my mother made it -- it's also about preparing and eating those foods with family and friends.
I resolved then to make sure that I never spent another sad Thanksgiving, and so far, so pretty good.
There was the big potluck Thanksgiving in downtown Phoenix with dear and boisterous friends, most of whom can actually cook (key for a potluck), and the Thanksgiving spent at an Englishman's apartment in Boston, along with about two dozen of his friends and colleagues, most of whom had also grown up on other continents.
And there was last year, when the man who had just moved in with me roasted a giant turkey, and made stuffing and Brussels sprouts and potatoes to go with it, and we sat down to eat with each other and our respective kids (at least briefly -- both children are restless teenagers), for which I felt extremely thankful.
This year, my mother and my brother are coming to Phoenix for Thanksgiving. Instead of cooking at my house, we are going to make and eat dinner at the gracious and well-appointed home of a good friend. It will be festive and delicious, but there will be bitter along with the sweet.
Both my friend and I are missing key pieces of our families. My father died of cancer 17 years ago, far too young. My mother, who never remarried, misses him so much that his absence is always with us. And my friend lost her own father just months ago in a terrible accident that has left her family reeling. Usually, both her parents travel to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with their daughter -- this year, for the first time, it will be just her mom.
I know that having dinner together can't make everything better for my friend or for her mother, or bring back the grandfather my own daughter never met. But I've been through enough Thanksgivings to understand that there is healing power in gathering together to prepare and roast a turkey (and this year, for my brother, a tofurkey); in standing at the kitchen counter chopping potatoes, grinding cranberries, whipping cream for the pumpkin pie; and then sitting down to share a meal -- in short, in going through the comforting motions that link us to our families and neighbors and friends on this familiar day and remind us, inevitably, both of what we've lost and of how much we have to be grateful for.