The Plagued Parent

posts about surviving our children, the Baby Boomers who raised us, and everyone else with an opinion...

Tis the Season

norman-rockwell-thanksgiving-thanksgiving-2927689-375-479Well Thanksgiving has come and gone. Evidence of the holiday lingers throughout the kitchen: the container that held the last pumpkin muffin with cinnamon cream cheese frosting laden with crumbs, a bag of brown sugar leaning against its half-brother powdered sugar, two pieces of apple strudel that somehow survived the onslaught, and several counters that could still use a good scrubbing. Said one of the father’s standing with us on the soccer sidelines yesterday (in a sober tone), “Yeah, right, that happened didn’t it.”

So it did. So it did.

It happened differently for everyone I suppose, and for us Thanksgiving became the day we reclaimed the holiday for ourselves. This was not something we planned, but like many we certainly secretly dreamed of taking control of this and other holidays for years.

In-laws and parents tend to dominate the day. Their homes become the epicenters of obligations. The rest of us become weary and reluctant pilgrims driving across highways, waiting in airports, crushing into buses or waiting on trains.

Couples become coach to one another reminding their spouses that the day won’t last forever, that they can get through it, remember Aunt Jeannie makes a killer squash pie, and that family is important.

Weirdly, at a time when nearly everyone espouses the desire to engage with extended family, most achieve something akin to an alcohol fueled 6-8 hour binge-fest that, on the car ride home generally ushers forth the question, “Remind me why do we do this again?”

imagesMany are thankful when the day is over and that they’ve made it through without bringing up the money your brother owes, mother’s passive aggressive criticisms and her unconscious comparisons of the grandchildren, and let’s not overlook father’s faux interest in just about everything.

For us, our Thanksgiving decompression ritual has always been the same: change into sweats, collapse on the couch, grab another piece of pie, possibly a turkey sandwich and watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” on DVD. This always seems to do the trick.

Holidays are stressful.

They shouldn’t be, but they are. Most of us aspire to that Rockwellian version of Turkey Day and Christmas, but rarely if ever is that achieved. For years, I have fantasized about our house becoming the holiday hub and my wife shares this sentiment. I recall a couple we were close to in college, and for several years after, who announced one year that all holidays would be at their home. “If you want to see us,” the wife said, “you can come to us.” Funny thing, their relatives did just that.

I remember thinking, “What balls!” Each year as we ran around like lunatics trying to drag two small children and all their shit from house to house, we’d look at each other thinking, If only… 

Now that events in our lives have taken the turns that they’ve taken, we’ve been forced into the If only space for every holiday since. Taking control of these special days and rendering them fulfilling without extended family is no easy task. Years of memory and habit inflict themselves upon the present. But such is life in all its forms

This year we cooked a massive dinner for the three of us. Our neighbor had invited us, but we politely declined and made certain to join them for dessert — she had 20 people at her house. Yikes!

My wife has always encouraged the necessity of helping anyone less fortunate all year round, but certainly during the holidays. Need is most keenly felt at this time. We tried the local Elks Lodge, hoping to deliver food to shut-ins, but that list filled up fast. Turning to a Facebook group, my wife asked if anyone needed Thanksgiving dinner.

A woman responded. This year she did not have the means to provide a meal for herself, her grown son, and a teenaged granddaughter whom she has adopted. We cooked two meals while listening to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and then delivered it to her home ten minutes away.

After that, we returned and sat down to our meal — just the three of us. It was quiet. Gloriously and ghostly quiet. Around the edges to this new Thanksgiving lurked the usual Dickensian specters of holiday’s past, but they did not frighten. They sat mute, speaking only when spoken to as good well-mannered memories should.

My wife remarked at how, in all the quiet you really come to grasp the absent holiday awkwardness of the drunken relatives, whose antics once seemed comically charming but no longer bemuse, and the squandering of gratitude for being present.

My opinion: no holiday should ever pass by without an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being present in that day. If the day must be medicated away, with either binge drinking or eating, then something is wrong. We label that a celebration, but really is it? What is being celebrated? Gestures of mere obligation?

Holidays should be about celebrating each other and our lives together. Our day may have been “small”, but the feelings it contained were larger than any three people alone. We were relaxed, we were settled, we were free. Free of obligations, free of anxiousness, free of pretense, free of rationalizing the behaviors of family members, free to be ourselves.

True, it was not the same as many years prior, but why should it be? Some call that tradition, but under certain circumstances traditions can sometimes hold us captive.

Several hours after we’d dropped the dinner to the previously mentioned family, my wife received a message from the woman. The food was wonderful she informed, and she was able to share plates with a sick neighbor and her children, as well as send some dessert to a friend in a nursing home. “I paid it forward,” she told my wife.

And maybe that is the entire point of each and every holiday. As much as we enjoy indulging in “traditions” we should consider how our holidays actively create moments, memories and relationships. Otherwise, we limp along year after year expecting that tradition and obligation will carry the weight of meaningful holiday engagements.


Updated: November 27, 2016 — 8:20 pm


  1. What a lovely holiday. Just three generous souls, paying it forward and enjoying each other. Beautiful

    1. My sentiments exactly. Thanks Jennifer.

  2. What an absolutely beautiful reflection.

  3. I think the media fiction of “family” (and “family holidays”) does a lot of damage. Recreating holidays in our own image with our own ways is wise.

    1. Too bad it took me this long to figure that out :/
      Thanks Carol.

  4. I think this would be a very good post to put on Medium. To give it an even wider audience.

    1. Thanks Margaretha, I will certainly look into that…

  5. I love this post. My mother converted to a Jehovah’s Witness while I was in college and even though we already had small gatherings, I went from having family to celebrate with to having no one. I made the most of it, as you did, and now I’m all the more grateful to have my little family of four to celebrate this time with.

    1. I guess necessity makes inventors of us all. I can imagine that the transition was a bumpy one for you at first. I am glad that you’ve seen a way through. Ultimately, that’s what life is about isn’t it — finding a way through the murk and into the light. Thanks, Amber, for taking the time to share with us.

  6. A beautiful story and yes I agree that sometimes you just need that quiet time to reflect on others rather than get caught up in the whirl of extended family.

  7. This is so true. Well said!

  8. Families, traditions, and expectations can really be draining. Good for you for doing your own thing. Plus extra bonus for helping someone who really needed it. She probably brightened your day, more than you even brightened hers. That’s awesome!!!

    1. Thanks Beth. Your thoughts are appreciated.

  9. I can relate to this post. We had years of the big family gathering and I do miss it as many people in my family are forever missing which is part of why things changed. I do, however, enjoy the relaxed quiet holiday that Thanksgiving has become for us. And staying home is a treat. That and watching “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” every Thanksgiving holiday! Lovely post.

    1. What does it say about the frantic nature of our lives that “staying home is a treat”? And, I am with you. Peace, quiet and a DVD is the way to go. Thanks Molly.

  10. I am so glad I came by to read this. I knew it would be beautiful, profound, and I had wondered if your holiday turned out okay and I’m THRILLED it was fulfilling. You are such a generous, loving family… What a blessing you are to those in need.

    1. It did turn out well. Thanks Christine.

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