The call came on a Friday evening, a few weeks ago while I was out to dinner with my friend Alex. I had glanced at my phone to check on the time when I saw that I had a missed call from my son Keller. A second year student at James Madison University, Keller never calls me, which prompted me to call him immediately, especially since he had not left a voicemail.
He answered almost immediately, in that dull teen drone, which put my mind at ease that he was okay.
“Keller you called?” I asked in my most motherly, concerned voice.
“Well, yeah, that’s generally how I phone works,” he replied. The snark does not fall far from the tree.
“So what’s up?”
“If I had to do Thanksgiving with you, would you still be able to come down the Saturday after Thanksgiving? Or could we do it the Sunday before Thanksgiving at your place?”
My heart nearly melted. He was trying to honor my request that we celebrate Thanksgiving together.
The discussion over Thanksgiving 2017 started in earnest in early September, shortly after he got back to school. When I first brought it, up, he had indicated that he would stay on campus to work at his part-time job at Local Chop & Grill House. My offer to come down Saturday and cook Thanksgiving dinner for him and any of his friends who were around were brushed off.
At JMU’s family weekend he confessed that he did not want to have Thanksgiving with me or his father, from whom I had recently separated, for fear of showing favoritism over one of us. He would stay in Harrisonburg and declined celebrating with either one of us.
About a month later he fessed up, well kind of. It turns out he has a girlfriend—a fellow mellophone player he met through marching band, and in so many words it became clear that he was crazy about her. He was driving to her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. to watch her run in a race Thanksgiving morning and driving back to school Friday evening or Saturday after Thanksgiving. In other words, he was spending Thanksgiving with the girlfriend’s family. So when he called that Friday to offer options for Thanksgiving, I was overjoyed.
Newly separated and in an apartment remarkably different from my home of the past several years, I know that this holiday season will likely be an emotional roller coaster. The prospect of not observing the holidays with my son had the potential of compounding whatever holiday blues could creep up on me. But I also knew I had to respect my son’s feelings and not guilt him into spending the holidays with me. As with anyone else, I do not want to burden him with the responsibility for my happiness. He is starting to live his life on his terms, and while he remains financially dependent on me and his father for the time being, the transition to how we relate to each other as adults has begun. I told myself that if I had forced him to come and celebrate with me this year, he may resist in future years. Luckily, he decided to make time observe Thanksgiving with me.
Holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas where food is a critical part of the celebration, are like the Super Bowl to a cook, requiring extensive planning, preparation, and, in some cases, training (like the year I thought of trying a turducken).Traditionally, nearly every item on my holiday menu was made from scratch, including the cranberry sauce and gravy. Prep for these meals starts weeks ahead as I set the menu (sides vary from year to year); go grocery shopping at multiple grocery stores and specialty shops; and cook for days on end. But being in an apartment with one fridge, a single oven and limited counter space—as opposed to my marital home with two refrigerators, a freezer chest, double oven and plenty of counter space— makes cooking a holiday meal a daunting task.
I decided to let go of the idea that I had to do it all. My son was coming to celebrate an early Thanksgiving with me and I wanted to include our friends and family to join us. More importantly, I wanted to spend time with them and not feel that I had to do it all myself, especially since my place did not lend itself to marathon cooking sessions. I made the decision to cook the turkey, stuffing and homemade cranberry sauce, as well as provide drinks and appetizers. I asked my guests to provide the traditional sides of vegetables, potatoes (sweet and mashed) and dessert through a Signup Genius, allowing others to share their cooking talents.
Standouts included Pinky’s mac and cheese and Brussel sprout casserole. The preteen daughter of my friends and former neighbors, Jack and Jill, (yes their real names) Pinky took great pride in those two dishes and it was great to see a young person taking pride in her delicious creations. My own sister, who is not known for her cooking prowess, made homemade mashed potatoes that my five-year-old daughter Ilsa declared to be better than mine. In an effort to finish straightening up my place before guest arrived, I turned over preparing the stuffing to my son who was joined by my brother-in-law in assembling the casserole. It was a true team effort as I had prepped all the veggies, Keller sautéed the veggies and browned the sausage for the stuffing and Steve mixed all the ingredients together before putting the casserole in the oven to bake.
So it came to pass that our family Thanksgiving was observed yesterday, not on the traditional third Thursday of November. Any day is a good day to give thanks and break bread with the people you care about most. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to celebrate with friends and family; to have both my children by my side; to have friends who were happy to contribute to the holiday table with creations of their own; and to have a place of my own where people can gather and be connected through a meal prepared by well-meaning hands.