We never really had any longstanding Thanksgiving traditions when I was growing up. We weren’t that family. I don’t even think we ate turkey. There were no rustic, autumnal colors, no cornucopia on the table. It was just dinner at my grandparents who were post war immigrants from Eastern Europe. The meal would be warm and filling, but indistinct from dinner on any other night. Whether it was Thanksgiving or a random Sunday, you were getting my grandmother’s minestrone soup which was so thick you needed a fork and knife to eat it and came with a 100% guarantee that you’d get indigestion. Still, there was something about this time of year that I’ve always loved. Crisp air, crunchy leaves, the promise of snow, chunky wool sweaters and the knowledge that Chanuka was approaching.
In high school I entered my ‘get as far away from my parents as possible” phase and spent Thanksgivings at my best friend who lived in Brooklyn, a 45-minute drive and a toll bridge away from Staten Island where my parents were. If I had friends who lived farther away I’d probably have gone to them.
I remember the Thanksgivings I spent at my friend’s parent’s table as very happy times, more for the acceptance bestowed upon me than anything specifically holiday- related. We shared the same brand of sarcastic humor and I felt understood. My friend’s birthday is at the end of November so in addition to the sweet potato pie and stuffing, there were party hats and frosted cake, too.
My college years were overshadowed by my mother’s breast cancer which she endured for two years until dying at the end of my junior year. I have zero recollection of where I spent Thanksgivings while I was a student or the few years after graduation when I lived on the Upper West Side as a real grown up. Those years were a blur.
Until I met Phil.
It was September 1997, I was 23 and we fell for hard for each other (I know, insert barf emoji here). Two months later we took the bus together from New York City to southern New Jersey to have the first of what would be many Thanksgiving dinners at his parents’ house. The food, décor and ambiance (wood burning fire place! Bloody Marys with actual celery sticks in them!) were straight out of the movies and like nothing I’d ever seen before. There was nowhere better to be on the last Thursday in November.
Each year we’d return with me holding a tiny baby either in my arms or in my belly, depending what part of the biannual baby production cycle we were in, to stuff ourselves silly and pass out on the cozy couches.
The year my two oldest were 2 and 4 years old, we took a family photo on the winding staircase in the center hall and it became a tradition we’d repeat every year as our family grew. The accompanying photo is the last such photo we ever took because it was the last Thanksgiving we ever spent at my in-laws. I had no way of knowing that the following year we’d be in our own house celebrating what I now refer to as The Worst Thanksgiving Ever.
I say it was the worst, but it was probably lovely. The food was probably great. The mood was probably festive. Only I don’t remember any of it because 15 minutes before we sat down to dinner, I received a phone call with news that completely blindsided me.
It was November 27, 2008, four days since I returned home after a successful preventative double mastectomy. Plastic tubing coming out of my upper and lower torso led post-surgical fluid away from my body and into lemon-sized rubber receptacles which had to be emptied a few times a day, their output recorded to monitor my healing progress. The liquid looked like very dark urine. It was gross. I had sutures and bandages everywhere, a weird bra stuffed with protective gauze and limited range of motion. The only clothes I could wear were leggings and oversized zip up hoodies. I looked like a walking science fair project, but, I reminded myself the worst was behind me.
I was in no condition to take a 45-minute car ride with our kids who were 1,3,5 and 7 years old at the time so rather than skipping Thanksgiving that year Phil’s mom kindly brought Thanksgiving to us. She left nothing out. By the time she was done setting my dining room table, it looked exactly like hers always did, complete with ceramic turkey figurines and old projects that Phil and his brothers had made in pre-school.
While she toiled in my kitchen and the kids ran rampant, hyped up on candies that their grandparents secretly gave them before dinner, Phil and I were up in our bedroom, enjoying a quiet moment of reflection. We were about to start the difficult process of navigating my stitched up body down the staircase for the first time since I’d gotten home when the phone rang. It was my breast surgeon and my first thought was “Now THAT is top quality patient care, calling me on Thanksgiving eve to check on me.”
“Happy Thanksgiving!” I practically sang into the phone. Her voice, however, was not cheery. It was hesitant. She hemmed and hawed and cleared her throat until she finally told me that the pathology report showed two tiny cancers on my right breast. That opting to undergo the surgery saved my life. I felt my body fizzing with terror. I didn’t hear anything she said after that. I knew she was talking to me but she sounded like that teacher in Charlie Brown- “Wa-wa- wawawawa-wah-wa-wa-wa”. I handed the phone to Phil, my signal that his lawyerly ability to absorb information accurately was needed here. His face was totally drained of color.
Phil said “Uh-huh” a lot while writing things down and after he hung up, tried to explain what the next steps would be. I didn’t hear that either.
‘We’ve got to get down to dinner and we’ve got to put on happy faces. I’m not ready to talk about this with anyone yet,” I said.
We hugged, took a deep breath and started the trip down the stairs. I gripped the bannister with both hands while Phil held me from the other side. I had clear visions of me tumbling all the way down, my stitches coming undone. But that didn’t happen. As we joined the party everyone, including my kids, cheered us into the dining room where I gingerly took my seat. And kept a big fat smile plastered to my face.
I suppose it wasn’t the worst Thanksgiving ever, it was just the one during which I FELT the worst. No, that’s not true. I was numb and felt nothing at all.
But I do know this. Every Thanksgiving I’ve had since then has been filled with food, friends, music, and laughter, albeit here in London. They’ve also been filled with a deep gratitude for being alive. So maybe I refer to that Thursday in 2008 as the worst only in comparison to all of the Thanksgivings that came after it, the ones that came after life kicked me in the ass and taught me a lesson. The ones I appreciate more and more each year, even when I’m sitting at my kitchen table in London having takeout with my kids while our family and friends in New Jersey tuck into a feast for kings, I’m so grateful.