As a Jewish kid growing up in Staten Island, my favorite thing about Thanksgiving was the no-strings-attached days off from school. Most of our “no school” days were in observance of Jewish festivals such as Rosh Hashana or Pesach, but those days were holy and, as on Shabbat, we didn’t drive, use electricity or talk on the phone. We’d dress in festive clothes, eat traditional Jewish food, go to synoaguge and hang out with our friends which was great and all, but nothing like Thanksgiving which was like two Sundays in a row. It was also the single holiday we celebrated that had nothing to do with our religion.
I say “celebrated”, but actually we didn’t have any Thanksgiving traditions. Our house wasn’t decorated with autumnal colors, no cornucopia on the table. We never had the stuffing, corn bread, pumpkin pie or even turkey I’d seen on sitcoms and television commercials. I didn’t even know what stuffing was. Thanksgiving was just a regular, old dinner at my grandparents second floor walk-up in Canarsie, Brooklyn were all of the furniture- and much of the carpet- was covered with heavy gauge plastic that had once been transparent but had aged to a yellowish-grey. They were Eastern European Holocaust survivors and didn’t need a special day to remind them of how thankful they were to the United States for giving them a second chance at living.
The meal would be warm and filling, but indistinct from dinner on any other night. Whether it was Thanksgiving or a random Sunday, we were served 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.
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. 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 before 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 (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, 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 and by the year after that we’d be living in the UK.
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. 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. 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 snuck to 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 cleared her throat, stalling, 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 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 and as he took in what she was saying his face gradually drained of color.
After hanging up, he 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. 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 and tried to stay in the moment rather than the near future which would involve all sorts of medical procedures.
Every Thanksgiving since then been filled with food, friends, laughter and our new family traditions, albeit in London where we now live. They’ve also been filled with a deep gratitude for being alive. Maybe I think of that Thursday evening in 2008 as the worst only in comparison to all of the Thanksgivings that came after what had been a near burst with death. All I know is that ever since then, I’ve been so much more mindful of the many things I have to be thankful for, even on days when neither cranberry sauce nor sweet potato-marshmallow soufflé are on the menu.