I’ve been missing family Thanksgivings and Christmases for much longer than I ever participated in them. Over the years since I moved away from my hometown, I’ve gone back for a few, one or the other, never both in the same year. Thirty years ago when I worked on ships I think I missed five years in a row.
I have had lonely holidays and not-so-lonely holidays and holidays with lonely people. I’ve done the “orphan” Thanksgivings. I’ve done Thanksgivings with elderly relatives where we all thought back to holidays past with twenty or more gathered around the table while we ate our Boston Market meal.
Kids grow up and people scatter. They start new families and new traditions. People die and take their recipes with them. The table sometimes gets smaller.
The year my mother died, two of my longest-time friends came down to stay with me at Christmas. A kindness that did not go unnoted. This year, her mother passed but we are 4,000 miles apart and I cannot return the favor on the holiday. If the fates are willing, we will make up the lost time.
This year I am in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I know three English speaking people, all Brits. I went into the next “big” town over, Tavira to a restaurant that I knew had turkey on the menu. I thought ordering a turkey dinner on what was for everyone else just another Thursday would be mildly amusing to me. My little secret. But when I got there, I really wanted a cheeseburger and fries. After a short but lively debate carried out by the voices in my head, that’s what I ordered. And I was happy.
A friend of mine spent his Thanksgiving at a large family gathering of in-laws. He made himself useful cooking the turkeys, then spent the rest of the day making small talk, watching the games, and drinking steadily.
He can be polite; he’s quite skilled at making small talk in social situations (I’m out after three minutes). He understands the social necessity of playing the amiable in-law. It’s part of being in a relationship; part of being in community. If you know him, you can watch him chat with someone and see the restlessness in his eyes. Check the direction of his feet and they are pointed towards the nearest door.
He was one of the friends who checked up on me to see if I had “gotten my turkey.” It’s interesting (to me) that friends and family feel a little sad for you when they find out you didn’t eat the traditional meal, which is code for “spent the holiday alone.” When I told him I’d had a burger and fries he unknowingly summed up his holiday: “There’s something to be said for having what you want.”
Society and relationships (which build society) require us to give sometimes. Enduring eight hours of polite conversation, side stepping landmines with your partner’s family (and for many people, even your own family) is one of those gives. Maybe that’s what the “give” in Thanksgiving really means.
There’s a reason why people have more stress and suicides go up in holiday season. It’s not just the pressure of more to do and the impossible goal of perfection that Currier and Ives and every Hallmark Christmas movie set out for us.
I think part of it is the sameness of the experience: Every year you hear your sister-in-law snipe about your brother. You bite your tongue while your idiot uncle mansplains… well, anything. You are painfully reminded of whatever mistake you made as a kid and you laugh along with everyone thinking for f*cks sake, let it go. (That’s for the sake of many f*cks.) Everyone participates in the tiptoeing around whatever elephant sits at the table uninvited.
The sameness makes us wonder if things will ever change. Is that all there is? Is this how the rest of my life plays out?
We somehow have come to believe that holiday family meals and perhaps even office parties are required, not truly a voluntary gathering.
But people do choose to attend. Sometimes it’s not a task at all—it’s an event looked forward to and enjoyed. Maybe people find comfort in the sameness. The shared times reinforce the relationships; the gatherings build traditions. Other times, attendance is a token of love or respect. Some would like to attend but are unable due to geography or economics. And some choose not to attend, either gracefully with a socially acceptable and plausible lie or less gracefully, with great drama and years of built-up hurt.
* * * *
We make choices all the time. Some are small: “I’ll have the burger, please.” Some are life changing: “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
One thing leads to another and another and another. Sometimes we watch the dominoes of our life fall with a detached curiosity. Many people are passive victims: “It’s the way of the world. What can I do about it?” That’s a choice.
Some see the dominoes fall and decide to change their course. They catch the pattern, see which domino they can move out of line soonest, and stop the chain reaction.
We make choices. Some of those choices put us in a box. Some free us up. Some of us make choices we sometimes regret and, if we’re lucky, at some point after that, we’re glad we made it. The decision to start my own business at the age of 22 instead of moving into a “real career” was one that took a long time to feel confident about. It led to a lifetime of entrepreneurial ventures, some good, some not so good. But it also led to a lifetime of experiences and adventures that I never would have had if I had opted for a “good job with benefits.” A thing that many people of my generation saw evaporate in front of their eyes. It led to me being free to work from anywhere in the world. I didn’t know that would be the result 40 years ago. Yet here I sit in Rome, my fingers on the keyboard.
Sometimes the choice is made for us. I guess I think mostly of a few old “loves” when I say this. I might have been heartbroken at the time, but looking back, I can clearly see that we would have been a very bad combination. More than that, I can truly say I love seeing old boyfriends with the person who is the right choice for them.
Life flexes. A bad decision today could be rectified by a good decision tomorrow. That wall of your box that you hit face first at the holidays might not even be noticeable the rest of the year. Maybe the walls of your box grow farther apart as the years pass. Your box gets bigger; you run up against the walls less often. Sometimes the walls make you feel safe. Sometimes the walls close in.
Everyone’s box is different. It can be your cubicle at a job you hate but need (right now). It can be the micro-economy that you built by starring in a hit TV show. If you quit, if you fail, a hundred people lose their jobs and unlike the celebrity, they don’t have millions of dollars in the bank and a fistful of offers. You can have a luxury box with walls that are so beautifully decorated people don’t even know they are walls. But you do.
Within those boxes we build our own walls. We are our own labyrinth. It can be hard to find your way out. We get turned around, confused, have decision fatigue, choose the path of least resistance because some days, just surviving on this dangerous planet takes everything we have.
But the walls we build we can tear down. We can uncheck the box we put ourselves in, if not immediately, we can at least start the reversal.
The choice is yours. I made my choices. They all had upsides and downsides. But I am happy.