Contrary to what scientists have told us about the psychological makeup of a turkey, I believe this bird feels a fair amount of pressure in November. The poor guy has enough to bear, what with that hideous piece of skin flopping around below his chin and the whole missed opportunity as America’s national bird. November, or earlier for those fowl friends headed for the frozen meat case, brings all the stress of when that axe is going to drop.
For Tom Turkey, the anxiety comes to an end before the actual Thanksgiving feast. For me, the harvest holiday represents decades of agitation over making the parental units happy.
As a product of divorce, I’ve been challenged by Turkey Day since I was 11, bouncing between my parents’ homes from year to year. Each holiday meal has had the sweet of good times with one side of the family with the sour of the other side feeling pained without me being there. Even in my teen/early-20s years when my dark moods could eclipse the sunshine of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the left-out contingent would exclaim, “But I miss your scowling face at my table.”
So I’ve attempted to make it up to whoever doesn’t get me by doing some combination of awkward apology, attendance for a pre- or post-Thanksgiving makeup dinner, a drop-by for dessert, or just a guilt-ridden phone call.
I know none of my parents intended for me to be in the middle of an annual November custody battle, but the pushing and pulling happens nonetheless. It usually leaves me feeling like the Scarecrow of Wizard of Oz fame – my stuffing (turkey pun intended) gets scattered.
Once Wendy and I became a couple, the tug-of-war over my Thanksgiving family allegiance added a third direction as my in-laws vied for our attendance at their table. They’ve been gracious enough to invite my parents to join the meal on numerous occasions, which in turn has encouraged my folks to do the same. While that’s happened a few times, various factors have prevented it from being a regular thing. Even when we’ve ventured to combine all the parents at our home, it hasn’t worked out to be the complete family picture that makes everyone, let alone me, feel right. Let’s just say, the scene has been more Jackson Pollock than Norman Rockwell.
Actually, when it comes to Thanksgiving and family, nothing is regular. Over the past 30-plus years, marriages, divorces, and moves to other states have changed the cast of characters and made the holiday gathering look like a biological cell that divides, multiplies, and subtracts.
Now that my own nuclear family has grown, the concern for my sense of unity at the festival table has turned outward. The funny thing is, my kids could care less.
For my sons, Thanksgiving is not about what’s missing at the table – unless it’s candied yams, the lack of which has been known to cause them to riot. To them, the ever-changing groups of relatives makes the holiday more interesting, not depressing. They’ve never known it any other way than to have a Lazy Susan-style schedule of meals in which they cycle through each set of grandparents.
Largely because of the divorce after-effects, I never wanted my children to feel responsible for making a whole out of a segmented family experience. My wife and I have used good luck and hard work in our marriage and family experience to give our kids something connected in a world of increasing splintered parts.
All of this being said, my children, in fact most kids, have amazing powers of stitching together the good parts of a family situation such as a divided holiday. It’s the adults, like me, who have the difficulties. Rather than worry over what’s missing, I need to see what and who is right there in front of me or else no Thanksgiving can ever feel fulfilling.
As usual, I’ve learned this lesson from my sons. To them, the Thanksgiving tradition involves rotating around to the various grandparents who love them dearly. At Bubbie and Zaydie’s, there’s the chance to eat lemon mold before going off to wreak havoc in the play room. At Nana and Papa’s, it’s about the joys of the kids’ table followed by the hugs from the grown-ups’ section. At Grandma Judi and Great-Grandma Jenny’s, it’s about a road trip to Arizona for enough grandma kisses to last a year.
It all works together to create a different kind of whole for my boys. Because of their appreciation for what they see as variety where I had seen chaos, my days of feeling something’s missing at the holiday are fading. For this, I am truly thankful.