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Staying Home for Thanksgiving, When We’d Rather Not

Staying Home for Thanksgiving, When We’d Rather Not

Laurie Ulster

When I moved to the United States to go to college, I found out just what a big deal Thanksgiving was. Sure we have it in Canada, but my memories of it are of a big, delicious turkey dinner with our family, and little else. I don’t think it’s quite the EVENT it is in the US, partially because the Canadian version is on a Monday, and partially just because, honestly, we’re not as brassy and loud as America, unless you’re at a hockey game. Clichés abound, but let’s face it, there’s some truth in there.

Old Traditions…

I went to college in America, and so did one of my brothers.  I was at NYU and he was at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and we’d fly home for Canadian Thanksgiving in October if we could spare the time, and then again for American Thanksgiving in November. My mom, therefore, made TWO Thanksgiving dinners a year, going all out each time. Looking back, I wonder if I ever told her how much I appreciated it. 

Time went on. We graduated. My brother moved back home to Toronto and I stayed in New York. Years have passed… My mom moved to British Columbia. She died in 2013, so of course I’m wishing I could remember something about our last Thanksgiving together, all four of us with her, maybe with our spouses, but I don’t remember… I had long stopped going home for Canadian Thanksgiving by the time we were all married.

…And New Ones

A new tradition started. We would go to my dad’s in Manhattan. My dad and his husband Michael are true New Yorkers and 364 days of the year, they eat their meals out. But once a year, for Thanksgiving, Michael makes an extravagant Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey is always cooked to perfection, and he inevitably thinks he didn’t quite get it right. There are sides galore, many brought by the guests, and a glorious table is set.

I come with my family, my in-laws join us, my sister and her girlfriend (now wife) come when they’re not booked elsewhere, and my father invites the friends he has in the city who are too far away from their families to go home. Occasionally I’ve added a few to the list myself. And it’s always been lovely. We look forward to it every year.

When I first moved here, I remember my college roommate Kathleen packing up to go home for Thanksgiving, and telling me it would end in disaster, that every year she ended up leaving the table in tears. I subsequently learned that this is a common Thanksgiving experience for many Americans. But I’ve been lucky, it was never like that for me. It was a true celebration of gratitude: Lucky to be together with people I adore, lucky to have good wine and good food, lucky to be a parent and a daughter, lucky to have all that we have. Gratitude abounds. And I‘ve looked forward to it every year, in good times and in bad. I also make a kickass pumpkin cheesecake.

Time for a Change, Like It or Not

This year, as everyone knows, is different. As we edged closer to November, we’ve been worried that the coronavirus would start to affect the holidays with growing dread. We’ve been careful but not extreme: We still go to the grocery store and other stores as we need them, we went on a short (drivable) vacation where we stayed in a self-contained Airbnb, and we enjoy outdoor dining. But at one dinner with my Dad, we finally brought up the topic and reached the sad conclusion that this year, it just doesn’t make sense to do it. We barely had to say it out loud… the look in our eyes said it all.

This year, we are not getting together in a big group (usually about 15, sometimes more) for a feast of gratitude and good company. It’s not even to protect dad & Michael, who are 78 but the most active of any of us. They’re the ones who still find safe ways to travel, who are taking advantage of the NYC museums, who are out in the park every day, even in the cold.

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But with numbers rising across the country, a surge upon us, and the weather getting colder and forcing all the outdoor people in, it just seems like the wrong move. Sitting inside packed in around a table, laughing and eating, feels like a bad choice this year. Maybe we’re being over-cautious: None of us are sick, some of us have been tested at various times for various reasons, and we’re all washing our hands and wearing masks when we’re out. But we knew. We all knew.

Making the Best of It

“It’s only one Thanksgiving,” my friend Brian said the other day, and while he’s right, it’s still hard. We’re giving up something deeply personal, an event we all look forward to, at a time we need it most. It would be easy to sit here and mope about it, but instead we’ve decided to make it our own, just this one time.

My husband will teach my 17-year-old son how to cook a turkey breast. We’ll get chicken drumsticks for my 13-year-old daughter, the fussy eater who doesn’t really like turkey. The boys will make the sides. I’ll still make my pumpkin cheesecake. We’ll have a much more intimate dinner this year, and yes, it’ll be the same four people who share the table every night, but it’ll be grand and celebratory in its own way. My son starts college next year, so this the last one he won’t have to travel for. Maybe this is the Thanksgiving we were meant to have.

But next year? I want it to be EPIC.

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