Every year, when discussing the coming holidays, inevitably someone I know offers up a variation of the same tribal chestnut with a grimace or groan: “Yeah, we’re going to spend time with so-and-so. What can you do? They’re family!” And every year my inner organs squeeze with indignation, warring parts of me pressed between sharp edges of obligation that dig in deep. Every family and its drama is unique. Some families fight and forgive, create mayhem with the mashed potatoes and then make up by the time dessert is served. Other families’ anguish simmers slowly all year, for years on end, and explodes its molten realities like a suddenly uncorked bottle of champagne.
I come from the simmering sort. Last year, when I spent the day cooking alone like the Little Red Hen who bakes her bread without any help, my father and siblings celebrating elsewhere, waiting for just my mom and her husband—both depressed for different reasons—to arrive just in time to eat, a bubble of desire formed in my mind: What if next year I don’t have to feel so lonely? What if, next year, we just go away? One part of me felt that abandoning the traditional Thanksgiving was a pipe dream, or a cop out. Another part slapped on the lash of obligation and pushed the thought away. If we went away, we would make people sad, this fearful voice said.
And yet, if I’m honest, since my last grandparents passed away, and Thanksgiving attendance has whittled down in number, I’ve dreamt of a holiday with just friends and our children, an ersatz family cobbled together out of adults who are tired of making nice or wishing things were different. But every year the tidal pull of family draws everyone their own way and I go on wishing.
This year, however, that voice wouldn’t stop speaking to me. When I came up for a visit with my father and siblings and surprise drama ensued, it was right there with me: Do your own thing, it kept on whispering. You’re a grown up.
While most people are just getting started on Halloween festivities, I texted my husband my thoughts. “Want to go away for Thanksgiving? Feast on the beach? Just be together this year?”
The moment my husband’s enthusiastic yes returned, I felt instantly lighter, unaware that I’d been carrying this psychic weight.
At 41 years old, I have finally realized: I am the grown up now. A grown woman with my own family, small as we may be, I don’t have to wait for permission to be happy. I don’t have to sing the sanguine song of the martyr. I don’t have to sit around waiting for things to be different. I can rewrite the story altogether.
So this Thanksgiving, instead of cooking mostly alone in my kitchen after weeks of stressful communication about who will or won’t be going where, I’ll be eating pumpkin pie and turkey sandwiches on the beach with my husband and 7-year-old son. Or we might be playing in icy Pacific waves and watching our son’s pale cheeks pink up in the winter air, which is never very cold in California. If it’s raining, we’ll sit in our ocean view hotel room or maybe find a restaurant that’s open and huddle together over warm plates in each other’s good company. I won’t feel sad. I won’t feel guilty.
This will be the first year in my memory that our holiday plans are driven by pure, sweet choice. This year, I won’t be worried about hurt feelings. I won’t wonder what better dish I’m missing at the other house. I won’t try to tune out fears of less than kind things being said about me, driven by assumptions no one has bothered to corroborate with me. I won’t stuff down my real feelings beneath a second helping of pie.
This year I will spend Thanksgiving in gratitude for the two people I most adore, and I’ll savor every moment.