“What’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory?” someone asked me last week.
I thought for a moment. “You know, I don’t really know,” I answered—in a tone that left the impression that there were so many good ones, I couldn’t possibly choose among them.
But I did know. So why couldn’t I say it? I could have lied and said the first Thanksgiving that I spent with my husband’s family—a boisterous, happy crowd that filled tables in three rooms. I could have chosen one of the Thanksgivings with great friends—a biracial couple who took in all the strays whose families were too far away. Or I could have chosen last year, when my husband and I had a long weekend alone without the busy-ness of life. I did love those Thanksgivings, and the images are vivid when I play them again on the back of my closed eyelids.
But I haven’t spent any of those Thanksgivings with my daughter, the greatest gift of my life. Her father and I separated before she was four-years-old. And I was so angry at first that I told him, “You can have her for Thanksgiving, but you’re never getting her for Christmas.” Thanks to a good therapist, I let that anger go and relented, sharing the greatest joy of our lives with the dad who loved her as much as I did.
Because I was able to spend so much time with our girl, it made sense for her to spend Thanksgiving with her father. So over the years my Thanksgivings have been spent with other people I love, though I have had many, many moments of time with her for which I am thankful.
So while I’ve never said this to a single person until this moment, my favorite Thanksgiving of my life so far was my first one as a mother. We had moved to Maryland by then, but her dad’s family lived in West Virginia, and one of her aunts lived in Alabama. So that Thanksgiving, we bundled our daughter into the car and drove nine hours to a mountain chalet in Gatlinburg, Tennessee so that she could meet her three cousins for the first time.
Her grandmother made what came to be known as Granny’s rolls—yeasty, buttery rolls that filled the chalet with the smell of home. She roasted a turkey and made her sage stuffing and cranberry relish in spite of a kitchen that was woefully inadequate. I had the luxury of sitting at the bar, watching her make the rolls and writing down the things she did that no recipe could convey—coating her hands in shortening, rolling the dough into a ball and shaping it over the knuckles of her thumb and index finger. While I learned to make the world’s best dinner rolls, my daughter’s cousins sat cross-legged on the floor around her, delighted to have the cousin they’d waited so long to have.
So, yes, though her dad and I divorced, I still remember those first two Thanksgivings with his family as the most joyful of my life. And this year, as I texted with her aunt who has been my life-long friend about how to make a stuffing that can never quite approximate her mom’s, I’m glad that at some point we were able to move beyond being families torn apart by the anger of divorce.
Few people understand it when my former sister-in-law and I can talk for hours on the phone. So we’ve both taken to referring to each other as friends—which we are—instead of trying to explain how we became friends in the first place. We can talk about how we both miss her mom, who taught me to be adventurous with a good recipe—to make it my own by adding a spice here and a secret ingredient there.
And though our paths have diverged, my daughter brings us back together for the important times in her life. And my thankfulness for that doesn’t diminish my gratitude for the family and friends I’ve gained after they were no longer my family.
So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that we don’t have to have lives that are dictated by stereotypes about divorce and marriage, family and love. And while I don’t have memories of noisy family gatherings, as I do for Christmas, Thanksgiving is still one of my favorite holidays. I love it because it doesn’t belong to Christian or Muslim or Jew. I love it in spite of knowing that the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans is romanticized. But this most American of holidays belongs to us all—this tale of vastly different cultures coming together despite their differences, despite stereotypes, despite what the world expects.
So what’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory?