I was watching a commercial the other day that portrayed a large family gathering around a white-clothed table, setting down heaping casserole dishes and pulling up their chairs to eat. Steam rising from the table. Smiles all around. I thought to myself, "My Thanksgiving has never looked like that."
When I was growing up and my parents were still together, Thanksgiving was a time to visit extended family who had no idea how tough things really were. It was a time for my mom's tight-lipped smiles, my dad's boisterous laugh that masked so much. From the backseat, I'd catch them holding hands in the car console on the ride to my great aunt's home in the country. It felt like an attempt at normalcy. We'd sit on the porch with styrofoam plates balanced in our laps and I'd wonder how long the feelings of good cheer would last on the ride home.
Once my parents divorced, Thanksgiving was something that alternated from year to year between them. I measured the time that had passed by who I was with and who I wasn't for the holiday that year. My relatives on both sides would comment how much my sister and I had grown, since they only saw us every two years.
One year, when I was a junior in high school, my Thanksgiving did look a little like that commercial. I was with my mom that year and we were celebrating at my grandmother's house. I remember attempting to make a pecan pie and it turned out badly. I probably cried. I think I had this deep-rooted fear of failure back then. We sat around a cranberry-colored tablecloth with all the typical dishes, but the cohesion was missing. My custody hearing was scheduled for Monday and it hung in the air around us. I was 16, finally legal and strong enough to leave my mom's toxic home. That night, my grandmother told me I must be brainwashed for wanting to leave and prayed over me to try to curse the devil out of me. I sat through it, paralyzed, then found solace in the bathroom afterward. My mom found me there and yelled at me for leaving the room and "disrespecting" my grandmother. I cried myself to sleep in my grandmother's bed with her next to me.
Thanksgiving was better after that. I got to celebrate it with my dad, stepmom and stepbrothers. “Step” is a word that is foreign to me because they are closer to me than some of my blood relatives. I returned to the country porch and the styrofoam plates, but it felt real. I wasn't tense about how the mood might change once we weren't around our extended family. We were just ourselves.
For last year, this year and the next two years, Thanksgiving will be the first time during the semester that I get to drive 800 miles home for the week to see my family. It's something I both look forward to and get nervous about during the fall because things aren't perfect. Or great. There's a lot of division and conflict that doesn't seem like it will ever resolve. I'm able to escape it in some ways while I'm at school, but the reality hits me when I come home and have to face it. I think the hard part of a blended family is the baggage that comes with it. Divorce is never clean.
I'm writing this because I don't actually have it all figured out. But I guess my advice to myself is to take breaks. Find a bathroom for a quick cry or breather between servings of turkey. But don't let the weight of the conflict impact your relationships with your family members who aren't causing it. Take advantage of the time you spend with them. I'm in a family of seven people and so I strive to be intentional about spending one-on-one time with each parent and sibling. Be open about your feelings of worry when you can and try not to dwell on the negative parts so you don't miss an opportunity to be thankful for the positive memories when they arrive.