Giving Thanks, and Showing It

For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has alienated me.

Not on purpose, of course. Human constructs such as holidays cannot target individuals, and even if they could, I like to believe Thanksgiving — so warm, so food-filled — would not partake in that endeavor. Still, for most of my life, I have felt somewhat isolated during Thanksgiving.

My parents and I do not celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family. Neither my mom nor dad grew up in our current home, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Our relatives dot the country, with clusters in California and Florida. We never travel to visit them on Thanksgiving, nor do they flock to us. It would take too much money, too much time, too much hassle — so we stay in Shaker, Mommy, Daddy and me.

That still surprises some of my friends. Every year in November, I hear peers chattering about their holiday plans. Road trips to Grandma’s house, a family splurge to Italy, feasts with aunts and uncles and cousins who all live within an hour of one another — and then there’s my family. My parents and I comprise a nuclear unit, both in the traditional vernacular sense and in the sense of our intense closeness. I am an only child; my mother had a one percent chance of conceiving me; both she and my father are instinctive Jewish Mothers, born to raise offspring. Their love and devotion to me has never wavered, and once I grew old enough to appreciate their care, my reverence and gratitude established themselves just as firmly.

Still, I have always harbored a tinge of jealousy for my friends with larger Thanksgiving plans. I love my family — my aunts and uncles, my cousins tall and small, my grandma while she lived. I wish I saw them more often. My parents and I have attended generous friends’ Thanksgiving dinners, and while I have enjoyed the familial sentiment around me then, I have always known the family hosting me was not mine. It’s a double-edged emotion — appreciation for the family temporarily adopting us, coupled with envy over my friend passing mashed potatoes to her aunt. That simple,even tedious task is one I’ve never been able to perform.

This year’s Thanksgiving unfolded like the past ones, with one important difference: I travelled for the holiday. For the first time since I began college, I went home.

Driving into Shaker Heights at one o’clock Thursday morning, I was overwhelmed, and not merely by fatigue. I teared up when we rolled up to my house. I let loose dry sobs when I picked up my cat. I cried when, at last, I laid down on my bed.

But more than my possessions and accessories, my parents lifted my emotions. When my train stopped — after a three-hour delay — in Pittsburgh, I got off with no stronger feeling than relief that my ride had ended. Pittsburgh looked familiar, matching my past memories of the city, but stirred no strong emotions in me. It wasn’t Shaker Heights or Cleveland — it was a two and a half hour drive to my home.

So how did I get home two minutes later?

Simple: my parents were waiting at the end of the platform.

When I saw my mom and dad standing together, huddled in puffy jackets to keep back the cold air, my heart swelled. The air’s chill disappeared. Warmth simmered, then bubbled throughout my body, finally settling down when a smile crossed my face.

During the four days I spent home during Thanksgiving break, that smile — that warmth — hardly faded. My parents and I saw “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” — me for the second time, them for the first. We ate my mother’s delectable pot roast. They laughed at me while I fawned over my cat. We went to Thanksgiving dinner at our close friends’ house, us three alone with my friend and her parents and her sister and her aunt and her uncle and her cousin and grandparents.

The same situation that had made me so jealous in years past spurred no such reaction this time. Nothing fazed my warmth. If anything, I felt luckier— Thanksgiving dinner didn’t mark separation from my family; it gave me more people to love. Our lack of relation didn’t matter at all.

Because of that, I think — for the first time — this year, I understood Thanksgiving. The holiday’s name only hints at its purpose. If we only had to express gratitude, we could celebrate Thanksgiving alone, on any day. But we don’t. Instead, we make pilgrimages by bus and train to see our loved ones. We labor in kitchens to cook turkeys and pies and other favorite dishes. We hold hands and share smiles. College students let their parents tease them for one night more; kindergarteners may get an extra forkful — even two — of pumpkin pie. Through the arguments and mouthfuls we enjoy one another’s company, family and friends alike.

We don’t just give thanks — we show it. We act on our thanks by expanding our families.

It happens without us noticing, just as it should. When people invite loved ones to eat in their dining rooms, home grows. When those guests bring dishes of their own to share, home swells. When people have conversations at the dinner table, home becomes larger still.

By building those homes on Thanksgiving — every person has her own — we give ourselves more to be thankful for. My home is my parents, every day of the year. But on Thanksgiving, my friend’s family joins that home, too. That growth of home — that extension of love — sustained my smile throughout my break.

Although I still wish I saw my relatives more often, I no longer feel Thanksgiving envy. Some homes are large, and some small; some require bricks, others wood. The family get-togethers my friends describe aren’t the “right’ homes, like I thought. They’re just homes — my friends’, not mine. My home is smaller and simpler than most, with different decorations and probably fewer members. It alone fills me with that all-consuming warmth I felt on the platform. Given the chance, I wouldn’t change my home for anything.

I know now that I have never been isolated on Thanksgiving. Rather, I’ve been luckier than most. Every year, my parents and I have built a new home from our strong base — each as warm and welcoming as the last.