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.

Three

For Meema, with love.

***

I tried to write about my grandmother’s death three times.

The first time, I tried to write about her photograph. As we set up shiva the day after Yom Kippur, I found pictures of Meema that Daddy had lain out. The glassy paper atop the pile toppled me, and I trembled into a seat on the nearby sofa. I sank into the white, dusty cushions as Meema laughed, lips her trademark shade of fluorescent pink, hair the color of sterling, framing the crinkles around her cocoa eyes. Meema was known for two looks: one of adulation, and one of disgust. This photo carried the former. She stood against a pale desert sky, sun searing the sands, but Meema lit the picture. The sun bowed and let her brighten the world.

When I saw that photograph I breathed in, out, out, in, trying to keep steady before collapsing into a lake. But I looked back at her smile, the look she always gave me, and dove into the water. It was an ocean, a warm one, not a lake after all; as I let its drops bathe me I lipped salt. A constant in and out – salt dries me, water replenishes. I set my Meema onto the stubby coffee table, sunk into the couch and cleaned myself in the ocean, hearing its droplets land in pitter-pats beside me. As the ocean seeped from my eyes, the red hue defacing my brown orbs dissipated. I came up for air from the water minutes later, with Mommy’s weight familiar on the plain cushion next to me. I jerked away from her outstretched hand and ran from the beach. I didn’t look back – looking would mean explaining, and explaining would mean knowing, and I had just washed that from myself.

The second time I tried to write about Meema, I thought about the call. Daddy’s cell phone, encased in pink rubber for which the store sold no alternative, buzzed in his pocket as he picked apart my essay. It was my college essay, and it seemed to throb with importance, beaming with the brightness of the future it could grant me. But the phone shone through Daddy’s pants pocket, and he set down my essay to answer it.

“Hey, Tom… Yeah. I was going to go down – Damn. Okay.”

I clenched.

“Okay, well if I have to come early, I will… Okay. Yeah.”

I stared at his tapping fingers.

“Love you. Let me know.”

Daddy hung up the phone and bent down, breathing the earth beneath our house’s paltry floors before he faced me. “She’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s just crashed. Her blood sugar, her heartbeat – everything they can measure. It’s just crashing.”

I envisioned my Meema’s innards attacking each other, battling the great war they had threatened so often before. Organs, vessels, cells crumbled upon impact and Meema’s body crashed to the ground. Her soul hovered, shocked at its own demise, unsure where to go.

I darted downstairs and found Mommy in her usual seat in the den, cozy with a mug of tea and dark green leather cushions. “Tom called,” I said, and spilled out the rest. I returned upstairs and she followed me, and we sat next to Daddy, who didn’t want to be touched.

The phone rang again, burning the room.

“Hey, Tom… Okay. Damn.”

The clock blared 10:20 p.m. when I buried my head in my hands. I tried to compress my body into a shell so I could hold Meema’s soul within me, and pull her back down to earth where she belonged.

“—We’ll talk about that later. Love you. I’ve gotta go now… I’m okay. But my daughter just lost her grandmother.”

At the confirmation I wailed, and felt warm arms around me. They lifted me up although I wished with all my might to crash down.

The third time Meema plagued my mind, I tried to write about us. I typed out vague memories about my infancy, when she let me chase her in her size-four high heels. I relived stronger memories – when I was seven years old and hated strangers, and she was my only relative who never made me hug her. I was young and shy and picky, but she trusted me to grow without her help. I did grow up, and began hugging her on my own accord whenever I could. The first time she asked me to hug her was a month before her death, when she declared her lack of personhood and could barely sit up anymore. I hugged her and lifted her to wipe shit off her nightdress, and I helped her reach her keyboard so she could play for me. She could not walk or bathe or eat or drink or hear or shit into a toilet, but she played “Getting to Know You” note-for-note, in perfect rhythm. Through her deafness, I sang along.

That last time Daddy and I saw her was a five-day trip. Every day we went to see Meema, still stubbornly living alone, and every day she turned us away. I’m too tired, she said, can you come later? She was always asleep later. She said this, too, the last time we saw her, the last day of our last trip to see my last grandparent. When we said we couldn’t come back later, her face fell. I’m sorry, she said, I wish I could be with you, but I can’t. She gave us both her love and held our hands before looking straight at me. I’ll come visit you, she said, I promise. Then she fell back asleep. Daddy and I put her hands by her side, left her apartment and collapsed in the hallway, like bawling children. She always kept her word, but I knew she would not visit me.

The fourth time I wrote this, because I needed to write about her. She with the smile that outshone the sun, the revolted frown that marred her last face – she had no clue how to die. The pint-sized woman who trusted children and their naivety, who let music dance through her fingers and lips. Meema is not a photograph or a death, or even memories that traipse through my mind at inopportune moments, dunking me again into that plaguing ocean. She is all of that, a whole, a heartbeat in a vast web of lives, and she is the steady fingers that hold my hand while I quake at night.