I don’t have a lot of memories of Thanksgiving from my childhood. In fact, there is only one Thanksgiving that stands out and I was already an adult. My mother was living in her apartment in Queens and we were cramped into her tiny dining room around the big table that sat much more comfortably in our old house. I suppose she had a connection to this furniture because it represented a little piece of the life she left behind and because it was one of the rare expensive items she procured while she was still married to my father. Most of the items in the old house were sold at a yard sale or tossed out in order for her to make a clean start in her new home.
This holiday was one of the few occasions I recall my brother, sister and I being together as adults. My mother usually made a half-hearted attempt to pull us together – especially when we were older – but, invariably, someone was not speaking to the other or we were celebrating elsewhere. Throughout much of high school and college, I desperately sought refuge at my friends’ homes in order to escape the dysfunction of my family. I certainly wished for opportunities for us to come together to play out my fantasies of a happy family but our dysfunction would always leak through. We could not hide how broken we were and, as hard as we might have individually tried, there was no space for compassion, empathy or kindness. Our family was dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest. Last man standing. It was a requirement for our survival to take the others down. Every occasion resulted in fighting, tears, mayhem. We simply did not have the mechanisms to join together and find gratitude and love for one another. We had so much pain to sort through and our mixture created a chemical reaction that was explosive and harmful.
The last Thanksgiving I had with any of my family members was in 2000 – the year my older son was born. He was just a month old and I was still basking in the glow of new motherhood. I had a protective coating that shielded me from any of the typical drama. I was focused on only one thing – my gratitude for this child. My euphoria for the intangible gifts he offered when he entered my life. I sat at the head of the table that day, holding him in my lap and just soaked in my surroundings. I was peaceful because I knew I was creating a new reality for myself and committed to providing him with a completely different experience than my own. I don’t think I was truly capable of understanding at that time how much everything changed in that moment. Even though I was happy on that day, I did not have the perspective to see that I had taken a detour in my journey. I was walking down a new road that might have looked similar to the old one but was definitely different. It was a new pathway and, if followed correctly, I would arrive at a new destination. However, I am a creature of habit. I like familiarity. Each and every time I noticed that the road looked different, rather than embracing the change, I struggled to get back on a path I knew. Despite my desire for new outcomes, I was afraid to stray too far from what I knew. I was not really ready to explore these unchartered waters.
Over the years, I have struggled with letting go of the memories of my childhood holidays that are seared deep within me. And, while I have not understood that I was psychically battling the forks in the road that offered me new lanes to travel, I consciously told myself to let go and accept that I now have a loving family and that is all that matters. I have carried around this idyllic vision of what holidays should be rather than accept that, whatever it is my family is doing together, is the perfect way to celebrate. Whether there are 4 people around the table or 40, the fact that we can sit with one another, filled with love and appreciation, we are blessed and have all the makings for a beautiful celebration. Intellectually I know this to be true but, emotionally, I still struggle with putting a premium on joy. The antithesis of what I had seemed so large, so magnificent. In fact, it is simple. Joy does not require big, gift-wrapped packages. Sometimes, it is the small token that sits quietly to the side that sparkles the brightest, that holds the greatest value.
Last year was a terrible Thanksgiving for me – and a turning point. I was battling a bad case of depression and could not appreciate the bounty of my family. I was unconsciously traveling back down the other road. I was replaying the familiar instead of braving the new course. There were three people around me who loved me unconditionally. Three people who wanted only to be with me. Three people who felt complete with me rounding out as the fourth. They didn’t care what we did, who we did it with, what it looked like. They craved the simple pleasure of turning off the rest of the world and being grateful for that moment, that treasure that is our family. I was too dark and too lost to embrace that or engage. I was broken down and wallowing in sadness and pain rather than valuing and appreciating all the gifts that life has brought me.
This year, I worried that the onset of the holidays might bring me back to that place. I feared that I would fall into that same trap of looking at the lack rather than acknowledging the abundance. Often, the holidays are a time of mourning for me rather than a celebration because I can’t help but recognize all that has been lost when I see that my extended family is nonexistent. But, thankfully, I have worked really, really hard to change my thinking. I have opened myself up and found the courage to walk down the new road, knowing that it will bring new challenges and force me to pay closer attention and work that much harder to find my way. There are no route signs. There are no markers. It requires me to put on a new set of glasses but utilize the tools that I already possess. It requires me to snuff out the fire that typically burns inside me and find warmth and comfort in the sun shining down. Yes, something shifted for me this year. Something really extraordinary moved me. In order to embrace this new road, I needed to accept that the old one – the one banked by an outdated paradigm, a deconstructed construct – no longer exists. It simply is not there. It is not available for me to travel. And, it has been gone for so long. I have trudged along, trying to gain my footing and could not understand why I was tripping and falling. The ground was collapsing beneath my feet. I was being told to move on, move away, find a new pathway. And I have.
For the first time, I can see the new footprint that defines my children’s experience. I recognize that they have neither rose-colored glasses nor blacked-out goggles that keep them living in darkness. Their reality is love. If I commit to traveling down this new road with them, we both win. They get to experience the joy that I so desperately sought out as a child and I get to watch them do it. Everybody wins. It is so very simple. They have a family who loves one another and everything else fits easily into their puzzle.
As Thanksgiving is all about gratitude and being grateful has been my mantra for this year, I am delighted to reach this day – nearly 11 months into my journey – feeling filled to the brim. I have gained my footing and my view is clear. There are finally no obstructions. I have a crystal clear perspective on all that I have to be thankful for. I broke things down and dug deep to my core to find what I needed. And, as a result, I am supremely blessed with bounties beyond anything I could have imagined as a child. I give thanks for my people. The ones who challenge me to grow, show me part of myself that I never believed existed and who offer me a radiant reflection of myself. I am grateful for those who allow me to be a better person and provide me with a palette to create the most exceptional painting. A beautiful portrait of a life that I could not be more appreciative of.