When you pack up all your belongings in a U-Haul and move to the other side of the country, everything changes. Your relationships with family and friends, the way you travel, and especially holidays.
Growing up with a mother who has six sisters, you end up having more cousins than you can count on both hands. There was only a slight age gap between my youngest aunt and my oldest cousin, and each year, our family grew.
From games of Yahtzee in my grandmother’s basement to Secret Santa gift exchanges at Christmastime, family parties were a regular occurrence. There was always lots of food and even more laughter. Family members would take turns hosting; warm homes would welcome us from the cold. Women would cluster around the kitchen table and gossip on sofas while men stood sentinel around the cooler, drinking beers and smoking cigars. Children would run and play games until the time when we’d all load our plates high with homemade favorites, vying for a place to sit. Whether it was Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter, there’d be a cake and we would gather round and sing, for someone always had a birthday nearby.
Moving to Nevada, perhaps the hardest adjustment to make was redefining the holidays, especially once my husband took a job where he didn’t always have them off.
I remember our daughter’s second Christmas, I sat on the floor in her nursery and rocked her in my lap while she sucked at a bottle. I felt the wetness of my cheeks and I felt the loneliness. I couldn’t put words to my sadness, but it was as heavy as my daughter’s little body on top of me. My husband was at work and we were at home alone. No one would know that we had stayed in our pajamas all day, but we hadn’t gotten dressed for there was nowhere to go. Santa had come the night before so that my husband could watch our little girl tear at the wrapping paper, but even that had felt wrong. That morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I picked at the leftovers from the dinner I’d prepared the day before. Hours spent in the kitchen for a meal for three. There’d been no procession of tinfoil covered dishes, no hotplates plugged into every wall. There wasn’t a line of women with dishtowels ready to grab the next pot or pan as it had been washed. All day long, I talked to family on the phone, hearing the clatter and din of their company in the background, hearing the TV in mine.
Eleven years after moving, I’d like to say that I’ve adjusted. Most years we spend Christmas with my folks and Thanksgivings with my sister. Even when she moved to California, one of us would make the drive so that when we gave thanks, we were holding each other’s hands. Some years, the friends who have become our family have joined us, adding a few more place settings, making it almost feel like home.
This year, however, things have changed. My sister lives in Florida now, making a Thanksgiving reunion not possible, my friends are traveling for the holiday, and while my husband will be off from work, it will just be the four of us.
Realizing this, I spent weeks musing about what we could do. I felt the need to make the holiday different somehow. I mean, it was already going to be different, but maybe if we did something so unlike our traditions, I wouldn’t feel the sadness I feared. Could we rent a cabin in the woods and get away? I pictured us playing a board game near a fireplace, snuggling into flannel sheets and waking in the morning to take a hike through pine-scented air. Yet I knew that renting a cabin wasn’t really in the budget so soon after our vacation to New York and one month before Christmas, and besides, we could do all those things from our own home. Still, I kept wracking my brain and asking my husband what we were going to do.
“What do you mean, what are we going to do? We’re going to have Thanksgiving.”
He didn’t understand, and I didn’t know how to tell him.
“Yeah, but it’s just us, so like, what are we going to do?”
This need to do was palpable.
If I could come up with a plan, if there was an itinerary, perhaps it would be enough to distract me from the fact that it was just us, perhaps it could thwart the sadness, because if I felt the sadness at Thanksgiving, I most certainly was going to feel it at Christmas when my husband would be at work and when it would, for the first time in a long time, be just me and my girls, because this year, my parents weren’t coming for Christmas, and this year, we weren’t going there either, and I wasn’t quite sure how I would handle that.
I wish I could say that I only wept that one Christmas when my daughter was two, but the Holiday Blues are something that I have felt each year. Sometimes, after Christmas has passed, I begin to cry and it’s days before I can stop. I’ll be standing in my kitchen with a cup of tea, steeped in sadness and shame. What’s wrong with me that I cannot feel happiness at what’s supposed to be the most joyful time of year? Despite combatting it every way I know how, sometimes it’s stronger.
A few weeks into my quest for what we would do on Thanksgiving, I was driving in my car, listening to Pico lyer speak about The Art of Stillness when I realized that I didn’t need to do anything for Thanksgiving, I needed to be. It didn’t matter if we decided to go cut down our Christmas tree or run the Turkey Trot. It didn’t matter if we stayed in our pajamas or got dressed up. It didn’t matter if we deep fried our turkey or went to KFC. Whether there were four of us at the table or twenty-four, unless I could be fully present with my family, there would be no hope of holiday cheer.
You can’t have your body in one place and your mind in another and feel anything but conflicted. The answer wasn’t in the doing, the answer was in the being.
Thanksgiving is a time to be full. Full of food, yes, but also emotionally full. We take time to reflect all that we’ve been blessed with. When I think of my family—both near and far—I know that I have so much to be thankful for.
I can’t say for sure that I won’t end up feeling the Holiday Blues this year. I know that I will miss my sister fiercely come Thanksgiving and that Christmas isn’t going to be the same, but I am going to try hard to remember this: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”