This is not the Thanksgiving any of us expected, but it’s the one that will make forever-memories.
The upcoming Thanksgiving weekend marks one full year since I last hugged my kids and grandkids as they ended a visit with us and left for home in New Jersey.
Though each of our three children and their families live in different states, we visit one another a few times a year and gather in Michigan for short, hectic, extended-family Passover and Sukkot holidays and in a neutral city for an annual summer vacation. But the one and only time we squeeze all 17 of us into our home for three days of just us is Thanksgiving.
But this year, COVID has canceled our regularly scheduled noisy, hugging reunion. The 10 cousins — including those from Florida and even those who live around the corner from us — who typically pile into as few bedrooms as possible so more of them can be together, will sleep in their own beds. They will not bound for the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, jam together on fewer chairs than kids — some in clever Turkey Trot outfits, others in football jerseys ready for the traditional “dads and big kids” trip to the Lions game. They will not create a new “Friday-through-Shabbat-and into Sunday” memory of talking sports, holding Monopoly showdowns, doing a 1,000-piece puzzle that no one is allowed to move all weekend, building red Solo cup pyramids and reading in front of the fireplace, a site of awe for the Florida bunch.
Last year’s tearful goodbye hugs and the promise that we would all be together a few months later at their cousin’s long-planned wedding was wretchedly broken. The postponed wedding date came and went, as did Passover, our annual family trip and all the fall Jewish holidays. And suddenly, we are back where we started, still holding onto those year-old hugs, grasping for everything that keeps us thankful.
Like many, our family has been though the gamut of frustration, anxiety and personal sadness during the pandemic. Health issues and concerns notwithstanding, being apart from our children and grandchildren has been the most trying. But with each disappointment we have been able to reach for reasons of gratitude.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful to the creators of each and every novel way that allows us to see and hear anyone and everyone who has been relegated to a space I can’t get to. That includes the devices and programs for sharing my Thanksgiving menu and recipes with my kids, and especially to the FaceTime people for designing a way for our children and grandchildren to “be together” on the holiday. Our plan is for all of us to spend the day together, all day, each in our own homes, cooking together and watching the parade and Lions game together. We will eat the same meal at the same time, beginning with little hot dog appetizers straight through to the only non-homemade menu item, Bake Station seven-layer-cake, shipped to New Jersey and hand-delivered to our Florida kids by local, traveling friends.
Surprisingly Much to Do
Focusing on what we’ve missed is useless, disheartening and depressing. I am uplifted by the remarkable, innovative discoveries that allow us to celebrate and to just be together. In the past months, our family has been able to Zoom and stream multiple birthday parties, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, two brisses, a bridal shower, extended-family holiday gatherings and school programs with our grandchildren. And, in June, we were part of a caravan of cars in a drive-by welcome home when a close family member was discharged from a months-long hospital stay after recovering from COVID.
Through the magic of something called Vidhug, my mom’s 90th birthday party turned into a series of compiled video wishes from friends and family, viewed over and over and over again. We held a group family-game night and were able to hear our 6-year-old grandson read to us through FaceTime, while we followed along with an online version of the same book.
Trivially, I am grateful that the closing of area gyms allowed me to shop for shoes — albeit walking shoes — for the first time in six months so I could take my exercise regime outside where another perk has been to meet new neighbors and their seemingly unendingly multiplying brood of dogs.
I am gladdened to know our niece is teaching herself to play violin and another has turned her furniture building talent into an actual business. I am heartened at the thought of several of our friends’ adult expat children moving home when their cities shut down and their jobs shifted to online, one of whom delivered a Michigan-born baby during the pandemic.
I am grateful for online religious connections through synagogues, webinars and inspirational articles about coping and survival; and for being able to attend our kids’ summer sports games and for the guy referred to as the “sergeant at arms,” who walked among the players and fans offering masks and separating the groups with his 6-foot-pole.
I am thankful for the incentive of my parents to get up each day, get dressed, make the bed and do something organized and constructive. I am both thankful and baffled by the sheer excitement of leaving the house to do anything from Kroger pickup to Yad Ezra volunteer deliveries.
Time to Bond
Less scheduling brings more time for connecting.
Our kids created a family WhatsApp group through which we can all participate, and in the absence of fall youth sports and play dates, Grandma and Papa joyfully have become a regular after-school activity through FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Facebook’s Kids Messenger.
I am grateful for newfound time with just me, with my husband and with our local children and my mom and dad, all of whom we see only when the weather permits outdoor meetings. The visits have allowed for one-on-one talks with the kids and treasured stories from my parents — like hearing how my soft-spoken, learned rabbi-grandfather enjoyed watching boxing matches through a storefront bar window in the 1930s, and sorting through their old photos and memorabilia, including an envelope my dad tried to gift me that held a curl from my first haircut.
Locally, I am grateful to have witnessed our great-niece become a bat mitzvah in Temple Israel’s outdoor sanctuary and to dance the hora at the lakefront wedding of our niece and nephew, in a circle of guests each connected by a 6-foot-long crocheted, fabric chain.
I am immensely thankful for vicarious memories of our grandson’s bar mitzvah that travel and health concerns prevented us from attending in New Jersey this past summer.
I am beyond appreciative for the week’s worth of photos and stories and the videos of a balloon-filled, musical, drive-by party and the recorded surprise arrival of our Michigan daughter and her children as the only out-of-town bar mitzvah guests. I am grateful to have participated in a four-generation Zoom celebration and for the minds-eye visual of a young man being called to the Torah between a swing set and a vegetable garden in a decorated backyard, makeshift synagogue.
Right about now, my internal clock may not know what day it is, but it knows it’s time to prepare for Thanksgiving — in its new and unprecedented form. We won’t be inflating air mattresses and digging out the folding chairs and remote-control battery-operated “looks like the real thing but safe for kids” candles. But we will still unpack the ceramic pilgrim salt and pepper shakers and kid-constructed, feathered-turkey decorations from years’ past. We will set our smallest table, with its laptop-centerpiece angled to view the tables of our far-distanced family, who will do the same.
Today I am grateful that I have something meaningful to look forward to and to laugh at, as my kids try to figure out my “some of the directions and measurements are in my head” recipes, send funny Thanksgiving memes and respond to the picture I took of an actual live turkey perched in a shopping cart at my corner Kroger.
This is not the Thanksgiving any of us expected, but it’s the one that will make forever-memories. Someday we’ll say, “Remember the year when we all had Thanksgiving dinner apart — but together?”
I’ll deeply miss our in-person gathering this year, but I know the hugs aren’t nearly as important as the people who bring them. And for every single one of them, who I hope to be hugging soon, I am the most grateful.