Miserable & Magical: It’s going to be a Thanksgiving to remember

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A couple of years ago in the days leading up to Christmas, my mom told me something that broke my heart.

“I just know that one day it’ll be the year when you tell me you’re not coming home for Christmas,” she said. 

Cue my emotions spiraling out of control in a mix of love, affection, and guilt. She was, of course, referring to the day when I’d tell her I’d be spending the holiday with [name redacted] and his family. I don’t think either of us could have anticipated that my first holiday season away from family would be due to some sort of worldwide plague.

Now, I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be able to go home for Christmas, but Thanksgiving isn’t looking good. And like Christmas, I’ve never spent Thanksgiving away from my family, either. I’m in that pre-marriage, pre-kids, pre-homeownership phase of life where yeah, technically I’m an adult, but I sometimes still very much feel like a kid. The idea of not seeing my parents on major holidays is pretty much unimaginable. 

My family always gets together with my mom’s side of the family for Thanksgiving, which usually means a gathering of 12–15 people. I started expressing my concern about this to my parents a few weeks ago. 

“What if all of us still celebrated Thanksgiving,” I started.

“Yes, OK,” my mom said.

“In each of our respective homes,” I finished, eliciting a sound of confusion from her. In addition to always having me home for holidays, there’s never been a time when the whole family hasn’t been together to celebrate.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to be the one to share my suggestion with the extended family because my aunt texted me only a few days later with the same idea. And as sad as I was (and am), I was equally relieved. 

I told my parents [name redacted] and I would still come home and we’d have a small Thanksgiving with them and my brother. 

Then the number of COVID-19 cases started rising even faster, and with it, my stress. Every time I talked to my parents, they’d be like, “You’re still coming home for Thanksgiving, right?” And I’d tell them with some hesitation that that was the plan.

A couple days ago they finally said what I’ve been waiting to hear: “You know it’s OK if you don’t come home.”

A weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Of course, there’s still the weight of actually making this decision, but now I feel a little bit less pressure. Whether I go home or not can be a choice I make based on my own feelings and comfort level, instead of one based on guilt and obligation.

I really want to go home and I keep hoping that COVID-19 numbers will miraculously go down over the next week, but I know that’s just wishful thinking and very unlikely to happen. People still aren’t taking this seriously and I don’t know what more they need to see or hear to believe how real it is. 

In New Hampshire, where my family lives, “Live Free or Die” is very much a way of life. People I know are still having parties and weddings, and getting together with friends, and going out to eat (indoors) and just being very laissez-faire about the pandemic. My parents and brother, as well as his girlfriend, all have public-facing jobs where they interact with other people face to face. 

Between my asthma and my general will to live, going home for Thanksgiving seems less and less safe every day. If I did go home, I imagine myself eating in the kitchen while my family sits at the dining room table. Even as I write this, though, I’m thinking I could do that. But should I?

I know I’m not alone in this predicament. Families all over the country are struggling with this issue. Have Thanksgiving together this year and risk everyone’s health? Or skip this year to ensure we can be together next year and the year after that and so on? 

The answer seems obvious, but when you’ve only seen your family three times all year, the decision isn’t very easy to make. 

Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.