Being Thankful and Hopeful in This Weird and Terrible Year

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, but I am not particularly good at being thankful. I’ve hosted my family celebration every November for more than 35 years, but I don’t ask people to go around the table and say what they are grateful for.

Come to think of it, I don’t do very well with mindful either, and my tortured relationship with the word “hopefully” is legendary in my family (I correct my children when they use the word to mean “it is to be hoped,” a usage which is now recognized as correct by almost all language authorities, but which I persist in regarding as evidence of fuzzy thinking and sloppy writing), so I may just be something of a crank.

Thus, having repeatedly passed up the opportunity to use the holiday to teach good values, I am left saying that it is my favorite holiday because what it celebrates is embedded in the day: family making the trip, crowding around the table, eating together, enacting silly rituals, and then (let’s admit it) going away again. It’s about traditions, but also innovations, about continuity, but also about marking change, as the people at the table grow up, and as we remember the ones who are gone.

But not this year. You know where I’m going with this. This year it’s all about keeping everyone healthy so we can do all that next year. This year we’re grateful to those who are not making the trip, crowding around the table, and all the rest. In my own family, an unbroken stretch of more than three and a half decades is about to be broken. But it’s not a year for mourning that we’re doing things differently.

What this is, is a weird and terrible year, a pandemic year, a year for getting ourselves and those we love through the winter as well as we can, for thinking hard about people who are bearing the greatest burdens and how to help them, and for waiting hopefully for better times.

Last year, back in the before times, I wrote not one but two Thanksgiving columns, one celebrating the four turkey hats my daughter had asked me to knit for two of my kids and two of their best friends running a 5-mile turkey trot on Thanksgiving morning, the second reflecting on the ways that all the borrowed and invented and improvised details of how we celebrate the holiday have been made into obligatory every-year traditions by my rigorous children.

In other years, I’ve marked November with memories of my own days of wandering far from my own parents (and getting desperately homesick in Iran in 1976 at Thanksgiving and deciding to call home, back in the days when long-distance calling was more of a challenge), with advice about conversations that are better not to have around the holiday table: avoiding fat stigma and not commenting on children’s weight, or why you might want to tell your family that college applications are not to be discussed, if you have a child who’s applying.

This year, of course, is different. This is the year for staying home and having Thanksgiving with your household, as Dr. Fauci has urged, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks us to, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

My own decision — if there was any decision — was made less complicated by the fact that I’m working in Italy, so I will be 3,000 miles from all the people I usually see on Thanksgiving. My kids definitely aren’t going to be coming.

Some families have complex issues to resolve around college students who are, in some cases, being sent home from colleges that are closing their dorms; a recent article suggested strategies to reduce the risk that they bring coronavirus with them, including reducing their possible exposures in the days before they come home and during their travel, testing before they leave, isolating and wearing masks when they do get home and, of course, sometimes, when there’s an alternative, deciding to skip the trip home.

Those difficult family logistics are not the same, however, as yearning for the family turkey meal for tradition’s sake. I don’t mean that I won’t yearn for my children, or my in-laws, or the good friends who usually come. But I’m not yearning to have all those people I love gathered around my table. When I picture that happy table right now, with a couple of people crowded together on the piano bench at one end and a few too many trying to pretend they have enough room to eat on the card table that gets jammed in at the other end, I’m thinking that this is the year that doesn’t look happy and healthy and safe.

So in the interests of doing things differently this year, to mark a weird and terrible year, here are some things I’m grateful for. Some you know: dedicated frontline workers, steadfast parents everywhere getting their children through, smart epidemiology, vaccine research, the various kinds of privilege and protection which keep many people I love comparatively safe, the selflessness and mission that put many people I love at a certain amount of risk.

I’m grateful for deadlines, and pressures, which get me writing, since I didn’t turn out to be one of those people who just feels motivated by the at-home pandemic time to get really creative. Concomitantly, I’m grateful for guilt, especially the guilt that goes with overdue deadlines, because that really gets me out of bed in the morning, even when the news is bad.

I’m grateful for knitting, which has helped me with my Zoom fatigue, and for novels (especially to Anthony Trollope for writing so many of them and to Persephone books for republishing so many authors I hadn’t previously encountered), which take me into other worlds and other scenes more effectively than anything else (and then make me feel guilty for reading novels when I have deadlines overdue).

But most of all, I think, I am grateful for all those Thanksgivings past, and for the prospect of a better Thanksgiving in a better year — and I’m hopeful that will be 2021. I will not ask people to go around the table and announce what they’re grateful for, but honestly, there will be no need. If we get to that table, we will know.

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