What Non-traditional Looks Like

Thanksgiving Day 2022

It’s been a while since my Thanksgiving Day looked traditional, or what most think of as traditional. Norman Rockwell and all that. My sister and I tried during the years we were with our mother, attempting to give her the “traditional” she’d been missing since our father died, and before that since all her children moved across the country. But truth be told, we had become accustomed to “other” and it was hard to give it up.

Mama’s last Thanksgiving, 2017, showed up in my Facebook memories today. (In spite of Wynne’s extraordinary selfie skills, the two little boys weren’t captured. And where is BIL Peter, and my niece and nephew weren’t there—clearly the family gathering part was never a bit thing in my family, maybe why I wanted it for so long.) It’s the last time this many were around my table on Thanksgiving.

I spent too many years being sad that the holidays didn’t look like they were “supposed” to, and trying to make it traditional without family. Having the Thanksgiving meal with someone else’s family was lonelier than being alone, which was plenty lonely. I was still clinging hard to what I thought it should be, reinforced by greeting cards, advertising, movies, other people. “Happy Thanksgiving” had only one meaning, at least in my mind.

My family, circa 1963. Photo taken by Shin Kai. Hosting a UW foreign student was a Thanksgiving tradition, but extended family lived far away, with the exception of my mother’s mother, who must have been with her other daughter in 1963. Now that I think about it, my family of origin did not have huge holiday gatherings either, but we did have turkey and we dressed up! (Basically, my mother worked harder than usual.)

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to sit around the groaning table with my family, especially if I’m not responsible for it all. I’m happy to be the grandmother traveling the song’s reverse, over the river and through the woods—or up Interstate 5. And I’ll bring the pies and cranberry chutney (a discovery one of the first holidays post-divorce when I had it with salmon at a coastal restaurant brave enough not to have a turkey and trimmings buffet). But Thanksgiving solitude has become an opportunity to give thanks for more than gathered family and too much food, as well as to stand in solidarity with the many who have neither, on this day or any other.

It took years, but I finally figured out how to make my reality better than a consolation. For me, it only takes finding a way to make the day stand out from other days, to pay extra attention to beauty and for life and for all there is to be grateful. Some of the details vary. I’ve gone for a drive (and this day would have been a gorgeous one for that); I’ve FaceTimed with family, but they are busy with other family and their own big meals and it’s a struggle to find time; I do sometimes have dinner with some part of my family.

Here is what my Thanksgiving looked like this year.

Up before dawn and not to stuff a turkey.
Watching the sun come up, heralded by hooting barred owls and singing coyotes through the open window.
Out for a two-mile walk at 8am, which meant being dressed earlier than usual.
The new “lane” that obliterated my favorite trail isn’t so bad, if you don’t know what it used to look like and ignore the piles of pushed over maples and alders.
Centralia in the lingering fog from the trail on hill.
Communing with my parents, and a snowberry bouquet.
Returning to fog in the valley under the azure sky and the weak almost-winter sun.
Thanksgiving yoga in the brisk air, with an Anna’s hummingbird, dark-eyed juncos, and red-breasted nuthatches.
Starting a new memoir by a She Writes Press sister . . .
. . . next to an owl next to Lena imitating an owl.
The best days include a nap.
Dinner, a fire behind the fireplace door I cleaned yesterday, and a movie.

A Rueben sandwich, cranberry chutney, homemade sweet potato fries, and pumpkin custard. And an inane holiday movie that actually wasn’t too inane! It’s what I eat and what I do on Thanksgiving. Anything else is a break from tradition. If old traditions or traditional traditions are no longer available, make new ones. It’s not easy, but it is possible. It’s been a beautiful day and I am filled with gratitude. (And hopefully I will spend Christmas with family.)

P.S. The Cranberry Chutney recipe and story is on my website, here.

P.P.S. The eBook version of Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver is on sale for $1.99 until November 30. You can find it wherever you buy eBooks. And the print version is available wherever books are sold. Here are direct links, or get it from your local bookstore.

10 thoughts on “What Non-traditional Looks Like

  1. Your time outdoors seems like a big win to me! The photos are wonderful–thank you for sharing “home”!
    We also took a 1 1/2 mile walk along Bull Run, where it was a wonder to see it at rest, along with the fruits of some of the flowers we enjoyed in April. When children were home, we made a tradition of going for a walk while the turkey roasted. This year the two of us prepared a yummy one-pot dish of turkey thighs, carrots, potatoes, apples, and cider, with pumpkin custard (!) for dessert. The other “tradition” we’ve tried to establish since there have only been two of us is making it a day to write Christmas cards. The last time we succeeded was 2014. But we got started yesterday, and it’s first priority now until finished, since our address will change before next card time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the idea of having our own versions. If only more of us could let that be okay. There is so much pressure to do it only one way. We need a revolution! And I guess people sharing their own traditions, like this post, contribute!


  2. As one who came from multi-generations of dysfunctional family patterns and being disowned, I find inspiration in your ability to find peace and fullness in non-traditional holiday observations. For decades Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were days of conflicted emotions, rather than traditional celebration. My efforts have focused on making my generation the last generation to suffer that dysfunction. So far, so successful with my children and grand-children. I so regret that my children grew up like I did, without grand-parents involved in their lives. Not letting that happen with my grand-children, though. We are setting new traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said to Bonnie Rae in the comment below, we focus so much on how it’s “supposed” to be, that I think we forget about probably the one person in every family who bears the responsibility for making it so. To say nothing of all the families who don’t follow, or can’t, what (thank you Norman Rockwell) we think we must have to be happy. My paternal grandmother was not involved in my life either (my grandfathers were both gone), and, sadly, I am not involved in the lives of the two of mine who are far away, though not for lack of wishing I were. Well done on interrupting the pattern! Thank you for sharing your story.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how you spent the day. I think you’re right that in the solitude of a forest walk or the bliss of an afternoon nap, you can be open to a richer, deeper gratitude. It’s really such a good life. I’ve done some grieving about changes in what has been “traditional” too, but at the end of the day I am content embracing the impermanence. Thank you for your always honest reflections*

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I looked again at that old family photo and realized the day was only just that much harder for my mother. Who has time to really take a deep dive into gratitude if you spend the day in the kitchen, and the days before planning, shopping, and prepping? It’s kind of a screwed up tradition, if you think about it. “Everyone” professes to love it, but my guess is there is at least one person in every gathering who is most grateful when it’s over. Or maybe that’s just me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I’m sure it isn’t just you. And you left out the part where everyone brings their feelings and opinions to the gathering and sometimes that is another awkward navigation. For everything said about the holiday there is most certainly an equal amount unsaid. Who knew that biting one’s tongue could be so exhausting?! This year people are talking about the more dubious origins of the holiday itself and it makes me think you’re onto something by re-creating what it means to embrace gratitude. 

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Another thing on my gratitude list: were everyone in my family together, we would mostly have the same feelings and opinions; albeit not the same interests, but that is good, we would be boring if we did.


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