A few notes on gratitude & the holidays

Love and thankfulness start in the kitchen. The Italian parsley drying on the sink. A half lemon left over from dressing the food. A bulb of garlic, inquiring eyes, and finally, a beautiful bird prepared by my mother.

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Thanksgiving, Christmas and the other requisite holidays marked by the expectation of familial gatherings are hard for me. They always have been, in part due to distance: I moved to Dayton just over five years ago, and my parents have lived in separate states for more than a decade. This makes it challenging to see everyone I want to see without losing my mind and my savings, or having to architect a comprehensive master plan that rivals the storming of the Bastille.

And it’s funny, in the sad sort of way that all true things are — the freedom of being miles away was something I longed for, but once I got it, I realized how much I wanted to give it back.

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It’s no surprise that death, then, adds another layer of sadness. It’s true that since my brother passed in 2016, holidays have gotten harder. With every lovely memory comes a rattling echo of his absence. One way I’ve dealt with this is volunteering to work on Thanksgiving two years in a row. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a defense mechanism, where I’m choosing to separate myself from the event at hand, as a way to gloss over or mitigate the feeling of loss. It is classic avoidance.

But there are good things about this, too. In this act of avoidance, or rather, beyond it, I acknowledge the time and space I need to process the grief in my own way. Beyond whatever expectations of others that may exist, I choose to give myself the gift of time and space to avoid — because avoidance helps me move beyond that, allowing me to rejoin my family and friends in a way that feels right for me. It’s healthy me coming to the table. Present me. Engaged me. The better parts of myself.

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On Thanksgiving this year, after I finished up my work, I headed over to my husband’s parents’ house for a wonderful meal. The following day, we traveled up to my mother’s, a small farm in northcentral Ohio, to stay for a long weekend and prepare our very own Thanksgiving meal on Saturday.

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My mother and I spent hours in the kitchen, chopping and prepping, coordinating oven times, handling the smaller tablesetting tasks during downtime. As I watched her make her famous mashed potatoes, I hounded her for the recipe.

“I don’t HAVE a recipe,” she said.

“But can you GUESS?” I asked. “Eyeball it.”

It was simple, really. And there was no exact recipe. Just butter, salt, pepper, and milk. Whisking in small amounts of each, slowly. Tasting along the way. There is a certain intuition about it all, the way she fishes a piece of potato up from the boiling water and pierces it with a fork, testing for tenderness.

This is how you do it, love. 

This is how you do it, grief.

This is how you do it, healing.

The right way is that there is no right way. It is all nuance and intuition, feeling your way through the dark, moving toward what feels right.