For Whom Do I Set the Table?

My mom is one of six children, and I am part of a generation of 13 first cousins. As a child, my favorite holidays were the ones in which the dining room table had all three leafs and the two extra card tables stretched into the living room of my grandparents' ranch house. Those were the years when my aunts and uncles who lived out of state came back to Southern California, and the locals with in-laws drew straws to be with our side of the family this time. A lot of stars had to align to set that giant table.

I loved the crush and the noise, my four aunts and grandmother all together in the kitchen, my cousins and I making place cards with leaves from the yard, and playing ruthless games of croquet after dinner.

It wasn't all pumpkin pie and joy, though. My husband was the first to point out to me that our family was a little intense at Thanksgiving. Burned marshmallows on the sweet potatoes was a frustrating annual tragedy. My grandpa yelled at anyone who got near the turkey when he was carving it. Everything had to be brought to the table so hot it was still steaming -- too hot to eat.

And once at the table, we had a militant "pass to the left" rule to make sure everything got around the table. And if you pass the potatoes but forget to pass the gravy (or the rolls but not the butter), people will yell at you to keep things moving. As a result, when I host family funcitons, we still pass to the left, but we have two butters and two gravies, one at each end of the table, to avoid such skirmishes.

The less favorite holidays of my childhood were when we only had eight people for dinner, rather than 22. My mom and remaining aunt used to say it was depressing. It felt a little flat without all the bustle and noise. Maybe for the the women of the family it felt like a lot of work for less people after what they were used to.

I've been thinking a lot about this as my family of four prepares for our first-ever Thanksgiving alone in our house, where we have lived for 17 years. The last time I cooked a turkey, my daughter was crawling (see my two Butterballs, above), and my parents and younger brother were with us. Now my eldest has a driver's license. All of our families (Jeff's two sisters, my two brothers, and our two sets of parents) are celebrating separately because of Covid and some of our high-risk health issues.

Though many things in this year have caused me deep grief, I do NOT find this holiday depressing. I love our extended family and we will see them again soon -- perhaps even next weekend -- out of doors when all the food isn't involved. But I am relishing the joy of having just four people to please. We made our menu together, making sure everyone's favorites are included.

I'm celebrating with my favorite man in the world and these two beautiful young women who can actually help cook!

My thirteen year old wants to help make every dish, many of which she's never done, since my job on Thanksgiving is always just bringing sweet potatoes and pie. I'm planning on setting a super festive table in oranges and yellows (even though our Christmas decorations are already up in the kitchen), to light candles and use the good dishes.

Because this little family is my family. And in the bustle of national holidays, they are often the last people to get my at

tention. They don't usually get my best, as I'm trying to dress up, curl my hair, be family photo ready, and also pack food for the extended family potluck. Once we're at grandma's house, they often don't get a lot of my attention. And though my husband and I don't actually have that much special time together because of work and other demands on our time during a normal week, on holidays we end up barely speaking to each other at large family functions, where gender division of labor is pretty much stuck in the 1950s.

So I'm feeling very grateful for my husband and kids, and the opportunity to take care of them like they're the most important thing in my world. Which they are.

All that has been lost this year -- economically, in political division, in loss of life of the vulnerable, in education, in opportunities -- this Thanksgiving miracle and object lesson doesn't make up for it all. But that's not what gratitude is. It's not glossing over grief. But it is precious. And I do want to learn from it. Who do I set my best table for? How do I sometimes make my kids feel like they are not enough, not worthy of my best efforts? How will I focus better going forward, when "normal" is reestablished? And how will I continue to open my hands to all the beauty that is before me, all I have to relish, all that has been given me to steward. How do I find joy in less bustle, less noise? I am being transformed by this season, and I'm grateful for this lesson.