Confession: I really didn’t want to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year.
I have managed to get out of cooking the meal the past two years. Two years ago, I was pregnant and barfing and just really didn’t feel like taking on the job. Somehow, I persuaded my brother and sister-in-law (who was, for real, nine months pregnant — but NOT barfing) to do it instead. Last year, I asserted myself and declared I was taking back Thanksgiving because I was just too overwhelmed to handle it. We had dinner at a nearby lakeside inn instead: beautiful scenery, good food, and I didn’t need to cook a thing. Perfect.
This year, I am neck-deep in home repairs and renovations from a burst pipe in our home last summer. We have had no kitchen at all for a month; my oven is in the dining room along with a million boxes, my cooktop is in the garage under a rug and a hand-drawn sign warning of fragile glass. I’m tired, overextended, and stressed out from dealing with a trillion contractors and plumbers on top of everything else you might imagine in a normal life with four kids and two dogs. My grandmother struggles with arthritis and cannot cook much anymore, my mom does not cook, and my brother and sister-in-law were traveling to us and couldn’t bring much this year. It seemed like a lot of work to fit in cooking dinner for sixteen people when I was dealing with so much at home and would need to cook in someone else’s kitchen. So I asked my mom to make a reservation instead, and she did. Good enough, I thought. It’s just Thanksgiving.
One day in early November, my children were in the car with me after car line pick-up at the elementary school, and one of them asked me who was coming to Thanksgiving this year. I told him, and I mentioned we were going back to the inn for dinner.
“Nooooo!” wailed my 9-year-old, Charlie, which surprised me. Usually, my children are fans of buffets, because it means many, many desserts and beige foods with minimal parental intervention.
“You didn’t like the inn, Charlie?” I replied, my eyes on traffic and only half listening. My kids protest everything, so I wasn’t giving him my full attention yet.
“You’re not supposed to eat Thanksgiving in a restaurant,” Charlie grumbled. “We just go, eat, and leave. We’re supposed to spend time with our family. It’s not a real Thanksgiving at a restaurant.”
I was a little bemused and a little shamed. I like Thanksgiving at a restaurant — because it means no cooking, no dishes to clean, no fuss, no muss. It means not braving the crowds at the grocery stores, not worrying about pleasing the palates of both my grandparents and the toddlers, and being home in time for football and naps. I like that kind of Thanksgiving because it is less work for me.
But when Charlie voiced his reasons for wanting a Thanksgiving at home, I could not deny that he had a point. I just really hadn’t thought about it that way. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the details — the grocery lists, the clothes, the timing of the dinner, the the sixteen people with sixteen different sets of needs — that it overwhelms me. Family and holidays can feel more like obligations and demands. As I drove home that day, I realized that in an effort to simplify and streamline my stressful life, I might have been cutting out the very heart of what the holidays are to my kids and what they could be for me: time in the kitchen with other generations; strategizing and coordinating with my husband on the cooking (something he loves and rarely gets time to do); watching my kids tear through my parents’ house and yard with their cousins with dirt streaking their faces and laughter spilling down the hallways; footballs lobbed in high arcs between my brother and my boys.
We canceled the reservation.
My family’s holidays are not perfect. We are a rag-tag group, with just as many children as we have adults and even more personality quirks between us. The afternoon of Thanksgiving, after spending the morning trying to cook in my mother’s kitchen on a cooktop with broken knobs and an oven that is usually used for storage, I practically had to sit on my kids to change into collared shirts for the meal. So festive and heartwarming (not). But I looked around the room that night at dinner, and I saw the faces who have been present for the most important moments of my life. I felt the strings pulled taut between us. We’re just a small pride of imperfect people, but we’re all we’ve got. This is our family, and these same faces are now the ones making the memories in my children’s lives. It’s not “just Thanksgiving.” It’s more than that. And while being a parent at the holidays means a whole bunch of work — much of it thankless — that doesn’t mean that the work isn’t worth it.
When we piled into my car late that night, my kids were coated in a fresh layer of sweat and dirt from a game of “Manhunt” with their cousins by the light of the moon. They leaned back in their seats in heaps, exhausted and full and happy. “That was the best day ever,” Charlie said. “I can’t wait for Christmas so we can do it again.”