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When my first marriage ended, the day before Thanksgiving in 2003, I took a deep breath upon returning from court and began meal preparations for my first major holiday on my own. I set myself (and my raw nerves) to the comforting task of marinating pears for a compote, then started on the bread-sage stuffing. Why? Because for as long as I can recall, I’ve cooked elaborate dinners for the holidays.
During my first marriage, our family shared hosting duties for the holidays, but the times when it wasn’t my turn didn’t mean I was off the hook. I contributed side dishes and desserts to the groaning board so the burden of cooking an entire meal wasn’t borne by the host. That, however, was all in the past. My son would join me, and my cousin, for my first post-divorce Thanksgiving. That was it. Taking the smallest turkey I’d ever roasted out of the oven, I marveled at its lightness. And cried.
One month later, at Christmas, I said goodbye to all that and performed a variation on the theme. My cousin brought her nephew, my son came with his girlfriend at the time, and I rounded out the rest of the table with a young violinist from the Ukraine, who was studying at the conservatory where I worked. She brought her mother along. And, for the first time in my entire life, turkey was not featured on the table. Instead I prepared a standing rib roast from one of Ina Garten‘s Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.
This was my new family dynamic, and the start of a new tradition.
It can’t have been easy for my son, who at the time was in his early 20s. He was now required to divide all of his holidays in two; the first half of the day was spent with his father, the latter half with me. Those mornings and early afternoons dragged on so! It seemed strange to be alone in the house on a holiday. I probably hugged him far too long and far too tightly when he arrived. But so it went, each year, until the year I remarried.
My new husband had taken a job in Virginia, and I was now living nearly 500 miles from where I grew up and lived my entire life—and 500 miles from my son. Whereas holidays had presented a mere logistical inconvenience, now the geographical stakes were raised to challenging heights. Would I be able to spend at least one holiday with him? And what of my husband’s sons? How and when would we see them? The oldest is in graduate school in Illinois; the youngest had just started college in Ohio.
As it turned out, I wasn’t able to see my son at all that first year after our move. His work schedule simply didn’t allow him enough time off to make the trip. I cannot tell you how that rocked me. Things fared a bit better with the other boys; they drove to Virginia the second week of December to have an early Christmas with us. But again, what orbits they had to navigate! The eldest and his girlfriend drove from Illinois to Ohio to spend time with his mother and brother. Then, with his brother in tow, he drove from Ohio to Virginia. Then it was back around and up to Ohio to drop his brother off, and westward to St. Louis, so his girlfriend could see her family. And back to Illinois. It was like a 1930s movie, where a map of the United States with moving, dotted arrows illustrated a character’s travel progression from Point A to Point Whatever. The mind reels.
Last year, John and I decided that it was our turn to give the kids a break and do the driving. We left for Ohio early in the morning the day before Thanksgiving. Once there, we stayed with my son and his girlfriend. John’s sons joined us the next day, and we all enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner together in a suburb of Cleveland. In a restaurant. For Thanksgiving.
That took some getting used to. Never in my life had I set foot in a restaurant on a major holiday; it went against every cooking and baking gene in my body. I had always felt nothing but sadness for Ralphie and his family in A Christmas Story, forced to eat Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant after the Bumpus hounds devoured their turkey.
The meal was traditional enough and tasty enough, I suppose. But that was hardly the point. The goal was to be together: one scattered family gathered for a few brief hours around a table laden with food that might (or might not) allow us (allow me?) to pretend we were in the old homestead, however new that homestead might be.
It was more than enough that we were together and healthy.
It’s true, as the old song says, that there’s no place like home for the holidays. But when you create a new family, and circumstances toss your family hither and yon with no viable base of operations, it helps to remember another song—one that can serve to brighten your thoughts with a clarity that allows comfort and joy to shine through:
Home is where the heart is.