Family legend tells that the year after my parents separated, my mom faced the prospect of her first Thanksgiving alone. She accepted an invitation to the home of a friend, and my family and I have been spending alternating Thanksgiving holidays with them ever since, adding spouses and children and new traditions along the way, changing the location but keeping the love and laughter that I have always associated with my favorite holiday.
My nuclear family system is undergoing tremendous and unanticipated change. Change of the sadness and separation variety. With my two children spending the holiday break with their father, Thanksgiving represented for me my first long stretch away from my kids since the new visitation rotation started, my first holiday separated from the joys of my life, and my first Thanksgiving without a delightful, warm, amply-set table, packed to capacity with mismatched flatware and ringing with the noise of little people’s laughter.
Your basic hell.
Invitations to each of my parents’ houses did little to ease that pain; the thought of being surrounded by family—but not the family I missed—stung deeply. When I imagined myself with the rest of the guest list, as literally every other person who would be at each gathering spent the holiday with at least one of their children, there was no way I could imagine keeping turkey and stuffing in my belly.
Sometimes, family isn’t the place we can be. Or should be. Or is healthy or safe for us to be.
Sometimes, when family feels broken, what is really happening is a breaking open.
Fortunately, I know and love a lot of people who have a much more expansive concept of family. I’m part of this crazy connection of Methodists, and reconciling ones at that. I called a friend, who called a friend, and I ended up with a much more inclusive, broadly defined family celebration than the typical Thanksgiving crowd: four reconciling United Methodists, some good cooking (duck, not turkey), some shared laughter and song (okay only two of us sang), and a supportive space for tears, joy, and rejuvenation.
If that sort of feast isn’t a foretaste of the inbreaking of the kin-dom, I don’t know what is.
My expectation of the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving through the New Year isn’t born out of magazines and Martha Stewart, and doesn’t need to be picture-perfect. It does, however, include a strong focus on connection and love and family, and I’m experiencing what so many already know: that family is defined by who we love and cherish, the people with whom we set (and clear) the table, the ones who welcome our grief and our celebration.
In the Thanksgiving episode of the NBC show “The New Normal,” the main characters define for themselves a difference between relatives and family. While the former might represent obligation and dysfunction, places of pain or alienation, the latter are the ones with whom we choose to surround ourselves, the people who make a holiday special and sacred. I found mine, and it’s a vast and diverse family, some of whom are even related to me.
This season, may your places of brokenness be places of breaking open, and may your gatherings be filled with love and laughter and the deep joy of chosen family.