“What are we going to do about Thanksgiving?” my mother asked weeks ago.
“Nothing!” I answered immediately, and my stepfather wholeheartedly agreed.
To my amazement, my mother has cooked and hosted a full Thanksgiving meal for more than a dozen people since she was 22 years old, an age at which I still survived chiefly on mac and cheese and Hot Pockets.
It’s one of her favorite holidays. And not hosting would be another loss, yet another time this year she would not be able to gather all her family together in one room, which is the very peak of her joy spectrum. It has been her biggest life-during-a-pandemic complaint. She feels like she’s losing precious time.
Since the beginning of the pandemic my stepfather has been her fierce protector bordering on warden. She has pre-existing conditions, and he knows how sick she gets when she just gets a cold. He barely let her leave the house at first.
In April, when he was out one day, she snuck out to Home Depot. Then she called to tell me I had to lie for her and say I dropped off the flowers she was now planting in her garden. Easter, Mother’s Day we did over Zoom.
We’ve loosened up over the summer and fall, getting together in the fresh air on her deck or my porch or someone’s backyard in smaller groups. We’ve outdoor dined.
But cramming the whole family, more than a dozen of us, including my six nieces and nephews — teenagers in various stages of hybrid high school and college and time hanging with friends — inside, around one table in our dining room? It would break every precedent we’ve set.
“Fauci isn’t getting together with his family either,” I told her a few days ago, hoping that would soften the blow.
And in a call with state governors on Tuesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield warned that traditional Thanksgiving gatherings could cause COVID cases to soar, blaming recent spikes in infections on small household gatherings.
On Thursday, Gov. Murphy echoed that message: “We urge you to not gather around the dining room table with anyone outside your immediate household. And if you do, to limit that reach to only a limited number of close relatives.”
When I looked through the CDC holiday guidelines, the impossibility of Thanksgiving past was more than clear: “Consider strictly avoiding contact with people outside of your household for 14 days before the gathering.” “Maintain at least 6 feet or more from people you don’t live with.” “Be particularly mindful in areas where it may harder to keep this distance, such as restrooms and eating areas.” Wave and verbally great others, no hugs. Use touchless garbage cans if possible. And, my personal favorite — avoid singing, chanting or shouting.
Our big Italian family? A hugless, six-feet apart dinner with no shouting? Hilarious.
And even if we somehow managed to pull that off, would it even be enjoyable? Please just throw me right in the touchless garbage can instead, thanks.
Besides, what if, after a few drinks, which by the way are impossible to drink with a mask on, we got lax about the rules? Worse than that, what if it became the Thanksgiving half the family got COVID-19? How guilty would we feel?
I assumed that most of my friends and their families had decided the same: Thanksgiving with just the folks you live with, a lot of first-time turkey chefs and fingers-crossed that next year will be back to the usual.
You know what they say about assuming right?
When I posed the question to Facebook, for sure there were many aboard my gravy train.
A former coworker, who was once interviewed about how fraught Thanksgiving is during an election year, seems happy to have an escape. He said his more carefree relatives still don’t understand why they haven’t been over his house since before March.
“In other words, I’m taking my wife and kids out of town for Thanksgiving,” he wrote. “Rehobeth.”
A former coworker said her mother is immunocompromised: “We haven’t done anything for any holidays in lockdown, and I don’t expect we will start now.”
And my neighbor balked at an invite from his in-laws.
“I have teenagers and my father-in-law has pre-existing conditions,” he said. “Are they nuts?”
But others didn’t even understand why I was asking.
“Regular Thanksgiving…no?” wrote one in response to my Facebook prompt.
I was shocked to learn so many smart people I know said their families were forging ahead. I had asked everyone I talked to for a week what their discussions on the topic were, including my dad’s urologist, who pointed to a sweet 16 party in Long Island that turned into a super-spreader event.
“The numbers are going up,” he said. “If everyone thinks their family will be fine and goes ahead, that kind of thinking is how we all get in trouble.”
And I’m jealous of the genius pre-planners: My best friend’s in-laws already held Thanksgiving. Outside. On a gorgeous day. Under a tent. Just like the first Thanksgiving.
It was August when her mother-in-law, Carol Golden, a former nurse, read the tea leaves and knew traditional Thanksgiving was off the table. But, like my mother, she couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on the opportunity to have her family together.
“As my mother aged, she said all the time that the importance of the family is to gather people in,” Golden explains. “That’s how you keep people close and connected. And that’s one of the things that the holidays always bring for us. But as a nurse, when I read the science about it, I knew our ventilation system isn’t good enough, and we now have kids at daycare and school …”
Each family had their own table. The hardest part was finding a turkey, but she eventually overpaid for one from a butcher, which she still says was worth the $40.
The company who came to set up her tent was rushing off to set up others, though none for a Thanksgiving, she says with a laugh.
When I tell her about my mother, how she feels like she’s losing time, Golden relates completely.
“COVID-19 has made us realize our reality that we will not be here forever and to cherish the time we do have,” she says. “So that has made it all more urgent to spend time with family. This was the best day of my year.”
And so my mother has given up on Thanksgiving, and maybe we’ll overpay for a turkey, or whatever bird they’ve got, to have an outdoor feast in the spring. While we came together on the decision to cancel, none of us were willing to wait another year to eat her stuffing, which she’s agreed to make and deliver to each of us.
That’s when I thought about Christmas, a mere month after Thanksgiving — how could we possibly expect things to improve enough to celebrate in any of the usual ways?
My mother pauses, then says resolutely, “We’ll have to figure something out.”
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Jessica Remo may be reached at [email protected].