Thanksgiving this year looked different for so many families. At my house in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, things seemed a bit more stressful than usual, as I tried to lean in to the whole idea of an alternative Thanksgiving. My two boys, now 16 and 18, have never really enjoyed the typical Thanksgiving meal. Turkey? Gross. Stuffing? Nope. Potatoes? They prefer them fried in hot oil with salt and ketchup. Pie? It depends on the kind.
When it was clear there would be no traveling and no hosting of any visitors this year, I took it as a free pass to skip everything traditional about the holiday. I didn’t buy a turkey, or pull out the recipe cards, or make my usual Martha Stewart-inspired tablescape. Instead, I poured all of my domestic energy into producing a half-way decent Zoom call for my side of the family. My two sisters, nieces and one nephew all live in New England. My parents live in Florida. Thanksgiving isn’t usually our holiday to gather together, so this was going to be quite the departure for all of us. Everyone was staying home.
The only challenge was what to do about my mother-in-law and her husband. We live in the same town and have pretty much celebrated every milestone this year with them. Easter, her 80th birthday, Mother’s Day, the boys’ birthdays, high school parking lot graduation, and every other occasion that could be marked by an outdoor gathering on our deck or at a local restaurant. There have been a few indoor gatherings together since March, and those were usually brief and purposeful (applying hair color, for example).
And while ours might not be seen as the perfect pandemic behavior, gathering outdoors seemed safe enough. The positivity rate in our county had been relatively low since the beginning, especially when compared to New York City. But all that has changed.
We are firmly in New York’s orange zone and things are shutting down. My teenagers are still working their part-time jobs, though, and one of them ran a cross country race with runners from multiple schools the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
It’s because of that race, and this video by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, that I told my in-laws I did not think it was a good idea to share a meal indoors on Thanksgiving. “Maybe we can gather by the firepit and enjoy bowls of chili instead?”
Self-contained food in bowls. Blankets. Propane heater. Cornbread. Safe.
It all sounded like a solid plan. Zoom call with my family at 1 p.m. Firepit with his family at 2:30 p.m. Football at 4 p.m.
And then the text arrived from my mother, early on Thanksgiving Day. “Can’t find the link for the call…can you resend?”
I ask if she needs a test run, because clearly, she does, and soon I’m on my computer while simultaneously placing a Facetime call trying to troubleshoot. They are PC users. I’m on a Mac. I can’t help them find the application. I conference in my sister in New Hampshire who is also a PC user. We share screens. We ask questions. They finally see one of us but can’t master the grid view to see everyone at the same time.
Meanwhile, the chili is burning on the stove.
My husband comes at me with his phone to show me it will be raining at 2:30pm, the exact time our fireside outdoor gathering is scheduled to begin. I tell him to call his mother and try to push the start time later. She doesn’t answer her phone. Her husband doesn’t answer his. My sister can still be heard through my computer asking patiently, “Dad, do you see a blue icon with a video camera?” I take the chili off the stove and head to the shower. I would like to clean up before the actual call starts!
With a few seconds to spare before 1 p.m., I click on my family Zoom meeting link and virtual Thanksgiving begins. Quarantine bingo is pretty fun and so are the props I had sent to each household in advance. They all played along! My son brings me a glass of wine because he knows me so well. And then outside my window I hear the rain. Just as my husband and his phone had predicted.
As family commitment number one winds down, I start stressing about family commitment number two. My perfect fall outdoor setup has been foiled by the rain and my dining room is not at all set up to host a socially-distanced, well-ventilated gathering with anyone, least of all two people in their 80s. The kitchen is a full-on mess because I anticipated no indoor visitors.
I mute the Zoom, something I have become expert at in all these months working from home, and shout to my husband, “Did you get a hold of your mother yet? I think you should tell her to come later or we can bring food to her,” I say.
Wait. Hard stop. Tell an Italian mother not to come over on a holiday? My husband is firmly situated between a rock and a hard place.
The phone call did not go so well. At one point I hear her say something like, “Are we all supposed to stop living our lives?”
Yes. Yes we are. We are to stop living our lives temporarily so that we all have lives to live.
The next day I invited her to meet me for a walk. I felt terrible about how the day unfolded and how it ended, with us dropping food at her house. Outside with our masks on, I reinforced that the decision to not have her over was made not because we didn’t want to celebrate with her, but because it was the safest thing for her and her husband. I reminded her that my teens are out and about, at school and work, and because the number of cases is rising quickly here now, there a real possibility they will bring the virus into our home.
“What if the boys gave you the virus and you had to be in the hospital? Imagine if the proper care was not available because the hospitals were overloaded. We would all have to live with that guilt, knowing we could have made a smarter, better choice.”
“We are doing this for you, Nana,” I said.
“I understand,” she said. “I really do.”
Then she turned to me, eyes pleading above her mask, “So what does this mean for Christmas?”
And with that I suggested we keep on walking.