The other night while watching a horror movie with my roommates, a cheery bravado voice blew in through the open window. The man had been departing a neighbour’s house and called out “Happy Thanksgiving!” to them from the street. We laughed, but for a brief moment it made me sad.
It’s Thanksgiving Sunday, and I’m on the Lakeshore East Train to Oshawa. In the row ahead of me, two girls about my age are sitting with their mom. She just told them that they’re going to do “one of those big Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow” that they’re not going to want to eat.
When I was younger, we had large Thanksgiving dinners at my Grandparent’s cottage. In these faded and slightly idealized memories, my mom’s three sisters are there, their partners, and about twelve kids between the lot. There are dogs from each family running around, and begging for food below the dining table.
I recall that my favourite part of the day was before dinner, when we ventured on a forest walk to collect foliage to decorate the ceiling with. Red Sumac leaves, orange maples and yellow birch. Overhanging branches, clippings, fallen leaves that landed in perfect symmetry with each other. When we get back, the wooden dining table is set directly below our mosaicked canopy, sandwiched between a bustling kitchen island and a large window that faces the lake. My grandfather sits at the right head of the table, and my grandmother sits at the left. It feels like we’re eating outside but it’s warm. The fire is lit. Everyone drinks wine, and laughs.
In the last decade I’ve revisited these memories many times. In the fall of 2018 I was high on magic mushrooms for the first time in my life, with my serious boyfriend of the time. I was lying on the dirty hardwood floor in his tiny room near campus, half conscious of my external environment while another part of me drifted into the comforting back alleys of memory. Level with the floor, I felt like a child hiding under a table. My boyfriend was sitting above me, so I could only see as high as his ankles. He was laughing at something and it reminded me of dinner chatter. I felt full and content in a way I hadn’t been in a very long time, not wanting to extricate myself from the warmth of the cottage hardwood.
That place on this holiday, is one of the safest places in my mind.
As for the holiday itself, celebration varied in the years following. A few times a smaller collection of family members were hosted by my parents in our Oshawa home, and certain aspects of those occasions feel just as warm as the cottage version. We huddled around a similar wooden dining table; myself, my sister and two cousins squeezed onto a repurposed church pew that my parents brought out for large dinner parties, while the adults sat in chairs. Then there were the thanksgivings with my dad’s side of the family: uncomfortably quiet until one of my uncles rose their voice at an inappropriate level, and finally the thanksgivings exclusive to my immediate family: my parents, sister, and I.
It seemed that as we got older, this foursome was becoming our normal. But It was also becoming increasingly obvious that my parents were struggling to enjoy each other’s company. The meal preparation that began at 10 am on these “festive days” always incited fighting between them. The food had to be done a certain way, and one was hard pressed to make kitchen space for themselves. My dad won these territorial battles by proclaiming that he could do the whole thing himself and eventually my mom withdrew from the cooking responsibilities completely. I followed suit while my sister rose to the challenge. My dad would say that it was his kitchen, and she would echo him. Neither of them were aware of what they sounded like, so they yelled at each other and never felt the need to apologize for it as long as dinner came out right. Then I would be called upon to set the table, because “I hadn’t done anything else” and my mom would emerge from her studio a couple glasses of wine in. This is how we got through it.
This year, I hosted a “Friends giving” with my roommates and three close friends who we’ve indoctrinated into our COVID bubble. Though to preface, I actually held my first Friendsgiving last year, but it was potluck style and I only had to manage one mediocre batch of stuffing before my friends arrived.
This year my roommates and I cooked everything together, which is in fact the most involved I have been in Thanksgiving preparation ever in my life. In the morning, one of my roommates biked to town while the others were at work and returned with a turkey bungee chorded to her basket. Then she began defrosting while I went to town and trudged back with two uncomfortably heavy grocery bags, and three bottles of wine. I spent the rest of the day cleaning and decorating the living room to look like an autumnal bohemian dining space (this is both the part I’m good at and the part I enjoy the most mind you) and waited for my other roommates to begin cooking.
I helped quarter several large potatoes for the mash, but deemed myself mainly responsible for the exterior batch of stuffing, and the cranberry sauce. There were four of us in the kitchen paying mind to our respective dishes, and it began to dawn on me that I associate quite a bit of anxiety with prepared meals.
In my mind, multiple dishes meant multiple opportunities to mess up the meal. So as I stood in the corner cutting apples for the stuffing, I began to feel claustrophobic. Every time a roommate brushed up against me on their way to open a cupboard I felt a wave of anger and nausea. I’d have liked to go hide in my room, but I couldn’t because I’m an adult and this time I was partly responsible for the meal. Fortunately, I didn’t feel afraid to share this with my roommates and they were all very sweet and understanding. They told me that it’s nearly impossible to mess up stuffing and asked if I wanted to take a break. I felt safe and started to calm down, though I remained a little shaky. We’d opened one of the bottles of wine while we cooked, and we don’t stop drinking until much later in the night. I understand how it is that wine helped my mom get through evenings like this.
But she doesn’t drink anymore. And my dad doesn’t live with her. According to a text he’s just sent me, he’s spending the thanksgiving weekend with his girlfriend at her family’s cottage. There’s six adults and six children between the lot, he says. It reminds me of the celebrations with my grandparents so many years ago. I feel briefly envious when he tells me this and for a moment I want to cry. But then, as I’ve gotten so much better at doing in adulthood, I resolve that it doesn’t matter. Not to me at least, because he doesn’t exist in my life in that way anymore and it’s easier to love him when I accept that.
As an adult, I’ve realized that it’s difficult to maintain healthy relationships with anyone that you feel you need something from. Need requires a significant amount of effort and trust because it come with expectations, and occasionally expectations result in disappointment. If it weren’t for my present living situation, I might’ve thought differently. But for the first time since graduating high school, I feel like I’ve landed on own two feet.
I live with four other incredible women and in a way, they feel like a new kind of family to me. I imagine that I’ll be friends with them for a long time, and then I imagine that one day I’ll have a family of my own to host Thanksgiving dinners for. We’ll cook all day, sure, but we’ll laugh if the turkey is two hours late to dinner, or if the pie burns. It won’t incite anger, or fighting. I like to think that my home will be open to anyone, because that communal feeling is precisely what I admired at my grandparent’s cottage so many years ago: a shared day of warmth and love.
I’m sitting in my mom’s car driving through Oshawa. When she picked me up from the train station, I proclaimed proudly that I’d made a realization. “I hate thanksgiving!” I told her cheerily, and she responded nonchalantly, that she could take it or leave it. I’m starting to understand why parts of this holiday are uncomfortable for me, I said. “If anything, it feels easier to participate in it now that I’ve acknowledged why it’s hard.” And I think that’s okay.
At the moment Thanksgiving feels like an echo of something lost, but also something that I plan to retrieve one day. What gives my sadness hope is that I’m at a place in my life where I’m constructing my own value system and subsequently, my own version of this holiday. This year’s “Friends-giving” was the closest I’d felt to my cherished cottage memories in a long time, and I plan to continuously strive for that feeling in adulthood.