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Surviving the hollow ache of Thanksgiving with divorced parents

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Thanksgiving with dad, Black Friday with mom?
This article is more than 2 years old.

This post originally appeared at Role Reboot.

I often dream of running away for the holiday.

My tendency to give thanks for my life, a year round habit, comes to a temporary halt at the one time of year designed to elicit such sentiments. Thanksgiving, instead, causes me a low-grade, body buzzing anxiety that starts on Nov. 1. This is also a shame since I really like food, and cooking together with others.

A child of divorce since I was two, whose parents both remarried, and whose father went on to have two more children (my sibs are now in their 20s), the holidays have long involved a series of complex arrangements, which only hurt a couple of people’s feelings at best, and at worst have resulted in what you might call a small family feud. Details redacted for the sheer fact that we still haven’t nailed down this year’s plans.

I envy those people for whom Thanksgiving is a simple decision: Your folks or mine? Here or there? Every year the question of where hangs like an anvil in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon over our collective heads until the last moment, when the squeakiest wheel has been satisfied and the rest of us pick a path of least resistance.

Most children of divorce cite a time when they were consumed by a hollow ache of yearning for their parents to get back together, to rebuild that cocoon of safety, or the familiar routines. Others I know suffered greater wreckage, a permanent rift in their personal fault lines, stretching its damage into their adulthood. My parents were simply two continents of my geography that I moved between weekly, my gray suitcase the flotation device that delivered my most precious things. The only time I ever wished to mend what had been pulled apart, was at the holidays; it certainly would have made logistics simpler, and occasionally I wanted to be there when I was here—whether I longed for the savory sauces of my mother’s deft cooking—or the comfort of my father’s consistent routines.

I spent many a Thanksgiving with my mother’s second husband Alan’s family. Theirs was a rowdy group, my stepfather’s three brothers tall and gangly, a loud and animated bunch of joke crackers and actors, among whom I was the only child. I daydreamed and read in a corner of the busy gatherings, often falling asleep to the white noise of their carrying on, always a little anxious that I should be keeping my father company.

By the time my baby siblings came along, however, we moved the holidays into the center of my father’s new family, in which I, now a teenager engulfed in appropriate angst, indulged in feeling the outsider, dinner often tense. (Babies demand and receive a lot of attention, I discovered).

My parents did one aspect of their divorce right: They remained friends. If my mom was hosting the Big Turkey, my dad and his lady-of-the-moment were always invited. When my dad and his wife took over, my mother and her husband often strolled in for dessert.

But eventually, my father and his second wife split, too, and tensions grew strained as we three children learned the dance of deciding our loyalties.

Several Thanksgivings in a row, hosted at my father’s house, one or both siblings of mine turned up hours late, leading to verbal explosions between my father and his younger children that I never remembered in my own childhood. And for many years, a random guest from the quirky small town my father calls home—those who have taken advantage of my father’s uncommon kindness—would stroll in like a guest at a soup kitchen, fill a plate, eat like a starved beast, only to disappear without making much conversation.

Last year, my siblings dispersed to their mother’s, with whom I have a tense relationship, and my husband and son and I hosted only my father. I was glad to have him—he’s an easy conversationalist and will eat whatever I cook without complaint. But I felt the edges of an old loneliness, a secret seed I’ve carried inside me most of my life. An only child until age 14, who struggled to bond with my first step-parents, I have always fostered a fantasy of holidays in a crowded house, people tumbling out its doors in glee, and a kitchen full of laughing cooks spilling ingredients upon countertops and sipping cider.

In lieu of the perfect assemblage, I often dream of running away for the holiday—to a room on the coast, a week in Hawaii, a fancy restaurant where we eat off gilded china.

Despite the ever-changing variables, the ghost trails of longing—whether Thanksgiving is the rare traditional dinner with my dad and siblings, crab with my mom and her third husband, or a roast chicken when my dad is the only guest—my gratitude does at last unfurl with a gentle joy for this one thing: When I look across the table at my husband of 18 years digging into his turkey with relish, our six-year-old son’s brown eyes fixed on an ochre triangle of pumpkin pie, I know that so long as I have them, I will always have enough.

And for that I give thanks year round.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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