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(How) Do you Celebrate Thanksgiving?

It’s a Thursday in November. Not the notable one, but another one a few weeks before, and a few days behind the other one. It’s a night in November. Like most of the others, dark early, cool, cornered by wind that sweeps into howls. Working at home blends into conversations almost like the office used to, except for at all hours instead of a specific punctuation of our sentences by the tick of a clock.

“We’re not going anywhere for Thanksgiving this year,” says Laura, a coworker turned colleague, more like friend becoming.

“No. We aren’t either,” I respond, digging my feet deeper under my covers.

“Do you, I mean, celebrate Thanksgiving?” Laura asks.

I’m not sure where the question comes from. Phrasings of that question had tumbled through me since I first returned from Guatemala. For ten years, Thanksgiving was a warm longing, an idealized memory while I turned my attention my substitute Thanksgiving, the local feria celebration that, if nothing else, was a similar exercise in overeating. In Laura’s words I sense two options? Two opportunities? “Do you?” Or, “How do you?”

I miss that clarification, because anxiety already overshadows asking ‘real’ clarifying questions that would help me learn about myself. Instead, I too, inquire the more obvious details. “Why do you ask?” But, I’m really curious, ‘what is it about me that would make someone ask this question that implies the feeling of not quite belonging, not quite believing?

“I don’t know,” she murmurs.

I sense some hesitation, as if Laura had asked a question about a religious practice instead.

“The turkey. Maybe you don’t eat meat,” she finishes.

Meat. It’s not high on my list, but every single serving of pulique I once ate held equal portions of vegetables and poultry. Meat. It’s not the reason.

“I cook dishes I can make from local produce, our garden,” I don’t realize I’m not quite answering. I can feel avoidance in the tender strains over my chest, but can’t place the tiptoe impressions that push too deep.

It’s only later that I can at least name not the act but the actions as ever evolving. Digestion outside my stomach. Other types of aches.

Six years ago, I sat on an airplane, dog at my feet, satisfied with my choice. I would leave Guatemala. The work might not have ever been wrong, but it didn’t feel right, right then, any more. I would go home. In a half step I brought my dog back first. I spoke excitedly with each passenger who occupied the seats next to me about sharing Thanksgiving, about the pie my cousin and I intended to make, and mostly about fitting back into the life in which I was supposed to be. Still, coordinating baking, much less a meal, felt more like a chore than a celebration. Those phone calls and texts between the women in my family told me I didn’t know the rules, didn’t understand the players. I left a fire full of women cooking who welcomed me as some but not all things and returned to an empty kitchen.

Five years ago, I ran my father’s kitchen. I proved myself as a woman, a lonely woman, but still a capable one. I cooked a turkey, potatoes, squash and stuffing. I paused only briefly to request assistance with the gravy. In a scenario not much different in so many spaces in Guatemala, I declared myself, the project, a winner, because I had successfully completed tasks on someone’s traditional list.

Four years ago, it was not my turn to host. By this time, the feeling of the holiday’s monetary expense and the inappropriate attention on a day that symbolized something else for so many, soured the acid in my stomach. If I could just cook what we grew in our own dirt, that might make it okay. I push down deeper than the carrots the knowledge ‘our’ dirt is stolen dirt. Since it was not my turn to host, it was not my turn to lead. When asked what I could bring, I offered the mashed potatoes. I arrived to find a cousin had also cooked the potatoes. I felt the need to dominate pinch against my waistline long before the heavy meal. Intrusion? Lack of organization? Competition? Sadness. We somehow came together without really being together.

Three years ago, I accepted the responsibility to host again. This time, the RSVPs lagged. Dad bought a smaller turkey than before. I made sure to reduce quantities of each accompanying dish, and still, each bowl held too much. A fraction of my family arrived, and they stayed another fraction of the time. Disappointment bloated beyond extra pie and whipped topping. I decided not to host again, perhaps a lagging effect of the work that had kept me away for so long. What was the point of working, if neither the work nor the product was ‘wanted’ by anyone else?

Two years ago, I sat in a breakroom paging through a newspaper insert. I arrived at a salad with a mustard maple syrup dressing. A dish completely new. I was confident enough not to pay attention to the forks picking at an unknown. We needed more light dishes. I was tired of my stomach hurting, tired of fitting into the space that lacked enthusiasm for me, for the holiday, for both. I would bring something that I could bear bringing home again. I would cook, not for a tradition, nor an assumption, but for me.

Last year, all the reading, the social climate, the desire to listen to other stories instead of writing them into my own found me in the library searching for North American Native American recipes. I wanted a series of ingredients that my garden had held. I wanted a dish light enough that I wouldn’t mind eating it for the days after one particular day in November. I didn’t care if no one else ate it. I didn’t mind if anyone asked me why I prepared it. My crockpot simmered a Three Sisters stew. Broth seeped into my father’s garden vegetables. Tongues bit back the green salsa I purchased at the local Mexican grocery store. Not Guatemala, but still, why not give to those who did it better.

This year, there will be no family meal. The current pandemic discourages it. Whether the ‘Thanksgiving’ holiday was ever a good idea, remains to be seen. Many will say, even the truest version of the ‘meal’ should have been cancelled. However, I am relieved that the system has removed the practice from my list of available choices this time. I can cook a small meal for my father. I can fast in recognition of truths ignored. I can donate a meal. I can reach out to those I choose. No preconceived plans. No ‘have tos’. No judgement. It is unprecedented, this change of practice. It is overdue.

With one week to go, I settle beneath my covers again, listening to a celebration of Native American Heritage Month. I miss the first half, but make sure I tune in to learn about indigenous seeds. I mostly hear what I expect.

“It is difficult to maintain the corn next to GMO seeds. Some tribes enroll their seeds as members to protect them.”

I rest my head on the pillow and close my eyes. Warmth spreads up from my feet. Softness tucks into my cheeks.

“No matter what there’s a gap,” she explains. “I take care of these seeds, the same seeds, we’ve always have, but the disruption. I can’t change there was a gap.”

I open my eyes and stare at the tiny phone screen. Gap.

“My grandmother’s recipes. Her table.”

My grandmother had died while I was in Guatemala.

The woman continues, voice even, “Even if the food is there from indigenous seeds, it won’t taste the same.”

There is the answer of the ever unfulfilling. The recipe cards I had tried to mimic that first year. The dishes assigned to me instead of ones I chose. I made the break. Time made the break. The break was made. With the same plates, I had always been doing what I needed to, taking steps forward, to decide ‘how’ to fill them.


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