Thanksgiving is Looking Different This Year

My brother Mike and I at Thanksgiving 2010. A lot has changed since then.

Thanksgiving is THIS WEEK. I made a mad dash to the J.C. Market yesterday for Thanksgiving cooking needs because I had just realized how close the holiday was. Now my turkey is in the refrigerator starting its long defrost. Bread pieces for stuffing wait on the counter. I’ve got potatoes, celery, apples, a bottle of chardonnay . . . my friend is bringing a pumpkin cake, cranberry sauce, corn casserole . . . it sounds like a regular Thanksgiving. But it won’t be.

Pat and I, both widows, are doing the day together. Our families are far away. Her son’s family is in Connecticut. Her daughter and son-in-law in California have COVID-19. My family is in California, too. In past years, I would drive to San Jose, spend a couple days with my father, then drive him to my brother’s place in Cathey’s Valley near Yosemite. That big house would fill with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Babies, toddlers and older kids would be running around, along with several dogs. Football on TV. Cheese and crackers on the counter. Big tables laden with turkey, stuffing, ham, two kinds of potatoes, and more side dishes than I can name, plus three kinds of desserts. “Pass the gravy,” we’d hear. “Oh, this is so good.” “How’s it going up in Oregon?”

We would remember those who had passed on, drink a toast to them, hope they were having a good time in heaven.

After dinner, we’d stretch out in the living room, talk, watch TV, maybe go for a walk or a scenic drive. Later, there’d be turkey sandwiches and leftovers packed up for those who had to leave. We’d fall asleep full, not just with food, but love and family and gratitude.

When we were kids, my parents hosted most of the holidays. Somewhere I have pictures of all the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins sitting around that big table, eating, joking, talking over each other. Somewhere are home movies of those times, taken by my dad as we sat blinded by the light. When asked to say grace, my mother’s father would say, “Grace! Let’s eat.”

In later years, my mother did say a real grace, and then we passed the food in both directions at once while people knocked bowls against each other. Someone might toss a roll to someone across the table. We were so sophisticated.

Holidays were never totally idyllic. Arguments broke out. People’s feelings got hurt. One year, my sister-in-law’s garbage disposal overflowed, and the men took turns on the floor trying to fix it. One year my mother’s oven didn’t work and the turkey was raw. In his later years, Grandpa hallucinated with dementia. Later, when my husband had Alzheimer’s, he was lost and confused all day. Toward the end of his life, my father sat silent, unable to hear much of what people said. But I also remember him smiling at his baby great-granddaughter, making faces at her.

Shoot, I’m going to cry. My father passed away last year. So many are gone. The youngest baby is walking and talking, and I haven’t seen her since before she could crawl.

Stupid COVID. Most years I worry about the weather driving to and from California in the winter. If it’s snowing at Siskiyou Pass, then I have to take the coast route, driving through wind, rain and mudslides. Not fun either way. But I haven’t made that drive since last Thanksgiving. After years of going back and forth, it’s strange. I haven’t left the Oregon coast since March.

I debated about going south for Thanksgiving, but ultimately decided I would stay home this year. When I called my brother to tell him, he already knew. The governors of both states had just locked everything down because of the latest surge in COVID cases.

Newscasters, government officials and doctors are all saying the same thing. Do not gather in a large group for Thanksgiving. Stay home. Keep it small. Don’t risk spreading COVID. I fear a lot of people will ignore that advice and spread the virus even more.

This is Pat’s first Thanksgiving without her husband, who died in July. It will be hard. Every first holiday is hard. My husband died the day before Easter. I went to Easter dinner at a friend’s house where I felt like an outsider with her family. They were all sorry my husband had passed, but they quickly went on to other subjects. I don’t blame them. No matter where you go, you feel like you’re from another planet when a loved one has just died.

Anyway, Pat and I, who have claimed each other as the sisters we never had, are planning a huge meal, to be followed by a movie. Maybe, if the weather cooperates, we’ll soak in the hot tub. Maybe we’ll Zoom call our families. Maybe we’ll cry a little. And we’ll eat leftovers for a week.

What are your plans, dear friends? How are they different this year?

Holiday travel: torn between home and ‘home’

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When your family lives far away, you have three choices for the holidays: go to them, have them come to you, or stay home without your family. Frankly, all three choices suck. Number two is not an option for me due to old people, young children, and people with full-time jobs being less portable than I am. I have tried option three, and I do not like being alone on the holidays. Right now, on an ordinary Tuesday with Annie, it’s fine. But Christmas or Thanksgiving? A little turkey loaf for one? How sad is that? Too sad.

So that leaves option one: I go to them. That means another long drive to California. Why not fly? Have you heard about the airports during the holidays? The train is a little better, but expensive, overbooked during the holidays, and it never arrives on time. Also, I need a car when I get to San Jose to drive my dad to my brother’s place, which is three hours from where he lives—unless you take a wrong turn which I did last week. Oooh, you should have heard my father’s reaction to that. Anyway, we made it.

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Dad, Hazel, and my brother Mike

 

I hate leaving home. I hate leaving Annie especially in the winter, but she doesn’t travel well. The last thing I need on the wet winding roads of winter is a giant dog in my face, a dog that I can’t leave anywhere to eat, walk or visit family members with cats, a dog that is definitely not going to let me take a much-needed nap at a rest stop while other dogs are perusing the “dog area” nearby. So Annie stays home. She’s such a nervous Nelly that I gave up on the kennel. All those other dogs freak her out, plus I discovered they don’t give the dogs any exercise. Eight days in a cage. Not for my baby. So I hire a dog sitter, who is wonderful, but spendy and who is not here during the long cold nights when Annie sleeps in her crate in the laundry room, quivering when it thunders during yet another storm.

It’s not just the dog, of course. I also leave my work, my piano, and all the comforts of home, such as bathtub, TV, Internet, and food of my own choosing. If I lived nearby, I could just go for a day and come home to sleep in my own bed, but no, I moved to Oregon, so I have to pay the price.

Sometimes it physically hurts to detach from my home and my dog, but once I get on the road, I love the first day of the trip. Oregon is so beautiful, and it feels great out on the open road, music playing, mountains and pastures flying by, towns to explore, restaurants to enjoy.

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Baby Riley

The second day is not as much fun. The “Bay Area” seems to expand more with every trip. This time, the traffic backup started at Dunnigan and hit a peak at Vacaville, where I endeavored to get lunch and found all roads so clogged with traffic it was nearly impossible to get to a restaurant or to get back on the freeway afterward. In fact, by the time I finished driving in circles and managed to get back on I-5, I was in tears and feeling sorry for myself. Too hard. All alone. Why don’t they come see me? Now I need a bathroom and there’s no place to stop. Etc.

The traffic in the Bay Area is horrific. So many cars driving so fast, zipping in and out of lanes with no warning, clogging up to stop and go, breathing smog, my hands, elbows and shoulders aching from white-knuckling it for a hundred miles. This is why we moved to Oregon! I had left Mt. Shasta at 8 a.m. and should have been at Dad’s house by 2:00. It was nearly 4:00 when I parked in his driveway and oozed out of the car with knees threatening to give out. Dad immediately started nonstop talking, and the visit was on. So good to see him, so hard to get there.

Saying goodbye at the end of the trip makes me cry again. Dad is 94 ½. I don’t know how many more visits we’ll have, how many more times he’ll be waiting for me to call when I get home, how long before he can’t live on his own. The guilt sits on my shoulders like wet cement as I head east on Stevens Creek Boulevard to the freeway, conscious of the now-empty passenger seat beside me.

I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it gets harder all the time.

So why don’t I move back and reunite with father, dog and family? Money is a big part of it. I can no longer afford to live where I grew up. The cost of living is insane. Those 65-year-old tract homes on Dad’s street are selling for a million dollars. A million dollars! A studio apartment, if you can find one, costs more than my mortgage on this four-bedroom house with its massive woodsy yard. Yes, I could stand less rain and fewer gray days, but I don’t want to deal with the traffic and crowds in San Jose. My brother, living on a hill near Yosemite, feels the same way. Dad says he likes both of the places where we live, but he’s not going to leave his house until he has to, preferably never.

So I drive and drive and drive. I swear I’ll never do it again. I take the coast route when it’s snowing in the Siskyous and it takes forever. Miles of winding roads with rain making it hard to see. I pass all kinds of vacation destinations but can’t stop because I need to get to my destination before the traffic, before it gets dark, before Dad panics. Maybe someday, I promise myself, but not now.

I spent $900 on my car before I left. New brakes, everything checked, fluids topped off. The service guy said I needed new tires, but I didn’t get them. I hoped these would last another trip, and they did, thank God.

So was it all misery? No. I had a great time at my brother’s house. I enjoyed listening to Dad’s stories and just being with him. It was wonderful seeing the sun. I ate delicious foods and saw gorgeous sights, including a rainbow over the mountains and another one extending into the ocean. I got away from all of my usual chores and worries and felt my mind open up to new ideas and possibilities. I ate a marionberry muffin in Gold Beach and wrote a poem near Roseburg. I got to hold Riley, my 5-month-old great niece and feel her tiny fingers gripping my big hands. I got to talk face-to-face instead of Facebook to Facebook with my niece and nephew, my brother and sister-in-law, and her extended family. I ate a ton of pumpkin  pie. I played the 1880s cabinet grand piano at Dad’s house, feeling its mighty power under my fingers. Memories came flooding back, and I slept better in my old bedroom than I sleep here at home.

The day before Thanksgiving, a writer friend had surgery for a brain tumor. The doctors couldn’t take it all out but hoped to buy him a year, maybe two if he is lucky. This is a man at the height of his career, a brilliant writer, beloved teacher, devoted father and husband. Suddenly he has to quit his job and doesn’t know what he’ll be able to do in the short time left before he dies.

None of us knows what’s going to happen. So we hit the road and take what it brings, whether it’s rain and bald tires or a giant slice of pumpkin pie and a chance to hold a baby.

How about you? Do you travel for the holidays? Are Christmas and Thanksgiving always at the same places or do you trade off? How do you make the travel tolerable? Any experiences you’d like to share? Please comment and let us know.