On the surface, Thanksgiving in 2020 didn’t look much different than last year, just with a slightly smaller group coming to our home for lunch. Just like last year, I still stressed about recipes for two weeks prior, still obsessively checked the density of the thawing 16 lb. turkey in my refrigerator, still shot awake at 6:30 am on Thanksgiving worried about the turkey timeline.
A few days before the holiday, just like last year, I chose outfits for my two sons, aged 6 and 3, and washed the good pants without holes and the socks without stains in hot water with Oxy Clean so they would look perfect and escape criticism from grandma. I had the cleaners come on Tuesday (wearing masks of course) to scrub away the dirt caked on the floor from two little boys who run in and out of the house dragging mud and fallen leaves on the soles of their shoes that they refuse to take off. I printed recipes from the internet during work video calls and made shopping lists while pretending to listen: butter (a lot), pie crust, white bread, fresh cranberries, chicken broth.
If I hadn’t accidentally dropped the blinders I have so skillfully held to my temples for the past two plus months of avoiding news and COVID case statistics, I may have missed how utterly different this holiday would be. Beneath the delicate surface of Thanksgiving cheer, reality snuck in.
I felt the wave approaching Tuesday near the end of the work day as I stood at my standing desk in the spare bedroom in our house, the room I haunt for 40+ hours a week. The wave of dread, anxiety, and sadness that has come and gone, come and gone so many times over the length of the pandemic. I have grown accustomed to its arrival, creeping in like a sneaking nighttime fog and settling in the space inside my chest, usually coinciding with a surge in cases in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. Then my limbs grow heavy and a permanent furrow crinkles between my eyebrows. My best friend, also a mom of two little kids, said to me on the phone a few months back, “I feel like I’m always on a roller coaster. One day I’m fine, I’m staying occupied, I’m exercising, I’m positive, and then the next, there I go again.” I could hear her voice in my head saying it as I took that all too familiar emotional nosedive.
Tuesday night, exhausted, I dreamed the COVID brand of my recurring anxiety dream. For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams when I am anxious that it is the day of a final exam in college and I arrive to the classroom to realize I never attended class, hadn’t studied, and was going to fail. Or I step out onto a stage for an acting performance for which I never rehearsed and I don’t know my lines. Now, over the past several months, performance anxiety has been replaced by mask anxiety. I find myself in social settings in my dreams – in a bar, attending a conference, walking into a work meeting – but I am not wearing a mask and I panic. Tuesday night, I had at least three mask nakedness dreams.
By Wednesday night as I exhaustedly cooked au gratin potatoes and homemade stuffing alongside frozen pepperoni pizza for dinner, and as my husband did the boys’ bath upstairs so I could concentrate on pre-Thanksgiving cooking, I had descended into anger. Why of all days was this hitting me now, on Thanksgiving? I had been doing great for weeks – exercising regularly, cooking healthy meals, staying positive even in the face of work stress and the daily struggle for balance – so why now? Stirring the broth into the toasted stuffing bread, searching my brain for reasons for my sinking mood, I realized.
For months, I guess I thought that by now, by the time the holidays rolled around, we would be turning the corner. We would be on the upswing, and buoyed by this positive trend, we would sail into the holidays with lighter hearts, that we would feel some relief as a holiday gift. But of course, I was fooling myself. We all knew winter would be rough, logically. But so desperate for a happy ending, I told myself this narrative in my subconscious.
On Thanksgiving morning, I robotically made the cranberry sauce, showered and styled my hair (rare during COVID), and dressed the boys in their pristine outfits. Then I set in on the turkey prep. After 30 minutes thawing the bird in the sink with running water to clear the last stubborn ice block from the turkey’s body, I slid it onto the roasting pan and decided that this year I would try to truss. Maybe a perfect turkey would cheer me up, I thought. I pulled up a YouTube video on how to truss, and defiled my phone with multiple re-watchings restarted with turkey covered fingers, and then cut a piece of string to begin. Three string pieces, my grandmother’s pearl necklace covered in turkey juice from leaning forward so many times, and five attempts at tying up that bird, I had it decently trussed. But I was exhausted. Trussing took the last bit of goodwill I had left, the last breath of energy I could muster.
The rest of the holiday was a blur of trying to focus on gratitude that my family, my loved ones, are safe and healthy. In the end, it felt unfair that I was able to celebrate. Beneath the happy facade of Thanksgiving lay the darkness experienced by so many thousands of families, the losses they have experienced and the utter failure of our leaders to protect us as they should and very well could have. The moments I was able to grasp at gratitude – my son’s giggles on the swing as my mother pushed him over and over, my sister’s silly Labradoodle jumping up and licking my mother’s face – were fleeting and dependably pushed aside by anger. And along with that anger, guilt that I wasn’t sharing the joy of Thanksgiving as much as my family deserved.
The day after Thanksgiving, we put up the Christmas tree, lit a holiday spice scented candle, and asked Alexa to play Christmas music. The smell of cinnamon reminded me that hope for an enjoyable Christmas is not yet lost – we can still salvage these holidays. But I won’t feel the same kind of joy as in years past and hopefully years to come. This year, maybe I will let myself off the hook and accept that it won’t be perfect and it won’t all feel good, but it’s good enough.