#NaNonFicWriMo: Family Holidays
It’s funny how holiday gatherings with family are so delightful in childhood yet shift into a source of stress in adulthood. As a kid, the worst part about Thanksgiving consisted of obligatory eating of vegetables before getting the highly coveted dessert. Now our extended family pepper us with unsolicited opinions about the news, shower us with unsolicited advice about building a career, or grill us with questions about dating.
That said the holidays at the end of the year are magical times to transcend awkward family dynamics in the name of expressing love and gratitude with presence. Presence through homemade or fraudulently homemade food, presence through enduring hellish travel conditions and awkward sleeping arrangements, and presence through keeping familial bonds and traditions alive. I find sweet poetry in looking at the arc of how the years pass. The beginning of the year starts full of hope and potential for what we will experience and achieve. The end of the year focuses on gratitude and honoring the people and institutions that make all of those milestones possible.
Our family gatherings are special for their consistency. Every Christmas, my grandma came to visit. We would sit in the same chairs around the formal dining table with the special dishes and silverware only used twice a year. Our Thanksgivings proceeded similarly, with the exception that it was just my parents and siblings.
I grew up playing sou chef to my mom. The menu stayed the same from year to year. My mom is not the one for culinary experimentation. Our Thanksgiving meals always began with preparation during the night before we ate. My mom and I would work together to prepare the turkey for its sauna session the next day. She does what professional chefs call a dry brine but what I used to call the turkey dance. We’d carefully rinse off the turkey before salting and tenderizing the turkey inside and out. Then my mom would hold up the turkey by the wings and shake off the residual seasonings. When I was little, I would make up a song for the turkey to dance to as she shook it.
After the turkey preparation, we would move on to the cornbread. I’d stand on a chair next to her to dump in the dry ingredients and carefully stir them together. Then my mom would take over to add the eggs and milk before popping the batter into the oven. She would take the turkey neck and giblets we removed from the turkey and cook those on the stovetop. The rest of the evening, we would work on chopping many of the other supporting ingredients: cheddar cheese, onions, celery, and my least favorite green beans.
There was a certain meditative aspect to doing the same tasks from year to year. It was a sign of the reliability and stability of my family that this was one of many things that didn’t change. That’s the thing about traditions. Rituals and traditions reaffirm your values and identity through repetitive action. My parents are from Los Angeles and Miami, but like most other African Americans in this country, their family roots are connected to Southern states. My dad’s family originated in Alabama and my mom had strong ties to Virginia. Our holiday tables were full of what I considered to be traditional America food until I went away to college: mac and cheese, yams, that canned cranberry sauce and cornbread stuffing. Eating this food both built and reinforced our family history.
As the years have passed, I spend less time in the kitchen with my mom. After college, I stopped coming home for Thanksgiving altogether because it was financially and logistically challenging after I stopped living in Texas. I still come home for most Christmases, but those traditions have changed too as my siblings and i have gotten older. My younger brother is married and has a three year old. When I visit home, many years my parents and I will spend the holidays with his family and in-laws. And this too shows the beauty of the holidays. They create space for honoring consistency and tradition but also leave room for those gatherings to grow as families change. We have blended family traditions over time and come up with new ones to accommodate the new generation.
I certainly miss the food that my parents make for every Thanksgiving. Being away from home and experiencing that homesickness has prompted me to establish my own Thanksgiving traditions. My first away-from-home Thanksgivings I would gather with friends also orphaned from their families to host Friendsgivings. The last few years, my boyfriend and I travel to new locations together to define the new traditions that work for us. Ultimately, these holiday gathering may vary in appearance but they still carry the commitment to expressing connection and love by bringing loved ones together.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.