How My Extended Family Made A Fractured Thanksgiving Whole

We can’t control when people shift, change, or vanish from our lives entirely. But when we are open enough to let the right people support us, we can build our own families from the ground up.

Margaret Atwood once wrote that divorce is like an amputation. You survive it, but there’s less of you.

When my parents split after almost 30 years together, there was less of me. There was less of all three of us: Less to give, less to put up a fight, less to do little else than crumple inward and lick our own wounds. We were too exhausted and bereaved to console one another, and retreated into selfishness like a kind of flimsy refuge.

There was less furniture, as they decided which pieces would go and which would stay. I turned the corners of the house I grew up in to find bare floors, decades-old perforations in the carpeting, shadows on the wall where fixtures had been. Some of the rooms, like my dad’s bedroom, had been rearranged to mask the gutted space. “I made into an office for you to finish your thesis,” my mom said, one arm in a soft hug around my neck, the other propped against the wall where her cross-stitching once hung. For the next three months I sat in that room full of borrowed patchwork pieces, hammering out words in a desperate effort to fill it with something good and new.

There were fewer friends. My college roommate’s mother, who did her best to help me make sense of my mom’s new behavior and that of the women around her, told me that this would probably happen. I learned that in the 21st century, divorced women are still very much social pariahs, and that divorce is very uncomfortable for couples seeking to avoid stigma by association. The support of our oldest, closest family friends evaporated. Under pressure to choose sides, villainize one or both parties, or else escape a reminder of issues within their own marriages, they quietly slipped out of our lives.

We are never prepared for what we expect.

The following November I answered a call from my Aunt Diane, a retired elementary school teacher whose bubbly exuberance had kept me going through even the most disorienting of moments. “Want to come up here for Thanksgiving?”

As an only child with a small local family, I had never experienced the hectic, elaborate, well-attended Thanksgivings in movies. It was usually just the three of us at our drop-leaf kitchen table. Eating together in silence due to forced proximity the previous year left me wanting to tear off my skin, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there was an alternative to putting my head down and pushing through until December 26.

And so I drove over the western Pennsylvania mountains away from my mother, away from my father too (both were spending the day with respective family members), and arrived at an apartment complex in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. My Aunt Mel had moved here after her own divorce a few years earlier. “Just enough space for me,” she had told my mom over the phone, “and a spare room for when the girls visit.”

I shuffled my feet on the textured mat and clutched the proverbial gift of booze in my gloves, waiting for an answer at the door. Albeit long-distance, my relationships with Aunt Diane and her children, Erin and Ryan, had recently strengthened. We discovered that our adult selves had very similar personalities and much in common, and I was relieved to know more family than just my dad in a new city. But all the other Thanksgiving guests were either family members I hadn’t seen in ages or their significant others I’d never met. I wondered how I would fit into this puzzle that had snapped together a world apart from me.

Aunt Mel’s apartment was small and clean, minimally garnished. Ceramic plates in salmon and olive rested atop the crisp white cabinets, a maple hutch housed the dishes we would use to eat. Country snowmen of various shapes and sizes, with cockeyed button eyes and plaid scarves, were lined up on a “Merry Christmas” floor runner. “How yinz doin’?” my aunt asked, lowering a basket of napkins to gather me in her arms. “Make yourself at home, everything’s almost ready.”

The last of the sunset trickled in through the blinds as we ate. There were steamed vegetables and bowls of mixed greens, mashed potatoes crested with gravy, turkey and stuffing and a homemade cranberry sauce that glistened like gems, bottles of chardonnay passing from one hand to the next. The more dishes and glasses that crowded our table, the more thankful I was for a saturated space that did not feel like less.

True to form, my family broke out the Rolling Rock and Iron City as the primetime Steelers game kicked off. All five cousins, together for the first time in nearly a decade, settled on the couch and fell into an alternating rhythm of filling each other in on our lives and screaming at the TV. Adrienne and I bonded over the joys and stresses of teaching, while Lindsay and her high-school sweetheart briefed me on the local football rivalries.

I sunk down into the cushions, into the hazy warmth of a full stomach and close company. This wasn’t a place for pain, and yet it could be, I realized, a shelf to rest pain on temporarily. I knew that there was enough love in the room to absorb it on some future day when life went dark again, when I might need someone.

Our Thanksgiving taught me that often in life, we have to experience the less in order to appreciate the more. I moved into my first apartment shortly after and thought of my Aunt Mel doing the same after a marriage, divorce, and two children, and understood that starting over looks a lot like starting out, just on the other side of lessons learned. I knelt beside my Aunt Diane’s mother, Lucy, as she told me, “You can be my granddaughter,” since my own maternal grandmother had passed a year to the day before I was born. At work I found my place in a group of older professors, mentors who absorbed me in a kind of academic family at the start of my career.

We can’t control when people shift, change, or vanish from our lives entirely. But when we are open enough to let the right people support us, we can build our own families from the ground up.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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