Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s most popularly recognized as an occasion to eat too much, watch television, fight with your in-laws, and occasionally give thanks, but the reality is much more diverse. In “My Thanksgiving,” we’re talking to a handful of Americans across the country — and world — to get a broader sense of the holiday. For some of our interviewees, they have no traditions at all. But the day — steeped in American mythos, an origin story that comes with great complications — is at least passively observed by even the most agnostic of patriots. In this installment, Sheila R., a single mom who lives in Berkeley, California, talks about the importance of having a pressure-free, contemplative Thanksgiving.
I have two very different traditions: what I did as a single mom and what I do now that my son is grown up.
This year, I’m probably going to be working on Thanksgiving, because I have a job in retail and it’s my first year at it. I do have an engagement at Glide Memorial Church which is a very popular, very across-the-board evangelical church. I guess it’s Christian-based, but when you go to a service there, you never hear anything about Christianity or Judaism. It’s almost like a motivational speaker. Just, “Go out there, be good, be of service.” Right now, I’m single anyway, so it’s not like I have any huge plans and it’s just really, such a feel-good thing to do.
When it was my son Rowan and I, I just wanted it to be between the two of us. I don’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Thanksgiving was always the unofficial Christmas, and we love Christmas. That’s our thing. Nobody else. Just the two of us. I didn’t want to water down someone else’s tradition. I would cook the traditional dinner, and then we would just watch football or go for a walk. We usually watched some type of Christmas movie. We really love Elf. We could watch that every year and still not get tired of it.
At some point, he would either sleep over or he’d have to go back to his dad’s to go to sleep. Every year was slightly different — at night, for Thanksgiving, and the next day. It was very simple. I cooked everything traditionally. It was stuff he loved. We did it every other year because I shared custody with his dad, though sometimes it was every year in a row because his dad was traveling. But for the most part, we alternated years from the age of like eight onwards.
Nothing beats being with your son. I would get invitations to join families for Thanksgiving and I would turn them down. There was no pressure. If I burned the turkey, I burned the turkey. If you’re entertaining five people, then it’s like, “Oh my god, I burned the turkey!”
And that’s the other thing: I just didn’t feel pressure with Rowan. To have this perfect looking house or the hand-written name tags. It was overkill. “Can you polish the silver?” “Polish the silver? Do we really have to have silver?” It was so stressful. Even making it, eating it, and cleaning up after it was just one big stress-ball in my mom’s house. She would inevitably get angry and say, “Nobody appreciates me! I do all this work!” It was like a broken record. You could skip to the beginning of the song, the middle of the song, the end of the song. It was so well rehearsed.
I didn’t want it to be that kind of Thanksgiving, and I didn’t want it to be stressful.
And then when he went up to college, I did just the opposite. I would [do Thanksgiving] with lots of people, and lots of traditions.
I don’t want to sound like a Hallmark card, but I really do feel like [Thanksgiving] just highlights the season of giving. Not just giving gifts to each other, but the time to volunteer at the church or whatever. Of course, the church would say, “You know we give out food every day, not just today. You can come back tomorrow!” But I really do think it’s the start of something. It’s also the time to really reflect on where you’re at. I always try to give myself a little stock and inventory. Where was I last year in my life? Where am I this year? Do I need to do a little more service? Maybe I’m getting too caught up in material things.
It’s really hard to go through a holiday like that alone. There’s just a lot of pressure societally to have this perfect smile, like a Norman-Rockwell-card-experience with Thanksgiving. It’s impossible to do.