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My Thanksgiving: A Once-Homeless Mom on Forging New Family Traditions

“I didn't have anybody who was lifting us up or helping us out. It was just me and her for a while. It was really lonely for me. That's why I'm so thankful for family.”

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, mom/volunteer/girl scout troop leader Stephanie J. in Conway, Arkansas, talks about forging new traditions for her future.

Thanksgiving’s a really strange time of year for me because both my mom and my grandmother who made it so special have passed away. All of the things that I had with them, I just don’t have that anymore. It’s not going to be the same, but I need it to be my special thing.

My daughter loves to do arts and crafts. She’s in second grade. If it’s got glitter, she wants to do it. So I was thinking that it would be really special if she could do her family story for a scrapbook. Also,  I like to get outside, so if the weather is nice, I want to do a Thanksgiving day hike. We’re trying some new traditions.

Financially, we’re kind of tight right now, but what we wanted to do this year was seafood.  My significant other [and I] met after I moved here to Conway. He loved the idea of doing the lobster because he loves lobster, but we don’t get to eat it throughout the year. That was more his thing: “Let’s have lobster for Thanksgiving and have it just be the three of us.” We felt like we needed to be more extravagant because we try to be pretty frugal. We try to stay within a budget for most of the year. Lobster’s outside of our means.

Before I lived here, I was homeless. I had a friend who lived here in Conway because I used to drive a truck. He was my trainer when I started. Because he was driving, he was gone all the time, so he offered to let me stay at his house, rent-free, and let me get on my feet. I was really desperate at the time and needed some way to get back on my feet. The choice was either that I was going to head towards New Jersey and try to make it work with my family that I wasn’t very close to; I chose Arkansas. [My daughter] was a baby. I think she was about nine months when we got here. It was a little bit crazy.

It was just me and her and what we could carry, basically.

I decided to go back to school, I graduated in April. I work for the military department. I do Geographic Information Systems work. I drive a school bus in the afternoon, so I’m working both of those, and I do volunteer work. I’m a Girl Scout leader and I’m the vice president of my property owner’s association, so I stay really busy.

When I was going to school, I was struggling so hard. There were times in the middle of the semester where I would just start crying. I would look at these other moms around me that were going back to school and I was like, How are they doing it? How do they make it look so easy? I was just like, Wow, what is wrong with me?

I didn’t have anybody who was lifting us up or helping us out. It was just me and her for a while. It was really lonely. That’s why I’m so thankful for family. It’s this thing that you can’t hold onto forever. It’s just a blink of an eye type of thing. It’s never permanent. My daughter is the one that drives me to be better. Wanting to be a better mother to her was what drove me to get back to school. She’s what drives me every day to get up and keep going instead of giving up.

I also get involved as much as I can. I’ve gone to marches and stuff like that, and I go and vote, and that’s really important to me. I’ve definitely gotten involved because my daughter is so important. What kind of legacy am I going to leave for her?

So for me, [Thanksgiving is] a day to disconnect from all of the chaos outside. There’s a lot of noise and sometimes it can be really difficult to detach from all that’s going on. I care about all of these different things that are going on and that’s why I get involved, but that can be really draining. It’s a great time for me to disconnect from all of that and focus on the little things for a change. We have our own little world for that day.