Nine Months of Thanksgiving Weekend
Our two sons, one in graduate school, the other in college, have been home with us for a few months. At the start of spring break, their universities ordered all students to pack their bags, vacate the dorms, and finish coursework online. A few weeks ago, our sons learned that their fall semester studies would continue as online, distance learning. For many students, our sons included, this has meant a protracted return to the family nest. My husband and I are fortunate to have the space and bandwidth to accommodate them.
When I say “bandwidth,” I am not talking about internet speed or capacity—although these seem vitally important now. Instead, I am referring to the psychic space to host our adult sons at home, and for all of us to live amiably en familleonce again. Admittedly, we are not always all amiable, but we’ve learned how to cultivate an environment of tolerant harmony instead of dysfunctional discord.
To cope with our ongoing coexistence, we each stake out our territories. I am stationed outside on the patio for hours at a time since hot weather and mosquitos don’t bother me. (I don’t like cold weather though, so talk to me in November and see what alternative I’ve found.) My husband works in our small home office–an area I find positively claustrophobic. He manages, however, to create an expansive and environment there thanks to Spotify. My sons are fortunate to have their own bedrooms. At twenty-one and twenty-six years of age, their social world is virtually robust. They escape from confinement by using social media to connect with friends now scattered all over the country and world.
In common spaces, such as the kitchen and family room, we have adopted attitudes of conscious courtesy, maybe something long overdue. For example, viewers keep the TV sound at a discreet level, and no matter how bad a caffeine craving, no one appropriates the kettle’s hot water that someone else put on to boil. When there are lapses in our homebound politesse, it is like being foisted into bad immersive theater. The problem is that none of us can walk out on the performance; we each have a starring role, 24/7.
It has struck me that a silver lining of this time is a jackpot of opportunities for taking the family photos we send with Christmas cards. From my sons’ teen years onwards, finding time for these portraits has necessitated serious strategizing. Now we have plenty of time, but no interest. It’s not a question of our homespun haircuts or hair color. It’s bigger than that: We have no enthusiasm to document this time of personal upheaval, restriction, and truncated plans, especially since no one knows when it will end. Yet, we realize that we are among the lucky ones. We have good health, a home, food to eat, and employment (both my sons found online summer jobs, and my husband’s and my work easily transitioned online). Many living close by have few of these.
Despite our good fortune, each one of us has cranky and impatient moments. Were someone to ask my sons, they would say that I have been the worst culprit. I like to think of myself as expressive, but they sometimes perceive me as overly dramatic. They are probably right. But in my defense, during this time I have averted mealtime malaise by preparing their favorite foods as I do during holiday breaks. I am not talking about Thanksgiving turkey or Easter ham; instead, I whip up dishes I know our sons enjoy but don’t get in college cafeterias. Specially prepared food says, “I am so glad you are here—I love you,” and I try to say that in different ways, even if my thoughtless words occasionally communicate something else.
I am lucky to be able to offer this home-cooked succor to our sons. It is a small compensation for all they are missing, but I now have multiple chances to cater to their food preferences—just as I do during their long holiday weekends. In fact, it feels like we are now living in a suspended long holiday weekend—sort of like nine months of Thanksgiving weekend.
When I say this to my women friends, it elicits a wry chuckle and a culturally relevant version of “OMG!” They get it. For many of us, Thanksgiving weekend conjures up emotional and relational baggage that we start to unpack—but never resolve—over that four-or-five-day period. It is a time of affective complexity: we feel grateful for our families and fortune, but we are stressed. Sometimes there are minor stressors, such as, I neither know how to make, nor care for the creamy mashed potatoes my mother-in-law insists must be on the Thanksgiving table. Other times, major stressors arise, some destructive or even tragic. Then there are those that in hindsight could be plot lines for a Hollywood holiday release based on the reunion of a wildly silly, dysfunctional family. We always find in those films a character who reminds us of one of our relatives—someone we tolerate but also manage to love.
As is the case with Thanksgiving weekend, many of us feel we have little choice now but to spend lots of time with our family members. In my case, I realize that my family is doing reasonably well, as a group, and also as individuals. And while I might not have chosen to exist in a period of so much enforced togetherness, I cannot imagine how I would live through these times without my husband and sons. I am so lucky to have their support and love, although on occasion, they have interesting ways of demonstrating their affection. But honestly, they could say the same of me.
At dinner when my sons, husband, and I are stumped for mealtime chat that wasn’t already introduced at lunch, we sometimes revive a Thanksgiving tradition of mentioning something for which each of us is thankful. My oldest son invariably is the first one to say, “my family,” but we all soon follow suit. This reminder elevates our collective mood and our conversation. I would recommend trying this if you feel overloaded with too much family togetherness during these times. What your family members say might surprise you, in a good way.
Will we be able to maintain our peaceful coexistence through the rest of the year? I hope so, but check in with me in November to see if I have found a substitute encampment for the outdoor patio. And who knows? I may also tell you about the recipe for the creamy mashed potatoes that my husband and sons love.
Tara Munjee’s essays on parenting and family have been published in Autism Parenting, Her View from Home, and Pilgrim: A Journal of Catholic Experience. In addition to caring for her family, Tara is also an adjunct professor of dance and humanities at Dallas College in Dallas, TX.