With the holidays upon us, I’ve been thinking about how different things will be with my mom gone. Every family meal since she died has felt strange, incomplete. At a big dinner with some family friends a couple of months ago, the hostess looked around the table and suddenly began to tear up. “Oh,” she said, “Somebody’s missing.”
I know that at every holiday from now on I will think to myself, “Somebody’s missing.” But I also know that I’m not the only one for whom the holidays will be difficult this year. In the past, I’ve been so lucky to have a family that’s all together, that all get along well. But I have a lot of friends for whom that’s never been the case: friends with missing moms or dads or siblings, friends who are estranged from their relatives for one reason or another. Yesterday I was on the phone with a friend who’s lost family this year, too. They don’t know what they’re going to do for Thanksgiving, because they don’t know which of their relatives are still on speaking terms. Another friend doesn’t have the time or money to make the flight back home to her family, so she’s hosting a Friendsgiving dinner at her house. An old friend in California hasn’t celebrated winter holidays or seen his family in years, by choice. He changed his last name after he left home so that his parents couldn’t find him.
For nobody I know are the holidays a straightforward, uncomplicated affair. The idea that these days are for bringing the whole family together and celebrating without conflict or discomfort is such an American myth—one that falls into the same category as getting your dream job right out of college or owning a home in the 21st century. The vision of happy, peaceful domesticity in the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting has never been a reality. But most of us continue to make these long journeys, take these expensive flights and make these laborious side dishes to participate in the myth.
As cynical as I am about the holidays and as weird as they’ll be this year, they seem more important now than ever before. With my family few and far between, I really want us to be together some as the year draws to a close. But I understand that not every family can or should come together like that. And I think it’s important to respect people’s decisions to keep distance from their family.
For the queer teenager in a family full of Trump voters, those holiday dinners can be traumatic. For the Native girlfriend that somebody brings home to their family for Thanksgiving, the denial of the origins of the holiday can be aggravating. These and a million others are good reasons to not celebrate the holidays, or to celebrate them differently, with chosen family.
And you know, chosen family is often better than the real deal anyway. Even though I’m going home to Houston for Thanksgiving, I’m also having a Friendsgiving dinner on Monday night with some people here who I’ve come to really care about—including one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. There won’t be any turkey or mashed potatoes. But those things have never been the point of the holiday to me anyway. My memories of great meals in the past don’t revolve around what I ate, but rather who I shared the meal with.