I can't wait to not do Thanksgiving

If your traditions aren't giving you joy, why hang on to them?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 24, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

A family sits at a formally prepared dinner table, looking eager as a woman brings a roast turkey to the table on a platter, 1950s. (Lambert/Getty Images)
A family sits at a formally prepared dinner table, looking eager as a woman brings a roast turkey to the table on a platter, 1950s. (Lambert/Getty Images)

This article is part of "Thanksgiving Your Way." From traditional to not at all, 2021 is an opportunity for carving out new traditions and resurrecting old ones.

My family's Thanksgiving this year so far involves mac and cheese and watching "The Proposal" on the couch. Jealous?

We have earned this. I have earned this. The past year has been a pretty hellish ride, and while I have much to be grateful for, I am ready to be grateful in my own way now. This means that I am incredibly excited for all the things we're not going to do or eat. No big gathering. No turkey, no stuffing, no cranberry sauce from the can. There may not even be pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving has always been my in-laws' big day, and for as long as I've been part of the family, we've gone to their house for a rigidly enforced celebration of traditional brand names — Butterball, Stove Top, Ocean Spray, Durkees. When the kids were little and Dad and the uncles were still alive, it was nice. But my older daughter is mostly vegetarian now. My younger one loathes turkey. Neither of them can abide mashed potatoes. And while it is not a big sacrifice a few times a year to show up for your extended family for a meal you don't especially like, tradition becomes a harder thing to hold on to as time goes by, and an increasing majority of your participants are not enjoying it. If your holiday plans similarly feel more like a chore than a celebration, I encourage you to consider how they might at least be tweaked to improve the experience. Life is too short for self-imposed mediocrity.

My happiest holidays have always been the ones with the fewest expectations or demands. The frigid Christmas morning I woke up in a youth hostel in Vienna. The July 4th it downpoured, and my friends and I ate KFC and played Trivial Pursuit on the rug. The Easter we went to Orlando. And the Thanksgiving after my grandfather died, and the whole family went out for Chinese food. I have been trying to get back to that place of casual Turkey Day ease ever since. I never dreamed it would take a still raging pandemic, 3/4 of our family unit preoccupied with end of semester deadlines, and my mother-in-law in a care facility with advanced dementia to make it happen. Yet the fact remains that while the obligations of our day-to-day lives are intense, the ones around Thanksgiving itself have all melted away. There's no one left to smile through the green bean casserole for, to rush off to eat dinner at noon for. So we're not doing it.

The current plan involves watching the parade, because we like the parade. There will be macaroni and cheese, possibly from scratch and possibly from Kraft, and a Caesar salad with a shredded rotisserie chicken. There are ice cream sandwiches in the freezer, and a bottle of orange wine, because I only recently discovered orange wine, on the windowsill. Who needs anything more than this? Not us, not this year anyway.

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Last week, my mother was admitted to the hospital with sepsis. An abrupt change in her demeanor had signaled a UTI that soon took a serious turn — a brutally common sequence of events in older people with dementia.

She was sleepy when I went to see her. She did not acknowledge anyone else in the room — not the nurses, not me. Instead, she stared groggily at the television, tuned to her favorite home shopping network.

My difficult, inscrutable, frustrating mother, who long ago cut herself off from the rest of the family and refused to speak to any of us, now barely can speak at all. At times during our visit, she would look toward the TV and mumble, in a strained rasp, about something she saw on the screen. "Hat," she would say. "Green blanket." She seemed very, very far away, and also more peaceful than I have known her to be in decades.

RELATED: Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It was well after lunch when I left her room, but I went to the cafeteria anyway, famished and emotional. I asked the woman at the counter if I could get a sandwich. "Bill," she hollered toward the kitchen, "make this young lady a grilled cheese." I devoured it off a styrofoam plate as I watched leaves the color of Velveeta swirl outside the window.

I consider myself a reasonably grateful person, but I have always bristled at the idea of enforced gratitude. Like enforced romance, or patriotism, the part of the holidays where you're required to feel a certain way is the part I like the least. I have hope of future and brighter Thanksgivings than this year's, surrounded by good food and lots of loved ones. But from this Thursday in November forward, I'm going to feel whatever I damn well want to feel and eat whatever I damn well want to eat.

At one point during my visit with my mother, I sat on the edge of her bed — the side opposite the IV drip — and she turned her head to look right at me. "Wow," she said slowly. "My dear daughter." Then she went away again. Was she seeing me, or was she just remembering me? And when I said, "I love you" and she muttered back, "Love you," was she answering me, or just repeating words she no longer even understands? I'll never know. What I do know is that just for a moment, it seemed again as if she was someone's mother, and that I was someone's daughter. I haven't felt that way in a very long time. Later, as I left the hospital, the front desk person who'd directed me to the cafeteria asked me how I'd enjoyed my lunch. "Best grilled cheese of my life," I told her. And as I stepped outside into the chilly air, I felt so thankful I could cry.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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