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Giving Thanks, Even When It’s Complicated

Monday, November 21, 2022

By Natalie Silverstein

As a child of immigrants, I can’t really get excited about Thanksgiving food. As an adult child of an alcoholic, all holidays, including Thanksgiving, are fraught with memories of childhood trauma. As a woman married to a very American Jewish man, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure around the quality of food and the need for family togetherness. As a middle-aged person who feels the years flying by with increasing speed, Thanksgiving is basically New Year’s Day, and therefore, slightly terrifying. As a planner, caretaker, and frequent host, Thanksgiving is connected with equal amounts of anticipatory anxiety and exhaustion. Needless to say, for me the fourth Thursday of November is a slog at best, triggering at worst.

When I was almost nine months pregnant with my youngest child, my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving for his long-divorced parents, along with my mother, brother, and other assorted extended family in our New York City apartment. My elderly mother stayed with us, and the others found accommodations elsewhere or drove home that night.

I stood on my grotesquely swollen feet all day, preparing the meal. As soon as I placed steaming dishes of food on the buffet, people helped themselves. By the time I sat down to eat myself, several guests had already finished, their plates empty. I asked if they wanted seconds before I had eaten one bite.

After the dinner was cleared, a few people helped wash dishes. My husband, Jon, stepped in to load the dishwasher and told me to go sit down. As I passed the guest room and checked in with my mother, I told her that Jon was finishing up so I could put my feet up. Her face sank into a frown and she said, “Oh, poor Jon.”

I’m not sure how I responded, what my exact words were, or how they were delivered—such is the nature of blind rage—but I’ll assume that I screamed, “POOR JON???!! I’ve been standing on my feet all day preparing that meal!!” and stormed out. Maybe “stormed” isn’t the right word. (Insert whatever word makes sense for a massive, waddling, nine-months-pregnant person dramatically exiting a room.)

Thanksgiving meant very little to me until I married someone for whom it meant a lot.

My mother and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up. Candid, vulnerable communication wasn’t our strength. Loving, unconditional support was also in short supply. But celebrating some semblance of Thanksgiving, this truly American holiday that meant absolutely nothing to my Ukrainian immigrant parents, was important, at least nominally.

The memories of Thanksgiving from my childhood are predominantly joyless. My father mindlessly sharpening the carving knife over the roasted turkey. Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television in the morning, Miracle on 34th Street later that night. Stuffing mix that came in a box (the best kind and I stand by that). No pie for dessert.

Thanksgiving meant very little to me until I married someone for whom it meant a lot. My husband had two parents who were no longer married to each other, so we had to “share” the holiday with them, switching off each year. Eventually, my family dropped out of the equation because I gave my parents Christmas, which in their minds trumped everything.

And so we have been navigating the family dynamics of this complicated holiday in my own marriage for more than 20 years. This year is no exception, as age marches on, health declines, and making memories takes on a deeper significance. My mother is gone now. I only have my husband’s family to gather and please. It will be good. We will make it good.

Setting aside the messy history of this holiday in the arc of American history and acknowledging the indigenous people on whose land we live and for whom this holiday is anything but joyful, I am struck by the words “thanks” and “giving.” Or rather, the opportunity that this day provides for giving thanks. And so, I’ll give thanks for the opportunity to gather (something that was denied to us over the last several years). I’ll give thanks for the food on our table. I’ll give thanks for family—the family I married into, the one I created. And I’ll be grateful.


Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is an author, speaker, consultant, and passionate advocate for family and youth service. Her first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, was published in 2019. Her second book, Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference, was published in July. Natalie is the New York coordinator of Doing Good Together, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. In this role, she curates a free monthly e-mail listing of family-friendly service opportunities distributed to thousands of subscribers. Her personal and parenting essays have appeared on a variety of blogs including Grown and Flown, Red Tricycle, Motherwell, and Mommypoppins. She is a frequent public speaker and podcast guest. Natalie holds a master’s degree in public health from Yale. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.