Lonely? Have a Thanksgiving Skype. But hold the biscuits.  Photo by blakesamic via Flickr.

There is an analogy I used to make regarding ducks and holidays. When a baby duck is born, it will imprint with the first thing it follows—a mother duck, usually, but a broom if that’s what is offered—and for the rest of its life, the imprint is what it loves, unquestioningly. Our imprinting as children is where many of us get our ideas of what a holiday should be—including what is served and how, when to eat, what the day is like—even the stress level of the mother. 

Once we were all married, my sisters and I decided that if we wives could have Thanksgiving, we could give the husbands’ families Christmas. We called it Thanksmas, and henceforth it has included the turkey and gravy, but also the tree, the twinkly lights, and gifts for our children.  Even after two thirds of the husbands were gone, we have kept this tradition of Santa on Christmas.

Until two years ago. Come mid-November, I had just sold my house in Los Angeles and moved into a West Hollywood duplex with an eye on going away to college soon (here in Berkeley).  I was also in the midst of a very full class load at community college that included a class I could not fail if I wanted to transfer to university on time—Statistics. But with the house sale and move, I was failing it.  So that year I sacrificed my Thanksgiving holiday with my family and stayed home alone.  My son was sent off to Dad’s and I hit the books.

When Thursday dawned, I was grateful for the quiet.  I spoke to my sister Jackie on the phone and we joked that we could set up a laptop on the table and I’d have dinner with them “virtually,” via Skype.  The idea made me so happy, I planned my day around it.  At about 2 p.m., I walked to the corner Starbucks to get a turkey/ cranberry sandwich I’d seen for sale that month.

The streets of West Hollywood were eerily silent.  Even the massive Cedars-Sinai Hospital, usually a hub of activity, seemed dormant.  At the store, I selected my sandwich—but then I saw another one that looked good too.  I decided to get it so that I wouldn’t have to run out for something the next day.  And while I was at it, a banana too, and some of those madeleine cookies—oh, and maybe a slice of that berry coffee cake for tomorrow’s breakfast . . .  By the time I reached the counter, I could have used a grocery cart.

The pretty young cashier looked over my purchases and then looked at me with utter pity. “Oh!” she said, “Don’t you have a dinner to go to?”  I had a vision of myself as she might be seeing me: a woman with a solitary binge/purge plan ahead.  (Binge maybe; purge, no.)

But I wasn’t feeling pitiful, and I didn’t want pity. I was actually proud of myself for prioritizing my need to succeed in this class. It had been a difficult choice, and one I never would have made in the past.  Others’ expectations always came first—I was leaving a gap at my sister’s house for the first time in any of our lives. Yet, as disappointed as my family would be, I knew I needed to take care of myself.  So I did.  How to explain all this to the pretty young cashier? Might she end up inviting me to her home, even?  Were we about to be a TV movie?

“This is just for the car ride there,” I said.  “We are just getting a late start.”  And suddenly I had an imaginary pair of children—a boy and a girl, about 8 and 10—as well as a husband . . .  I stood a little straighter.

“Won’t you be full by then?” she asked, her face relieved but doubtful.

“Hmmm? Oh, no, no. It’s a long drive. We will probably miss the dinner itself—no telling what will be left, so I thought we’d better plan not to starve.”  The lies tumbled out of my mouth so naturally, I felt a bit of a thrill inside. 

“Maybe you kind of didn’t want to go?” she suggested with a hint of a wink.

“Oh, it wasn’t my fault.  But yes, I know what you mean—where you subconsciously set it up so you are late!  Yep . . .  but no, we were just delayed.  It was unavoidable.  Our Thanksgiving will kind of be tomorrow, I guess.”

It was as if my brain were running on liquid silver with the lies.  I had much more to offer if the conversation continued.  My husband is a doctor—at Cedars-Sinai next door.  Or my child fell and we were just over at Emergency . . .  but I thought I’d better quit adding details.  Quit while you’re ahead.

We smiled our “Happy Holidays” and I left with my haul of food.  I couldn’t stop laughing at my strange behavior.  I couldn’t wait to tell my sisters later.

Unfortunately, they never did call—or Skype.  Too proud to call them, I eventually ate dinner alone.  At about 11 p.m. I got an apologetic text saying that they’d gotten so busy, they hadn’t had a chance to figure out Skype—but “We missed you!  Hope you got lots done on your homework!”  I wanted to text back, “Yeah, my textbook is stained with tears, thank you very much.”  But the truth was, I was fine.  It was just a day—and it was sacrificed to a good cause.  The next year would be better.

Only the next year, my younger sister, Jill, could not come because of her own work commitment.  But we did set up Skype, and we’d never laughed so hard as we did as we tried to pass bites of biscuits through the camera.

This year?  We sisters will gather at Jackie’s, but one of Jill’s daughters has decided to stay home with her husband and their two kids rather than make the trip to Sacramento. 

And so our Thanksmas evolves.  But because we are not ducks, we don’t need to imprint one version of a happy holiday.  Ultimately it’s just a day, and it can take any number of varieties.  We’ll adapt—because we can—and we’ll Skype, because now we know how.  And as for me, I will avoid Starbucks on a certain Thursday in November, because something strange once happened to me there . . .