Get Behind Me, Thanksgiving

This past May, I started in.

“Mom, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?”

She hemmed and hawed and avoided the topic. I did not blame her. With each passing year, Thanksgiving has become a battlefield of anxiety and espionage. Who is going to go where, what are the grandkids doing, who is cooking what, do we want to invite the relatives we don’t get along with; all of it ends up in a whirlwind of tears, stress, a lot of rosé, and at least one dish sacrificed to the burned food gods.

My leanest financial times are the holidays. I start budgeting for holiday expenses in August and start Christmas shopping pretty much right after Christmas; no time like the present to shop! However, year after year, budgeting for Thanksgiving slips my mind and I am scrambling to get $50-$100 bucks to make desserts and bread for 15+ people.

This year, I was determined to be a proactive planner, not only for my wallet’s sake, but for my sanity’s as well.

“Mom, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked a few weeks later. I had already started hoarding wine to take to her house, assuming all the relatives were going to be invited again and I would need all the help I could get.

She shrugged and said, “I’m cooking and people can come if they want.” This too was a trap. She said this every year. Then, every year, hundreds of dollars were spent. With enough food for an army, she then caved and invited all the relatives. Every. Year.

“Mom, we both know that’s a lie. Just tell me who’s coming and what you want me to do. I need to save money.” Another shrug and then we started reminiscing about the past years’ Thanksgiving disasters.

My family lives in Louisiana, where my mother grew up. My dad is from Florida. All of our family is on this side of the country, so my childhood in California was chock-full of holiday celebrations with just me, my brother, and our parents. Just us four, free to go on trips for Christmas, eat whatever we wanted for Thanksgiving, and generally be our own merry little quartet. Holidays with tons of food, extended family, drama, and other large American holiday gathering stereotypes were foreign to me. It was always just us.

When we moved back to Louisiana ten years ago, the first year of holidays with my mom’s family was novel and exciting. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting, with laughter, food, and family all abundant and blessed.

The novelty wore out and by the third year we lived here, I was begging for us to go on a trip by ourselves. It cost my parents too much money to feed everyone, caused my mother too much stress, and inevitably, someone would fight. By Christmas, my parents would be broke and my mother completely worn out. Not to delve into drama, but our nearby extended family is… a lot. Like reality show a lot. Still, they’re her family and we do what she says, no matter how badly they act or how angry she gets.

“If your mother wants to let her sister act like that on Thanksgiving, you and your brother need to accept that,” Dad, who would rail about their behavior every other day of the year, would tell us before the relatives arrived.

I started skipping holidays to spend them with various boyfriends (or jet set around the world with said boyfriends). I blissfully avoided family holidays at all costs and thus avoided all costs for family holidays. Now, though, I am older, wiser, and content with my life — and have resumed my participation in the yearly panic.

“Mom, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?”

“Nothing. Just show up and eat. Crazy relatives are not invited.” That was September’s response. I knew better. I started researching what desserts to make and what kind of bread I could whip up in my KitchenAid (I use it for everything because it’s purple and I love it; I even shred chicken in it, because why not). I started skipping going out to lunch and saving some money here and there for the ingredients.

Thanksgiving is Mom’s favorite holiday. She loves fall and leaves and an excuse to have turkey, potatoes, and gravy for a week. She gets so excited about the planning and the buying and the everything else that goes into planning a feast for twenty… until Thanksgiving Day hits and she realizes what she’s gotten herself into. We played along every year, eating dutifully and ignoring the worst relatives for as long as possible. Some years, we would all fight. Other years, we grinned and beared it.

Thanksgiving has become more poignant in the last few years. In 2015, my mom was going through breast cancer. We tiptoed around holidays, all smiles and happiness. Even though my mom was in pain and was exhausted, and money was tight, she continued to cook huge meals, almost collapse in exhaustion, and then fight with her family as they acted up. Last year was the first breast-cancer-free year in awhile; we cried during pray time, thankful our family was still together.

Then the rest of the Thanksgiving celebration devolved into chaos. Food got burned, relatives started drama, there were fights. Cancer or no cancer, some things never change.

After the worst relatives left, my mother, sister-in-law, and I sat in the backyard, watching the men set fire to huge piles of debris from field clearing. We drank rose out of Red Solo cups and watched our men bond, with the kids running around, dogs running around, and smoke swirling around.

“I spent three hundred dollars on a meal we ate in fifteen minutes,” Mom mused, pouring another healthy glass. Sister-in-law and I eyed each other. We had been discussing this earlier. Mom had cried, run around, and cooked for twenty people, only to watch her extended family complain, whine, argue, and then take nearly all of the leftovers.

“It was delicious though,” her sister-in-law said, grabbing for more wine. We never quite knew when it was appropriate to start dissecting family behavior at Thanksgiving and trying to make Mom swear never again. Wine was safe.

“It’s not freaking worth it! Three hundred dollars! For moochers!”

I considered the hundred dollars I spent. It had been a stretch for me. And Mom had spent three hundred.

“Three hundred dollars. And this is all I really want,” Mom said again, and gestured around her. “I spent all that money and this is all I really want on Thanksgiving. Just us.” We murmured agreements and sipped rose. We knew she did not mean it.

We were at Dad’s birthday party this past September. Festivities had died down and the guys were watching football while children zoomed around the house. Sister-in-law and I had been making plans to overthrow Thanksgiving this year. She and my brother were going to visit her family in Oregon, leaving just my husband and me to stay with Mom and Dad.

“Girls, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?” Mom asked.

Sister-in-law bugged her eyes at me. It was my cue. She and I had started planning the counter-offensive to Thanksgiving earlier in the summer. Finances are extremely tight for me this year and I was not going to make food for people who made my mother cry. I was done.

“They’re going to Oregon, remember?”

Mom nodded and said, “Well, what do you want to do?”

Deep breath.

“Because I don’t want to do anything this year,” Mom continued. “I mean it. I’m too old and too tired to deal with cooking and all their crap. Besides, I am not spending all that money again. They can do their own thing. I’m making a turkey for your dad and me. You can eat spaghetti. I don’t care.” She filled the silence with cutting us more cake.

I started laughing. “Ok, perfect! That’s what I was going to say!” We laughed and then talked about Thanksgivings past. Oh reminiscing drama.

I have been relieved since then. I understand the need for holidays and for family get togethers. But I don’t agree with the self-sacrifice people undergo to try to achieve picture-perfect family events. I know people who spend hundreds and hundreds on a meal they barely remember. My mother is one of them. My mom has killed herself for years trying to make everyone happy and it doesn’t happen. She spends money she cannot afford for a meal that people rudely complain about. She cries. Every. Year. It isn’t worth it.

My favorite Dave Ramsey quote applies to this situation: every year, my mother spends money (and time and energy) she doesn’t have to impress people she doesn’t really like. Out of some dogged sense of tradition, she continues to cater to all of us and her extended family when all she really wants to do is chill with us. Like we used to. I have been so proud of my mom for bucking tradition and for finally making a decision to make herself happy. Not to worry about us kids, her extended family, the grandkids, or even my dad. She’s doing what makes her happy. This is an inherently selfish idea, forsaking others for yourself. But, if anyone deserves to think about themselves for once, it’s my mother. She gives and gives and gives, and takes nothing in return. I feel like our mass-consumption-driven society makes people think that holidays count only when hundreds have been spent and an Instagram-worthy spread is laid out. But the more money we spend, the less happy the holidays seem to be. More money means high expectations, and high expectations usually cannot be met. To me, holidays are supposed to be uplifting and a celebration about togetherness. Not money-blowing and reaching for a Norman Rockwell existence.

Around the yearly time she caves and invites all the relatives, I asked Mom what her Thanksgiving plans were and whether the relatives were coming. Mom said, “Nope, and don’t say anything to them! I can’t do it this year.”

She has been chipper this fall. The yearly doom and gloom preceding the weeks before Thanksgiving is nonexistent. She has even decorated.

“Mom, the patio looks beautiful!”

“Yup. I bought a bunch of stuff with the money I usually save for Thanksgiving! I figured you and I can sit out here and drink all day long!” Good.

I asked the other day what she wanted me to bring. Mom had decided she was only going to make a couple of dishes that she and Dad wanted and my husband and I could come over if we wanted to. Nothing fancy, just eating and maybe some board games.

“Mom, what should I bring?”

“Whatever you want. Just don’t forget the rosé.”

Megan Thomas is a librarian in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She, her husband, her cats and dog live on a hella ton of acreage near her parents, her brother, and the relatives. She only eats Stove Top stuffing and rolls on Thanksgiving.

Photo by Peter Lloyd (cropped) on Unsplash.

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