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Without Mom, Thanksgiving Will Never Be The Same

It used to be my favorite holiday.

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Editor's note: This article was completed before the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. The CDC is urging Americans not to travel this year.

Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. It was the one holiday my family celebrated every year, without fail, and the only time when my brother and I were expected to come home no matter how far away we lived. It was nonnegotiable.

Every year, as I walked down the long hallway to my parents’ apartment, I would soak in the delicious flavors wafting toward me and anticipate an evening filled with family, good friends, lively conversation and my favorite foods.

I’d also think about how grateful I was to have this time with my mom and wonder if that year would be our last together. She was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1995 and the doctor gave her three years to live. Mom made it 13 years, and died just a month before Thanksgiving 2009.

For most of the time she was ill, Mom gathered all of her strength and cooked as she always had. When she grew weaker, my brother — who was her official sous chef — took over the heavy lifting. I, on the other hand, had to bake my cornbread and apple pie the day before Thanksgiving and then stay out of their way until it was time to eat. Dad was also banned from the kitchen and busied himself with tidying up and organizing the wine and cocktails.

Courtesy Sacha Cohen

Unlike our tumultuous family vacations and my fraught adolescent years, Thanksgiving was the one time that my family worked together like a well-oiled machine. We each had our roles and were happy to play them. Year in and year out, the menu stayed comfortingly consistent: turkey, stuffing with chestnuts, carrot halwa (more on that later), roasted potatoes, the same cornbread I’d been making since I was 12, a variety of pies, and too many bottles of wine.

Mom was a wonderful and adventurous cook who mastered recipes from the Silver Palate Cookbook, Joy of Cooking and a variety of Asian cookbooks in the 1980s when other moms were still making tuna casserole and serving TV dinners. She embraced other cuisines early on, making the aforementioned carrot halwa (most likely from a recipe in one of Madhur Jaffrey’s groundbreaking cookbooks), which became a Thanksgiving staple. Guests always asked for the recipe and, of course, leftovers.

The few times my mom and brother tried to get creative in the kitchen, Dad and I revolted. “You want to do away with our beloved stuffing and have polenta instead? You’re going to get fancy with the Brussels sprouts? Not on our watch!”

The guest list changed each year depending on whom my parents were friendly with (or speaking to) at the time. We often invited Thanksgiving “orphans” who didn’t have anywhere else to go, and in my 20s and 30s, I brought a rotating cast of questionable boyfriends, very few of whom met with my family’s approval. After my mom died, I dreaded the thick gloom that would settle over me each Thanksgiving. The sadness eventually gave way to indifference spiked with moments of irritation, and Thanksgiving became a day of obligation and forced socializing. My dad, brother and I made an effort to be together for a few years after Mom passed, but we were all cranky and eager to be somewhere else, the gaping hole left by her absence too much for us to bear.

Eventually, my brother skipped the holiday entirely and took off to Mexico City with his girlfriend. I tried my best to cobble together gatherings with my husband, in-laws, dad and a random assortment of friends and family members. Some years were pleasant, others downright depressing.

Which leads us to Thanksgiving 2020. The past year has been sad for me, yes, but traumatic and singularly devastating for many others. I think of all the people who’ve been sick or had loved ones die. The people who’ve seen their homes burn to the ground. The loneliness and crippling solitude. The families who live each day with violence and racial injustice. The lost jobs and lost hope. The struggling moms and dads, the frustrated and bewildered kids. The endless, mind-numbing Zoom calls.

Most of the time, it’s too much to process — the sheer horror of it all. And yet, Thanksgiving will arrive with all of its festive garb, family-sized platters of food, and promises of a good time had by all. It will try to sneak in between the hopelessness and fear, trying to elbow out grief and anxiety.

Is it even fair to try to have some semblance of a normal — yet socially distanced and disinfected — Thanksgiving? I keep turning that question over in my mind. How can we celebrate and give thanks while so many suffer? Is it like that old saying, that we’re simply polishing the decks of the Titanic as we gobble down Aunt Sylvia’s pecan pie?

I don’t have the answer. But what I do know is that I want and need to be close to my family and dearest friends, to share our fear and dread and drown it all in one too many glasses of Pinot Noir and an extra slice of that scrumptious pie.

So, I will do as much as I am capable of to make that happen — even if it means COVID tests, wearing masks between bites, outdoor heaters and a very intimate guest list. It will salvage some normalcy, even if it’s for just one day. Mom would want it that way.