I usually wake up a few minutes after seven on Thanksgiving morning. This is when the scent of turkey juices moistening soft country bread and celery creeps under the door of my teenage bedroom. I quickly pull on some clothes and step into the kitchen. There’s Mom, apron tied tight and coffee mug filled, checking on the turkey that’s been roasting in the oven before beginning the green bean casserole.
Then I chug some of the house coffee and zip to the Tiffany Diner, a classic East Coast jewel box with a pie counter, booth seating, and, at one time, jukeboxes at every table. For the past 15 years, my high school friends and I have been getting together at the Tiffany to catch up on life over plates of eggs and scrapple and creamed chipped beef, and, of course, more coffee. I find out who’s getting married, who’s having kids, and who’s moving on. We take pictures and laugh the same old laughs about the same old stories.
Some years I head from the Tiffany to Northeast High School, where my alma mater Central plays Northeast in one of the oldest annual Thanksgiving rivalry games in America. It usually doesn’t turn out well for Central, but that’s fine, because we graduate smarter kids, anyways.
Then I head back to Mom’s, usually taking the long route because WMMR, 93.3 FM in Philadelphia, is playing the long version of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” the 18-minute Arlo Guthrie song about a group of hippies who had a Thanksgiving meal that just couldn’t be beat.
But I won’t be doing any of that this year. No “Alice’s Restaurant” through the chilly Philadelphia morning while sipping my fourth coffee of the day. No football game blowout and no breakfast at the old diner. No waking up to the smell of stuffing. We opted not to fly to Philly. I have two small children who won’t wear masks for more than 20 minutes at a time. My mom has adult-onset diabetes and too many other health risks. We’d probably be too close to too many people just getting to the East Coast. Also, we just don’t know enough about Covid-19. None of us really do. I know people who’ve contracted the virus and who’ve been seriously sick with the virus. If I get it, I might just be okay, but what if I pass it onto a relative or a stranger? So, no, none of the traditions this year.
The Centers for Disease Control recommend that we stay home this year for Thanksgiving. "Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year," writes the CDC in its Thanksgiving travel advisory.
Meanwhile, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is encouraging Houstonians to cancel larger gatherings for the holiday. "Things shouldn't be normal when it's a time of crisis," she said.
For me, normal is seeing my family, but I haven’t seen my mom and dad, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins—anyone—since last November. Last year we visited our friends in New York, people that we consider family members who have kids the same ages as ours. This year we won’t do that. We’ll call them on Zoom at about 10 p.m. Eastern, when all of our kids are asleep and we can break out some of the good liquor for an hour or two. It’s not the same as sitting together on a couch, playing a board game, and watching our little ones sleep in the same bed. Not normal.
Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted "Come and Take It" with the image of a Thanksgiving turkey. As of Sunday, nearly 1.1 million Texans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and more than 20,000 people have died from the virus. Here's something new: the Texas Department of State Health Services reports that over the last two weeks, it hasn't been uncommon to see more than 10,000 new cases of coronavirus per day. This isn't the time to meme images that suggest Thanksgiving is being stripped away from us. Am I losing my regular Thanksgiving? Yes. Do I need to defend it, risking the health and welfare of the people I love? Hell no.
Damnit, Thanksgiving is my heart. For as long as I can remember, it has happened at whatever house in Philadelphia my mother lives. Back when we lived in a 900-square-foot row home, my grandmother and maybe a couple of aunts and uncles would join us, but when we moved into a larger home on the edge of the suburbs in 1999 it seemed the entire family piled in for several hours of rowdiness where the only thing we might actually agree on is booing the Cowboys.
During the early 2000s, about 40 people would eat at our house. My brothers, cousins, and I would play whatever Madden game was out that year, and if the weather cooperated, we’d play quick touch football games in the street. For a couple years, we coaxed the catering company my uncle worked for to assist with cooking and serving. A legitimate waiter in a tuxedo handled plates before my mom forced him to sit with us and enjoy dinner.
We always had guests. Sometimes my brothers and I might invite friends to dinner or dessert. Once my youngest brother began working closely with people with developmental disabilities, he asked clients if they had a place to spend the day. One year, three men with disabilities were among the dozens at the house, and one in particular named Spenser came back year after year. He’d sit in his favorite spot on Mom’s couch and tell everyone about his annoying job, never getting enough sleep, and his love of public transportation.
For a couple years we had politicians over the house. As my brothers and I got older, we’d invite our girlfriends and fiancés to dinner, and sometimes they’d even bring their parents. Thanksgiving was always the tell: If the girlfriend could make it through the day, she was a keeper, and if the parents laughed at our jokes about them? Marry her.
No matter who came to celebrate, whether they were friends, public servants, or even members of the family not on my mom’s good side, they were welcomed and handed a plate. But that’s just an extension of my mom. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but Thanksgiving brings us together, strips away any differences, ends any arguments, and confirms where I’m from, who loves me, and what’s most important in life.
It still hurts.
For me, life will go on after Thanksgiving. I have my wife and children, and no matter how I celebrate the day this year, I'll be around love.
We lit the house for the holidays earlier than usual. We’re driving to the beach for a day so the kids can feel like they’re vacationing. I’ll probably cook a special dinner this week in lieu of our usual parade of dark meat entrées and rich side dishes. I might even relax for a moment, something that’s hard to do when I’m driving from New York to Philadelphia, visiting with family members, and darting from diner to stadium to home on Thanksgiving morning.
In the quiet moments this year, I’ve found plenty of good things. My kids are growing more independent and fascinating by the day—the 4-year-old is already cruising on a two-wheeler, and the 1-year-old is afraid of nothing. We bought a house this summer, met several parents and kids and already feel a sense of belonging in our neighborhood. I finished writing my second book, scribed some pieces for Houstonia that give me pride, and I generally feel good about my work as dining editor. Working from home hasn’t destroyed my marriage; on the contrary, it’s only made things stronger between me and my wife.
Most of all, we’re healthy. We’ve worn our masks and have kept distant from others. I’ve eaten inside restaurants a handful of times since March, and I’ve eaten a ton of takeout, and it’s all worked out just fine. I’m lucky. I’m certainly privileged. I’m thankful.
It still hurts, and there’s space for all of that, whether we’re talking in 2020 or anytime, really. If this year has taught me anything it’s that I need to acknowledge, accept, and absorb all the feelings that hit at all times. I’d rather be in Philadelphia and New York right now, and I may feel awkward and out of place this week, but I can also find joy in whatever reality we create.
The most important thing is the strength of those around us. If that means losing the sights, sounds, and scents of my traditional Thanksgiving, then so be it. The lives of people around me are more important. And anyways, Thanksgiving isn't about where you go or what food you eat, but it's about the feeling of joy and peace inside you. I have that. Nobody can ever take that.