Thanksgiving hasn’t always been this way. Growing up it was about family, parents, grandparents, siblings, and sometimes aunts, uncles, and cousins all converging on one house with food in hand.
“Food enough for an army,” we would always say. It always felt a bit shameful to me that we would have that much food. I thought if it was enough for an army then perhaps we ought to be finding one to join us. The host and hostess for these family gatherings were responsible for the main dish, turkey of course; the trimmings were left to the relatives. It always seemed well orchestrated and never any duplicates. We would have the traditional round robin of telling what we were currently most grateful for before the host carved the turkey, the eldest said a prayer, and someone passed the biscuits. Someone inevitably said that they were most grateful for the gathering of the family and the love they shared. That’s how it was and I thought that was how it would always be.
My first thanksgiving away from home was with the military in 1975. The mess hall was sparse of people, but plentiful in traditional thanksgiving food and the guests were a family of another kind; a family by design more than anything else. We were family because we were all soldiers with the common life styles and common beliefs, regardless of where we came from. We were soldiers who chose to serve long after the draft had ended and who could not or chose not to go home for Thanksgiving. We made the best of it, this family by design.
In later years, after I realized who I was, and whom I loved, I chose not to go home because of the incessant questions about relationship prospects. I would much rather have talked about life in the barracks, a call to duty and honor or better yet, someone else’s private life, for obvious reasons. Finally, the day came when I couldn’t take the questions any more, when my moral compass for honesty had been kicked off kilter one too many times and I blurted it out. “I don’t have a boyfriend, I don’t want a boyfriend. I sometimes have a girlfriend and when I do I wish I could bring her home with me.” That is when I found out, holiday or not, blood is not always thicker than water. I was asked to leave. Not an uncommon experience, but it certainly felt like a lonely one.
Now what? What will my Thanksgiving be like, I wondered, not to mention the other holidays when traditionally my family gathered together? I soon learned what. Family of choice it’s called. When your biological family pushes you away in one manner, or another, you find or create a new family. I found the family who created the quintessential lesbian potluck Thanksgiving with foods from multiple cultures that surround the American traditional turkey.
This is the family who gives thanks for the chosen family, others with whom there is a common thread of life styles and beliefs, and a safe place to express struggles and celebrate triumphs. This is the family that accepts, and in fact celebrates, what biological families far too often do not. Not unlike the family of origin, those who make up the family of choice changes over time. Sisters come and go, relationships shift and people move to other chosen families, but the feeling is always the same. There is always a diverse mix and representation of our larger human family. Everyone feels connected and safe to live honestly, to express gratefulness and pride for whom and how they love. It’s not really much different than the Thanksgiving with a family of origin; except for some of us it is.
For a brief period of time I spent Thanksgiving with strangers as I worked with other organizations in my community to feed the homeless. The faces changed every year, but the warmth and gratitude I felt for the opportunity to give back to those in my community who shared thanks for what they had on that day made them family too. For one day we all had a singular gratitude and none of us felt alone or lonely. None of us judged harshly where we came from or who we were in that moment. We were just grateful to share a warm meal on a cold day and find a little hope for a better tomorrow.
So should you find yourself languishing for family on the holidays, consider this, families, be they families of origin or families of choice, change for all of us. If you have lost what you define as family go out and redefine it for yourself. If you are missing your family somewhere, there is a family missing you too. They may be family of origin, family by design or family of choice, but they are out there somewhere. Look around you. Someone else is looking back. Go find your family, share a moment, a meal, or life time and give thanks.