What Thanksgiving Means When Your Mother Is Estranged from Her Family

updated May 24, 2019
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It’s been nearly a decade since my mother has attended a family Thanksgiving dinner. She stopped speaking to her mother and siblings when I was still a teenager, for reasons that remain important to her — reasons that I respect and empathize with but might never fully grasp myself.

When I was younger, before my mother became estranged from her family, our Thanksgiving rituals included voicing what we were most thankful for that year. Before we were allowed to dig into our overflowing plates, we’d go around the table, each person offering their own sentiment.

One year, my sister and I were thankful for the two cats we had recently adopted. My mother said she was thankful for her family, who helped support her while she was divorcing my father. My aunt was thankful for her children — her own two, as well as the ones she taught in her classroom. My grandmother said she was thankful we had all shown up to eat her homemade pies, and we were all thankful she’d baked them. My grandfather was less sentimental; he said he was most thankful for crossword puzzles and afternoon naps.

Our Thanksgiving table looks a little different these days. New marriages and the birth of children have filled the seats left empty by divorces and deaths. My grandfather is no longer here to carve the turkey, and either is my uncle, who we lost a few years after my grandfather.

My mother’s seat goes unfilled too, but only because she chooses not to be there. She chooses to spend Thanksgiving without her mother. In a way, so do I, although it’s because I’m decidedly choosing to keep a family tradition alive.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and I didn’t want to miss out on the family gatherings just because my mother was no longer interested in being part of them. After she left the family, it was up to me to maintain relationships with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother. When I finally got my driver’s license, I was the one making the hour-long drive to our grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing my younger sister along with me.

After she left the family, it was up to me to maintain relationships with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother.

The first few Thanksgivings without my mother were challenging, and a bit awkward at times. I knew she was more than happy to be at home with her new husband, but I wanted her there with my family — her family. While we waited for our feast to be ready, I’d hang around the dining room, occasionally glancing at the empty chair where my mother should have been. I’d worried I’d made the wrong decision choosing Thanksgiving with our family over a much smaller Thanksgiving at home with her.

Then, one year when I was still in college, my grandmother forgot to make the quintessential green bean casserole. My cousins and I ran out to the only grocery store still open in town, grabbed the essential ingredients, and hurried back to assemble the dish. After all, what is Thanksgiving without green bean casserole?

I found my place in the kitchen that year. Every year since then I’ve stepped up to help even more. I’m now responsible for making a panade with sweet potato and Swiss chard, fresh cranberry relish, creamy mashed potatoes, and, of course, the beloved green bean casserole. I help my grandmother carve the turkey, and always bring a case full of wines and ciders that pair with the all-American feast. The only thing I don’t do is the dishes.

I’ll sometimes still sit at the kid’s table, where I enjoy the company of my cousin’s two sons (my mother hasn’t seen one of them since he was a week old; the other she’s never met).

I know that separating herself from her family was something my mother needed to do, but it didn’t mean I had to be estranged from them too. After all, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother are as much my family as they were once hers.

Taking on a greater role in cooking has helped me find peace in our family.

I’m thankful that I still have the chance to partake in our family’s rituals. I’m thankful I’ve been able to find a home in the kitchen during the chaos that is Thanksgiving dinner. Taking on a greater role in cooking has helped me find peace in our family. I’ve learned there is so much joy to be found in feeding those you love.

This year, my cousin is hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time at her new house, and I’ve agreed to handle most of the cooking. I’ve never roasted a turkey on my own before, but it’ll be nice to carve out a new family tradition.