It was my first Thanksgiving away from my family.
I was living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with a man I loved and had only known for two years. We had gotten married on August 30th, took our friend’s beat up mini-van up the East coast for a week long honeymoon, made it back in time to pick up this friend’s band on the Lower East side by midnight, and then got dropped off to all 220 square feet of our new home.
For the first few weeks we had almost no furniture other than our mattress and a new love seat. We had purchased both by returning some wedding crystal we had received from well meaning wedding guests. The ones who pictured newlyweds going home to a house. Or at least an apartment big enough to have cabinets designated for celebration drink-wear. Our apartment had two cabinets above the counter top and two cabinets below it. The ones on the top held our cups, plates, bowls, and a few serving dishes. The bottom cabinets were designated for the mouse and ant traps.
For meals I had fashioned a table out of some of our moving boxes and a tablecloth. It worked well, until we spilled wine on it one night and the right corner disintegrated. I rarely cooked. I had a new marriage, new job, new city, new apartment, and a new kitchen that felt like I could barely flip a pancake in it. We relied on Trader Joe’s frozen meals and our new neighborhood eatery: Hood Hang — the Chinese food place around the corner.
We tried our best to do what we could with what little square feet we had.
I loved those three months.
But when Thanksgiving hit I felt my first real pangs of homesickness. Every other place I had lived left me within driving distance of my family, and more importantly, within driving distance of my parent’s table. The one they always had filled with that thick, creamy, Midwestern food. The kind that makes you feel full after three bites but is so decadently rich with butter and just the right amount of salt that you keep eating anyway. The table that always had the people I loved most in the world. The people who drove me insane and made me laugh and knew more about me than anyone else, those good, kind parts of me and those other parts, the selfish and petty ones. My family.
I had known many transplants, like me, that had decided the only way to get through family holidays’ as a 20-something in New York in the early 2000’s was to boycott. To pretend you didn’t care about turkey, cranberries, or pie — that all you needed was a cocktail. A holiday stolen from a Sex and the City script. I loved cocktails and I had watched and re watched Sex and the City an embarrassing amount at that point in my life, but I couldn’t shake that table. I had given up a lot to move to New York — my furniture, my car, grass — I wasn’t ready to give up a real Thanksgiving.
I quickly realized I didn’t have to. In those first few months we had been fortunate enough to pick up some amazing friends along the way. Friends of friends, friends from church, old friends from high school who I reached out to when I moved. A fashion stylist and a cake baker, a dancer and an actor, a stunt man and a photographer, an event planner and a chess playing jazz musician, an advertiser and a wonderer, an educator and a preacher. Friends who wanted to pull together to lift this boycott with me.
Two of those friends offered up their apartment in Hells Kitchen (the one they shared a room with a bunk bed in). It had a nice long living room that would just fit a table and chairs if we moved the rest of their furniture out of the way. They purchased two folding tables from the K-Mart that used to straddle the West and East Village on Aster place. The thought was to purchase them for Thanksgiving and then return them the next day. An email chain was started and everyone was commissioned to bring a family recipe.
I looked at my kitchen, thought about my limitations, and ultimately decided on my mom’s easy half homemade meatballs, a Thanksgiving staple in our home, and a salad with pears and goat cheese and toasted walnuts she’d recently added to the menu.
I prepared the meatballs the night before and left them simmering in my crock-pot all night. I woke up Thanksgiving morning and collected everything — one pot full of meatballs, a bag full of pears, goat cheese, and lettuce, the jar of homemade sweet vinaigrette, a Tupperware container overflowing with slightly burnt walnuts made in an inconsistent and barely usable oven, serving utensils, and two serving dishes. My husband left to help some friends pick up folding chairs we borrowed from a church down the street and our plan was to meet at the apartment.
Up until that point I hadn’t thought through how exactly I was going to get all this food from Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen with a budget that didn’t really allow for taxis. I looked around the place and spotted my hiking pack. A cherished wedding present from an old friend. Perfect. I carefully placed the crock pot at the bottom of the pack. I shoved all the dish towels I owned around it to keep it steady. I placed all of the the salad ingredients on top and placed the serving dishes in a large bag. I clipped the hiking backpack on, slung the bag over my shoulder, and made my way to the subway. I called my mom as I walked out my apartment door and had to pause the conversation more than once to make sure hot meatball juice wasn’t running down my back. Her laugh rang loud and clear out of the phone when she realized what was in my bag and on my back. “Well, only in New York, right?” she said.
She was right.
That Thanksgiving our little New York Family was born. Pieces of ourselves from back home were brought around a table — my mom’s meatballs sat next to Texas potatoes prepared in a galley kitchen, a good old Midwestern green bean casserole that had traversed the streets of Hell’s Kitchen post Macy’s Day Parade next to a Southern mac n’ cheese made to perfection in a miniature oven in a tiny apartment at the top of a fifth floor walk up, a still warm pot full of Filipino fried rice that had been carefully walked over with oven mitts from Chelsea, and a turkey basted in Jack Daniels that had traveled in a cab in a cardboard box covered in tinfoil to make it there on time. We had forgotten the cranberry sauce, but it didn’t matter. Our stories began to weave themselves together with that meal. Our families, hometowns and past lives were all letting themselves into this life, into that city.
We never returned those two folding tables. They spent the next decade folded in various friend’s apartments, on standby for the the many meals that followed.
We celebrated, mourned, laughed uncontrollably, lost jobs, changed jobs, vacationed together, fought with each other, healed the wounds of breakups with one another, prayed with each other, hurt each other deeply, stumbled through forgiving each other, toasted engagements, held each others babies, revealed freshly discovered truths about who we are to one another, and said goodbyes to each other. Usually over a good meal and around a long table.
It’s now 2020 and the world looks a little different. New York looks a little different. My life looks different. I’m with the people I love the most right now, that husband I had married those eleven years ago and our two girls, but those pangs of homesickness are back.
This time for that Thanksgiving table in 2008.
Maybe I’m homesick for what life used to look like, like most of us are. For friends and food and a life lived outside of our homes.
Or maybe I’m homesick for a time in my life when grieving mother wasn’t part of my identity, like it’s been for the first time this year and in this new town.
Or maybe it’s more cliche than that. Maybe I’m homesick for a time when we didn’t have a mortgage or car payments or a 401k or job security or parenting to worry about. A time when my husband and I hadn’t yet figured out just how deeply we would disappoint each other or just exactly how much marriage would make visible the ugliest parts of ourselves. A time where I lived around the corner from friends. Friends I stayed up late into the night with, talking and laughing and challenging each other and dancing and eating and drinking.
Or maybe I‘m homesick in the truest sense of the word. That city and those friends were my home. And I miss them, and our shared lives, and that table we all sat around.
I am both deeply grateful to be with my family safe in our home and close to my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and I miss my friends-like-family. One of the things grief has taught me this year is that we can hold opposing feelings at the same time. I can be both content with my life now and missing my life then.
Happy and sad, fulfilled and longing, connected and disconnected.
Home and homesick.