Love the One You’re With
There is really only one way to make stuffing. I don’t know the recipe. I know there’s a lot of sage in it, and definitely no sausage, and certainly no fruit or nuts. It is the definitive stuffing, because it is my mother’s recipe for stuffing, and I have eaten it every Thanksgiving of my life. So there.
I won’t be able to eat the Thanksgiving stuffing par excellence this year; I’ll have to settle for another, inferior stuffing. It might not have sage in it and, heaven forbid, might actually have sausage or fruit or nuts in it. Also, I won’t be playing bingo after dinner this year, or Scattergories or Balderdash, the way my family does. I thought everyone’s family played games after Thanksgiving dinner? Apparently not. And don’t even get me started on the football. Is it even biologically possible to digest turkey without an NFL game blasting in the background?
This will be the story of my Thanksgiving this year: tolerating other people’s inadequate replicas of stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce (my dad makes it from scratch, none of the ridged gelatinous canned stuff), and, yes, even turkey, to say nothing of pre- and post-dinner rituals. This is my Thanksgiving, and everyone is doing it wrong!
That’s where my brain goes when I think about Thanksgiving, and the fact that I can’t get back to my family in Chicago this year. I know I’m not alone. For any number of reasons — be it money, time constraints, school or work commitments, going to [insert name of husband/wife here]’s family instead, or, as in my case, being a Jesuit bound by obedience to have dinner with my community in Berkeley, California — many of us will be unable to gather with our loved ones to give thanks for all that we have. We feel stuck, lonely and annoyed. Having to make do with our second choice in what feels like a one choice situation, our expectations are unmet.
My sister Amanda won’t be going home for Thanksgiving either. Being on the cusp of marriage, she is at the beginning of the unending and seemingly unwinnable cycle of compromise — which will only get that much more sensitive once they are married and will reach a fever pitch once grandchildren enter the equation — trying to make both her family and her boyfriend’s family happy at the holidays. And so she will be going to her boyfriend’s family for Thanksgiving and he will return “the favor” on Christmas.
And so, my parents will have two chairs empty at the dinner table this year, and they too will have to partake in a Thanksgiving that doesn’t meet their expectations. As my friend Ike, stuck in California for work reasons and unable to make the trip back to his family out East, said to me the other day: “It’s hard to be thankful on the one day you’re legally obligated to be thankful, when what you’re thankful for is so far away.” While I question his legal scholarship, I get his point.
This isn’t the first year I’ve been away for Thanksgiving: Last year I was stuck here in Berkeley as well, and I pretty much spent the whole day unfavorably comparing things to how they would’ve been done at my parents’ house. They had too many appetizers, which we never do at home because dinner is big enough and you don’t want to ruin your appetite. They didn’t play games after dinner and instead just socialized and napped. And why wasn’t there a football game on the television? I don’t personally like or watch football, but I mean, come on, it’s Thanksgiving. Football is tradition, lest we forget the first Thanksgiving and the great pilgrim vs. Native American scrimmage. (You are free to question my historical scholarship on this one.) The litany of wrongs I racked up in my head was endless.
That night, when doing my Examen and getting to the part about where God was present in my day, imagine my surprise when that soft, still voice within me showed me that God, indeed, was very present throughout the day; I just refused to see Him.
I was surrounded by my Jesuit brothers — who love, support, encourage, and, yes, at times infuriate me just like my own family — enjoying a wonderful meal, some of which was, if I am being completely honest, better than my mom’s cooking (and if you ever tell her that I will deny it!) I was shown that throughout the day there were numerous opportunities to laugh, listen, serve and pray, and instead I chose to criticize, compare and pout. God invited me — on this government sanctioned day of gratitude, no less — to be grateful for what I had, to love what was right there in front of me, and I refused His invitation.
I cannot make myself grateful, but I can search for God’s presence in any situation. And let me tell you right now, God is always there. Immediately upon completing my Examen last year, I vowed that this year, instead of searching for what’s wrong and what isn’t there, I would look for God’s presence throughout the day, be it in a conversation with a Jesuit brother, the shared meal, or the face of Christ in the homeless people that I encounter on the streets of Berkeley. God’s invitation to me — and to all who are unable to be where they want to be, with who they want to be with this Thanksgiving — can be found in the lyrics of an old song: “Love the One You’re With.” And so, this year, even though the turkey might be wrong, the stuffing might be filled with nuts, and bingo playing is nowhere to be found, what will be right will be those around me, and most importantly the God who is there — always there — loving us all.