Sitting in my future in-laws’ dining room three years ago for my first Thanksgiving with my new family, I scanned the tables. Four generations in festive attire gathered for the meal. The patriarch led the group in the Lord’s Prayer, his words familiar since I’d been raised on prayer in my religious Irish-Catholic family.
“Would you like some wine?” my future mother-in-law asked, smiling warmly.
“Thanks. I’ll have some with dessert,” I said, feeling melancholy. I’d never had this kind of Hallmark holiday celebration with my own kin. In fact, my parents canceled Thanksgiving when I was 9, replacing it with dance competitions.
The Midwest Irish dance championships were held over Thanksgiving weekend. Each holiday for years, Mom, my sisters and I traveled from St. Louis to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit or someplace in Ohio, leaving Dad and my brothers home to eat whatever was in the refrigerator while we dined in hotel restaurants and prepped for the competition.
I missed watching the Macy’s Parade on TV and the rare tranquility in my home. But eager to dance, I’d sat on the floor as Mom put rows of tight pink foam rollers into my hair. The next day, Mom brushed my curls and reminded me to ask St. Jude for help (his medal was pinned inside my costume).
Thirteen years after my last Midwest Championships, I was a lawyer in New York. I didn’t fly anywhere for Thanksgiving. There wasn’t a Thanksgiving dinner for me in Missouri, and after my Irish dance friend Eithne’s plane crashed into the Atlantic the prior summer, I hated the thought of flying. Thoughts of her final moments haunted me. Mom’s antidote for my grief was prayer. “Say the rosary. Ask Our Lady to help you,” Mom repeated.
But all my Hail Marys didn’t eliminate my pain or lessen my obsession with the crash investigation and recovery of bodies. Desperate for solace, a friend had referred me to Rocio, a psychic in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
To help with my spiritual turmoil, Rocio instructed me to burn dried sage to clear negativity from my aura and apartment. She gave me special candles to light as I prayed Psalm 91, making me feel she was like Mom, who would light candles with me as a child at church. Rocio loaned me gold coins with which she instructed me to meditate on for the darkness to turn to light.
Sometimes in her parlor, she shuffled a deck of oracle cards with pictures of animals and said they indicated we needed to pray harder. Mostly, she gave me advice on dating, telling me to stop texting with one man, warning another was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and assuring me a third was The One but I needed to be patient. Rocio told me about her family ― her gifted grandmother for whom people came miles to consult, her beloved deceased husband, her daughters, and many grandchildren. Rocio fed me, too, knowing I couldn’t cook and ate takeout. Often, I sat in her back room, eating and watching TV with her daughter, a few years younger than me. I felt like a part of her family.
On the Thanksgiving the year after Eithne died, I took the subway to Union Square and spent several hours at a church, packing meals for the homebound, a connection to community I was sorely lacking. Afterwards, I bought two sweaters at a sale and walked to the Village. I rang Rocio’s bell.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I sang.
Inside, she approved of my bargain purchases before disappearing beyond her beaded curtains. When she returned, she had a large paper bag, which she set on her chair.
“Here are two types of turkey, my special sweet potatoes made with orange peel, some green beans, and two cakes. My Tiffany made one. I won’t tell you which. I want to know which cake you like better.” She grinned as if her psychic gift already let her know I’d prefer hers over her daughter’s.
“I put in a piece of celery. In a couple of days, chop it up. Cut up any left-over turkey. And mix both in mayonnaise.” She looked up at me. “You don’t have any, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Pick some up at the store.” She chuckled. “Your mother gave you many gifts and taught you the value of prayer but left it up to me to teach you to cook. Lucky for you, faith is harder to develop than basic kitchen skills.”
Alone in my apartment, I ate my psychic’s meal. Taking bites of my two cakes, I thought of Mom’s brown paper bags of store-bought snacks sitting in our hotel rooms and the smell of our house from her cooking on Thanksgiving when I was small and the one year the competition was held in St. Louis and we had lunch before Mom rolled my hair and we drove to the hotel, despite me having chicken pox.
As I stuffed leftovers into the refrigerator, Mom called. I told her about my visit to Rocio and her food and my need for mayo.
“Be sure you have salt and pepper too,” Mom said, giving a rare cooking tip, making me think she may have been a bit jealous of Rocio’s instructions.
I leaned over and opened a drawer spotting several packs from takeout as Mom talked about the hotel food she ate with my sister. She still didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, she’d traveled to watch the Irish dance competition. “I wish you could be here with us. I miss seeing you dance,” Mom said.
“I don’t miss all the practicing.”
“Or getting your hair rolled.” Mom said, laughing.
“You can watch me dance whenever you want on VHS.”
“It’s not the same.” She sighed. “Will you change your mind and come home for Christmas?”
“I don’t want to fly,” I said. I didn’t want to be told to simply pray away my sadness, either.
A year later, Eithne still hadn’t been found. Thanksgiving was like the film “Groundhog Day” with me playing Bill Murray’s character, Phil. But I did fly to Missouri for Christmas, knowing it would be Mom’s last. She had cancer. We prayed. We looked at photos. I told her where I was struggling in life. In January, I made more trips to see Mom. I read her the eulogy I’d written for her. She told me it was beautiful, which made me cry. I held her hand as she took her last breath. I called Rocio. She said she prayed for us too.
Instead of serving others being just a Thanksgiving ritual, I incorporated it fully into my life, training as an end-of-life doula and volunteering with a hospice. My visits to Rocio ended as did her Thanksgiving meals. I’d found peace at last with Eithne’s passing and no longer needed Rocio’s mothering and advice, but I still prayed Psalm 91 every day.
Five years after Mom died and weeks before meeting my husband, Steve, I was in Missouri once again for Thanksgiving, this time during a leave of absence from work to care for my octogenarian father. My sister found me someplace to serve. Then in December, I unexpectedly met Steve after a fortuitous swipe right and a cup of coffee. I gave up my New York lawyer life and Brooklyn apartment and returned to the Midwest, entering a contract to buy a house weeks before my first Thanksgiving with Steve’s family.
The next year I was a happy Phil at my Groundhog Day Thanksgiving with my new family. But then, COVID changed our holiday. Like many families, Steve and I had a FaceTime Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, sharing a meal he’d cooked, and we’d delivered. This time, his mother led us in prayer, the sound of my husband’s voice and mine blending into one with words I’d said countless times.
Weeks later, my dad and then Steve’s dad died within three days, and they had funerals at neighboring churches. My husband and I leaned on each other during the blur of their sickness, deaths and burials. We prayed together. We ate dinners delivered by friends, and we gave each other space to grieve.
Looking back on all of the trauma and turmoil over the years ― along with the beautiful moments and the tenderness I’ve witnessed and felt ― has made me realize what I’d failed to see. For so long, Thanksgiving has represented what I lacked in terms of family and traditions, but I now understand that so much was wrapped up in this day because it split my family in half and robbed us of bonds, making us two teams, not one unit. I also understand that it doesn’t have to be that way and that this holiday, like all the others, can mean what we want it to mean. We get to decide. What’s truly important ― and what I could only learn through living through so much hardship and experiencing so much love over the years ― is to be grateful for who and what I have; all can change in a moment. Each day is a gift.
This year for Thanksgiving, there won’t be a big fancy meal or multiple generations gathered or led in prayer by the patriarch. Our Hallmark-like holiday isn’t canceled, though. Steve and I will share a meal in our home united in our faith in a higher power and grateful for the path that led us to be together, and that’s all I now need to feel love and nurtured on Thanksgiving or any other day.
Tess Clarkson, an Irish dancer turned lawyer and yogi, lives in Missouri and is working on a memoir, “Beyond the Beaded Curtain.” Her essays have been published in HuffPost, The Washington Post, The Independent, Next Avenue, Motherwell, and AARP’s The Girlfriend. Follow her on Instagram at @tessclarkson7 and on Twitter at @tess_clarkson.