This is the story of the Worst Thanksgiving Ever...at least as my wife and I remember it. There are many Thanksgivings that are probably worse than this, but at least as our Thanksgivings go, this one was The Worst.
The year was 2003, the place was St. Louis, Missouri. That September I had started my time as student pastor at a large UCC church right down the road from the seminary. Coffeewife's time had been occupied for some time at a local children's psychiatric hospital which was right up her alley in terms of background and career aspirations. I think that's enough of a setup.
The church at which I was serving held a worship service on Thanksgiving Day, followed by a traditional meal in their parlor. The whole thing would start mid-morning and finish shortly after noon. Since I was the low guy on the totem pole, I was put in charge of organizing and leading this service. This was no shock to me, so I began to put the thing together. Coffeewife's reaction to this news is lost to my memory, but there was some measure of understanding that I as the scrub had to perform this thing. So any plans to head back to Ohio had to be scrapped, at least for that day.
She, meanwhile, had the entire day off, so we began evaluating our options for after I would complete my duties at the church. One option would be to visit friends of her family who still lived in the area, but we'd done that the year before and hadn't been keen on not knowing very many people at that gathering. Another option would be to wander to the seminary's commons for a student-organized family potluck sort of thing. This was one toward which I leaned, just because I figured we'd know more people and would be the most comfortable.
The service went fine. Coffeewife's experience less so. She sat by herself in a pew with what seemed a 10-foot radius of avoidance around her (others' avoidance, not her own). The tipping point for this part of the day was someone approaching her afterwards to make introductions and then following up with, "Oh, you should come on Sunday mornings!" Of course, she had been coming for almost three months by that point. This was one of the last times she attended that church.
After the meal, we headed home to try to figure out how to make the most of the rest of the holiday. Unfortunately, we weren't able to come up with something. The time of the seminary potluck drew near, and began to pass. In a moment I'm now not very proud of, I pretty well dragged her to this gathering which, at that point, had been raging for a half hour or more.
It was here that it began to dawn on me that the seminary community was beginning to pass me by. I was, after all, in my final year at this point. A lot of the people with whom I'd really hung out had graduated, and many of those from my own class had gone home for the weekend. This gathering was mostly made up of students from the first- and second-year classes, and it was very apparent that this was especially geared toward families with children. Coffeewife and I picked over the lukewarm leftovers at the head table, ate largely in silence with the sounds of children all around us, and left after couldn't have been longer than 20 minutes.
So we had had two Thanksgiving meals without any real Thanksgiving connection to others. It wasn't that we'd spent the day alone...but we had spent it in loneliness. We were both 500 miles away from our families and despite anyone's best case for what constitutes family and how the church is also our family and blah blah blah, those settings had not been very familial or familiar to us. With the time change, darkness had settled in early, but darkness seemed to have creeped over our holiday much much earlier. This had not gone well.
Now this is where my memory of the day gets a little hazy. One thing for sure is that we decided we wanted to be anywhere but on campus in our shoebox apartment...we needed to get out, and fast. The other thing for sure is that we ended up at Friday's with a table full of appetizers and desserts and even a toast: "Here's to salvaging Thanksgiving" or something like that. We may or may not have gone to a movie before we'd ended up there, but even after a little 'net research on what came out around that time, nothing has jogged my memory. Still, by that point we were looking for some comfort activities to save our holiday, and mozzarella sticks and vanilla bean cheesecake seemed to placate that desire. By that point we could even begin laughing about how ridiculous the day had turned out to be.
By a lot of people's standards, this was not really the Worst Thanksgiving Ever. But on a day traditionally spent with the familiar, the comfortable, the affirming...the best that we could do for ourselves that day was Friday's. It wasn't that the food was prepared badly or that there was a big flareup at the table...it was simply that we were far away from where we wanted to be, and it wouldn't have been so bad if the day's reminders hadn't been so brutal.
I suspect that most other people's Worst Thanksgivings Ever are variations on this theme: being far from home. When "home" is defined as the ones you're with and who create that space of warmth and safety to be yourself and to share that space with little reservation, we were far from home that day.
I wonder how many people will be far from home this year, either physically or emotionally, and how a home may yet be possible for them.