Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother
By Rachel Pieh Jones
Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.
I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just me. Some people are bringing things to share, but I bare the bulk the day’s work. My family is far away. Even two of my children, 15-year old twins, are two countries away at boarding school and won’t come home until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
So the house will fill with the smell of roasting turkey and my husband, my youngest daughter, and I will be the only family members to enjoy it and I will feel sad.
But that won’t happen until Thursday morning. There won’t be any parades to watch on television, no snow will fall. It will probably be 95 degrees.
Today, I’m writing out the menu and I’m stumped.
This year I did manage to scrounge up a turkey. Sometimes they are for sale at the nicest grocery store in town. They tend to cost about $30.00 a kilo. And they’re small. But they’re turkey.
What I’m stumped on is the stuffing.
Problem 1 is that we are inviting local friends, Muslims, and so I can’t have any pork products in the stuffing. My favorite recipe calls for sausage.
Problem 2 is that most recipes call for items I don’t have and can’t find. Mushrooms, cranberries, apricots, Granny Smith apples, celery, fresh sage leaves, sourdough bread.
How many things can I substitute in a recipe and still call it stuffing?
There won’t be any cranberries or sauce, which is fine. I don’t like either.
There won’t be a traditional bean casserole. There will be beans but they won’t be fresh and there won’t be cream of mushroom soup and there won’t be crunchy bread topping and there won’t be fried onions. Oh wait – there will be. They will just all be made from scratch (except the beans, they will come from a can or a freezer bag if the grocery store has them in stock).
Everything will be made from scratch, from pie crusts to the bread that will eventually go in the stuffing to the buns I will shape into moon-like crescents drenched in butter. I brought canned pumpkin from the US so we will have pumpkin cheesecake. Someone gave me a spare can she had brought from the US and so we will also have pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.
I will be making most of this. I may or may not cry while I make it.
I’m thankful my children are at this school two countries away. I’m thankful my husband and I have the privilege of living and working here. I’m thankful we have a turkey and all this incredible food. I’m thankful we have local friends and other American friends to celebrate the day with.
But I’m also sad. So, incredibly sad. I miss my family. I miss snow. I miss my in-laws and watching my nieces and nephews dive into Thanksgiving feasts together and cleaning up afterwards with sisters and sisters-in-law and listening to people talk about hunting season or sledding misadventures.
This Thanksgiving, the one with the pork-free, halal stuffing and the jury-rigged dishes and the sweat dripping down my back, isn’t the one I grew up with. It feels forced, faked. But if we didn’t celebrate it, I would be even more sad because I would have missed it. And therein lies my choice. Sad, or more sad? I choose sad but I don’t like the choice.
Holidays abroad are lonely. So we fill the day with lots of people and multiple pots on the stove and a constant flow of dishes to wash and we use the busyness to mask the sorrow. We use the frenzied effort to create something from nothing to hide the questions. Have we made the right choice? Is this really what I wanted when we moved away? Is this really what I still want for my family, after thirteen years abroad?
* * *
Now it is Thanksgiving Day and people start to arrive. Americans who have lived in Djibouti for a year, Djiboutians who have always lived here. They come carrying mashed potatoes and bottles of Coke. The Djiboutians don’t know the word for turkey but they devour it. We’ll talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving, the convoluted history of it. We’ll ask each other what we are thankful for and my answer will be: This.
I’m thankful for this table, filled to overflowing with people who have welcomed us and who laugh with us and who don’t laugh at me when I cry while carving the turkey because my grandpa is supposed to carve the turkey but my grandpa has been gone for years now. I’m thankful that we can be thankful here, far from home, and that we are making this a home. I’m even thankful that I am sad because the sadness means I love people and it means I have people who love me, who miss me, who are thankful for me and thinking of me even when I’m not there.
The sadness that comes with celebrating holidays abroad really isn’t that different from the sadness that comes with any kind of celebrating. The reason love terrifies us is because it is so intimately intertwined with pain. The reason gratitude makes us cry is because it hurts. It hurts to be thankful for people who aren’t present. It hurts to be thankful that when I’m lonely, my local friends love me well. Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.
Holidays keep coming and our families age. Grandpa isn’t here anymore to carve the turkey, grandma isn’t here anymore to make Bohemian Kolaches. We have been bumped up on the generational scale. We have long ago graduated from the Kids Table at holiday dinners to the Adults Table, though we secretly believe we still belong at the Kids Table. But even our kids are barely at the Kids Table anymore. Even if my family still lived in Minnesota my kids wouldn’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because they are teenagers and they sleep in too late. If we raced in a Turkey Trot 5k, they would beat me now.
No matter. Let the years roll on, we will keep holding to some traditions, like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special and reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and they are hilarious and no one watching from the outside understands why we are laughing so hard. We have performed these traditions for so long that the only reason we love them is because we love them together. We will still invite our local friends to our celebrations and feel awed by the waves of tender thanks that roll over us throughout the day.
And now we are in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be so many more meaningful and ridiculous traditions, more laughter and tears, more loneliness, more local friends filling in the empty spaces of our lives and hearts, more signs of time passing. And we will be thankful.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.