How to Survive Thanksgiving When Your Family Keeps Dying in the Fall

My world falls apart in the fall.
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Carla M. Lee
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My world falls apart in the fall.
I look happy, and I am, but I'm always sad underneath.

I look happy, and I am, but I'm always sad underneath.

Fall holds my favorite things: marching band, my beloved horror movie month and Halloween, and our main family holiday, Thanksgiving. It's also a time of painful dates: the days my mother and brothers-in-law died and their birthdays -- morbid anniversaries we mark off one by one. My favorite time of the year is now filled with reminders of everyone we've lost.

The hardest part is Thanksgiving.

Because of Mom's church, we were forbidden Christmas and Halloween growing up. Thanksgiving is the heart of our family holiday celebrations. It, like my family, is big and loud and warm, full of laughter and teasing and love. Or at least it was, until my mother died, and then Nick, and then Joe.

My world falls apart in the fall. The weather turns, the clocks change, darkness comes early and leaves late. Death, and memories of the dead, mar everything I used to love. Marching band -- Nick was an amazing drummer. Halloween -- Joe loved taking the trikes up to our hometown's Trunk or Treat and passing out candy. Thanksgiving -- well.

Joe, on the right, and the giant Jack-o-Lantern trike to celebrate Halloween.

Joe, on the right, and the giant Jack-o-Lantern trike to celebrate Halloween.

Fall comes each year, bringing Thanksgiving and the anniversaries that hurt, and this is how I try to survive:

Share the Love with People Old and New

There's no way to replace the people who have died. We don't want to replace them. But my family is not stagnant. We shrink. We grow. We are a chosen family. My parents adopted one kid, then two kids, then forgot how to stop. My siblings and I, we learned young that family isn't blood because family can be anyone. We reach out, we connect, we hold on.

We bring home the people we care about. One of my best friends from law school comes down from Chicago, adopted into the family the moment they first met her. My youngest brother introduces us to his new girlfriend, and her tiny, precious toddler who teaches me all about ponies and friendship and magic. My sister-in-law and her son move in, and it's wonderful, the teenage boy drumming on everything that holds still, and some things that don't, and the woman I grew up absolutely certain was the epitome of cool.

We talk about Mom and Nick and Joe, about all the people who've died. There are too many of us to leave empty seats, but we can feel the holes. We squeeze more people around the table, but we know who is missing. We will always know.

Embrace Technology

The living can't all be together at Thanksgiving anymore. We've grown up, spread out, but we're not lost, not from this family. We schedule Skype calls, crowd together on the couch, wave at the camera, grin at the images on the wall, computer to projector to big screen. Larger than life, long distance parents, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, friends, they grin and laugh, hold up cats, play with dogs, tell us the stories we miss, day to day pieces of their lives.

It's not perfect. Videos freeze, microphones fail, we talk too fast to be understood, words spilling out over each other. That's typical, though, technology or not. It's not perfect, but neither is family.

Create New Traditions

Sometimes the new is food and drink: alcoholic sweet potatoes, wine, raisin pie (Dad has interesting tastes). We're not burying our sorrows in alcohol, but I'm not going to lie; it helps. Some experiments are better than others. Some experiments look like they're going to devour the world. We laugh, and we move on.

We're all creative people, musicians, writers, artists. Now we make time to make art together. We don't have to talk about what's bothering us, but we can if want. We make mistakes, and laugh about it together. We create beautiful things, and ugly things, and ridiculous things, and when we're done, we've made something new and protected something old and precious.

Is there anything better than accidental watercolor octopods?

Is there anything better than accidental watercolor octopods?

Black Friday at the Shooting Range

Sometimes the new traditions aren't about creation. Sometimes, we need to destroy.

We're not big hunters in my family, but there are a lot of us who grew up around guns and love them. Now we spend Black Friday at the gun range. My brother Mike is a firearms expert. He gives a detailed safety presentation after Thanksgiving dinner, and we head out Friday morning. The sun is bright, the air cold, the noise of the shots still loud despite our earplugs. Mike brings down an arsenal, and takes the time to show us how to use whatever we want to shoot. Sometimes we hit the targets. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes our shoulders are bruised because we don't brace the shotguns right. Sometimes we set a hot muzzle down on a plastic box. That doesn't go so well.

We come home, eat leftovers, clean the guns. We strip them down, clean, polish. We sit at the long farmer's table in the kitchen, pieces of guns spread around us, the smell of cleaning solvent sharp in our throats. We wear gloves against the chemicals, destroy toothbrushes to get into the crevices, and the metal warms beneath our hands.

People live. People die. We hold life and death in our hands, shoot at paper targets, brace ourselves for the kickback. We get chilled, sinew and muscle and bone, and we come inside to get warm.