Throughout the United States, there will be people missing from Thanksgiving tables this year. The pandemic has taken an astonishing toll, and there is scarcely a family that hasn’t lost someone. Along with those who died of Covid, there have been increased deaths from many other causes during the pandemic years, thanks to loneliness and stress. When we gather in a few weeks to offer thanks for the bounty of life, there will be empty seats in many homes.
My 95-year-old mother died this last month, after a long and active life running various volunteer organizations and taking off in a sailboat whenever she could. Losing someone after a robust and happy life is hardly a tragedy, and yet that doesn’t mean she hasn’t left a hole in our hearts. A friend who knew her since our childhood said that losing my mother was like watching a giant sequoia go down in a forest – a big tree that sheltered many, and that leaves a gap in the canopy of life. That is how it feels.
So it is with a heavy heart that I think ahead to Thanksgiving and how we might honor and make room for the ghosts at the table. Some families light a candle for those who are missing, or perhaps mention them in the Thanksgiving grace. After my father died ten years ago, we continued to prepare the creamed turnips and aspic salad he loved because those dishes reminded him of his parents. After a few years it occurred to us that no one really liked the turnips or aspic, but it was still hard to give them up.
My mother was famous for bringing a mincemeat pie to wherever she was invited for Thanksgiving, and always presented pumpkin pies as a pair. The first time my husband joined us for Thanksgiving, he was astonished – and delighted – to find seven pies for twelve people. “I knew I’d found the right family,” he said later. “Even mincemeat!”
So will we make a mincemeat pie in my mother’s honor? Perhaps. But beyond food, there are other ways to honor a missing family member or friend. You could play a trivia game to see how many people know the details of a loved-one’s life. You could go round the table sharing best memories of the one who isn’t there. For my mother’s memorial service, the grandkids came up with a wonderful list of “Things I Learned From Grammy,” which included items like “Lack of a salary should never stop you from taking a job seriously,” or “A million chores shouldn’t keep you from cookies in the afternoon,” and “Even if you are mad at your partner, you should still touch toes when you get into bed.” There are many ways to keep someone alive in the midst of serving turkey and passing the gravy.
So we will gather and we will summon our ghosts, either through food or memories or pictures or music. Perhaps we will set a place and an extra chair. Perhaps we will pull out the photo albums. Perhaps we will serve turnips. As my Jewish Friends say, “May their memory be a blessing.”
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.