Tonite there is a space. A deep breath before the holidays burst to life, the visitors arrive, the food is served, and the festivities begin. There is a space. A quiet part of us that misses someone. Or, a lot of someones. And whether this space is new this year or it’s something you’ve grown to understand & have learned how to do, that space is still sacred. And quiet. So tonite, in the stillness before the season, I honor that space in you. And I honor that space in me. I pray that our hearts keep healing & that someone puts their arms around you & tells you that you are loved. Because you are. — T. M.
My wise and altogether wonderful friend, Terri Mervenne, shared these words today and it was like a blanket for my soul. I suppose, too, that I read her note at an opportune time. Every surface of the kitchen was coated in flour. The living room looked like a stuffed animal breeding ground. There was an unfathomable amount of toothpaste on the bathroom floor. The only thing prepped for tomorrow’s feast was pie crust. Next to the refrigerator, there was a To Do list that had not been adhered to, and a 3-Day Master Schedule that had been woefully ignored. I felt, as I often do at the start of the holidays, on the verge of a meltdown.
We all have this idea of how seasonal gatherings are supposed to be. And every year, between late November and early January, we are faced with the reality of how our holidays actually are. Sometimes that disconnect is encouraging. Perhaps we grew up in a quarrelsome family, but we marry into a clan more placid and accepting. But a lot of the time, the disparity between what we desire during the holidays and what we actually experience can be quite painful. And it is hard to know what to do with all that, what to do with the empty space.
My father is one of ten children. As adults, they fanned out around the country from Hawaii to Maine. Whenever they gathered for holiday photographs, they honored the missing siblings, and would assign inanimate objects to stand in. “Gina is the lamp,” they’d say before the flash. “Tommy is the dining room chair.” For years afterwards, that everyday item became the placeholder for the missing sister or brother 2000 miles away from the turkey dinner.
During the holidays, many of us do that same thing. We make grandma’s turnips or a great-aunt’s secret apple pie in an effort to hold a space for folks who have come before us, for loved ones who began our traditions long ago. But those marshmallow-covered yams and those green beans drowned in cream are such a far cry from the whole and wonderful person who once shared our table. Often, the very things meant to honor the empty space end up exacerbating it.
I have lived away from family for most of my adult life, and I have grown accustomed to the empty spaces around my table where siblings, parents, and cousins ought to be. But it wasn’t always easy. I remember one Christmas Eve, years ago, before the kids were born. Ken was in the Navy, deployed somewhere in the Pacific. And I sat alone on my front porch with a Christmas tree lodged in the doorway. I was pruning its branches with a letter opener when Tom, a neighbor I hardly knew, walked by and asked whether I needed any help. I told him I was fine and turned to shove the bedraggled tree towards a stand in the living room. When the broken-branched pine fell over for the third time, I looped twine around its trunk and tied it to curtain rods and the fireplace grate. I gazed upon my own personal tannenbaum with simultaneous triumph and defeat.
I had not been “fine” and Tom was kind enough to notice that. He and his wife invited me over that same night, and to this day, I am ever-so-grateful that they did. They saw a space in me and honored it, not by trying to assist my attempts to recreate Christmas past, but by welcoming me to their table.
Since that night, I have cobbled together my fair share of hobo holidays — thrown-together affairs with lasagnas and Yorkshire puddings, rooms full of expats or enlisted kids too broke to fly home. One Thanksgiving, our tiny party abandoned the turkey to its half-thawed fate, and dined entirely on apple pie instead. As much as I cherish the Rockwellian memories of my childhood, I know they are rose-colored reflections. There were spaces at those tables, too. Over the years, I have grown to love the custom of opening our home and welcoming the stranger. I honor the space in my heart best when I am honoring someone else’s. In this way, the emptiness connects us.
Space is funny like that. It can either keep us distant or help draw us close
Whether you spend tomorrow at a soup kitchen, in your own kitchen, or at your great-aunt Hildebrand’s eating soup, whether you share your dinner with 27 people or 2, I pray that you will, as my friend Terri so lovingly put it, “honor that space” in everyone you meet.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.