When I was a kid, my family used to spend Thanksgivings on the farm. The idyllic, iconic American experience. Mamaw would spend days shopping and chopping, and woke before dawn to start the turkey.
She always had everyone's favorite pie.
Dinner would involve, among other things, three different pans of stuffing: one with everything; one with no onions; one with no giblets. Plus the copious amount of sides including deviled eggs in a giant Tupperware container–because if you don’t have deviled eggs, is it really even Thanksgiving in Kentucky? All of it would somehow fit on the table that also seated 6 adults. (The 4 kids were relegated to a card table in the den, of course).
As that turkey roasted to the perfection that only childhood memory can muster, I was outside with my cousins, playing on the tire swing and jumping in hay bales. The barn smelled like tobacco and Novembers were warm. This is not a Norman Rockwell imprint on my psyche. It was actual life.
You don’t know when you’re having the last one of those before life happens and people grow up, and everybody gets jobs and car payments and a set of in-laws. But at some point, all those dominoes started falling. Thanksgiving migrated to my aunt’s house in Georgia, and I married into a very large Catholic family where Thanksgiving was less an exercise in finding space for the deviled egg and more a game of Twister to get everyone seated.
Then I moved. To Phoenix. We lived in three different places in 7 years there, transient in they way of Gen Xers in general, and Arizona residents specifically.
We had good friends from home living in Southern California. When you’re a Kentuckian living in diaspora, the 5-hour plus drive across the desert seems like nothing at all, and so the Cali-Kentucky contingent would come to Phoenix to spend Thanksgiving with us. Those years involved the gradual introduction of babies (ours and theirs) and friends’ husbands, and an ever-expanding table of mostly vegetarian fare. The church I was serving at the time always had a big Thanksgiving meal the Sunday before, which meant turkey with an abundance of jello-dishes and store bought salads because– THIS JUST IN– Arizona people don’t cook like your Kentucky Mamaw. But they have their own virtues. For instance, those were the years I learned to put green chiles in everything. Seriously, corn pudding, cheese grits… whatever, it will change your life.
Somehow, even though ministry life means that holidays are the worst possible time to go ‘home,’ that desert was filled with all the goodness of family and belonging that I could ask for. Maybe it’s because there was so much love in the scrappy little church that made a pastor of me. Maybe it’s because my friends and chosen family were willing to drive across the desert just to hold my babies and enjoy pie-for-breakfast-Friday (my favorite, if self-appointed holiday).
Or maybe it’s because home is not a place you go, but something you take with you.
During our years in Kansas City, Thanksgiving was a pieced together thing. Some years we would go to a friend's house rather than burning up the road to Kentucky; one year, I made a midnight run to the airport, in the snow, to pick up my mom. Sometimes we traveled, sometimes we set the table.
All told, in our first 15 years of marriage, my husband and I lived in 3 states: 3 Cities, 3 timezones, and (I’ve lost count but roughly) 9 different houses and apartments. There were times I felt untethered; years I wished I could transport myself to a Rockwell-esque farm scene and whatever ‘home’ means when you’re missing it; times I wished that we had “a holiday tradition” that was just what we did every year, no matter what, and we didn't have so much stuff to figure out. But that sense of lack and longing isn’t what I remember. I remember holidays from those transient years as enforced sabbath time. A few days to breathe in the goodness of our current life situation, wherever that happened to be, and enjoy it with whatever friends and family we could scrape together. Wherever we were, and whoever was there, was exactly who and what we needed at the time.
We are back in Kentucky now, and like the rest of the country, heading into our 2nd pandemic Thanksgiving. So on the one hand, we have plans for about 3 different gatherings to ensure that we hit all sides of the family. On the other hand, we've got a kid at home who is technically COVID positive (though asymptomatic, thankfully) who is supposed to quarantine through Thanksgiving day. We'll do another round of tests on Wednesday and see what's what. But the past week has been a reminder that it's best to stay flexible and know that 'plans' are rarely more than good intentions. And that even our best traditions will give way to real life.
The holidays came around last year at the height of the pandemic, before a vaccine was available. All experts advised that Americans forego their usual family gatherings and celebrate at home... but some folks just couldn't get their heads around it. While many sacrificed and planned family Zoom calls and Googled how to make turkey for 4, or 2, or 1... many, many others went on with holidays-as-usual, having no frame of reference for how one might just... not. And we had a massive January COVID spike to show for it.
And yes, the holidays last year were kind of a bummer... But I was very mindful that the art of being unattached to tradition served us well through that time. And it continues to serve us still. There is a certain resilience that comes with having moved and changed your life a lot over the years, a bloom-where-you're-planted flexibility that embraces your current location, both literal and figurative. And one does not have to make geographical moves to cultivate such resilience. Anyone who has ever scraped together a sense of community from a hodgepodge assortment of people in close proximity will tell you the same. When your tradition is no tradition, you make it work. You give thanks for where you are.
Like many of yours, our family table will be missing a loved one this year. The grief is palpable. But there is also real Thanksgiving for the life that was, for life that remains, and for those who are still with us to celebrate.
Nothing is ever the same as it was when we were kids. In fact, things are rarely the same as they were just a year ago. But I know that my truest understanding of gratitude has grown out of the years when nothing seemed normal or usual... but when I could still look around and see how blessed I was by whoever happened to be in proximity.
Because it's really not about holidays at all, but about finding home. And home, it turns out, is portable. Like the Derby pie I took to Thanksgiving potlucks in both Arizona and Kansas– because if you can believe it, there are folks living in those distant lands who have never thought to put bourbon and chocolate chips in their pecan pie. Home can happen at any table where you happen to be, in any season, in any timezone.
Maybe home is just where your pie is.
Yesterday I grabbed the last package of pecans from the baking aisle in Kroger. Clearly all of Louisville is doing what I’m doing today--baking Derby pies.
Shoot, I can’t say that. The official name is trademarked, so let’s just say, I am making chocolate pecan pie (or walnut, if you fancy), using a heavy hand with the bourbon. There may be some on the side for sipping.
Of course, when I say “all of Louisville,” I mean those in my fair city who are not actually going to Churchill Downs for the race. My confession is, I’ve never been to the track ON Derby Day. But honestly, if you aren’t going to pay a 5-digit ticket price for a luxury box, you are just going to stand in the muddy infield with all the drunk frat guys who don’t know the words to My Old Kentucky Home. No, thank you. I prefer to enjoy my pie with a few close friends, the NBC Sports’ view of the whole track, and bourbon refills that you don’t have to wait in line for.
You don’t have to be at the track to enjoy Derby Day. Actually-- you don’t even have to be in Kentucky to enjoy Derby Day.
I can attest to this after years of having lived “elsewhere,” marking the day as “National Homesick Kentuckian” day--crying into my bourbon even as we sang “weep no more, my lady,” sharing pie with whomever was around, and trying to help my friends and neighbors in Phoenix, then Kansas City, understand what this whole thing was about. Because if you know, you know, but if you DON’T know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
In those away years, I always tried to share the experience with the people in my proximity as best I could. I would say that my transplanted traditions ‘took’ better in some locales than they did in others… But everywhere, everybody loved pie. You can’t argue with the power of pie.
In fact, I have made and shared Derby Pie in so many other places, with so many other gatherings that now, this thing that used to make me homesick for Kentucky now makes me homesick for other places and people. How is that possible? This is Kentucky’s THING! Kentucky’s day. And yet-- anyplace I’ve taken this pie is also home.
I guess home is where your pie is.
This time last year, COVID-19 meant no Derby… Churchill Downs, like every other public place, was shut down tight and silent. The race was postponed until September when, in a truly spooky and post-apocalyptic feeling broadcast, the horses ran with no spectators. No juleps, no fancy hats, no drunken frat guys singing the wrong words loudly…just the sound of hooves on dirt. It was as though the whole pandemic had been distilled into a single, empty, two minute event.
We gathered on our patio with a small group of friends, the T.V. having been moved outside for a socially-distanced watch party. As the opening strains of Stephen Foster carried across the airwaves from that impossibly empty place, my daughter said, “are you CRYING?” like it was weird or something to be crying over a horse race. I said “every Kentuckian everywhere is crying right now. Believe me.”
If you know, you know. But if you don’t know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
Watching the race from just a few miles away that day felt a lot like watching it from Arizona. So close, but so far… So removed from the place itself, but so connected to every other homesick Kentuckian in the world, every other piece of traveling pie...
I will watch again today-- on a friend's patio, from just a few miles away. While Churchill Downs will be at about half capacity, there will be spectators. But I don't feel the need to be there in person.
It is possible to feel homesick even when you are at home. It is possible to feel connected to home, even when you are nowhere near it in proximity. And it is not just possible, but highly probable, that a certain food, or song, or sound of hooves-on-turf, can transport you instantly from home to elsewhere, and back again. Because home is not so much a place as a longing; a thing that you take with you everywhere and, hopefully, share with anyone who happens to be in your orbit.
Home is where your pie is.
There are staples I buy every time I go to the store. They don't even have to go on the list, they're just part of life. Milk. Fruit. Cheese. Cereal.
And bread. I always buy bread.
But lately, I've noticed that when I put the groceries away, I go to put the bread in the pantry... and there is already a loaf of bread there. Sometimes half a loaf, sometimes a whole one. Interesting.
As I tossed the new bread into the freezer (again) I took a minute to wonder what might be causing our carbs to pile up like this. Nobody is on a keto kick.
And it occurred to me that during pandemic times, a few things have shifted. For one thing, there is no school. Which means there are no lunch boxes. Our mornings are not spent making sandwiches and cleaning up our lunch mess while we also put away the breakfast dishes.
The other thing that has changed is The Children themselves. I do not know how this happened, but I have two tweens up in here all of a sudden. One is as tall as me, and the other is gaining fast. Since they were toddlers, they've been able to eat their collective weight in peanut butter sandwiches every week. And while their appetites grow along with them, it seems their tastes have changed. Given the fact that I have a full-time job and am not a damn maid, these grown ass children fix their own lunches now. Having no school and full access to the kitchen means that lunch is now mac cheese, frozen pizzas, quesadillas, or leftovers from dinner last night. In fact, my son commented the other day, "when we go back to school, I don't know what I'm going to take for lunch. I never really want sandwiches anymore." Aha. Bread mystery solved.
And yet, I keep buying bread.
I recognize the privilege inherent here- in buying something out of sheer habit whether we need it or not. Having more food in the house than we can eat in a week, having more than we need in general. So many are struggling right now. Diminished food security has been, by far, the biggest fall-out of the pandemic, with hunger affecting millions more people than the virus itself. I reckon with this imbalance by giving to causes and organizations that are working to feed people. Contributing to local needs as well as global development programs focused on food security and sustainability.
At a more micro level, this disparity makes me want to examine my habits. What else do I do on autopilot without mindfulness? What other habits have I picked up, or let go, during this weird time of lockdown? What do I have more (or too much) of? What could I make more room for if I stopped taking up unnecessary space with things I don't need? And I don't just mean in the pantry...
It makes me think about how I spend not just my money-- but my time, and myself.
I buy more sweatpants and pajamas now; but spend a lot less on gas. I spend more time scrolling; but a lot less running around town for pointless errands. I see fewer people; but am so much more grateful for even the smallest of social interactions. I cook more and eat out less. I exercise more, but I also drink more. I miss the library and coffee shops, but I strangely don't miss so many other places where I used to spend my time. Interesting.
Some of these evolutions are good and healthy. Some are not great. All of them are what they are. And all of them make me want to be more intentional about life in general when we go back to life as normal... whatever that means.
This week, I won't buy bread. Maybe next week, I'll want toast for breakfast. Or I'll just forget and toss it in the cart again. Either way, my daily bread is now a daily call to mindfulness. And that, I will keep - with butter and jam.
How about y'all? What habits have you picked up or laid down during all this craziness? How will it change your "normal" when this whole thing is over?
What do you "throw in the cart" without even thinking about it?
And what would you have more room for if you stopped?