Holidays are Hard

But there was that one special Thanksgiving...

Last year at this time I told you about my four worst Thanksgivings. Today I’m going to tell you about my best one — which is saying a lot, because I am not a fan of this holiday, and most others.

Brian and me, at our first Thanksgiving together, in November, 2003. We’d only been dating about five weeks at that point, but we each knew the other was our “person” by then.

I was anxious about Thanksgiving 2003 for months before it rolled around. I knew both my divorced/remarried parents would be away for the holiday — my mom in Florida, my dad in California. What was I going to do with myself? Hang out alone in my depressing East Village hovel? (Confession: I really miss that hovel.)

Being a divorce kid from the time I was 11 flat out ruined holidays for me. I always felt torn between my parents’ far-apart celebrations — my mom’s on Long Island, my dad’s in Westchester or at family friends in Connecticut — and worried that whichever parent I wasn’t spending the holiday with might feel abandoned and lonely. Being emotionally fractured like that, I felt lonely every holiday, no matter how many other people attended whatever celebration I was at. It’s a feeling I’ve never been able to shake, decades on. Each fall, as the holiday season approaches, I am overcome with dread and sadness.

Having both parents out of town for Thanksgiving 2003 year should have made it easier for me. I was off the hook! I didn’t have to attend to either parent. I could have done anything, or nothing. But I also find it painful to sit out holidays, knowing that other people are celebrating. It feels like I should be celebrating, too, and enjoying myself. When I’m not, it gives rise to thoughts of: What’s wrong with me that I’m not enjoying myself? Which only compounds the problem. It’s all so goddamned fraught for me, even still. No matter now old I get, no matter what I do — or don’t do — on the holidays, I can’t win.

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It wasn’t like I was a little kid then, either; in the fall of 2003 I was 38. I was single, though, and tired of being alone. It had been 11 years since I left my first marriage. After too many shitty boyfriends and a couple of years of treatment with a male therapist I referred to as The Swashbuckling Shrink, I seemed to finally be on a path toward choosing better men. But still I hadn’t found one who was right for me, and I was losing hope that I ever would. Of course there was all that biological clock bullshit adding pressure. I hadn’t yet come to realize how much I didn’t want kids.

The morning of October 17th, after nine months of online dating, I emailed a friend who’d been struggling to find love on Match and Nerve Personals right along with me. I wrote, “Online dating is bullshit. It doesn’t work. I’m quitting all the sites.” Then I put on my running shoes and headed out the door for my daily jog through the East River Park.

On my way to the park, on 7th Street between Avenues C and D, there he was — the one guy I’d really liked on Nerve, but who’d dropped the ball with me three times over six months. We’d had a really nice correspondence on the site, but his elderly mother was sick, so he kept disappearing. I’d come to expect I’d never to meet him IRL. But there he was, standing outside of his running car, trying to assess whether it was far enough away from a church for him to legally park there. It was so strange seeing him in the flesh, especially after swearing off online dating literally minutes before.

It was the first day I took a new running route. The day before I’d learned that the 10th Street Bridge, part of my regular route, was under construction. So, the first time I take a new way, boom, I bump into that guy. Cue the metaphors about abandoning old, worn-out pathways for new ones.

I debated for 30 seconds whether to say, “hi,” then finally just decided to do it, and he seemed genuinely happy I did. When I got back to my apartment after my run, my phone was ringing. It was him.

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And by “him,” I mean Brian, the man I have now been with for 17 years, married for 15 of those. After bumping into each other on the street, we started dating the very next day, and it was clear from our first meal together at Life Cafe that we truly clicked.

It was a whirlwind romance but felt substantive, and right in a way no relationship ever had before. Still, it took me a while to trust it. When November arrived, I wondered if we were too new for him to invite me to his family’s Thanksgiving. Then I did what I do best: I worried about it, from every possible angle:

Of course it’s too soon. You’ve known him only about a month! Stop rushing things, Sari! Don’t even think about bringing up Thanksgiving. If he asks, say no. There’s no way he’s going to ask, anyway. You know you’re going to be miserable on Thanksgiving no matter what you do, so don’t say anything, buck up, and stay home, or take yourself to Kripalu or something…

And then a few days before the holiday, like it was no big deal, he invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving celebration at his sister’s house in Oneonta, NY. I tried to play it cool, but accepted the invitation quickly and greedily.

My late mother-in-law, Bridget Macaluso — an avid reader — surrounded by her twin boys, Alan (left) and Brian (right). She was 82 here, and recovering from an aortic dissection. She lived another 12 years, to 94.

Their celebration wasn’t on Thanksgiving proper, but the Saturday after — a family tradition that allowed everyone in the family to spend the actual holiday with in-laws or friends, and leave themselves all free on an alternate day. (They did the same for Christmas, typically celebrating in early January.)

Brian said he was going to head up to Oneonta alone that Thursday, though, and I was invited to meet him there Friday evening. I’d later learn the reason: he wanted to first spiff up his sister’s place to impress me. He called the service he was performing “Bri Eye for the Pig Sty,” a play on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which was in its first iteration then. I was so touched when I found out he wanted to make a good impression, I cried. No one had ever made that kind of fuss for me before. I had made so many fusses for so many men, and they rarely reciprocated, or showed themselves to be worthy of my effort.

Making me feel even more welcome, that Wednesday evening Brian had me come to his place to help him make a vat of caponata for Thanksgiving dinner, from his Sicilian family’s secret recipe. When his siblings learned he did that, they were shocked. “He let you know how the caponata is made?!” one of them said. “Oh, this is serious.”

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So, the night of actual Thanksgiving that year, I was on my own for the first and only time ever. I went to Little Poland, an East Village standby on my corner, and thought about getting turkey and cranberry sauce in the holiday spirit, but instead got my favorite food to indulge in alone: liver and onions, with a side of peas. (I’ve learned that no one wants to watch you eat liver. Also, I love it so much, I don’t want to be distracted by talking to anyone while I’m devouring it.) I stayed up late that night watching Season 3 of Curb Your Enthusiasm — my favorite season, with my all-time favorite episode, The Special Section — trying to make the time pass until I could drive up to join Brian.

The next day I got into the jalopy I’d recently purchased for $1500 — a 1992 red Toyota Corolla wagon — and prayed it would survive the four-hour trip to Oneonta. (A few months later the engine would die while Brian and I were on a trip to Montauk; chipping in on a replacement engine was our first serious financial endeavor together.) I was nervous the whole ride up, in part because of some treacherous roadways — like the hairpin turn on rt. 23A near Kaaterskill Falls, which was icy that night — and in part because Brian had warned me his four older sisters might “eat me alive,” as they had his last girlfriend (er, fiancee), whom they didn’t like.

But his sisters did not eat me alive. They welcomed me with open arms. I found it was easy to be with them and the rest of the family — like 20 of them — sharing stories, singing along with them to Beatles songs, a Macaluso family tradition.

Brian and I sang a song we’d become obsessed with — the first of many — called “Ten Year Night,” by Lucy Kaplansky. As an occasional music writer, I’d been given free tickets to see her play at the 92nd Street Y, and brought Brian along on one of our early dates. We loved that song, and played it over and over and over for like a year, imagining that some day, we’d have a 10th anniversary to celebrate together. The next year, we’d be obsessed with “Time (the Revelator)” by Gillian Welch. Currently it’s “Once in a Very Blue Moon” by Pat Alger.

At dinner that night, Brian’s 82-year-old mother, Bridget made a toast welcoming me to their Thanksgiving table, and everyone was moved. She was a tough customer, but she instantly liked me, and it meant the world to me. She was very frail then, still recovering from an aortic dissection that had nearly ended her life the summer before. Everyone was worried she wasn’t out of the woods. Brian committed to wearing a strand of Tibetan meditation beads around his neck as a touchtone, until such time as she was well. Fortunately, Bridget recovered, returning to her goofy, raunchy old self, living another 12 years, to 94, before passing in October, 2015.

That whole Thanksgiving was such an incredible joy. It turned into a big slumber party, everyone plopping themselves on the floor in one room or another for the night. Brian and I crammed two twin mattresses together in the attic and held onto each other for dear life, like we still do every night, 17 years later.

It was the best Thanksgiving of my life. We’d repeat the tradition year after year, at one family member’s house or another, and it would always be nice and fun — although various ensuing family dramas would take something away. There’d never be quite the same magic as there was that first time — the holiday that solidified my relationship with the love of my life.

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Thanks to Covid, this is the first year we won’t be celebrating with Brian’s family. We are hoping to spend Thursday at a tiny outdoor, socially-distanced Thanksgiving gathering (weather-permitting) with dear friends here in Kingston who have kindly taken it upon themselves to host. We are very grateful to them.

I hope that by this time next year — or, please, god, no later than the year after — Covid will no longer be a threat. It would be refreshing to return to my old petty concerns, and to the business of dreading holidays, instead of living in a constant state of anxiety and terror, as we have been for the past eight months and counting.

In the mean time, stay safe and well, everyone.

On a completely different note, you can now pre-order the reissue of Goodbye to All That — with 7 new essays by Leslie Jamison, Ada Limón, Lisa Ko, Emily Raboteau, Rosie Schaap, Danielle Amir Jackson, and Carolita Johnson — at the wonderful Bookshop, which is a great alternative to Amazon that helps fund independent bookstores. Pre-ordering helps. I’d be so grateful if you did