OPINION: Alone but not lonely — how I made Thanksgiving about family with none in reach

I haven’t looked at my email. I haven’t checked the mailbox. I haven’t been out in days. The last interaction I had with anyone was a pizza delivery guy — I slipped him a $5 tip through the screen door, and he thanked me. That’s been the extent of my human interaction in recent days. My face hasn’t seen makeup in weeks. The pile of vitamins, medications, and supplements I take grows like some monstrous apothecary.  I haven’t been on ZOOM all week and have only made a couple of phone calls. 

There’s no turkey cooking — our oven is cold. There’s no table to set — visitors will not show up at my door. The house is empty, save for me.  I sit here with a cup of hot chocolate in my sweatpants. I started today in a funk but won’t end it that way. I’ve spent the day with family, and I’ve seen no one.

My father cooked our “feast” yesterday, filling his role as Thanksgiving chef, slicing the turkey and buttering the rolls with the precision of a surgeon. He carefully divided the goods, leaving some for me and some for my brother. Afterward, he hit the road to be with my mother in Oklahoma, leaving me with two plates piled high with Turkey and a container of mashed potatoes from Dillon’s. 

This year the four members of my immediate family (mother, father, brother, and I) are in three different places, having three different mini-Thanksgivings despite all being within driving distance. 

I’ve been in isolation for many days. It’s been hard. But today is different. I am alone today. But I’m not lonely.

I’ve turned off Netflix, at least temporarily. The imaginary worlds and imaginary lives can wait. 

I’ve turned on the music — loud enough to upset the neighbors if I were still living in a teeny, cramped New York City apartment. 

Boxed memories 

I then turned to the boxes stacked high in the living room — an old wedding dress box and a collection of clear plastic bins filled with photographs. Old photos — really old. Some go back to the 1800s. There’s a massive assortment of my ancestors, many whose names aren’t known to me, laid out in sepia, black, brown, grey and white. Some are bent and wrinkled with age. Others are stained. But considering their age and the dozens of times they have been moved, the photos are in good shape. 

I go through the photos thinking about putting on gloves, so the oil from my fingers doesn’t further corrode the treasure laid out in front of me. But I want to touch them, to run my fingers along their rough edges. I hope they seep their taciturn secrets into my subconsciousness. 

I have my dad’s old magnifying glass next to me, hoping that if I hold the photos in just the right light and squint hard enough, I will find a date, a location, some scrawled message to let me know what occasion was so great as to warrant a photograph. 

My family is from Kansas and the Massachusetts and Rhode Island area, and these photos tell their stories. 

Emporia became home to the German Korte family many moons ago. The Kortes eventually merged with my paternal grandmother’s family — the Heffrons, Irish and proud. 

My maternal grandfather’s family, the Bryants came up through the plantation lands of North Carolina. 

Newport, Rhode Island is my mother’s mother’s family’s stomping ground. If you look up the definition of “Anglican,” my family’s name, (Lawton, was her maiden name) is sure to be mentioned somewhere. In Salem, MA, that family landed in the 1630s from Church Lawton, Cheshire, England, following Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson to this land to pursue agricultural promises and religious freedom.

None of this was new to me but as soon as I started writing this, I needed my family — my parents’ memories and knack for family history. I picked up the phone to check on some details about the history I have heard over the years. It was nice to talk of things besides work and COVID and the weather.

Today, I learned that my mom’s dad’s mother was a Scarborough, and they owned the James Scarborough house in North Carolina. I also found out that the city of Lawton, Oklahoma, was named after Major General Henry Ware Lawton, a cousin on my mother’s side. Lawton was founded in 1901. I read about it on Wikipedia, continuing to be stunned at the number of my ancestors who have made it into history books and analogs.

 I return to the pictures laid out in front of me, taking over tables and chairs and then the floor. There are parade photos from the 1930s in Newport, graduation photos, pictures of my great-Aunts who chained themselves to the courthouse in Newport in the name of women’s suffrage. 

I see my grandfather Bryant, the one I never knew, grinning ear to ear with a Navy buddy at Pearl Harbor. There’s a marked change in Grandpa Bryant’s demeanor before and after December 1941. I recognize it instantly because I see the same sadness in my own eyes in pictures of me after September 11, 2001.

I see my mother in her Mary Jane’s, her brother’s in their Sunday best — celebrating Grandpa’s Navy retirement back at the Officer’s Club in Newport. I see photos of the family standing on the steps of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, RI, where generations of family are buried and where my parents married on a beautiful June day in 1976.

I flip through the photos of the other side of the family — my great-grandfather Heffron looking stoic. I see the Korte clan gathered in their smartest clothes on their land in East Emporia, KS, one holding a fiddle, claiming their farmland proudly.

My grandmother Korte who is still alive and a true matriarch with 19 grandkids and 17 great-grandkids, looks stunning on her wedding day — May 13, 1948. 

Then a sudden change to color photos. Albums from the 1960s and 70s when my parents were 19 and 21 years old, just beginning a life together, going to fraternity parties and playing frisbee on the lawns at KU. 

I get a kick out of my father’s photos from his early days in the Army — trooping through the woods at Ft. Benning, GA jumping out of helicopters and commanding tanks. 

Next come a few well-worn polaroids of me always talking or pointing to something, always curious and communicating.  Then in 1995 my brother joined us.

I’m only at the top of the heap of history encased in these mounds of pictures. 

Suddenly, I don’t feel alone at all. I am filled with the reverence that recollection brings. I light a candle for my ancestors and my family — spread across this nation like seeds sent sprawling by a gust of wind. Some lived long, full lives; some died young, and it still takes my breath away. Those lost this year make me feel particularly raw. I see them stretched out in this web of family and the years, generations of fellowship that has come with our family, and I remember they are not alone. They have family too.

I run out to my car to grab my camera — because I feel this is worth documenting too. Maybe it will bring a niece or cousin comfort someday to see how I spent Thanksgiving during the great COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. For now, I am grateful because this connection to the past has brought me comfort. 

I top off my hot chocolate with some whipped cream and settle in because this day is about family and giving thanks. And I have everything I need to spend today on both.