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Thanksgiving in the Time of COVID

Empty plates await the word.EXPAND
Empty plates await the word.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The year 2020 has not been an easy one. What began as a nightly news story about a virus in Wuhan, China became a crushing pandemic that so far has claimed over a million lives worldwide and nearly 250,000 Americans. It has destroyed families financially, mentally and emotionally. It was also the year of one of the most divisive presidential elections in history. Right now, many Americans are viewing their neighbors, their relatives and their friends as "the enemy."

So, how does one feel thankful in a time when there doesn't seem to be much worth celebrating? In households across this nation, the debates may be ongoing about electoral votes but another debate is splitting families; "Should we get together for Thanksgiving?"

For some, it's a simple no. They are the ones who post every day about the mortality rates on Facebook, get their groceries delivered and are able to work from home. To them, there is no question about it. And they have plenty of scientific experts to back them up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has made clear his views regarding Thanksgiving gatherings, as reported by cbsnews.org.

For others, staying home has not been an option for months. Many people are already back at work and some have never even had the opportunity to quarantine. Front-line workers have been at it since Day One. The term STFH means nothing to some folks when food has to be cooked, grocery store shelves have to be stocked and chemotherapy has to be administered.

Take time to reflect on the good things in life.EXPAND
Take time to reflect on the good things in life.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Still, some people lack the ability to put themselves in the shoes of those who have suffered the loss of a loved one or the devastating effects of being hospitalized with the illness. If it hasn't affected them personally, they don't see the wider picture. They view shutdowns and restrictions as a violation of their individual freedoms.

How did we get here? When did Americans begin to see their fellow citizens as "the others"? Sure, we've been divided before and our Thanksgiving history itself doesn't speak well of our treatment of the Native Americans. Still, the current climate in American society is one of anger, frustration and fear. How can we celebrate one of our most beloved national holidays safely and with gratitude?

For some people, the pandemic is a great excuse to not have to deal with family drama and Uncle Bill's political conspiracy theories. They'll cook a small turkey breast, whip up some mashed potatoes and buy a pumpkin pie. It might be the best Thanksgiving ever. Less mess in the kitchen, less mess in the after dinner conversation.

For others, the idea of not having extended family and friends around the table is unthinkable.  While the pandemic has limited our daily interactions on a regular basis, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the days we celebrate with people we sometimes rarely see. The talking heads say that staying home this year will ensure that our loved ones are there for us next year. That makes sense but Grandma might not be around next Thanksgiving, COVID or not.

Some families have plans to visit via Zoom or other social media, willing to ride out the pandemic until a vaccine and medicine makes our world safe again.  However, many others feel that these precautions are unnecessary and no virus is going to keep them away from their rites and rights. Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday,  fills the airports and lines the roads with cars of people eager to hug their tribe close even though hugs are mostly forbidden right now. When my friend said she was scheduling a massage due to the stress in her life, we joked that she should ask for a hug as a "happy ending." That's how touch-deprived we have become.

Will we or won't we gather?EXPAND
Will we or won't we gather?
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Our friends won't be coming to our annual Thanksgiving dinner this year. And my own extended family is still awaiting my decision. While I know the facts and have heeded the warnings of doctors and scientists, I feel like the Nervous Nellie in a family in which some members aren't completely convinced that the virus isn't a hoax.  So many scenarios have played out in my head. I could seat families outside at their own tables, require masks when indoors and enforce a strict "no hugging" policy. But, if I don't host it, it will just be held elsewhere which means there won't be as many precautions taken. These are my people and I know them. They will not behave.

There are also those who prefer Thanksgiving dinners at restaurants. Over the years, that has become a popular option as fewer people have felt the need to tie themselves to the oven for hours to fill the bellies of relatives they don't even like. This year, dining at a restaurant for Thanksgiving might also be seen as an act of solidarity with the hospitality industry which is facing unprecedented challenges. But, is it safer than dining with your own family and friends out of doors?

Many restaurants have resorted to upping their takeaway game during the pandemic and there is a cornucopia of choices across Houston for those who are staying home and limiting their number of guests. Letting some of the best chefs in the city create the holiday meal takes away some of the stress. For a list of some of  businesses doing Thanksgiving dinners for dine-in or take-home check out our Thanksgiving Day Dining Guide 2020 here in the Houston Press.

Pip won't get a new turkey box this year.EXPAND
Pip won't get a new turkey box this year.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Unfortunately, for those who make it a tradition to order a smoked turkey from Greenberg Smoked Turkey, Inc. located in Tyler, Texas, the 82-year-old family business suffered a catastrophe during its busiest season when a freezer exploded November 6, destroying 87,000 turkeys as reported here in the Dallas Morning News. Though they are giving customers refunds, it will be a sad holiday season for those who enjoy a Greenberg turkey every year. For the Greenberg family and employees, it's a heartbreaking emotional and financial loss. This year is a doozy.

So, how do we feel grateful when everything seems to be a mess? Truly counting our blessings is a good place to start. If our lives have not been upended financially by the pandemic, we are among the fortunate ones. If we haven't watched a loved one suffer the effects of COVID-19 or even worse, lost a loved one to the illness, we are tremendously lucky. If we have the funds to buy a Thanksgiving dinner, be it for two or 20, we are blessed.

Helping hands are always needed this time of year.
Helping hands are always needed this time of year.
Photo by Houston Food Bank

And if the pandemic stresses have taken an emotional toll on your mental health and well-being, this may be the year to step away from the feasting and focus on helping others. Unfortunately, most of the in-person Thanksgiving community dinners that we normally see every year in our city have been put on hold such as H-E-B's Feast of Sharing. However, H-E-B will be making monetary and food donations to 18 Texas food banks and delivering meals such as its Meal Simple holiday dinners in cooperation with charities like Meals on Wheels.

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Donations and volunteering are much needed, as they are at other Houston non-profits such as Houston Food Bank which needs volunteers to pack quarantine kits and Star of Hope which offers shelter to men, women and children in Houston. Second Servings is hosting a drive-thru food distribution in partnership with Kroger at the Toyota Center from 10 a.m. to noon, November 19. If your soul is in need of a little joy, helping to give sustenance to those with less resources might be the answer.

Toast to a Happy Thanksgiving.EXPAND
Toast to a Happy Thanksgiving.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

However we choose to celebrate our cherished holiday of gratitude, we need to look to the future rather than clinging to blame and partisanship. Whether we gather in person or virtually, the most important thing to do is to keep our loved ones and community safe. We will hug again. 

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