Thinking through our holiday plans this year, I have been listening to the experts and weighing our options. We typically spend Thanksgiving with my parents a few hours away in Charlottesville, Virginia. But my mother is the sole caretaker to my father, who has complicated medical challenges. Not to mention, my 18-year-old son is coming home for the holidays by way of two airports. My other, older son is working in a restaurant for his gap year, so there’s a lot of public exposure all around. I’d be a fool to not be nervous.
But in my research I came across Mississippi State Medical Association president Dr. Mark Horne, who said, “We don't really want to see Mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas. It's going to happen. You're going to say ‘Hi’ at Thanksgiving, ‘It was so great to see you,' and you’re going to either be visiting by FaceTime in the ICU or planning a small funeral before Christmas."
His blunt assessment stopped me in my tracks.
I reached out to Dr. Horne to talk to him some more. "We have to think differently,” he told me. “It's 2020. It's different than anything in our life experiences. No one alive remembers the previous pandemic, the last one was 102 years go. We're not accustomed to this. We need to make decisions with our heads, and less with our heart. We know that when we gather with people who are not our nuclear family or daily contact, we have a serious risk of acquiring Covid-19."
Right then and there, I turned to the CDC guidelines and decided that we would stay home this year, just our nuclear family. Everyone needs to make their own decision, weighing the risks against the benefits of face-to-face connection. But for our family, there really is no other responsible option.
I have to admit, the thought of my parents spending Thanksgiving alone is heartbreaking. So I turned to my trusty network – my “kitchen cabinet” – for ideas on how to prepare the family and stay engaged, but safe, this Thanksgiving. If you’re staying at home this year, I hope you’ll take a page out of my playbook too. Remember: It’s possible to stay connected while being apart.
Treat them, from afar
This week I drop-shipped my folks a “happy,” what my girlfriends call a random gift to bring a little joy. It was nothing, really. Some fun-patterned masks and a new “mask chain” accessory, but they were thrilled. I also ordered them a Thanksgiving dinner from the local gourmet supermarket so that there would be no work, only relaxation this holiday. I know that my mom misses the big production of a giant, family feast, but I am encouraging her to treat this year as a one-off, a reprieve from all of her hard in previous years.
I get it, I’m on camera in meetings all day, every day. I have severe Zoom fatigue. But this isn’t a weekly status meeting or a teacher conference. It’s your family. So, pour a big coffee and watch the revamped Macy’s Day Parade with your cousin Judy. Or plan to have virtual cocktail hour or dessert course with your loved ones, maybe even sharing recipes and preparing the same dish. Or try some of these Thanksgiving games. I know we will be hitting the Turkey Day Bingo hard! The point is, you don’t have to be on FaceTime all day. Pick one fun time to engage, and really be there.
This year’s meal won’t look like those in year’s past, but try to embrace the change. It might be dining by an outdoor fire pit with a family from your “pandemic pod.” Or maybe it’s takeout from a local restaurant in front of a holiday movie. Eliza Waters, a mom of two in Madison, Wisconsin, is hoping for weather warm enough for an outdoor hike with friends who, like her, are not traveling to see family this Thanksgiving. Maybe she’ll even start a new, annual tradition. “Who knows,” she said. “Maybe we’ll pack turkey sandwiches.”
Take care of one another
For the last nine years, my mom - a true inspiration to so many - threw a potluck for more than 100 people at the local senior center where she worked. Worried so many of her seniors couldn’t travel for the holiday, or would be alone, she organized the biggest, best buffet you could imagine.
My family volunteered, filling iced tea glasses and bussing tables and making chit chat with folks eager to engage. I worry about each and every one of those seniors this week. So, find your single friends. The colleagues who can’t travel. The elderly. The sick. Knock on your neighbor’s door and inquire about their plans. Offer to make and deliver – with no contact and copious amounts of hand sanitizer while sporting your favorite turkey-themed mask – a dinner. Or maybe just a pie. This prolonged isolation is having a tremendous mental health impact on many, and a simple act of outreach is really what this holiday is about, isn’t it?
No, this Thanksgiving won’t be normal. It shouldn’t. We’re still very much in the throes of a global pandemic, the likes of which almost nobody living has seen before. But it will end. And let’s trade one Thanksgiving with our loved ones to make sure they’re around next year for the Turkey Bowl, the fight over the wishbone, and bragging rights for winning the pie-eating contest.
Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three teenage sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.