Reading Time: 5 minutes

I first noticed the change on Thanksgiving 2020. As I took my first bite of turkey, something felt odd. Something was missing.

Halfway through my first plate, it hit me: My turkey was ungraced. 

It was the height of the pandemic, so instead of the annual (heh) pilgrimage to my extended family’s Thanksgiving, I was at home with just my son and husband. So there had been no awkward endurance of my family saying a long performative grace over the meal.

That wasn’t the only thing missing. And like boneless chicken wings, what was missing somehow made what was left behind even better.

Sitting at our formal dining table would have felt a little silly in our pandemic loungewear, so we put on a movie and ate our holiday meal off TV trays in the living room. Our son had just read One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was curious to see the movie. My husband and I happily obliged.

As I worked through my second plate of heretical turkey and sides, still trying to piece it all together, I looked around. My son was smiling as he marveled at a young Danny DeVito on screen.

Holy Profane Turkey! My son was smiling. My husband too.

My hand leaped to my face. Could it be that I was smiling too? Laughing even. On Thanksgiving?

Shut the front door!

It started to fall into place. I had filled my second plate of food without a passive-aggressive remark about my figure.

There was no talk of the Orange One. In fact, there was no mention of politics at all. There were no alternative facts. Tucker Carlson’s book wasn’t being passed around with smirks and side-eyes in my direction. I doubt that anyone in my family even cracked the cover of that book. Like so much else during that time, it was just a prop for owning the libs.

Perhaps most amazingly, no one was drunk. No one was crying.

As I looked around again, I felt like crying myself, but happy tears. It was a turkey day miracle. I couldn’t recall a Thanksgiving devoid of anxiety, or one not preceded by dread. I knew then that I would never, ever spend another Thanksgiving with my extended family.

When holidays turn toxic

As one of six kids in my wanna-be Catholic family, Thanksgiving was a big deal. It was the one time of year when all the siblings were obligated to be in the same place at the same time. We owed it to our parents to demonstrate the spectacular results of their carnal exploits.

But after my tumultuous teenage years, Thanksgivings were not pleasant. I had come to dread the day. For years, I cried either before, during, or after the holiday. I was happy to see my brothers and sisters, but there was always some drama or conflict to navigate.

My being a stripper didn’t help, but I felt like my family at least tolerated my profession—at least to my face. There were always the weird latent digs at my husband and his job, or the whispers about our son, who was thought to be on the autism spectrum when he was young and could be challenging at times.

When my first article was published, I couldn’t wait to tell my family. They had always known my love of reading and desire to write. My excitement faded when I realized my dad would ask where it was published. It was in Freethought Today, the national newsletter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Rather than say that, I simply told him it was for a highly-rated non-profit that Ronald Reagan’s son supported. Clever girl.

I would eventually tell them I was an atheist. Even that wasn’t as bad as my failure to share their Republican views.

Stripper, Atheist, Liberal, Antichrist

There are plenty of people in my life whose political views I disagree with. I’m comfortable discussing differences with some of them. A good deal of the time, our needles don’t even twitch. We make an effort to see things from each other’s perspectives and usually end up learning from them. With the rest, we just find something else to talk about.

But family.

There was a point around six of seven years ago when I could have those discussions with family members. But when the name-calling and insults started, and the Trump baiting, I avoided the subject altogether.

And still, not going to Thanksgiving was unthinkable. I considered skipping each time, and each time the good memories of my family won. A mixing bowl of Captain Crunch and Saturday morning cartoons, Mickey Mouse pancakes and trips to the park. Countless happy memories of my family.

As I approached the door, I clutched the thin thread of hope that the kind and generous people I had grown up with would be standing in place of the bitter hyper-partisans who had taken their place in recent years.

I wasn’t the only target of snide remarks, nor were those remarks always political. Sometimes it was just mean middle-school gossip about anyone who dared to step outside the norm. The kind of inner family politics that had nothing to do with Obama or taxes. But more often than not, it was national politics that had turned Thanksgiving unbearable.

Then everything changed, thank COVID

Sometimes good things can come from bad. The COVID-19 pandemic was horrible on many levels. But finding the positive is a good way to recover. In addition to my extensive collection of super comfy sweatpants, my newly acquired falafel-making skills, and the crazy amount of writing projects I completed, COVID taught me that I don’t have to sacrifice one day a year to abject, senseless misery.

Stress comes and goes, and most of the time we can’t anticipate it. Thanksgiving was the one day of the year that I knew was going to suck. Not just for me, but for my son and husband too, the two most important people in my life. They rode out that horrible day with me every year.

Seeing them smile on Thanksgiving rather than standing on the sidelines, waiting to put me back together if I lost it—that was the Thanksgiving clincher for me.

I will always love my siblings and other family. They raised me. They helped to shape the person I am today. I’m grateful for that. They aren’t bad people, I swear they’re not. But we have grown apart to the point where our relationships aren’t good for me or for them. As uncomfortable as they make me, I know I do the same to them. Letting go of Thanksgiving and spending it with people who are happy to spend it with me was just the right thing to do for everyone.

We don’t know where we’re going after this life. Likely nowhere at all. When I accepted that, I vowed to make every moment count, or at least most of them. Holidays, particularly for atheists, are a time for celebration and appreciation, a time to spread happiness and gratitude. I have taken back that day that had been so awful.

I will certainly have awful days in the future. But there is a lot of satisfaction in having reclaimed one of them.

Avatar photo

I am a former adult entertainer, with a love of books, writing and humor. My job has given me a unique perspective on life. I spent twenty years as a stripper on and off and started writing as a way to...