Except for maybe twice, I've spent the last 28 Thanksgivings with my husband's family. Even if I'd wanted to jet across the country to where my parents retired, too often distance, logistics, kids or work intervened.
The first Thanksgiving, Frank and I had been dating (on and off) for just a few months and I hoped the invitation to his house signaled that we were getting serious. My job wouldn't allow me time to make the 2,700-mile trip home to my family, so I was grateful for the invite.
Although I probably should have known better (I'd been at his parent's home a few times before), I was hoping to find something like what I'd grown up with: a holiday table draped in fine linen, laid with the good china, relatives in fancy dress, everyone in a state of heightened busyness and atwitter with celebration, the cut-glass bowls waiting on the sideboard. You get the picture.
I arrived at Frank's parents' house in heels, wearing a new outfit, my hair and makeup just so, bearing flowers and homemade brownies. (I figured a bakery-bought cake might send the signal that I wasn't domestic.) My future father-in-law greeted me in the jeans he wore that summer to tend the garden while my mother-in-law wore a sweatsuit. Someone was setting out paper plates and there was football blasting on the TV, which was pulled up near the dining room table. There was a general air of relaxed comfort, a no-big-deal atmosphere—and let's just say that this group would've never made the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
When my mother-in-law saw the brownies, she said, "Why did you do that? Frankie doesn't like brownies." I would soon learn that in my mother-in-law's universe, this was not an insult or even negative, but simply her way of making an honest observation.
I would soon learn to get over it. I'd learn also to leave the dressy clothes in the closet, to shout over the sounds of the football announcer and to bring only the exact foods I was assigned. And I'd learn to field my mother-in-law's remarks without an eyeblink, with a smile even: You're too dressed up! Why did you bring so much bread? What am I going to do with that?
I'd also figure out that, in his family, clothing, china, formality and the right impression, had less to do with a successful holiday, with family or celebration. Still, those were my family's traditions. They were lovely traditions and I missed them. Whether or not they were in any way important, to me they meant something—a kind of reverence for the holiday, or at least a sign that gathering for this meal was different than any other day.
For a while, I assumed that my new family's lack of formality meant the day held little significance. In future years though, I noticed that my two sons were able to do something on holidays that I could never manage as a child: relax. Have fun. Not worry about spilling gravy on new clothes or dropping a Waterford goblet.
I finally figured out my in-law family was not ignoring the rites of Thanksgiving, but perhaps practicing gratitude in the most basic way: by being content with the everyday.
Eventually, we began marking Thanksgiving at my husband's sister's house, 90 minutes from home. Frank did the driving, his 90-ish parents in the back seat, mental faculties firmly intact, bundled in warm casual jackets, bone-weary but willing to make the trip because it's Thanksgiving and the family is gathering.
By now, I'd show up in casual black pants with the most forgiving waistband. We eat off heavy-duty but sometimes very pretty plastic or paper plates. Two loud televisions in adjacent rooms blast football and the National Dog Show. A lean-back, "let's relax and take a load off" atmosphere prevails.
I still miss the lovely holiday tables my mother created, and the sight of her orchestrating the kitchen while wearing a fresh crisp apron over a sparkly new blouse, hair just so. I miss seeing my father in a natty sweater pouring some fancy wine. But I'm certain I miss all of this because I miss them, because now, for me, there's no going home for any holiday, ever.
I miss that other way of doing Thanksgiving not because it's better than what I'm blessed with now and have grown accustomed to, but because it's a wonderful memory of how things were in my childhood home. Something else to be grateful for.
And on Christmas—which became "my" holiday years ago—I use the good china, always. My mother-in-law still always asks, "Why?" I know why.
A version of this story originally appeared on Baristanet.com