The year of three Thanksgivings is a 12-month period in 2014 and 2015 during which I cooked three Thanksgiving meals, but not one was on Thanksgiving Day. It was also the hardest year of my life.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Growing up, my Grandma Irene hosted and it was a family dinner for seven: my parents, two sisters and I, Grandpa Tom, and Grandma Irene. My immediate family did not bring anything, Grandma took care of it all. She set her dining room table early in the week. Brought to Alaska in the late 70’s from the ranch house in the Midwest, the table would be set with slender brass candlesticks and linens in dark cranberry. When we arrived at her home in late morning, there was a snack or “relish” tray for us kids. One of our favorites was a Ritz cracker topped with a dollop of sour cream and a smoked oyster. The oven racks were loaded with a turkey and various casserole dishes. Grandma, never one for last minute chaos, made all the side dishes in advance and simply reheated them on Thanksgiving Day. After our snack, my sisters and I would adjourn to the den to fight over which TV channel to watch. With no cable TV at home, we considered an afternoon of it a luxury. At some point, mom would stick her head in to let us know dinner was ready and we would pry ourselves from whatever Disney channel drama we were sucked into and move to the dining room table; the candles glowing and our glasses filled with sparkling apple cider. After grace, we’d load up our plates at the buffet on the kitchen counter. Like most family Thanksgiving menus', there was little variation from year to year: bronzed roast turkey, Stovetop stuffing, green bean casserole (the kind with canned green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup- I still love it. One year Grandma substituted in garden grown green beans and us kids were horrified), homemade gravy and always, her incredible mashed potatoes. There was cranberry sauce made from the high bush cranberries Grandpa Tom picked when he went out chopping wood. In my childhood memory, it was a meal of elegance, calm, and plenty. I admired Grandma for her ability to so seamlessly carry it off. I felt so loved.
Grandma Irene loved to host holiday dinners for us. Years later, when she broke her hip and recovered at an assisted living facility in Seattle, my family flew to join her for Christmas. My older sister lived locally and offered to host at her house for dinner but Grandma insisted we all dine at the assisted living home. The facility put together a nice meal and we all dressed up, including Grandma Irene. I think she needed to feel like she could create a beautiful meal experience for us again, regardless of the circumstances.
Place: My parents’ house, Haines, Alaska
Time: October 5, 2014
Number of guests: 11
- Herbed butter roasted turkey
- Grandma Irene's mashed potatoes
- Homemade gravy
- Roasted butternut squash with maple syrup
- Stovetop stuffing
- Classic green bean casserole
- Jellied cranberry sauce
- Pumpkin mascarpone pie
I had not been home in autumn season since leaving for college, 16 years prior. Fall in Southeast Alaska is beautiful- the trees in the Chilkat Valley glow in their yellow, orange and red colors, a contrast to the river and snowy mountain peaks.
The months prior to this visit had been painful. My husband and I spent the previous two years visiting doctors and running tests which resulted in my diagnosis of infertility. In late 2013 we experienced three failed rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in May of 2014 we moved on to the more invasive procedure of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Just in time for our 14th wedding anniversary, the IVF cycle failed. It was devastating.
The week that followed the IVF cycle failure remains the longest of my life. I saw gray hair develop overnight. I moved in a fog and there are blocks of time I simply cannot recall. Our doctor was surprised by the outcome as my body had been responding well to the treatment injections along the way. In the infertility world, I was young, just 34. Three days after the cycle failed, we met in his office, surrounded by heavy dark wood bookcases, large diplomas, and an oversized saltwater fish tank. He encouraged us to consider another round of IVF. He said we could try a different medication protocol that could potentially produce different results. We said we needed to think about it.
Before deciding what to do next, I needed to hear myself. The previous months had been noisy with worry and anxiety and I felt cut off from my intuition. The infertility treatments involved significantly increasing the hormone levels in my body and I did not like the way I felt. I described it to someone as feeling like I woke up with Attention Deficit Disorder. It was hard to focus.
My husband and I gave ourselves time. When I was diagnosed with infertility in late 2012, I felt like my body let me down. These limbs, these organs were a disappointment because they were unable to do the one thing that was most essential, the genetic purpose of my existence, the reason I am a woman. Weighed down by stress, I began to over eat. By summer of 2013, I gained about 25 pounds. After the IVF cycle failed, I realized how poorly I was treating my body: pumping it with drugs, scarfing down whatever would momentarily make me feel better. I did not think my unhealthy eating contributed to my infertility but I knew it was making me feel bad. I bought a T-shirt that said, "I love you no matter what.” I would practice saying it to myself in front of the bathroom mirror- trying to tell my body that no matter what happens, I love you and I will take care of you. I could never get so far as saying “I forgive you”, but I knew it was a start. My husband and I did a month of intense healthy eating (basically a diet where you eat only non-processed foods, protein and vegetables. There is no dairy, sugar, or wheat.) Between June 2014, when the IVF cycle failed, and my trip home in October 2014, I lost 19 pounds and was feeling better about myself. My husband and I decided we would do another round of IVF after our Alaska vacation and viewed our trip home as a good break before diving back into the madness.
It was my idea to host a Thanksgiving dinner in October, during our visit home. Since moving away for college, I had not had Thanksgiving with my parents and hoped to recreate some of the comfort from my childhood memories. We had our Thanksgiving meal on a Sunday afternoon. In a notebook, I outlined the menu and timing of the prep-work. That morning, before Church, Dad helped me get the turkey in the oven. The turkey roasted in the same (well-scrubbed) oversized lidded roasting pan he uses in the summer to boil the crab he catches. To set the table, mom and I thumbed through her table linens and supply of candle holders. When I blind baked the crust for the pumpkin pie, I realized I put too much water in the dough. An easy mistake, too much water initially helped the crust dough form together but, in the heat of the oven, the crust collapsed, the edges rumpled down the sides of the pie plan. With the back of a well-worn wooden spoon, I pushed the crust back into place and quickly poured the filling in, a mixture of pumpkin, mascarpone and spices, hoping the pressure of the thick custard would help hold the crust in-place while it finished baking. We sat down to dinner around 4pm and joining my family were other local extended family members and friends. Grandma Irene was too frail to travel by car from the assisted living facility. My biggest regret from that day is not saving a plate of food to share with her later. I wish I had made the time.
My memories of this Thanksgiving meal are the warm glow of the table candlelight against the indigo of early evening and how everyone lingered at the table to visit. At one point, Dad pulled mom and I aside in the kitchen and told us what a beautiful job we'd done with the dinner. My husband and I felt such optimism heading back to California- like we could bottle it up, like we could hold it with us forever. It made us want to believe the next round of treatment could be successful, that we could still have our family.
The next morning, before we left my parent’s house, my mother slipped a carved silver bracelet cuff on my arm. Grandma Irene made it in 1977, when she was studying Tlingit silver carving after moving to Haines from the Midwest. Grandma Irene made the bracelet but gave it to my Grandma Betty, my Dad's mom, who had it for 37 years. For some reason, in the summer of 2014, Grandma Betty sent the bracelet back to my mom. She wanted her to have it because her mom had made it. A handmade piece of jewelry shared between both Grandmothers, I knew what a family treasure it was. The animal carved on it was a bear. My mother gave it to me and said that I was her "coco bear", my childhood nickname. Because I called her "mama bear", she thought I should have it. Unspoken was the deep desire that someday someone would call me "mama bear" too. I wore it like a talisman.
Place: Grandma Irene's house, Haines, Alaska
Time: November 28, 2014, the day after Thanksgiving
Number of guests: 8
- Roast turkey
- Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes
- Stovetop stuffing
- Green bean casserole
- Jellied cranberry sauce
- I don't think there was any pie
I have hated needles all my life. I hoped a side benefit of IVF would be I could overcome that fear, like it was some kind of immersion therapy. It actually made it worse. We administered the medicines each evening at 9pm and, as the clock ticked closer, I found my anxiety level spiking. Our routine was to sit at the dining room table, lay out the needles, syringes, and vials of medicine. I would watch as my husband carefully measured the doses and then close my eyes and count to ten. I willed myself to focus on counting the numbers, believing I could handle anything for ten seconds. I began to hate the sight of my dining room chairs.
At the infertility clinic, each time I had to have blood drawn (which was a lot), I bribed myself with the promise of a new book. I would already have the title picked out in my mind and when the phlebotomist would secure the cotton ball in the crook of my arm with a Band-Aid, I'd whip my phone out to the Amazon app and make the selection.
How an IVF cycle works is a patient takes medication for a number of days to stimulate the ovaries to produce a high volume of eggs. In a regular ovulation cycle, a woman's body will produce 1-2 eggs. The goal of IVF is to produce many more eggs. Once they have grown to a mature size, the patient is sedated and the doctor "retrieves" the eggs by a large needle (basically, my absolute fucking nightmare.) Once the eggs are removed, they are fertilized with sperm and grow for 3 days. It is normal for not all the eggs to fertilize and by day 3, the patient and doctor will discuss how many embryos are available to transfer to the patient’s uterus.
Through all of these weeks, I prayed. Most often my prayers were just “please, please help us.” There have been times in my life when I have prayed and felt God give me peace or confirmation for whatever it was I was asking for. During this second IVF cycle, we were driving home from church, eastbound on the 210 freeway and somewhere around Pasadena I confessed to my husband that, in my prayers, I had not felt an answer from God that this treatment would work. I said it felt like we were doing it so that we could know we tried everything but I did not feel a surge of faith to believe this was going to happen for us. How I did feel that God responded was the sense that, someday, my husband and I would be okay. It was a reassurance that this experience would not permanently break us. The promise that someday I would actually feel okay seemed impossible but I clung to it.
On Sunday 11/16/14, I was days away from egg retrieval. My husband and I went to church in the morning and, in an attempt to distract ourselves from the upcoming week, then visited Huntington Gardens. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to walk. My phone showed a missed call from mom but I decided to call her back once we were home. As we drove away from the gardens, my sister texted, "You need to call mom." My stomach sank. My husband pulled the car over and, at a curb, under a canopy of ginko biloba trees turned gold by fall, my mother told me Grandma Irene died. My mother and younger sister had been with her as she passed away peacefully. I knew she had been declining but hoped I could get through the IVF cycle and have the opportunity to tell her I was pregnant. Losing her was heartbreaking. A few short days later, we learned that, once again, treatment was not successful. My husband and I met with the doctor and asked if he thought there was anything else we could do. He said that while he would be happy to keep taking our money, he did not have any reason to believe future treatments would result in a different outcome.
On Thursday 11/27, Thanksgiving Day, we left to attend Grandma Irene's funeral in Alaska.
In the few days between the IVF cycle failing and traveling to Alaska, I realized that I was not up to the tasks ahead of me. One of the terrible things about death is that it is emotionally devastating but also there are quite a lot of activities to be done along with it. I knew that, in my state, I did not have it in me to be the support my family needed. But I also knew that I would desperately disappoint myself if I wasn’t able to do that. I began to play a little game, asking myself, in twenty years, how will I wish I handled this? The answer always came back that I will wish I had been engaged and supportive. I told myself I could fall apart another time, that there would always be time to do that. I forced myself to engage and step-up. And so, I made Thanksgiving dinner.
We arrived the day after Thanksgiving and my family had waited until we were home. Understandably my mom and her older sister were wrapped up in preparations for the memorial service and my older sister and I took the lead on putting a casual Thanksgiving meal together. In my notebook, I still had the outline from the Thanksgiving I cooked in October and I used that as a basic plan but edited it down. I am sure I did not make a pumpkin pie. We decided to cook and host in my Grandma’s house. It was bittersweet to be in her kitchen without her. Every cupboard, drawer and dish had memories attached to them. When I made the potatoes, I looked at the worn wooden handle of the masher and thought of all the Thanksgivings she had used the same tool. I remain grateful for that last experience of cooking in her kitchen.
The next day, I helped set up the church for the memorial. My sisters and I sang a hymn for the service. In the time that followed, I project managed the process of packing up my Grandmother’s house, dividing up the belongings among her children, and shipping them to the different parts of the country where they lived. Through it all, my husband never once left my side. His presence was persistently with me. We were so broken but we moved together through those days. I shared with him my desire to push past my pain and be there for my family but he tried to draw limits where he could. At the memorial service a well-meaning family member tried to insist on Josh video-taping the service for family that couldn’t be there, but he declined, knowing that where he needed to be was sitting beside me, his arm around my shoulders.
Going through Grandma’s belongings took a number of days and one of the things found were two beautiful pairs of baby-sized handmade Native Alaskan moccasins. My mother and Aunt insisted my older sister, three months pregnant, take a pair. They turned to me and asked if I wanted a pair. I quickly said no. I knew it would be too painful to bring them home and leave them unworn. No one looked at me but they kept asking “Are you sure you don’t want them?” insistent and seemingly puzzled as to why I did not take them. Over and over I said no. It was like we were talking in code about my life, the subtext being, had I really given up hope on children? Or maybe, given everything going on, they had momentarily forgotten my circumstances. I walked out of the room and stood in an alcove, taking in big gulps of air and forcing myself not to scream.
For people who have not experienced infertility, I do not know if I can properly convey the depth of pain and disappointment. While the treatments and doctors’ visits and medication protocols were awful, they were at least an active thing to do. While we were doing them there was still hope, still a belief that maybe we would get pregnant and have a child and this terrible time would be a blip in our lives. While we were going through the treatments, I felt like I was housed in a bubble of grace, like I was able to cope. But once it was over, once it was clear this was not going to happen for us, it became very dark. Having this darkness descend at the same time I was reflecting on my Grandmothers beautiful life, celebrating all she had given to her children and grandchildren, added a new element of loss to her death. A deep fear gripped me that there would be no children or grandchildren when I die, no one that I leave behind. One of the things infertility illuminated for me was how the desire to have children is tangled up in the personal desire to keep on living. It is the survival of my gene’s but also a belief that somehow the essence of me will keep going- someone who has my smile or love of reading or something. My grief was a mess of loss for Grandma and loss for myself. I felt bad that I couldn’t just think of her, but it seemed like both sides of my life had been chopped off- my past with her and the future with any children. I floated only in the undefined present.
This pain was only in thinking of my own loss. When I thought about my husband, I could barely breathe. I felt keenly that I had let him down in the most basic way- that I had broken the most basic responsibility. I have never been unfaithful but my infertility felt like the deepest betrayal.
We went back to California.
Place: Family Reunion at the cabin, Fish Hook Lake, Minnesota
Time: July 5, 2015
Number of guests: 40
- Roast turkey breast
- Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes
- Sauteed green beans with shallots
- Roasted butternut squash
- Kale Salad with parmesan, golden raisins and lemon vinaigrette
Since the failure of our second IVF cycle seven months prior, I continued to work and go through daily motions, but inwardly I was struggling significantly. In January, there was a reorganization at work and I remained in my same position but new leadership took the team in a different direction. As my work changed, I struggled to find focus and clarity. The skills I had once relied on did not serve me well and, for the first time, I found myself failing at work. Although the previous years had been heartbreaking personally, professionally they were a time of some of my biggest accomplishments. Work had been a place of comfort and escape. Those successes were a source of strength for me and when that went away, it was devastating. I started to have anxiety attacks. My confidence in my abilities eroded.
In addition to the loss of Grandma Irene, in December 2014, my father’s mother, Grandma Betty, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In March 2015, she passed away. I was sad for her death and also for my parents to lose both their mothers so close to one another. We thought we might have more time with Grandma Betty. She had a wonderful wry sense of humor and was tough as nails. During World War II, she worked at the Boeing factory and, later, after her first husband left her for another woman, raised three small children on her own. She was the first person I ever saw flip off another driver (I was six years old) and us girls loved her ballsy no-nonsense attitude. I tried to channel her strength.
My husband and I continued to go through our days. We’d hug and say “I’m sorry it’s so hard”. Sometimes we’d quote Winston Churchill to one another, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” We realized that not only were we experiencing internal loss, but our place in society also changed. As a married couple in our 30s without children, we became outliers. Arounds us, most friends had young families and our ability to connect with them felt stunted. When the thing you want most, to raise a child, is not available to you but is the primary occupation of your friends, relationships suffer. At church, I cringed at the seemingly constant emphasis on families and parenting (don’t even get me started about Mother’s Day). My grief could be ugly. The Sunday morning music leader used to regularly share stories of his son, as a metaphor for how much God loves us. He would say things like, “When I look at my son sleeping in his car seat, I think of how much I love him and how much being a father has taught me about God’s love.” I wanted to slap him and tell him to quit being so smug. With fresh eyes, I thought of my single friends who wanted to be in relationships, but were not. My own loss gave me empathy for how much they too must have felt left out and how, in years past, in my own blissful ignorance, I may have been the one who caused it.
My husband and I did our best to support one another but I went into survival mode, seeing one day at a time and being easily overwhelmed. I was unbearably sad but did not share with friends or family about what was going on. My own isolation did not help me.
I remember a particular Saturday evening: my husband was out of town on a business trip and I did not make any plans. I was going to distract myself with a movie but that night, not even that worked. I laid on the thin wool rug on the floor of the den and my dog Duke laid down next to me. I draped an arm over him, felt the warmth from his long body and sobbed. I continued to believe that someday I would be okay but could not imagine how I would get there. I was stalled.
It was in this state that I arrived at the July family reunion. It was good to see people I had not seen for a long time, but my focus quickly shifted to the dinner my mother, sister and I committed to cooking. My task oriented brain locked on to the one thing I could try to control. I made it into a much bigger responsibility than it was.
My first step was to check out the local grocery store which, understandably, did not have turkeys in July. They did have frozen rock-solid turkey breasts. I read online that it is okay to unthaw frozen turkey in a tub of water as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes. With worry as an alarm clock, I spent the late evening and early morning of Sunday 7/04 changing the water on a sink full of the turkey breasts because they did not have time to thaw out in the fridge.
Like the previous Thanksgiving dinners, I put together my notebook timeline and did as much prep work as we could in advance: the morning of we snapped the ends off of five pounds of green beans, I finely chopped multiple bunches of kale and, so the greens would have time to soften up, pre-dressed them in olive oil and lemon juice. The fact that I served kale salad as part of a Thanksgiving menu should be an indicator of how far gone I was. In the afternoon, I quick blanched the green beans and set to work peeling 14 pounds of potatoes. Somewhere in this process, I started to cave inwards. I was overwhelmed and mostly because I had such little personal resources to draw on. I paused to give myself a little pep talk. I did not want to draw attention and have a meltdown or disappoint my family. I knew I needed to dig deep to find the motivation and strength to continue. In that moment, I saw a clear image of my Grandma Irene, sitting at the dining room table, smiling at me. As I went about making the dinner, I used her image keep me going, the belief that in doing this I was honoring her memory.
I want to be clear: at any point in time I am I could have asked my extended family for help. I know they would have been so gracious about it. But my pain masked my ability to see options. I made it through the dinner but, I know it was not the best. There was plenty for all to eat but the mashed potatoes were lumpy and dry, I did not make any gravy and there was no stuffing. When I sautéed the green beans, I used butter instead of olive oil, so after they were cooked and sitting on the buffet, the butter turned back to solid, cold nubs studded through the beans. One of my Uncle’s carved the five turkey breasts, which, mercifully, were cooked through.
Somehow, this thing that had helped me, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, also exposed how much help I needed. My inability to handle it woke me up to the realization that I was not getting better on my own. During that four-day visit, my stress level was so high, I had difficulty eating. Back in California, I discovered I lost 6 pounds on my already slim frame. I admitted to myself that I was not yet okay. I asked a friend for a referral and found a local therapist. Working with her she helped me see that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. The reliving of events, the crying in the shower, the anxiety attacks were because my brain was treating any little thing that went wrong on the same scale as this big thing (my infertility) that went wrong. I started to see the therapist regularly and began the painstaking work of talking about my experience, learning about anxiety and sharing my grief. At work, I eventually found a new position that I was a better fit for and again experienced some success, which helped me regain confidence in my abilities. None of this was clear or easy, but slowly, I started to feel better.
It has now been three years since the hardest year of my life, my year of three Thanksgivings. I wish I had a splashy ending for you. I wish I could tell you I finally got pregnant and we have children. I wish could tie it all up with a neat bow. God, I wish I could. Part of the reason I have hesitated in sharing my experience is because I feel the burden of wanting to have a happy ending to share. I do not like the unresolved, but this side of heaven, there are some things I will not understand.
However, three years later, I am where I hoped I would someday be: I am okay. My husband and I are okay. To be okay, after where I was, feels amazing. I think anyone who has significant loss can understand that grief becomes something to live with. I can hold my grief and also be profoundly grateful for my life today: my husband loves me and I am still married, I have friends and family that care for me, and there are so many beautiful things in this world. At 37 years old, my life does not look how I thought it would, but I am okay.
Singer-songwriter Laura Marling has a song “Blackberry Stone” and the last lines of it say:
“But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, wouldn’t let me.
But I couldn’t turn my back on the world for what I like, I needed.
And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry stone.”
What is funny is I thought the last line of the song said, “And I shouldn’t turn my back on the sweet-smelling blackberry scone.” I looked it up the other day and learned it actually says, “sweet-smelling blackberry stone.” Over all those months, when I listened to the song in my car, I liked my version of the final line because it reminded me that I loved simple things, like scones, too much to turn my back on life. It is basic but my love for food, creating and sharing it with others, anchored me and helped me to keep living until it would no longer hurt so much. I think that is why I wanted to cook all those Thanksgiving dinners- I was reminding myself that even though everything had gone wrong and I could not fix it, I was still in a world where I could make Grandma’s mashed potatoes. And that, with the belief that someday I would be okay, was enough to help me through.
Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. This year, when I sit down at the table, I bring with me all the previous meals, good and hard, and I am grateful to still say grace.
Grandma Irene’s mashed potatoes
At each of the three Thanksgivings I cooked, the menu was a little bit different, but one thing was constant: the mashed potatoes. This is how my grandmother made them and they remain my Thanksgiving standard. With cream cheese and sour cream, these mashed potatoes are rich and not unlike the filling to a twice baked potato. If you're concerned about the proportion of cream cheese to potato, feel free to dial it back but may need to increase the amount of milk.
These potatoes have real heft to them- the perfect vehicle to hold a pool of gravy. The recipe below reheats beautifully and scales up nicely. For a Thanksgiving crowd, I usually double or triple it. When it comes to leftovers, I do not want to run out of mashed potatoes.
8-10 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch cubes
8 oz cream cheese, cut into half inch cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup whole milk
salt and pepper
1) To a large lidded pot, add cubed potatoes and fill with enough cold water to cover potatoes by one inch. Place lid on pot and cook over medium high heat until water boils. Once boiling, remove lid and reduce heat, but keep the water at a good simmer. Cook until potatoes are very tender, about 20-25 minutes. To test the potatoes for doneness, I remove a couple of cubes and try to smash them with a fork. It should yield pretty easily.
2) Drain potatoes and return to pot, but keep off the heat. Add in the cubed cream cheese and sour cream. The residual heat from the pot and just boiled potatoes should start to melt the cream cheese. Add in 1/2 cup of the whole milk and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash together the potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream and milk. As you work, you will likely want to add the remaining 1/2 cup whole milk to keep the potatoes from becoming too dry. Mash until the potato pieces have all broken down and mixed with the cream cheese, sour cream and milk to form a heavy mash. It will not be light and fluffy but should be mostly smooth.
3) Serve immediately or transfer to an oven-safe casserole dish, cover, and keep warm in a low oven.