What does an empty chair mean at Thanksgiving?
Many more of us confront that question this year, thanks to a pandemic that has revealed the best of us, and the worst.
Among the answers: Gratitude, and grief. Selflessness, and its cruel opposite.
Those of us who sat together a year ago and said, “I wonder where this country will be next Thanksgiving,” have arrived at a point none of us could have imagined, let alone wanted. COVID-19 has snatched at least 260,000 Americans from us — people we love: mothers, brothers, aunts, cousins, daughters, grandfathers, friends, neighbors.
They should be here with us, leaping up from those chairs to carve turkey or help with the dishes. They should be making toasts, or having heated arguments about the election. They should be cracking wise, telling worn stories, annoying siblings, embarrassing teenagers. They should be bouncing babies on their knees, or sneaking scraps to the dog. They should be parked in front of football games, or walking off too much pie.
For those lucky enough to gather for a celebration, Thanksgiving is one of life’s markers, a way to track our progress or decline each year, to see how much children have grown or elders aged. It measures milestones, and provides painful reminders of its losses. There is no getting around those empty chairs.
With enough distance, those vacant places might also be occasions for joy and gratitude, reminders of the gifts those who once sat in them brought to our lives. But there is no distance for too many families grieving those lost to COVID in this disastrous year, no happy memory that can pierce a pain so fresh.
Nor is there any salve for the anger borne of the certainty that an obscenely high share of those deaths were entirely preventable, if only we had better health care in this country, or we hadn’t forced workers to choose between feeding their families and protecting themselves from a potentially deadly virus, or if more of us had understood how important it was to stay away from each other.
Too many Americans still don’t understand it. Like mask-wearing, canceling traditional large family gatherings to slow the spread of a rampaging pandemic has been turned into some distorted artifact of the culture wars, deployed by our most cynical leaders to fire up their base.
For those who refuse to be so manipulated, those empty chairs at the Thanksgiving table mean love. As much as it hurts some of us to be apart this year, staying away protects those we can’t bear to lose, and those we don’t even know, so that we might be together next year, to again battle a bird that did us no harm, tiptoe around political arguments, and make new memories.
Legions of health care providers call such precautions utterly vital. Many of their chairs will be empty this year, too. They’ll be at work, trying to care for COVID patients in overcrowded hospitals, comforting isolated elders in nursing homes, working on tests and vaccines in labs.
Add to those the workers who keep the rest of us running, even on holidays, some of whom this country briefly considered heroes at the start of this pandemic: Supermarket clerks, cleaners, employees in stores and restaurants, and others who have no choice but to work on the holiday.
Voluntarily skipping Thanksgiving is a luxury millions of Americans don’t have. As is Thanksgiving, period — especially this year. Facing hunger and eviction, millions have joined the ranks of those for whom every day is a struggle, joining endless lines at food banks and other charities.
So many empty chairs. So much to mourn, and to celebrate.
The one I’m missing today sat at my Thanksgiving table only once. My mother flew here from Australia just after my son was born 13 years ago. Her Alzheimer’s was just coming clearly into view then. One cold morning we woke up to find her gone, and I raced out to look for her, frantic that she mightn’t be able to find her way back. I finally found her sitting in the Catholic church, coatless but delighted, waiting for Mass to start. She’d simply asked for directions and sauntered over there.
We were losing her, but I hadn’t lost her that day. It felt like the luckiest of breaks. Every Thanksgiving dinner I think of her, sitting at the head of the table, holding court amid a noisy crowd, claiming she’d cooked the turkey. It was the best Thanksgiving I ever had.
She is 83 now, much-diminished, on the other side of the planet. COVID makes it unlikely I’ll see her soon, or possibly ever again.
For me, that empty chair, hers, means love and loss.
What about yours?