Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Gratitude, Gravy, and Grief

Gratitude, gravy, and grief

Marie-Elena Schembri, Everyday Magic, Calaveras Enterprise, November 20, 2022

We all know that holidays can be tough, especially if you are feeling lonely, misplaced, or lost in grief. I’ve been all of those before, and in recent days have been feeling the tug of memories—some joyful, some nostalgic, some heartbreaking.

The last few nights, I’ve been up late thinking about my 12-year-old Min Pin, Eve, who I lost to bladder cancer three years ago on Monday. At first, I didn’t know why she popped into my head, or why I felt compelled to scrounge up old photos and tearfully reminisce. Then I realized the date.

I believe that grief, like all emotional trauma, gets stored in the body. That’s probably why I’ve been crying as if I hadn't spent the last couple of years mourning her loss and learning to live without her. Like no time has passed, even though it's getting harder and harder to remember the texture of her tongue on the back of my hand, the sound of her claws hitting the floor as she hopped excitedly, waiting for a treat, a walk, or just a chance to say hello.

The thing about grief, at least for me, is that it compounds with each new loss. When I sob for my sweet little companion, it's not just her loss that I'm suffering. It's also my mom, who passed in December of 2016, just weeks after our last Thanksgiving together as a family. It’s my grandma Ellie, who we lost on Thanksgiving night in 2015. My brother Adam, who passed away unexpectedly in January of 2019. …We gathered for his memorial on Nov. 17 of that year. It’s also the miles between myself and my sisters, nephews and nieces, being disconnected from what I knew of family for so many years, and feeling like that holiday magic is lost.

While grief may be difficult and can take years—or decades—to heal, I’ve found it can be tempered with a little bit of gratitude. Today, at 37, I am more grateful than I could have ever been in my younger years, when I took so much for granted, especially around the holidays.

Growing up, Thanksgiving meant a lot of things, but it mostly revolved around food—the days spent shopping, prepping, cooking, and of course, eating. “Family” was a given, something that often stressed me out about the holidays. In fact, as I got older, I did my absolute best to shorten my visit, opting to prep and cook at home rather than in my parents’ small, chaotic kitchen. Holidays with my family were…a lot.

A couple of years ago, we held a Thanksgiving feast at the cafe my family owns. Often, our “extended family” consisted of many of our “regulars”—the customers like “Old Bill,” who lived alone two doors down; “Bicycle Bob,” who owned the neighborhood bike shop down the street and never went anywhere without his dogs in the back of his truck; the eccentric but sweet senior ladies and men who would sit at our counter in the mornings sipping coffee or tea, talking about politics and their grown children who had moved to other places.

Many of our employees and their families joined in on the fun, too. We’d have a huge spread, potluck style, and usually a keg of beer for the grown-ups (though my teenage friends and I might have snuck a few cup-fulls) and plenty of my mom’s favorite cream liqueur to add to your cup of coffee, or my dad’s favorite, Franzia boxed wine. There'd be kids swarming all over, people getting drunk, loud Christmas music playing, a dizzying assortment of all of the traditional foods—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauces (canned and made from scratch), green bean casserole with a crispy onion top, my sister’s gluten-free cornbread stuffing, and way too many deserts, snacks, and appetizers.

The next day, instead of Black Friday shopping, we’d be expected to show up bright and early to help put up the Christmas decorations at the cafe, hanging sparkly “stars” from the ceiling, putting up fake trees, lining the walls with garland, and placing the various animated Santas my mom collected throughout. It was a bright, messy, loud, and usually overwhelming affair, but we had a lot of fun and, always, great food.

That was then. Thanksgiving is very different now.

Last year for Thanksgiving, my partner Brad and I trekked the short distance up Main Street from our home in Mokelumne Hill and ate a nicely prepared meal at the Hotel Leger Restaurant and Saloon. It was just the two of us, and I didn’t have the heart to cook up a big meal like I did the year before. It was nice but quiet. We were both badly missing our families, but we made the best of it, as we’ll do again this year.

We’ll have an extra guest at the table, though, one we never invited. Grief.

For me, like many others, Thanksgiving doesn’t just mark the onset of the “bright and cheery” holiday season. It’s also a season of grieving, of quiet contemplation, and the knowledge that future holidays might always look different than those of the storied past. And yes—gratitude—if not for the memories, then for the moments of joy I can find that help me to heal.

I’m grateful this Thanksgiving for so many things, despite my grief. For a place to go for a good, warm meal; for having the money in the bank to pay for it; and, best of all, not having to do any dishes! I’m grateful for my nearby aunts and uncles and cousins who have invited me to join their tables. I’m grateful for a partner who has held my hand through major losses, whose holidays are tinged with my grief and his own, who made the move to California to see my dreams come true, even though it means he misses out on his favorite holiday traditions (food) and being with his own family. I’m even thankful for the tears because they remind me of the love I have known, the privilege I have had of being cared for, and the amazing lives that have touched my own, on the holidays and throughout the year.