Jerry carried young Crystal from the back of his Camaro into the house as I carried the leftover pie behind him. She had been asleep for some time, on our way home, and the other two young ones, Maria and Kelly, followed us in the darkness.
We opened the door to our family home and went inside. We put the sleeping nine-year-old in bed and Kelly climbed in next to her. Maria had already made her way to her own room.
I went upstairs to use the bathroom - I told him I'd meet him in the kitchen in just a few minutes.
But when I got to the bathroom, a place to finally be alone after a long Thanksgiving Day, I couldn't help myself. I sat on the toilet and cried. Cried hard. I even cried into a towel because I didn't want him to hear - he had to be sick and tired of this whole grief thing.
In my head raced memories of the Thanksgiving before. Just a year before, my mother had insisted that no matter what boyfriend or girlfriend wanted us to attend their Thanksgiving - we all had to be committed to being at our house at a certain time. There were no options, she said. It didn't matter if we'd already eaten somewhere else. We were going to sit down together.
I don't think any of us wanted to get together for that Thanksgiving. It was too painful. Dad had been gone a few years already and my sister, Nancy, had died a few months before.
"But it's our first Thanksgiving in the new house," she said, trying to be upbeat and optimistic. "We have to celebrate something."
Yes, it was our first Thanksgiving in a structure other than the trailer house in which we'd grown up. It was finally built, everyone was finally moved in. But when that first Thanksgiving rolled around, two important people were missing and it didn't seem complete.
I remember as we begrudgingly filled our plates, our mother trying to encourage us - well, my brother, Steve, had finally had enough.
"There isn't anything to be thankful for," he said, all frustrated, sad and quite frankly, ticked off. "Why do we even bother pretending?" he said as he slammed his plate on the table.
"Because no matter what happens, we always have things to be thankful for," my mom said.
I think she meant it - although I know her life had become so difficult, she, too, had times that she had to be convinced.
So we choked down some turkey - I suppose to make her happy.
"We're not all gone, we're still here," she said, as we stared at our plates. "We have things to do and lives to live. Dad and Nancy wouldn't want us to sit here like this - they'd want us to at least try."
Steve mumbled something that was inaudible and the potatoes got passed around the table anyway.
"Well, it's still our first Thanksgiving as a family in this house," she said, looking at the walls my parents had been planning and saving for their entire lives. "And we will ALL have a lot more Thanksgivings here - happier ones."
But as I sat crying in the towel, in her bedroom's bathroom a year later, I couldn't think of anything but how far from the truth that had become. Here we were - 365 days after that "we-still-have-things-to-be-thankful-for-Thanksgiving" - and we were anything but happier. It was 500 times worse.
Mom had passed away between the two bad Thanksgivings. She may have gotten her bittersweet, sad yet hopeful, first Thanksgiving in that house - but it was the one and only. She had joined the ranks of family members who were no longer there - and I felt as helpless and lost as anyone could possibly feel.
Then, I felt someone's hands touch my shoulders, as I bent over into the towel (which by the way was musty and really needed to be taken to the laundry room).
"You made it the whole day, I'm proud of you," he said, as he squatted next to me.
"I wasn't going to cry," I told my future husband. "I really wasn't. And everyone was so good to us today. I just couldn't hold it in any longer. It just hit me, when we pulled into the yard and the lights were off because no one was home."
His extended Wilkinson family had invited me and the girls to Thanksgiving festivities and had more than opened their arms wide to include us. We watched old home movies, ate pumpkin pie and heard tales about him and his cousins growing up. The girls felt awkward - after all, this was "somebody else's family." But after a while, they started to open up to the new surroundings and the people - and we had a new version of Thanksgiving.
My brothers stayed home to do chores and milk the cows, between some turkey events with their girlfriends.
"I just so appreciate how everyone tried so hard to make us feel welcome and how we still had Thanksgiving even though things are so weird now," I told him.
He didn't say much - there wasn't really anything to talk about.
"There will be this Thanksgiving to get through, and there will be another and another," Jerry said. "And pretty soon, it won't be so strange anymore."
Today, I'm thankful that I still have that new family and I am called a Wilkinson.
I’m thankful my Mueller family is thriving.
I'm thankful that the kids grew up - I didn't kill them or make them terminally insane.
I'm thankful there have been new little ones in the family to eat turkey and sleep on the way home, along the way.
I'm thankful my mom got that first and last Thanksgiving in her house.
Yes, this Thanksgiving will probably be different for most of us as gatherings will likely be smaller. But it’s still going to be Thanksgiving in one form or another.
I guess the moral of the story is to embrace what we have in the holidays, because we don't know if it will be the mile marker against which we judge all other dates.
We don't know if it's the last gathering around the table or if it will be the last chance to drive each other crazy.
It may be the first of many; it may be the last; it may be just one in a long series of the same.
It may just consist of making phone calls while we stay in our own homes to keep our families safe this year.
It doesn't matter - because it's one more chance to make a memory that will stay with us forever.
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