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Anxiety, an unwelcome side dish

Thanksgiving is fraught with memories of holidays past, relatives who can't be there and the need to remember to be grateful.

November 20, 2012|Sandy Banks

It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I should be making a shopping list, clearing space in my refrigerator, rummaging through cabinets for my roasting pan.

Instead, I'm still in my pajamas at 2 p.m., trying to muster the energy to wash the breakfast dishes.

I'm exhausted just thinking about Thanksgiving and can't bring myself to begin tackling all the preparations necessary to pull off a proper holiday.

There's something in the run-up to Thanksgiving that always puts me on edge. It bothers me that I feel that way — even the acknowledgment ups my anxiety. I don't want to seem ungrateful for a holiday that, after all, is supposed to be about gratitude.

I love the idea of Thanksgiving, the holiday of my memory: a house full of relatives, the dining room table groaning under the weight of everyone's contribution.

Growing up in Ohio, Thanksgiving was low expectations and high yield. Same menu, same folks, same routine each year: The men yelling at football games on TV, the women laughing in the kitchen, the kids in the basement entertaining and tormenting one another, the way cousins do.

It was the most comfortable of holidays. No presents, but no potential for disappointment. No chocolate bunnies, but no requisite hours crammed in church pews. It was simply big family and abundant food.

And even after 30 years in Southern California, there's a sense of melancholy that attends its grown-up incarnation, far from the people that I call family and the place I still consider home.

Thanksgiving as a grown-up settler in Los Angeles is a very different affair.

The guests may include strangers, the food tends toward gourmet, and the day feels like some sort of performance art, aimed at binding us to a narrative that doesn't exist anymore.

The holiday season tends to be hardest for those of us who've lost someone. The focus on family and reliance on rituals just magnifies those empty spots.

And the need for enforced cheeriness can turn the journey from Thanksgiving to Christmas into a wearying keep-your-chin-up slog.

There's this pressure to knit an age-old holiday around fragmented modern lives.

This year feels especially angst-y for me. Maybe it's the dreary weather. Or the crash after the election rush. Or the calendar quirk that bumped the holiday up. I'm just not ready to greet it.

Or maybe it's the sense that Thanksgiving is becoming a relic, shoved aside in our headlong rush to reward ourselves for a year survived with the glitz and glory of Christmas.

I feel ambushed in the car by my favorite radio station. Christmas music 24-7 a week before Thanksgiving? It's not "Silver Bells" I need, but the smooth grooves that have always eased me through the marathon of Thanksgiving cooking.

Even Starbucks has betrayed me this year. I'm still trying to savor Pumpkin Spice, but they jumped the gun and began pushing Peppermint Mocha the day after Halloween.

And you can start your Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving evening this year. Just load those plates in the dishwasher and join the hordes at Wal-Mart or Target.

That makes the holiday meal seem less a celebration of gratitude than a way to fortify bands of shoppers hunting for a deal.

I couldn't even make it through the grocery store on my first shopping attempt last weekend.

The staggering lines, the endless choices, the aisles clogged with list-toting shoppers.... I abandoned my cart in the produce section and fled without buying a thing.

I long for the days when it was OK to pick up a frozen Butterball on Wednesday evening. Now I'm supposed to decide weeks before whether I want my fresh bird organic, heritage, grain fed, pre-brined.

And then there are the diet issues to keep track of: who doesn't eat meat, can't tolerate gluten, is allergic to peanuts or too lactose-intolerant for the cheese.

Every year I struggle to cobble together a meal — and a Thanksgiving — that reflects my memories and will serve as a template for my children. And every year I realize just how impossible that is.

This year I'm going to try to keep the holiday low-key. We'll have new guests around the table.

My college daughter is bringing home a friend from school. And my neighbor is coming with his girlfriend and his son. They are bringing salad, a cake, macaroni-and-cheese and an already opened bottle of wine that we'll finish on Thanksgiving night.

And I'm trying not to worry about the fact that I don't have enough plates that match, there's a rubber tray nailed over a hole in my ceiling, and my turkey tends to turn out dry, no matter how long I brine it.

The saving grace is the college friend from Denmark, who has never experienced an American Thanksgiving and doesn't know what it's supposed to be like.

I've decided, for this year at least, that gives me a clean slate.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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