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What This Holiday Means to Me
Living authentically is the best Thanksgiving
WHAT THIS HOLIDAY MEANS TO ME
Living authentically is the best Thanksgiving
I ultimately gave up on traditional Thanksgiving right around the same time I stopped folding my underwear. (More on that later…)
In general, I have fond memories of Thanksgiving. We were poor, but we always managed to make it to my grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving dinner. It was always a typical southern feast but without the usual traditions. No one stuffed the turkey; the stuffing was on the side. No one cooked the food all in one day. We didn’t dress up fancy. We did not wait until everybody arrived to sit at one big table. We didn’t gather to say a powerful prayer. That said, dinner was delicious and peaceful. It was not until the movie Soul Food was released in 1997 that I honestly wondered if art imitates life or if life imitates art. It became clear to me that authenticity matters.
Soul Food [spoilers ahead]
Soul Food follows the lives of a close-knit but dysfunctional Chicago family who gather every Sunday for dinner at their mother’s house. The mother, affectionately called Big Mama, has three competitive daughters each with varying degrees of success in their professional and love lives. Big Mama has a brother, Pete, who lives with her but never comes out of his room. One day Big Mama suffers a stroke brought on by diabetes, has her leg amputated, and falls into a coma. She briefly comes out of it and, before she dies, tells her grandson a secret about a hidden stash of money. After she dies, the family begins to fall apart. Soon the Sunday dinners come to an end. The family experiences financial strain. The grandson tries to tell them about the hidden money but they are so caught up in their conflicts that they chastise him. In a dramatic scene, the family comes together when the house catches on fire. Uncle Pete emerges from his room and accidentally reveals the money that Big Mama had hidden, just where the grandson had said. Afterward, the family starts getting along and resumes Sunday dinner again with Uncle Pete joining in. Everyone was thankful.
My grandmother, Ms. Ann, was a big mama, too, though we didn’t call her that. She had five daughters and two sons born on the south side of Chicago. My mother is the eldest of the group. When she was 13 the family moved back to my grandmother’s hometown in North Carolina. I was born on my grandmother’s birthday, just two days after my mother turned 15. My birthday was the day before Thanksgiving. My grandmother, already a single mother, raised me, too. She had a nurturing way about her. She cooked good food and often fed the drunks and elderly folks in the projects where we lived.
My grandmother and I were quite the odd couple. I once asked her how she felt about my birth. She replied, “I already raised seven kids; what’s one more?” The older she got, the more easy-going she became. We ran errands together when I was a young adult. We were big fans of the wrestler Triple H and watched the WWE on many a Thursday night. When I got my own place she bought me my first set of dishes and pots. She taught me how to cook.
We convened at my grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving dinner after I moved out but things were different. My big mama was also a diabetic and grew increasingly sick. She was forced to lean on her daughters to do more. After the movie Soul Food came out Thanksgiving started taking on a more formal, ritualistic atmosphere. We began making menus, adhered to tight schedules, and recited special prayers as if we were in the movie. This all seemed like theater to me. I even caught my grandma rolling her eyes a few times. Thanksgiving just wasn’t the same. Although her daughters did their best with the dinner Grandma didn’t like the bickering, drinking, smoking, and general chaos we produced. Try as we might, we couldn’t re-create an authentic Thanksgiving tradition the way my grandmother had done it.
One day, my grandmother had a stroke and her leg was amputated. Slowly, our family began to dissolve. As in the movie, we made terrible decisions, fought with each other, and found ourselves with a few legal struggles. Grandma eventually died and left me the sole beneficiary of a small life insurance policy. My grandmother knew the best ways to minimize drama. Once my grandmother was gone the linchpin that held our family together was gone. The holidays began falling apart and became filled with what my brother called “hypocrisy.” My uncle had confined himself to a room for 15 years to protect his peace and only came out rarely. I began to reflect upon the changes that I needed to make.
On not folding your underwear and living authentically
Since then I’ve come to realize that family is what you make it. It must be authentically your own and nobody else’s. I’ve learned that it is unrealistic for me to go all year long wishing things were different then try to “fix” it all with a climactic event or holiday. I started asking myself what I could do daily to live a life I’m proud to call mine. I gave up on the idea of perfect days, including perfect Thanksgivings, around the same time I stopped folding my underwear. I never much liked folding my underwear. I chose to honor my feelings.
You may be asking yourself, where is the similarity in the movie’s ending when the house catches on fire? Well, there was a fire in our family too. My brother died far too young. We’re at the point in the film where people should begin to listen to the small voice that goes unheard as life is moving along in a way they didn’t intend. You need to listen with empathy and make changes that matter to the people who are still here with you.
My sisters may be better cooks than I am but we are all learning that how you treat one another and give grace to one another matters more than having the best looking tablescape. You may not be able to recapture something in the past or something from a movie but you can still live today with purpose. I try to model and encourage compassion and conflict management all year but especially when we are all together. Thanksgiving reminds me life is only short if you live it without gratitude, intention, and authenticity.
Tekeita Owens holds a doctorate of psychology from Touro University. She grew up impoverished in North Carolina, where she overcame an adverse childhood, widespread organized crime, and anti-social behavior to earn undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics from Campbell University. She spent 6 years in the Air Force and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) supporting Bosnia and developing tools to manage data collection. After completing her tours, she worked with the Army Special Operations Command, Psychological Operations Command, and JSOC developing applications and data management solutions using various technologies and she received PMP, Six Sigma, CMMI, Agile, ITIL, and MOF certifications. She currently works in “big tech” as a consulting delivery executive specializing in coaching high performing teams to deliver solutions to complex problems. Currently, she resides in Quantico, VA, and offers solutions from her personal and professional insight to address the complex social issues plaguing our country. Follow her on Twitter and subscribe to her Substack.