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Not home for the holidays

cameron cravings

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in four years. This isn’t a sob story: I am privileged to have a loving family that would welcome me home at any time, and I don’t take that for granted. Vermont is just really far from North Carolina.

That said, anyone who has been absent from home on a holiday like Thanksgiving can corroborate my experience that no matter how prepared and well-adjusted I think I am, I can’t restrain the homesickness that creeps into the day. 

I want my grandma’s apple pie, with fruit and spices bursting out of a perfect pie crust. I want my mom’s sweet potato casserole, recreated from her mom’s old recipe book. I want the clumsy turkey placemarkers my sisters and I made when we were little. I want to be home. 

I think back to my last Thanksgiving there and marvel at how much has changed, and how much remains the same. In November of 2015, I had no idea where I would be living, who I would be friends with or what I would be doing a year from then. I had dreams and grand visions, but I didn’t know anything. Despite the hopes buried deep inside, if asked, I never would have predicted that two weeks later, I would open an email from Duke Undergraduate Admissions that began, “Congratulations!” 

Maybe it’s this gloomy weather or my Snapchat memories or listening to Taylor Swift’s Red on repeat, but I have been caught up in remembering my previous Duke Thanksgivings. They have always just felt like a comma, a brief pause in the long stretch of the fall semester that strikes just before the end.

The Thanksgiving story is complicated and problematic. It is deeply rooted in colonialism and racism, and has grown intertwined with and sustained by the imperialist values of white, Christian America. But at its best, Thanksgiving is meant to be about giving thanks for what we have and welcoming those who need a home or a meal. 

On a stuffy Amtrak to my aunt’s house in Maryland in 2016, I remember wondering what I would say I was thankful for when we went around the table before dinner. How could we celebrate this holiday, meant to be the epitome of inclusion and gratitude, when we had just elected someone who ran a campaign on promises of walls and travel bans?

The next year, Thanksgiving was filled with writing papers, studying for tests and making plans that felt random and surprising, even then. Religious tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism as seen in Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The role strategic voting may have played in Justin Trudeau’s election as prime minister? A study abroad program at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome? Am I getting any of this right?

At the time, it felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Retrospectively, I can appreciate how I was already reading, writing and applying for things that just a couple years earlier, I never could have imagined attempting.

In 2018, I was in Rome for Thanksgiving—the first time I had been out of the country for a major holiday. My family never felt so far away, and all I wanted was to be home. This was dramatic, of course, brought on by end-of-semester stress and strong FOMO. That evening, my program presented a Thanksgiving feast like no other, tables groaning under platters of turkey and bottles of strong Italian wine. 

We dressed up and made toasts and filled our plates with both pumpkin pie and panettone. At the end of the night, we traipsed over cobblestone streets to an American bar across the Tiber with the hope that there would be football on the television. 

I can’t even recall now if they were showing the game. I was too caught up in laughing with these beautiful friends that I never expected I would meet. When I remember that night, the thankfulness to have been in that place, with those people, swells through my body and pools in my eyes. It is no small thing to find a home in a faraway place, with people who were strangers not long before, and I am still grateful.

And here I am: senior year. I will be spending Thanksgiving with a beloved friend in South Carolina, where I will see her home, meet her cat and spend time with her family. I know it will be humbling and wonderful to be welcomed into their home, and I am already filled with gratitude for this person and the people who love her.

In some ways, I feel so far from my nervous, angsty high school self. So much has happened in the years since I read that email from Duke Admissions. I have been challenged and shaped by classes I never thought I would take. I have fallen in love with a school and a place where I knew no one, a thousand miles from home. I have traveled and written and wept and loved in so many different ways. 

But for all of these changes, I still have no idea what I’m doing. Once again, I don’t know where I’ll be living in a year, or what I’ll be doing or who I’ll be with. For the first time since then, I am faced with a blank canvas that stretches before me in every direction. 

That emptiness is daunting. Depending on the day, it either sits like a hangnail or paper cut, more irritating than painful, or it balloons to fill every crevice of my mind, pressing against my understanding of reality and crowding out my shrinking voice of reason. 

It is scary to not know what will happen next, and “next” is getting closer every day.

And yet, when I think about my last Thanksgiving at home and compare my life now to how it was then, I want to laugh; I have been here before. In a snowy November four years ago, the same doubts and fears were rattling around in my brain as now, like dice in a game of Yahtzee. And look what has happened since.

This Thanksgiving, I am trying not to be afraid. I am trying to take comfort in the knowledge that all the unknowns worked out last time. I am trying to give thanks for the tangible blessings of my life: warm hugs, starry nights, good food.

All I know is gratitude, for the place and people who have given me so much. 

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior whose favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner is suppressing her existential dread with mashed potatoes and gravy. (That’s healthy, right?) Her column, Cameron Cravings, runs on alternate Thursdays.

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