In my 20s and 30s, a delicious Thanksgiving feast seemed a fair exchange for my dignity. Sure, I could be at home in my sweats — drinking wine without judgment and watching rom-coms. But most of those years were spent with family friends who would ask why I’m still single and whether I could pass the stuffing, all in the same breath. The sweet potato casserole always made the interrogation bearable.
I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where even the lousiest housewife can whip up an enviable pumpkin pie. Every year, my family would gather with four other families that, whether by distance or discord, rarely spent the holiday with their relatives. Dinner guests would ask my brothers and me the same questions every year, because they couldn’t remember what our interests were, where we wanted to go to college, or whom we were dating. Thanksgiving was an amnesiac’s holiday, and you could work up quite an appetite getting reacquainted.
Before the feast could begin, our host would clink his glass, conversation would cease and we would gather in a circle, introducing ourselves for those who were new and telling everyone what we were thankful for.
Over the years, this Thanksgiving Circle expanded as new husbands, wives and babies were added. As I grew older and stuck out as the only single woman in her 30s, the Thanksgiving Circle became a source of increasing anxiety for me.
“How’s your love life, Red?” our host would ask before I could even get in the door.
Once I was inside, interrogators popped up in every nook and cranny of the house.
“Got anyone special in your life right now?” someone else would ask, leaning in close so as to block my escape.
“Oh my god! How are you still single? A catch like you!” a contemporary said, before introducing me to her fiancé.
Then the questions stopped, which in some ways was more disheartening than the annual probing. Surely people were curious but dared not ask, afraid I might say I was a lesbian; or, somehow more shocking, that I was single by choice.
When I left Birmingham for Seattle at age 33, I left the Circle behind. I left the expectations of marriage and children behind. I reluctantly became a career woman. Many years, Thanksgiving haphazardly was just the prelude to a long weekend. I feigned disinterest in relationships, because everyone said, “If you stop looking for love, you’ll find it.” But a part of me hoped I would fall in love with someone I could triumphantly bring into the Circle.
My parents have been in love for 46 years, married for 45, and I have spent nearly as long looking for my own love story. But at some point, I started to wonder if maybe, like some rare genetic disorder, that kind of love skips a generation.
Then I met the Lawyer — he was definitely Circle-worthy. He courted me the way I always hoped someone would; the way my father had courted my mother. Despite our lack of chemistry, I convinced myself that this was the relationship I’d been waiting for. He was a Southern gentleman, a rare jewel in the Pacific Northwest, and I felt giddy to be desired.
He was chivalrous, just like my father. He was also exactly the kind of person my mother wanted to see me with. Because he was a lawyer, he was inherently superior to all the other men I’d dated: check-kiters, bodyguards, miscreants and malfunctioning dilettantes.
He had a stable career. He could take care of me, I reasoned. We went to New York together early in our relationship, and he paid for a suite at the Grand Hyatt. We saw plays and ate well; love felt easy and effortless in the heady air of a high-rise hotel.
But it didn’t take long to see that the Lawyer was a moody depressive and hardly had the energy to deal with anyone’s emotions but his own.
When I complained to my mother that he was moody, she shrugged it off.
I told her I wasn’t sure it would work.
“I’m just afraid you’re going to end up with someone poor,” she said.
When I complained to my therapist that the Lawyer and I rarely had sex, he suggested I “take a lover” on the side.
When I complained to my friends about his untreated depression, they said I was too picky. “Do you want to end up alone?” they’d say, ignoring how lonely a person can be while living with someone they no longer love.
So I held on, certain at age 37, 38, then 39 that my chances for love were as limited as my supply of eggs. Although I could take care of myself, a part of me still yearned to be taken care of.
It took four years, but I finally conceded that my relationship with him was nothing like that of my parents, and we broke up. Maybe I would marry in my 50s, I told myself, maybe I would never marry, but with that uncertainty came a kind of freedom.
After an eight-year hiatus from the Circle, I returned a couple of years ago, more mature, less concerned about being alone, although with some trepidation. It’d been so long since I’d seen these people.
I feared I’d be the oddball again. Yet I noticed that many of the women my age were absent husbands, or were joined by new boyfriends or second husbands. Or the married ones were confessing to me in the foyer that they’d give anything to trade places with me, to be single and carefree, no longer tethered to a husband and children.
As we gathered in a circle, I held my brother’s and my father’s hands. I was thankful that I could take care of myself; that I could survive with or without a man; that being single didn’t mean being alone. I was thankful to hold the hands of two men who loved me no matter what I did; how much I weighed or how outspoken I was. I’d much rather be with them than holding the hand of a man I didn’t love; a man who picked up the check but could not pick up on my changes of mood; a man who held the door for me but could not hold my heart. I felt full and resilient.
Bring on the inquiries and the sweet potato casserole. I was single — and proud of it.