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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: There's More Than One Way To Carve A Thanksgiving Holiday

Brooke Goldman
This year, Laurie Smithwick's family decided to gather together for Thanksgiving -- but outside and in October to make sure weather and schedules would permit.

If Jessica Norman could offer one piece of advice this holiday season it would be this: let go of the idea that you’re in control.

"When we release that idea that we have to do a traditional Thanksgiving and we have to be around extended family, and you just allow yourself to enjoy being around the people you’re allowed to be around right now, it makes it a whole lot easier and you can take a deep breath and just enjoy yourself," the 39-year-old said.

In fact, Norman's family tossed out the idea of having a traditional Thanksgiving years ago — they told their extended family they’d catch them at Christmas but that Thanksgiving from now on was going to be a small group. Each year they decide where they want to celebrate and what they want to eat.

"Last Thanksgiving, we rented a cabin in Blowing Rock. And my daughter picked quesadillas, my son picked macaroni and cheese and bacon," she said with a chuckle. "My husband picked steak and I picked biscuits and gravy. So we made a meal out of that."

So this year, they didn’t feel the pandemic pressure to figure out what they were going to do. They already knew they wouldn’t be seeing extended family. But she does admit: there is nothing quite like a big family gathering.

"They’re loud and the kids are crazy and the adults are crazy and so it’s very entertaining — and so I do miss that," Norman said. "But we do see them at Christmas and hopefully we see them this Christmas. If not, you know, it is what it is."

A small Thanksgiving in the hopes of a larger Christmas gathering is also on the mind of 31-year-old Amanda Sanchez.

"Doing Thanksgiving this way is really about the hope for maybe Christmas," Sanchez said. "If everything goes well with Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas can happen."

The Sanchez family opted to keep Thanksgiving simple, which means ditching a huge home-cooked meal. Instead, on Monday they’ll pick up a large order from Charlotte restaurant Leah and Louise to start their Thanksgiving week.

"It’s like a family meal style and it’s just two adults here and then we have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old," she said. "So I believe we will be eating [food from] Leah and Louise Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. And then maybe Thursday I can make my favorite green bean casserole. I throw jalapenos in it and lots of cheese and we’ll probably just eat green bean casserole on Thursday and it will be a normal Thursday."

Traveling under normal circumstances around the holidays would be hard she says, but traveling with two young ones during a pandemic, wasn’t going to happen. In the past, they’ve had to make hard choices about which family members to visit. Their extended family lives across the continental United States as well as in Puerto Rico.

"So we always have to kind of choose," Sanchez said. "We have to make a choice. Who gets Thanksgiving Day with us? Or maybe the weekend after Thanksgiving with us? So this year we have no hard choices like that. The only hard thing is just staying home and not seeing anyone."

Brooke Goldman
Laurie Smithwick's family celebrated Thanksgiving with social distance in mind this year.

That was one choice 51-year-old Laurie Smithwick’s didn’t have to make. Her family is local, and they decided they wanted their Thanksgiving in person — as long as it was done safely. They decided they’d have the meal outside to help with social distancing.

Not wanting to take a gamble with late November weather, they all agreed Oct. 24 would be this year’s Thanksgiving.

"It literally was Thanksgiving in every way it could possibly have been except for the date and except for the fact that nobody in any house around us was celebrating Thanksgiving," Smithwick said.

The group of 12 — which included Smithwick's husband, their two daughters, one of their college roommates, Smithwick's mom and dad, her brother, his wife, their kids, and her sister-in-law’s mom — spread out among multiple tables. Fall leaf garland and strung lights hung overhead while pumpkins and autumn flowers decorated the tables. They ate their favorite traditional dishes and preserved the annual tradition of going around the table and saying what they were thankful for.

"It was a lot of being thankful for the particular family that we all got lucky to have," she said.

Before the pandemic hit, her family would meet regularly for dinners. So having this in-person "Fakesgiving," as she calls it with a smile, meant a lot.

And while it was memorable day, it wasn’t perfect. She missed that collective food coma crash that comes after a typical Thanksgiving meal. She missed the cozy nap that soon follows with the TV on in the background. And of course, the second wind that brings the hunt for leftovers before it’s time for pie.

None of that was in the cards this year because that would have meant being close together and being inside.

"It wasn’t our normal life, but we still found a way sort of against all odds to be together and put together a Thanksgiving that felt like our family really matters to our family," she said. "Getting to celebrate Thanksgiving on Oct. 24 definitely made me feel lucky to have the family that I have."

Depending on how things go on the actual, official holiday, her luck might strike twice. Some of the "Fakesgiving" group will be out of town, but depending on the weather, a smaller group may do a Round 2.

Either way, she says, she’s lucky she already had one really good holiday with her family.

That’s something to be thankful for.

How has your life changed since the coronavirus outbreak? Are you interacting with people differently? Are you able to visit loved ones? Are you delaying major life events like a wedding? Share your stories by leaving us a voicemail at 704-916-9114.

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