The empty chairs at Thanksgiving

The last time my mom was with us for Thanksgiving, in 2015, these things were true:

• Noah was home for the first time since starting college in Brooklyn. (Now he’s a 24-year-old college graduate with his own business.)

• Sawyer wasn’t old enough to drive. (Now he’s 21 and going to college in New Orleans.)

• Pandemics were historical events.

• Obama was president and Hillary Clinton was going to be our next president.

• Gay marriage was newly legally throughout the country.

• Star Wars was in theaters for the first time in 30 years.

• The Seahawks failed to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch and lost the Super Bowl.

All of these things feel like so very long ago. Some of that is age. At 54, days and years hit differently than they did in our 20s and when we had young kids. Some of that is the pandemic, when time simultaneously stood still and now seems like somebody else’s life.

Like having Mom around.

It would feel like the most natural thing in the world for her to call and menu plan with me for Thanksgiving right now. She had a dry marker board on the side of her refrigerator where all such important lists went. She’d have her list, my list, my sister’s list. I’d be in charge of the lemon meringue pie because it’s Dad’s favorite and she takes shortcuts with the crust I don’t approve of. I say “takes” instead of “took” because my brain sometimes plays tense tricks with me when I think about her.

Not the best picture but the only one I got of Mom’s last Thanksgiving.
Where is Dad and why does Clyde look so grumpy?

A few days after she died, Sawyer said: “The family organization took a hit.”

His 16-year-old self immediately got the heart of what would take me a while to figure out: Mom was the glue. And our family would never be the same without her laid back but persistent faith and assumption of our stickiness.

Six years after that Thanksgiving, I am fairly settled into the idea that our family will never be the same. That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Of course our family will never be the same. What I mean is we can’t move on without her. As people, yes. As a family, no. We are a shell, and a soft shell at that, of what we were before as a unit. I’ve tried to fight it but the inertia isn’t on my side.

I assume every empty chair — newly vacated by those families whose losses are impossible to process even without the holidays piling on the grief and those for whom this is as routine as knowing green beans will be on the table in some fashion — changes a family.

I have no answers for how to maneuver life with the empty chair, during the holidays or on a Tuesday afternoon in June. I have no example to offer.

I have these things:

• Be with the people you want to be with and who want to be with you.

• Talk about the person who should be in that chair. Their absent years do not diminish their present years.

One day, maybe you’ll keep the “before” ways you want (like the pies). And one day, when it feels right, maybe you’ll let go of the “after” ways that don’t fit anymore for whatever reason. Like the pie crust Mom never gets right, there are no shortcuts. The chair will be filled. The verbs will become past tense. These are effortless realities.

The work is keeping that person around in whatever way you can. For me, that’s all that even attempts to fill Mom’s empty space.


About Dawn McMullan

Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer/editor in Dallas, Texas. Her two sons are now 21 and 24, Sawyer in college and Noah starting his post-college career, and both interrupted empty nesting during the pandemic. Dawn helps run a non-profit in Eastern Congo and is senior editor at the International News Media Association.
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1 Response to The empty chairs at Thanksgiving

  1. Angela Lovell says:

    This is beautiful. And sad. And oh so real and true. My holiday gatherings of 26 people in my home have stripped down to just 3-4 of us and we meet on a day other than the holiday. The decline was noticeably with the passing of each grandparent for me. Especially Dad’s mom who was the glue of his loving family. Eventually people just stopped gathering. You keep thinking about your mama, dear friend. It keeps her with you in spirit.

    I will be thinking of you over the holidays, knowing that the people who gather will be different, but that you still have a lot of love and vibrance at your table. You’re the glue for many, though perhaps not as many as you had hoped.

    Love you!


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