A Mixed-Bag Thanksgiving 2018 – When the Going Gets Tough, Survivors Show Up

Redding Winco’s Monday shoppers.

Monday I thought I’d be smart and beat the Thanksgiving shoppers by getting my Thanksgiving supplies early.

Apparently, hundreds of other people had the same idea. It was a crush of humanity, clamoring for all the fixings for their Thanksgiving dinners.

People were mostly polite and jolly. One employee – a handsome guy with a dark beard – shouted over the noise and fielded inquiries.

Cornbread mix? Aisle 8, left side. Ask me anything!

It was a happy, chaotic scene, but I was aware that within that group of shoppers, unless someone was new here, or just passing through, every single one of my fellow shoppers had been affected in some way by one of the fires that invaded our north state, starting with Shasta County’s Carr Fire in July, and now Butte County’s Camp Fire that rages on, leaving unspeakable death and destruction in its wake.

How many of those shoppers were among the tens of thousands evacuated? How many lost loved ones, or pets, or irreplaceable, sentimental belongings or homes?

I was evacuated, though I was able to return to an intact home. Notice I didn’t say I was lucky enough, or blessed enough, because to say either would mean that the good people who lost their homes were somehow unlucky and/or unblessed.

So, I didn’t lose my home, but I have friends who lost their homes. I didn’t lose my home, but I lost my precious Whiskeytown National Park, the place I considered the jewel of our north state. “It’s just 20 minutes from Redding!” I’d tell visitors. “You have to see it. It’s beautiful!”

Now, I can barely bring myself to look at it. The first time I drove west on Highway 299 I felt as if I were on a conveyor belt before one long open-casket funeral that I couldn’t escape, or avert my eyes, because the blackness and the loss went on and on and on and on for miles.

I didn’t lose my home, but I lost the feeling of safety and security I used to take for granted, living in an old established neighborhood known for its rock walls, mature trees and even more mature homes. My 1938 little house sits between Placer and Eureka Way, areas where the Carr Fire had its way with suburban neighborhoods.

On the evening of Thur., July 26, minutes before I fled my neighborhood, I stood in my alley as ash and glowing embers swirled and rained down all around me. I was transfixed by the undulating orange wall of smoke and heat that I now know was Sunset Terrace ablaze across Eureka Way.

Here in Shasta County, we thought we’d been through Hell, but along came the Camp Fire, with the dubious distinction of being the most destructive fire in California history, when Paradise and Hell collided, and Hell won.

If you’re reading this, then you’re a survivor. You’re still here. We’re still here. And it’s Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday because it requires no buying of presents, just the presence of people, food and gratitude.

I know that Thanksgiving can be a sad time for many people, and I’ve suffered through a few of those myself. The perfect Thanksgiving requires that all the planets line up just as perfectly, unmarred by unfulfilled expectations, of dashed hopes and even uncooperative logistics that get in the way, such as emotional or geographical distance between loved ones, or the need to work during the holiday, or illness or a lack of money or any number of things that throw a monkey wrench in Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving utopia.

This year, because I will be surrounded by many people I love, this is a very good Thanksgiving. My Cottonwood son and daughter-in-law are graciously hosting a potluck Thanksgiving in their home where they’ll provide mashed potatoes and a hefty home-raised turkey, spatchcocked and roasted on the barbecue. The rest of us will fill in the rest of the menu, as diverse and wonderful as every person who’ll be around that very long table, from a toddler boy to a great-grandmother and every age in between.

It will be a table of joy, but it will also be a table of loss that ranges from a young couple and their two little boys who lost their home in the Carr Fire in July, to the recent death of my daughter-in-law’s father, a man who sat at the head of last year’s Thanksgiving table, despite advanced cancer. He couldn’t enjoy the meal, but he showed up despite the fact that it was an ordeal to make the drive, to sit in a chair and take tiny bites of food he could barely swallow. Last year he was here. This year he’s gone. Life is just that damn fickle. Now you see it, now you don’t.

I know that if I looked at every face around that table, every single one has experienced different levels of loss – or is in the middle of their own life quake. Our history holds us together, but so does our common suffering. Death, divorce, disappointment.

The tricky balancing act is to appreciate and celebrate the ones we’re with, the ones who showed up, bearing food and love and uplifted spirits for the sake of the whole; while remembering and honoring those who aren’t there, knowing that it’s OK to carry on and experience joy without them.

The food brings us together, too, like my twin’s decorated turkey cookies, my spiced cranberries and the pale green Jell-O dish that’s been in my kids’ father’s family for as long as I can remember. And the creamed corn casserole that’s also their family classic.

As an aside, I asked son Joe if I could publish a photo of the old photocopied scalloped corn casserole – or is it a souffle? – recipe today, and he said he wasn’t sure it was a recipe that was OK to share. That’s how important these traditional foods become at times like these.

It’s not so much what the dishes taste like, but what they represent: family, tradition and memories. It’s the fact that long after the original recipe-holders and food-makers have passed on, their recipes and traditions live on and show up year after year.

Last week I was talking with a couple of friends who lost their home and nearly everything they owned in the Carr Fire. She’s Italian, and making ravioli is part of their holiday tradition. Her family recipes perished in the fire, as did some special ravioli-making tools. But the family is still getting together, and they will still make the ravioli, in a different house, eaten upon different dishes, and probably prepared not exactly according to the old recipes.

That’s OK, because this will be a new Thanksgiving, with new traditions. They are grateful to be alive. They are grateful for their family. They are grateful for another chance at another Thanksgiving — even though it’s different from all the rest.

Reporter Candace Brown perfectly summed up this 2018 holiday season: So much to be thankful for; so much to grieve for.

It’s OK to do both. We can grieve, but we can also be grateful because we have another shot at another Thanksgiving, and another opportunity to express love and gratitude, because we know there are no guarantees about life and all it involves. Take the good stuff and good times while we can, because tomorrow is uncertain.

The only thing for sure is that tonight, my friends’ family will have ravioli, and on our table there will be green Jell-O salad, and that corn casserole, and a chance to make new traditions, and new memories.

That’s what I wish for you. But in the meantime, what are your holiday traditions?

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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