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Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. Headshot

Advent Lessons From a Holiday Orphan

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I didn't grow up as a holiday orphan.

Instead I was raised as a member of large extended families. I ate two Thanksgiving dinners every year: one at noon in Hattiesburg, Miss. with my father's family followed by an evening meal in Meridian, Miss., a 90-minute drive to my mother's family home.

Both Episcopalian households had sacrosanct blessings and traditions for holidays. We easily transitioned between the rituals, helped by yet another fluffy dinner roll.

As a child, I was certain that my four grandparents had connections to every single person in Mississippi. When my brother announced one holiday that he planned to bicycle cross-country, Gran noted that a friend from her bridge group had a grandson named Willie who was also biking from Washington to Florida that year. What are the odds? We were so connected.

Given this pedigree, I've resisted my role as holiday orphan once a year, after the sudden deaths of my parents and my own divorce around the same time. I'm not yet comfortable posting this status update on Facebook: "Sifting through Thanksgiving dinner invites. Which ones will I accept?" (Hint: An allergy to cats helps narrow the pool.)

FYI: I am grateful every day to have a network of friends, a full-time job, and a church community at this point in my life. But as a mother in my mid-forties, I deeply miss my own parents, as I listen to NPR's "Turkey Confidential" on Thanksgiving morning, rather than stories narrated in my family's silky Mississippi accents.

In honor of my parents, I gleaned a narrative from my role as interloper at three Thanksgiving tables in 24 hours this year. (I'm prone to over commitment). I hope these lessons help prepare my heart for Advent, the religious season of waiting for events both anticipated and unforeseen.

Thanksgiving Eve dinner: Encounters between young and old are forever rich

I joined my priest's family around a farmhouse table with three generations, including a niece 10 weeks pregnant with her first child. After dinner, her 30-something husband announced that he had an iPhone app called "PregnancyCalendar" to help predict ovulation. "See on this graph, you can see her luteal phase," he said. (After birthing two children, I still had to google "luteal phase" later that night).

With both detachment and curiosity, the 82-year old matriarch of this family observed the rise and fall of her granddaughter's temperature on the line graph. Everyone in the room held a collective breath, anticipating her response to this app that might have hastened her great-grandchild's conception. She glanced up from the iPhone and told the intergenerational group: "Well, that's interesting, but it's not how we did it in my time. I just had five babies in five years."

Thanksgiving Day lunch: Eating food with others remains a sacred act

For the traditional Thanksgiving meal, I dined with colleagues at the home of a British couple who has lived in this Western North Carolina valley for 30 years. A gardener and consummate cook, the husband prepared a meal with as many courses as the five people around the table. His wife illustrated the menu in watercolors, so we could anticipate each dish (none of which included turkey or stuffing - PTL).

The intention behind the meal reminded me of Norman Wirzba's premise in his new book "Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating," that eating can honor God's creation and His people. The slow progression of the simple yet elegant dishes allowed us to sit and talk for hours, laughing at the comic absurdity of our lives on a small college campus.

Thanksgiving Evening dessert: Acceptance of loss is a process

Thanksgiving evening, I had blueberry-cranberry pie with friends who had cancelled their plans to fly to a family gathering in Michigan when faced with their cat's imminent death. With their five-year old, they buried the cat in the backyard and planted crocus bulbs on the gravesite.

In my own family, missing a holiday gathering never seemed like an option. And given my allergies, I'm often the last person whom friends call when faced with a pet crisis. So I asked my friend, "How did your family accept that you weren't coming?" She replied: "They accepted when I told them they had to accept it. It's what we needed to do, and they will be okay." Wow. As a people-pleasing addict, I poured another glass of Prosecco in a silent toast to her wisdom.

My father's father always said this blessing on holidays: "Blessed art thou O Lord our God, who has given us life, who sustains us in life, and who has brought us to this happy day." As I anticipate the future for my children, I know that every day -- and every holiday -- may not be happy for them. Oprah tells us that change is a constant, but I'm still learning to accept it.

We live amid the perpetual happiness of Facebook postings and the concurrent economic distress in our country. Given that reality, my priest offered this blessing before our meal:

"For this prayer, I'm not going to make you say one thing you're thankful for. But in this age where anxiety is the new black, I am thankful for your place around this table and in our lives."

In my mother and father's honor, I pray: Amen.