11/27/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Thanksgiving "Redefined"

At some point our family fell out of the usual Thanksgiving routine.

We got tired of turkey. Stuffing. That danged green bean casserole and the "mystery Jello mold" desserts. In fact, the whole business of cooking the typical Thanksgiving meal got old.

And we also realized that we really didn't want to go "over the river and through the woods" to grandma's house or anyone else's. We wanted to chill. With people we really loved. Doing whatever we damn well pleased.

So our Thanksgivings are pretty odd affairs. Every year, the meals and "activities" are a little bit less traditional. But somehow, because of that, I cherish them even more.

You see back in the late 50's and early 60's when I was a kid, my family's very Old School Thanksgiving gatherings were done by "rote." I can still see my poor, frazzled mother rushing around trying to get all of her holiday baking and cooking done after work back when I was a kid.

Everybody had a favorite dish she felt obligated to include. And she was an incredible cook. After leaving the South she survived by cooking for other people's families--they fought over her, in fact, her wealthy employers.

She was also one of those children of the Depression who had to cook enough for two armies, even if we weren't having all of the relatives over that year. And she was so stressed about doing it all just right that she almost hated the holidays. No one ever saw that but me and my Dad, of course.

After my parents separated and I was no longer "the baby" most of our relatives really came to see, the holiday gatherings started to feel a bit forced. Our relatives dined and dashed which was fine by me. The faster I could get away from the table and them, the better.

Gradually, my mother's "Suzy Homemaker" smile dimmed and she let some of the weariness show. She didn't even sit down to dinner with us after we gradually started to eat in shifts, one group of relations arriving as another left. She bustled around the kitchen, appearing solely to remove and replace plates and cutlery.

Not exactly the "happy holidays" we envision, right?

Even so, my mother would not approve of the way her daughter handles the holidays. It's a pretty slap dash affair chez Dagnal-Myron. But purposely so.

We stopped rushing around trying to get the turkey and the same old assortment of sides on the table for ourselves and invited guests long ago. Instead, we concentrate on what we really want. What we really feel. What we are really thankful for.

Most of all, Thanksgiving is when my daughter's Hopi Indian father comes down to Tucson to spend some quality time with her. Native people are understandably conflicted about this holiday, but for her and her father, it's one of the most important holidays of all, even now that she's 26, and no longer Daddy's "little" girl.

During the holiday season, she and her father get to do some important "catching up." Though they don't see eye-to-eye on many things, it is his presence that matters. He has to drive from Salt Lake City to Tucson to see her, now. But he makes that drive every single year--several times a year, actually. But this is the time of year when it seems to matter most.

His arrival, for me, means something completely different. He's one of those men who doesn't feel complete without a wrench or a hammer or a screwdriver in hand, or a project to complete.

So though we've been divorced for decades now, I still make a "honey do" list every year which he gladly works his way through during both holiday visits. I think it's another way of feeling like a "real father." He loves knowing that the house his "baby" girl still lives in will be in good repair by the time he leaves.

It's usually either when he arrives or very shortly before that we decide what we're going to eat. It may mean going out for dinner. It may mean Daddy firing up the old Weber kettle--one of our favorite Thanksgiving meals is big rib eye steaks with sweet ears of corn roasted over those coals, too. It always means a little last minute rush to the grocery store for all the munchies and desserts we suddenly decide we just have to have.

And that's fun, too--I can't explain why. I think it may be just the idea of making those decisions on the fly, and getting exactly what we feel like having at the moment. It's a kind of rebellion, too--maybe in honor of my mother, who never got the chance to say, "I'm just not feelin' it this year."

If we're not "feelin' it," we don't do it. Or, we don't do it the old fashioned way. And yet sometimes I look up from whatever we've decided to make for dinner and feel the waves of joy and love we didn't feel back when my mother worked so hard and so thanklessly for days and days.

My ex-husband is one of my best friends--we laugh and talk much more easily now than I could ever have imagined when our marriage ended.

The daughter we made is a stunner with her own quirky, fascinatingly eclectic style and a boyfriend to match.

And the little house I scraped up enough money to buy on my own just after the divorce--one of the scariest, saddest times in all of our lives--feels, looks and even smells like a "holiday house."

It's in those moments that I know exactly what I'm giving thanks for. It's not so much for what's on the table, but the people sitting around it. We are a tiny tribe, our little bitty, broken but beautiful family.

But we have survived.

Cynthia Dagnal-Myron's book of essays, The Keka Collection, can be purchased on