As a first generation immigrant American, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all our national holidays. I have my college roommate, Alisa Merten (then Alma), and her incredible parents and family to thank for this.
We immigrated to Los Angeles when I was 10, back in 1980. I attended Cornell from 1988-1992. I still remember convincing my parents in high school that as good immigrants trying to assimilate to our new culture, it was important to make a turkey after years of learning about Thanksgiving in school and hearing about everyone else around us celebrating this important holiday. Faint but present memories always bring a smile to my face as I recall when they finally gave in and bought a turkey. My parents baked it in soy sauce—I don’t recommend it!
Going to Cornell, so cold and so far away from family, was difficult for me. While I benefited from an incredible experience and became independent out of necessity, these were the days when we could’t afford for me to fly home except during summer vacation and over Christmas break. Thanksgiving was lonely, I worked at the school library, and was likely alone for freshman and sophomore year. A few other students were probably in the same situation, especially the Asians, if their families didn’t celebrate this holiday.
I will never forget the Thanksgiving of my junior year. That year I lived in a 3 bedroom house sharing with two seniors, and Alisa was my incredible roommate who was also in a Tae Kwon Do club with me. She asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving and my simple answer was staying and doing nothing. She invited me home to her family in Rochester, NY and I said yes.
Her father picked us up on a cold November Wednesday night in Ithaca, and I truly prayed that I would survive the 2 hour drive. You see, he drove with the front windows open to stay awake (I was later told), while I laid in the back seat freezing (Living in LA, I never had enough coats or the right gear during those 4 brutal upstate NY years). Alisa sat in the front with her father. When we arrived, I could barely move but never forgot how grateful I was I made it.
We walked into her home, and received an immediate warm Italian greeting from her mother, ushering us to the table as she put hot food on. There was no cell phone for her to "find my friends" and know when we would arrive.
I sat down, and devoured the steak with melted provolone cheese on top—confused by cheese on meat but devoured it along with other foods made with love.
The next morning was Thanksgiving, while my roommate slept until I think it was close to noon, being the early riser, I came down to the kitchen where Mrs. Alma had already cooked up a storm. I helped her and remembered gentle conversations probably telling her about my background and family.
I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving until that day. Around 2pm, her parent’s best friends (of decades) came over, along with a few others, and we sat down around a beautifully set dining table, with a gorgeous brown turkey on a big platter, just like all cooking magazine photos depict.
We held hands around the table, said grace, and then what happened next was magical to me. What was seared into my memory was not the food, but the overwhelming feeling of love and true connection. I wondered how her parents could have friends for decades and where I would find those people when I became their age. After an incredible meal of laughter, love and joy, that I was so privileged to be a part of, we went to the high school she attended and played basketball in the gym, and then later that night I was introduced to making turkey sandwiches, and eating more pie and dessert.
To Alisa and the Alma family, you forever changed my life on Thanksgiving in 1991, and I am eternally grateful to you. As a surgical intern in Rochester, MN in 1996, and for all 5 years as a single person, I hosted Thanksgiving and invited every resident who couldn’t go home, and took pride in making a 22 pound turkey so that we would never be alone.
As a married adult, I am grateful my husband, Dave, always supported and understood my need to open our home to any colleague who didn’t have family in town or because of being "on-call", couldn’t go to their family. We do this for Thanksgiving and Christmas, for 10 years in KC and now in Orlando for the past 6.
Every year on Thanksgiving, I am grateful for those whom I have shard this special day with. I am grateful for anyone and anything that comes into my life. I am grateful for life and breath, and the ability to express thanks to others who have contributed to my capacity to love.
Take a moment and look deeply into the eyes of those in your presence today. Tell them thank you for being in my life, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen them, no matter if you have not always seen eye-to-eye or agreed on anything. No matter what the past was. Welcome those who have the chance to experience Thanksgiving in your home.
I wish you an incredible day with no thought of “shopping” or anything materialistic.