Here's How the Military Changed My Thanksgiving

a table spread with food for a thanksgiving feast
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Satya Murthy under the Creative Commons License.)

Colorful leaves, crisp air and cozy sweaters all rank as some of my favorite things, easily making fall my top season. Thanksgiving rounds it out perfectly, in a celebration of delicious food and family, before fall cedes to winter.

Perhaps more than any other holiday, my Thanksgiving has evolved due to my husband's military service. We may choose to travel for Christmas, but Thanksgiving is often at the mercy of work schedules, TDY trips and unexpected holiday work phone calls.

After 11 years with my soldier, I've experienced a variety of Thanksgivings -- three separated by deployment, one separated by TDY, one rather disastrous attempt to travel with a 3-month-old, a few wonderful holidays with friends and two years of hosting an all-day, buffet-style holiday for a crowd of students. While none of those looked like the traditional Thanksgivings I grew up with, they highlight the unmistakable impact of the military on our lives.

Before getting married, Thanksgiving meant extended family piling into one home. We would stress over who would sleep where (especially as kids grow up and have significant others).

The day itself was full of simmering pots, with hands constantly sneaking a taste or a treat. A mid-day search for an open store to locate a forgotten ingredient offered a chance to get out of the house and find a little quiet. There was always a bit of a scramble to make sure that we had enough plates and silverware. Someone had to be dragged away from the football game when it was time to eat. After the meal was devoured, we would snack despite overstuffed stomachs and scatter throughout the house. Those holidays were a treasure and marked by a reliable constancy that marked the shift from fall to winter.

Thanksgiving for military families, including mine, takes a different turn. Gone are the repetitive traditions marking stability from one year to another. We have moved seven times in our 11 years, and most of the time we've been a day's flight away from family and opted to celebrate the holiday at our home. During one Thanksgiving, we were preparing for one of those moves, so our holiday serving dishes were packed away.

But even without the extended family and traditions that signified Thanksgiving before I married a soldier, the years since have taught me the incredible value of taking a day to simply be grateful.

I've learned that a meal shared with friends whose spouses were also deployed can be filled with both joy and sadness.

I rejected the feeling of obligation to prepare an elaborate meal during a particularly difficult deployment moment one year, choosing instead to pick up a Cracker Barrel meal to go and watch movies on the couch with my son.

I discovered that the inherent stress of inviting more than 40 soldiers (students at a course my husband helped teach) who were unable to travel home was more than balanced by the laughter and gratitude they shared with us. In fact, we repeated the experience again the next year.

And this year, as I look forward to a shockingly normal holiday with my husband home and good friends in the area, I will be grateful in a way that I could never have understood 12 years ago.

Kristen Smith is an army wife, story teller, boy mama, enthusiastic (if not entirely talented) cook and community builder. 

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