It seems all I’ve been hearing about for the past few days is people discussing how they will “survive” Thanksgiving this year. And they’re not referring to the multiple shopping trips in crowded shopping centers or the large volumes of food they will be cooking for the holiday, but their families — the people they are planning to voluntarily spend time with.

I started to wonder why we (I include myself in this) choose to do this year after year if we feel like we have to spend the holiday just “surviving.” For me, I think the answer lies somewhere in the memories of the times my family and I have gotten together to celebrate.

Our family has some pretty great family traditions; my favorite includes watching a movie together after dinner, balancing hot cider and pumpkin pie, while the fireplace blazes. I hang decorations, put out cute Thanksgiving-themed place cards, and light candles with cinnamon-scented pine cones.

Batya Carl/Dearly

Sounds pretty cozy, right?

However, some years weren’t quite as warm and fuzzy. One year, my family and I enjoyed a modest turkey dinner with my uncle and cousin — with a wine bar set up in the corner of our dining room. The next year, we found ourselves eating amidst their empty seats because of an inter-family fight.

One year, we were enjoying my grandmother’s famous stuffing; the next, we’d lost her and had to make the stuffing recipe ourselves. It’s never been the same since. We’ve slipped into spending Thanksgiving dinners by passing around sides in silence, making small talk while attempting to pretend away the sadness we all feel.

Batya Carl/Dearly

One year I couldn’t stand the tension and watched the traditional Thanksgiving movie on my bulky college laptop in my childhood home, wondering if there was any hope at all that I’d been adopted (I’m not and I look exactly like my mom).

There were many years in which the sound of laughter was sort of missing from the home. Sharing a feast was not enough to Band-Aid those deep emotional wounds that spanned decades.

Thanksgiving is difficult for everyone because — until the turkey settles in our stomachs (and maybe even after) — it’s a high-stress situation. It’s in these high-stress mental situations that our true selves emerge — and the tension that builds just beneath the surface may threaten to burst with any poorly timed comment.

So again, I ask: Why do we put ourselves through it? Why bother when our Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t look like Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Freedom From Want” painting?

Norman Rockwell Museum/Facebook

I realize that although our woes can’t be fixed by a steaming mug of cider, it can help; the food, the traditions — even if we aren’t happy on Thanksgiving — they remind us of happier times.

I think we “suffer” through the celebration of Thanksgiving because it’s a part of us striving to be better people; maybe this year’s get-together will elicit a happier result than last year’s. Maybe this will be the year we will finally have the talk with our cousin that needed to be had years ago, thus beginning the healing process for a lifetime of bitterness, anger, and resentment.

Batya Carl/Dearly

We suffer through it because we want to give our kids the opportunity to get to know family members on their own terms and not through our biases. She’s their crazy, dramatic aunt. Or maybe both of us are, since, after all, we do fall from the same tree.

Although Grandma Sylvia’s beloved stuffing can’t solve the problems of our warring families, it can be the white flag that brings us together, sending the message that we wish it could.

Batya Carl/Dearly

This year, at the Carl homestead, we won’t be lighting the fireplace, my favorite aspect of Thanksgiving. It’s definitely a loss, but it’s because we have gained much more; it’s because my nephews’ toys are strewn all over the hearth.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over missing my grandparents’ presence at the dinner table. But I will feel joy watching my 3-year-old nephew run through the house and holding his brother, my baby nephew, as I feed him sweet potatoes off my plate.

Why? Because unlike some “made for TV” holiday movie — in which a major conflict resolves and everyone gathers ’round for some turkey and gravy — in real life, some issues won’t ever be resolved. As soon as we can accept that, we can get together with those crazy family members and do more than just “survive” the holidays; we can enjoy them.

We can strive not to make things perfect, but to make things better, and to make things right. We can strive to have peace and friendship. And although being together can mean a lot of things, it’s okay that “perfect” is not one of them. It doesn’t have to look like the ideal. Remember: that idyllic, Rockwell Thanksgiving painting isn’t an ironclad rule, it’s just a painting.

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