Seats at the Table

It’s been a year. What a year.

Three years actually.

First, I hope you’re able to gather with family this Thanksgiving, and if not, I hope it’s by your choice.

For the past two holiday seasons, many families didn’t gather. Some did and paid a horrific price.

My immediate family didn’t gather, but groups of my more distant family did, and not everyone survived.

Aside from Covid, a word I shudder to even utter, time took its toll too.

So has the increasing hatefulness and vitrol at play in the US, and perhaps in other places too, which has irrecoverably fractured families.

Additionally, lots of people moved. I’ve actually been shocked how many, especially given that we spent months in the grip of pandemic that killed 6.6 million worldwide and over a million in the US, disabling millions more. Moving was difficult and more challenging than ever given the circumstances – yet more than 15 million households moved in the US alone according to address forwarding orders submitted to the USPS.

On the flip side, home office freed up many people who would not have previously been able to relocate.

Just looking at a handful of my colleagues, of a group of 6 people who work together regularly, four people moved, three across the country, and one person moved across the country twice.


Thanksgiving and holidays have changed for many, and maybe most, families.

Those who’ve moved will need to create new traditions and memories in new surroundings.

No more “over the river and through the woods,” because either grandma doesn’t live there anymore, or many of those chairs at that table are now empty.

There are four forever-empty chairs at my table, and yes, it has been a struggle – and that’s an understatement. If you’re struggling with this situation, regardless of why those places are vacant, let me share some thoughts and suggestions that might help. I welcome yours as well.

  • We can’t go back in time.
  • Enjoy and cherish the current moments, because they will be memories as soon as they are over.
  • Family is who we make it.
  • Empty chairs cause tears because the people who filled them enriched our lives. We were fortunate to have had them for however long.
  • Having loved deeply means grieving equally as deeply.
  • Grief is part of life. (Yea, that sucks!)
  • If your chairs are empty because of betrayal or divisiveness, understand that death occurs in many ways.
  • Anger is part of grief. It’s OK.
  • Time helps.

Sometimes when you’re in so much pain, it’s really difficult to do big things, or anything, so here are some tiny first steps.

“At Least…”

If you’re struggling to be grateful, try flipping that equation and begin a few statements with “At least…”.

  • I don’t have cancer.
  • I’m not disabled.
  • I don’t live in Ukraine.
  • My power isn’t out.
  • I don’t have 3 feet of snow.

What are you glad that you aren’t? With a little creativity, this could really make you laugh.

“At least I don’t have green ink on my face anymore.”

Your turn!

For a touch of humor, let your phone autofill the words after “At least.”

It’s the Little Things

Sometimes little things make such a big difference.

  • Someone helped me lift a heavy thing.
  • I love my cat/dog so much.
  • That baby at the store smiled at me and melted my heart.
  • My family member, even though they aren’t here, is healthy and happy wherever they are on life’s adventure.
  • I really enjoy watching the birds at the feeder (or fill in the blank.)
  • I’m looking forward to…
  • That sunset (or…) is really beautiful.
  • I love <favorite musician> singing <favorite song>

Might be a good time to queue up a few YouTube videos and songs and really listen to the lyrics, or simply close your eyes and cherish soothing voices. Maybe have a good cry, but not tears without end. You are not alone.

Let me repeat that.

You are not alone.

Peach Pie

Empty chairs are difficult and painful anytime, especially those “remembrance” days and holidays when the people who once sat there aren’t physically present. Past memories are a mixed blessing.

So wonderful that we have those memories. So heartbreaking at the same time. Sometimes we grieve lost possibilities and potential too – a future that never happened.

Other times, those memories transport their spirits to our heart and they slip in through the darkness.

Sometimes just looking at a peach pie near Thanksgiving makes me cry. But it also makes me laugh remembering Mom’s peach pie antics.

Mom loved peach pie. She became so frail in her last years that she really couldn’t handle days worth of prep for Thanksgiving, although she still desperately wanted to. We found a smorgasbord restaurant that served a wonderful Thanksgiving meal and created a “new” tradition, even though it wasn’t to last long.

On that final Thanksgiving, although of course we didn’t know it was, we arrived at our reservation time.

They seated us at a lovely table with a white tablecloth, set in a traditional, festive way. Mom spied the dessert table. Others of the family headed for the hot food line, but not Mom. Nope, Mom headed directly for dessert.

Hey, when you’re in your 80s, you can eat dessert first.

My brother asked her if she wanted “food’? She slipped right past him and made a beeline for the dessert table. Why waste time on anything else??!

Mom loved desserts, but especially chocolate and peach pie. We took this picture a month later during our last Christmas celebration together.

That Thanksgiving dessert table was full of luscious treats, all served and ready on individual plates, but there were only two slices of peach pie left.

Mom found both of them, retrieved them like buried treasure, and began making her way back through the maze of tables and people, carrying one plate in each hand.

Jim was afraid she’d fall, as she wasn’t terribly steady, so he had gone along to “assist” this tiny but mighty woman who wanted nothing to do with assistance. He tried to carry one of those plates with pie, but she was having none of that.

She sat back down at the table as everyone else arrived with plates piled high with Thanksgiving goodness. Not Mom. She had scored two pieces of peach pie and was happy as a clam with her trophies, beaming like a Cheshire cat.

Jim’s eyes started twinkling, and he reached his fork out to take a bite of the end of Mom’s peach pie.

She threatened to stab him, playfully, with her fork, and exclaimed in her shaky voice, “Don’t you dare.”

We all laughed. I don’t remember if she ever did eat any turkey, but I surely do remember laughing together and the peach pie.

And yes, she did eat both pieces.

Today, Jim and I shared that story with two unsuspecting “victims” who visited to help with something at the house. We all wound up sitting around the table together, eating peach pie, using Mom’s silverware, and laughing out loud. Those chairs weren’t vacant anymore. They were filled with smiles and laughter, seeded by Mom all these years later. Yes, she was with us.

You know, it’s hard to laugh and cry at the same time.

Trust me, we all really needed that. There are empty chairs at all of our tables this year.

I hope you can find a way to fill your heart, maybe around those tears.

Coping Strategies

Let me share with you what I’m doing this week.

  • The father of a local family that I met a few months ago has experienced a devastating medical issue. We made food because they can’t be visiting the hospital and preparing food at the same time. They are already in a difficult situation from an accident not even two years ago. I can help them, and I am.
  • We invited someone to join us who has recently moved and has no local family. I think we’re adding to the family, actually.
  • Instead of cooking in a house that’s, ummm, a disaster right now (don’t ask), we are supporting a local business by purchasing a “heat it up” Thanksgiving turkey meal.
  • We are choosing to make “lemonade” out of the situation by having a picnic with paper plates on a folding table, maybe outside. Also, did I mention peach pie?
  • I am working with someone to help with their fragile family member.
  • I assisted a cousin with a thorny genealogy challenge. Quick and easy for me but made a huge difference to them.
  • I submitted a friend’s photos to the new MyHeritage AI tool. They love them and it made them smile. Not just because the photos were wonderful, but because someone cared.

The theme here is that we feel better when we do things for others. It’s not about what “I’m” doing, it’s about doing something beneficial.

There was an old parable growing up on the farm about what to do when things are really crummy, and you’re feeling really sorry for yourself. Dad was not having that. Go over to the other side of the tracks, he said, where they have less than you do, and do something for someone over there. You’ll feel better for a multitude of reasons.

What Can You Do?

I can think of a few ideas, but I’m sure you can think of more.

  • What about a food bank or soup kitchen?
  • Maybe clean out a closet and donate to a shelter. That’s win-win.
  • Volunteer your time at a local animal shelter or rescue facility. They often need in-home fosters too.
  • Find a way to help someone feel valued or safe.
  • Visit people at nursing homes, specifically those with no family. Dementia patients may not realize you’re not family. To them, their family came to visit, and they will be overjoyed. (I view this as paying it forward or maybe karmic insurance.)

I’m Grateful For…

Looking past the immediate challenges and taking my focus off of empty chairs, I am so incredibly grateful for:

  • Special friends who help me by digging into really difficult challenges.
  • My sisters-of-heart who are always there. When blood family has walked away, they haven’t.
  • My quilt-sisters.
  • My wonderful “adopted” family around the world. You know who you are and every one of you is smiling now😊
  • My cousins who have become my family of choice.
  • My friends who have joined me, or maybe I joined them, side by side, proverbially walking together for awhile on our journeys.
  • Seeing a smile on the face of someone who hasn’t seen me for awhile.
  • Seeing someone I haven’t seen for awhile. (I can’t wait for RootsTech.)
  • Hugs, and people to hug.
  • Feeling joy and laughter.
  • For those who reach out and have reached out to help me so that I can, in turn, help others too.
  • Those who kicked my butt and told me I could. (I might not have been, ahem (clears throat), appropriately grateful in the moment.)

Love is Infinite 

While those chairs will never be filled with the same people again, they don’t have to remain empty either. Neither do our hearts.

You see, those chairs aren’t empty, they’re musical – filled by a continuum of love, from the past into the future.

Beings will fill those voids, and love will envelope you, wherever you are in your life’s journey. They are not gone, they are just a different, transformational, form of energy, and you are the sacred steward.

Happy Thanksgiving

37 thoughts on “Seats at the Table

  1. You touch on so many beautiful things thank you.
    A religion of practical things avoiding
    non directional religious twaddle

  2. Roberta, thanks for sharing so personally YET AGAIN. These are the posts I most enjoy — though I learn plenty from the method-oriented ones as well.

    I’m spending the week sorting out some DNA mysteries for a gal who’s worked on HUGE multiple trees for years. With a quick and private tree with a fraction of the people, I was able to identify her grandfather’s father. She had much of the information, but not the tools to work with the DNA. I called her and WE WERE BOTH THANKFUL — answers for her and FUN helping for me.

    AND, I’ve bought a little pumpkin pie to savor!!

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Roberta, Lovely thoughts.
    I helped a woman (judy) with her Wm.Bradford (pilgrim) genealogy.
    She and I were in the same second grade class and I knew her husband (Jim) pretty well also because we all were in the same high school class.
    Jim passed last year.
    While helping Judy, another woman [ Elizabeth(Betsey) Newcomb] fell out of the woodpile.

    There was an extended period of silence on my part as this sunk in.
    Judy wondered why the silence.

    Eliz. Newcomb Fairchild Taylor was the second wife to Nathan Taylor, my 3rd grandfather. She was my 3rd Grandmother. Eliz’s father Samuel, had married a Bradford daughter.

    Suddenly I had another shirt-tail cousin (whom I had known since 1951) and also a Pilgrim connection by marriage.

    My John Taylor ancestor came later with the Puritans to M.B.C. (Boston) with the Puritans.
    Russell Wm. Taylor

  4. Thank you so much for this! So many positive thoughts and reminders of all we still have, and can still share with others. Bless you, and happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Thank you for your inspirational thoughts and words, which I will be rereading throughout the holidays, and beyond. So many ideas to put things in perspective. I enjoyed listening to Clanadonia (reflects my husband’s heritage) and Lucia (reflects mine). I forget sometimes how uplifting it can be for me to focus on the ancestors and not be fixated on the present.

  6. Thank you, Roberta, lovely way to frame important lessons. Beautifully written, as always. Wishing you a Happy, family-full, Thanksgiving.

  7. Might I suggest adding David Archuleta’s “Glorious” to your music list. The One Voice Children’s Choir does a lovely version…. Is there any peach pie left?

  8. That was really lovely and hit my heart where it needed it. Thank you so much for this post, in particular. Thank you also for your consistently interesting and informative posts. I look forward to them. May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  9. Roberta, you really know how to cheer us up and just when we need it most! Speaking of pie, my brother Ronnie always asks for raisin pie. It became a tradition with our family. I found an alternate recipe I like that uses walnuts and raisins – much like pecan pie! He’s just as happy! Today, I was looking for a pattern – I don’t know where everything is after moving 3 years ago! Found the pattern and a few unfinished projects. Hoping I can work on them soon – that will cheer me up! Thanks for your wonderful suggestions!

    • I’m right with you in terms of trying to find things. A year ago I was hoping that everything would be normal by now and I could find things again. Maybe this time next year. I hope we can both work on projects.

  10. Oh what a chord you have struck and how clever you are to turn empty chairs into musical chairs. Yes indeed. You are the light. Well done. Great post. Big hugs to you all in America at this special/challenging time after all you have been through.

  11. Thank you for this wonderful article! Happy Thanksgiving all. Ours will be quiet but we have been lucky that some family members have been able to get down and spend time with us lately. You just never know when that won’t be able to happen, enjoy family and life while you are able to.

  12. Very inspiring. I am grateful for you and all the work to have done to fill in the blank spaces in my family tree. Thank you for your contributions to the Speak Family Association book. This year it was published. You continue to inspire me. Cousin Pat Wiltfong

  13. Good words, Roberta, thank you for sharing them. After doing my best to stay safe and well for over 2 years now, and despite having all 5 vaccinations, I got sick with covid Sun. night. Luckily went to Dr. Mon. to be tested for covid and strep and was in shock that it was covid. I’ve felt awful but dr, prescribed many meds so I know I’ll get thru this. I think my husband brought it home from the senior center as he seemed to have a mild cold a week before I got sick. As soon as I tested positive he went right to dr. and he has it, too. I’m bummed that this has happened to us, and right now, meaning I can’t see my 94 year old dad for the holidays. But I’m also grateful we found out BEFORE we went down there and exposed him and the rest of the family. And I’m glad this did not hit us until after we’d had vaccines, plus Plaxlovid, so I know I’m much better off than I might be.

    I have continued to mask anytime I’m in public thru this whole covid ordeal, the only time I don’t is with my family (and we skipped all outings with them except outside, until we’d had our second vaccines). So as one of my friends said, who got it from her grandson, “you’ll probably get it from family”.
    I am doing my best to count my many blessings today. Your informative and interesting writing is among those blessings. Thank you, Roberta

    • You’re the second person who told me today that they have it. Hope you and hubby do well, and yes, so glad you found out before.

  14. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Roberta. I love the photo of “Thanksgiving Horses.” I assume it’s under copyright, but could you please tell me if it’s available for reproducing for my personal use, with or without license?


  15. Well, Roberta, I do have cancer and I am somewhat disabled by it. But I have managed to avoid COVID, I have a loving husband as caregiver, I have good healthcare, no three feet of snow, and I was able to attend a family reunion this summer and share our heritage with them.

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