In the year of COVID-19, what is there to be thankful for? The young college student alone in his temporary “isolation dorm” gloomily pondered that question. It was Thanksgiving, and Mark Hamels was in quarantine after testing positive with a mild case of COVID-19. Quarantine sucks, he thought.
The original plan had been for him to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive from the University of Washington in Seattle to Spokane, where his family lived, and spend a couple of days with them. That plan had been derailed when he came down with cold symptoms the week before and then got the call he was positive with the China-originated Coronavirus.
In September, Mark had returned to UW (Go Huskies!) to begin his final year of college before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Once he graduated, he was hoping to go into the field of broadcast journalism. At the moment, however, his future career was the last thing on his mind. For the first time in his life, he was alone for Thanksgiving.
For Mark, Thanksgiving had always been a family holiday and one of the highlights of the year. Usually, they traveled to their grandparent’s house in Southern California and spent the day watching football, playing touch in the street, and eating a magnificent turkey dinner around a large table filled with cousins, uncles, aunts, and a few randoms that tagged along with a family member. This year, there would be no such dinner.
How long do I microwave this thing? Mark thought as he tore open the box to his dinner: a Stouffer’s frozen roast turkey meal. He popped the tray in the microwave and pushed “start” just as his iPhone rang. In lieu of seeing each other for the holiday, the Hamels had decided to eat Thanksgiving dinner over FaceTime.
“Hey, mom and dad,” Mark said when he had answered the call.
“Hey, Mark, happy Thanksgiving!” His mom said. Her greeting was echoed by Mark’s father and his two sisters in the background.
“Happy Thanksgiving, guys.”
“How is it over there?” She asked.
“Definitely not the same,” he said, then laughed. “I can’t believe I’m eating a Stouffer’s on Thanksgiving.”
One of his sisters laughed in the background. “That’s so sad, Mark.”
After a few more minutes of chit-chat, they all sat down to eat dinner. Mark grabbed a Pepsi to drink and a few of his textbooks to prop up his phone. The local Christmas station was quietly piping in holiday jingles. This is…different, he thought.
As they ate, they talked about school, the pandemic, and the election that had happened earlier that month. The delay caused by the video call made conversation challenging at times, and the call dropped once due to bad WiFi, but they got through it; and about halfway through dinner, Mark’s dad asked them the question that had been asked around their Thanksgiving table every year for as long as any of them could remember: “name one thing you’re grateful for this year, that you weren’t grateful for last year.”
Patricia, the oldest of the two sisters, started: “Noice-cancelling headphones. I’ve certainly needed them this year.” They all laughed again.
As his family talked two-hundred miles away, Mark’s mind began to drift to one of his fondest Thanksgiving memories. He was five, and the table had been crowded as usual.
“I’m thankful for my Audible subscription,” Kate, the youngest of the three kids, said. “Sometimes, you just really need a good audiobook to get your mind off the things around you.”
That year, his grandma had accidentally used sugar instead of salt in the mashed potatoes, and no one would touch them.
“I am so very grateful for you all,” Mark’s mom said.
Instantly, the daughters protested: “you said that last year.”
When five-year-old Mark tried the sugar-mashed potatoes, he nearly gagged. “These are disgusting!” He had shouted out, much to the dismay of his parents. But that was just the beginning…
“I am thankful for FaceTime. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to talk to Mark,” Mark’s dad said. The family looked into the camera. “It’s your turn, Mark.”
Instead of answering right away, Mark said, “remember the Thanksgiving when I was five?”
“The sugar-mashed potatoes,” Patricia answered instantly.
The whole table laughed as Mark’s mom shook her head, “Don’t remind me.”
“Yeah, and remember what happened after I called them ‘disgusting’?”
They all continued laughing at the memory. Mark, the stupid five-year-old kid he was, flung a spoonful of mashed potatoes at his grandmother, who responded in kind. Of course, the uncles jumped in, and within seconds Thanksgiving dinner had turned into a war zone.
Sitting alone in his dorm, Mark picked up a spoonful of his Stouffer’s mashed potatoes, took aim, and flung it directly at the front-facing camera of his iPhone. “Food fight!” He yelled.
Then he stopped. Did I just fling mashed potatoes at my iPhone?
But his family took the bait. He watched and laughed as his family tossed turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and dinner rolls at each other over the dining room table. Mark then took the rest of his Stouffer’s and dumped it on his iPhone. “Take that!” He said with mock anger.
In response, the rest of his family turned their artillery on their iPad, covering it with a volley of Thanksgiving food.
The whole family was bent over, crying and laughing at what they had just done. “Did we just have a food fight over FaceTime?” Kate asked through laughter. “I think we can safely say that this was the first time that has ever happened.”
Even if they couldn’t be physically together, they could still be together in spirit. They were a family, and no virus, government, or politician could ever take that away from them.
“So Mark, you never said what you were thankful for,” Mark’s mom said, laughing and beginning to clean up the colossal mess they had just created.
“I’m thankful for waterproof phone cases.” And family, Mark thought, them too.