Archived Opinion

A unique kind of holiday

A unique kind of holiday

Every year of our girlhood, my sister and I woke up early on Thanksgiving Day, sat at the kitchen barstools in our pajamas and helped my mom break up cornbread and biscuits so we could make my great grandmother’s dressing recipe. Throughout the day, the house would fill with smells of turkey, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. Sometime mid-morning, my grandparents would drive up from Travelers Rest, S.C., to join in on the festivities. 

That evening we would eat leftovers, watch football and nap, and the following day, venture to the satellite Christmas tree farm hosted by the local Optimist Club to purchase our tree for the season. We’d spend the weekend decorating our house, watching Christmas movies and listening to Christmas music, ready to transition from one holiday to the next. 

When I became a mom, I envisioned a similar Thanksgiving experience for my own children and for a while, that’s what happened. 

Fast forward several years when my mom passed away and I went through a divorce. My life was shaken up pretty badly and along with that, all of the traditions we’d initiated. Though I was struggling mightily with my own emotions and adjusting to a custody arrangement, I was more concerned about my two little boys. I wanted them to grow up and look back on their boyhood holidays like I do my own. 

It was stressful thinking about only being with them every other Thanksgiving, but during those early days of grief and change, someone gave me some helpful advice.  She told me that when we get older, we don’t look back on specific dates. Whether it’s on Thanksgiving Day or the weekend before or after, kids will remember the experience, not the numbers on a calendar. 

With that in mind, we began hosting a full-blown spread the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, when the kids are with their other parent on the actual date. This year, I was standing in the kitchen with my boyfriend’s mom and aunt breaking up cornbread and biscuits while everyone else was either watching football or working on other dishes. And even though it wasn’t November 25, it felt like Thanksgiving. 

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Further, my boyfriend, Matthew, and I decided to do something unique this year. We left for Ocean Isle Beach Wednesday night and returned the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Despite having legitimate reasons to travel to Ocean Isle, such as researching for a novel and running a Turkey Trot in Calabash, we mostly wanted to create new memories on the years we don’t have our kids. 

Divorce is hard on everyone. Our kids are happy no matter which parent they’re with, but for us parents, it’s hard to sit at home on a holiday and not have a gaggle of kids running around. 

Our time at the beach was wonderful and refreshing. We cooked elaborate meals made with fresh, local fish. We even made a small Thanksgiving feast for just the two of us and capped it off with a good bottle of red wine, dark chocolate and multiple rounds of gin rummy. In the mornings we enjoyed coffee on the balcony and walked miles and miles on the beach, even journeying over to nearby Bird Island to find the Kindred Spirit mailbox. 

If you’ve never heard of this mailbox, it’s featured in the Nicholas Sparks novel “Every Breath,” but its actual story is even more intriguing. A man named Frank Nesmith and his former girlfriend, Claudia Sailor, created the Kindred Spirit mailbox 35 years ago with the hope that people would leave notes, thoughts and letters in journals inside the mailbox. 

On Saturday, we woke up to watch the sunrise then headed to Sunset Beach to walk the 1.5 miles along the sand to the special spot where the mailbox is located, wanting to get there early to avoid a crowd. 

We sat in the quiet for a while, writing our own notes in the journals and reading those of others. People wrote of joy, sorrow, triumphs, guilt, dreams achieved and dreams lost. There were hundreds of passages merely from the month of November. The “keepers of the mailbox” check on the site every few days to switch out the notebooks. Surprisingly, we were the only two people at the mailbox when we visited, which made our experience even more special. 

This was my first non-summer beach trip in decades and the first time I’d been to the beach around Thanksgiving. Matthew and I agreed it’s something we want to do again. 

Although traditions are meaningful and comforting, new experiences are also important and memorable. The holidays can be merry and bright, but they can also be full of anguish for those missing people they love. Whether it’s happiness or sadness, this time of year tends to magnify all emotions. As we enter into the crux of the Christmas season, keep the folks with empty chairs in your minds and hearts. What’s a joyful time for some can be hard for others. 

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Leave a comment


  • Beautiful message for so many! Thank you for reminding us what is truly important in our mind and hearts.

    posted by Sharon Gardner

    Monday, 12/06/2021

  • Thank you for such a beautiful piece, Susanna! It has resonated very deeply with me :)

    posted by Erin

    Monday, 12/06/2021

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