My Dadi’s Thanksgivings: A personal essay

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Ever since my grandma was put on a ventilator this past August, I’ve been keeping a list of things on my phone to tell her once she comes home. Naive and hopeful, the list initially consisted of a few clipped bullets, hastily written whenever I thought of her. Passed pomegranates in the supermarket today, I can’t believe you used to spend hours shucking them just for us. I accidentally killed my rose plant; how did you manage to have such a massive garden? 

But as her time in the hospital dragged on and weeks grew into months, my hope began to falter and those short sentences slowly turned into sprawling paragraphs, fraught bursts into a black void. You could chart my whole semester over the course of this list; writing became a way for me to work through my anguished anxiety over the ever-increasing likelihood that my grandmother, or Dadi as she’s called, might never get to hear any of my words. By meticulously chronicling my life, I could imagine she was still with me.  

And with Thanksgiving fast approaching, my list has taken on an almost manic energy. It’s always been Dadi’s holiday. She’d start preparing for it weeks in advance, stockpiling every ingredient by visiting countless stores across Los Angeles. She’d get up at the earliest hours of dawn on the day, waking the entire house up with her symphony of pots and pans. For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve spent every Thanksgiving week wrapped up inside her domestic domain. 

Most of my childhood memories are malleable, with the good ones shaped by the rose-colored glasses of adulthood and the bad ones conveniently forgotten. Yet, I can still picture 21 years of Thanksgivings so vividly, as if it’s a film constantly running in the back of my mind and I only need to close my eyes to press play.

It opens with my grandfather’s Acura pulling up next to the hard, concrete curb of the arrivals station at Los Angeles International Airport. Dressed in a leather vest, he proudly bends down, refusing any help as he loads our suitcases into the trunk. The car climbs through the hills of Silver Lake, weaving in and out of dark, narrow streets, patiently pausing upon every speed bump.

As its tires slow to a gentle stop, Dadi is waiting for us, wrapped in a colorful shawl, her thin grey hair pinned up; she’s got a four-course meal we don’t dare refuse cooling on the stove. My cousins trickle in a couple of hours later — over the years different supporting characters have joined in — no doubt wanting to experience a fabled Dadi Thanksgiving, but, since the beginning, it’s always been the five cousins, pulled under our Dadi’s spell for the week. 

Tradition doesn’t just happen overnight; it’s the culmination of small building blocks, carefully constructed and cared for over the years. For my family, Dadi was our architect and engineer.

The exact chronology of the scenes over the years now blur together, but I still try to remember them with a steadfast ferocity, fearful that if I stop, they might slip from my mind and float into an unreachable abyss: my grandfather wrestling with my toddler brother and little cousin; my cousin yelping out in pain as I accidentally whisk her hand instead of the muffin batter in the bowl; and her, no more than 10 years old, reciting a prayer for a crowd of relatives as I stand, mute and smiling next to her. After-dinner Taboo games, teams split by gender, oftentimes turning so competitive I found my vocal cords hoarse and fried the next morning. 

I used to think of these incidental rituals as inevitable, something every family had that just magically took shape whenever they all got together. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized how wrong I was. Tradition doesn’t just happen overnight; it’s the culmination of small building blocks, carefully constructed and cared for over the years. For my family, Dadi was our architect and engineer. She didn’t just tend to each of us individually but was the reason we structured our lives around one another.

As I grew up and learned how to be a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disheartening, our Thanksgivings became a reprieve from the unnerving realm of emerging adulthood because of the way our family clung to the same routines, year after year.

I used to find it a touch ironic that my family, a gaggle of Kashmiris, chose Thanksgiving as our holiday. And we not only chose it but feverishly embraced every aspect of its Americanness. My Dadi usually cooks with such strong spices that their smell creeps into every corner of the house and their color stains her plates and storage containers. But on Thanksgiving, Dadi cooks every single dish in our overflowing buffet so purposefully bland that I, someone who is notoriously spice averse, can eat it without bursting into a dramatic sweat.

When I was nearing the end of high school, my grandmother went through a phase in which she became obsessed with dill. For some unexplained reason, she put the herb on everything, whether the recipe called for it or not. So, it seemed almost inevitable she would try to sneak some of it into the mashed potatoes. But my cousin almost lost her mind, begging my mom to cook the original recipe so her precious potatoes wouldn’t be corrupted. 

At first, I thought she was being dramatic. But as I spooned the creamy dish into my mouth, letting it gently swirl and melt around my tongue, the soft, spiceless taste triggered some of my earliest memories from childhood.

My father used to always remind me how his grandfather would advise him to always leave the dinner table a little hungry. But on Thanksgiving, that advice was thrown out the window with everyone leaving the table so full they’d immediately lie down and drift off to sleep as deeply as babies.

Thanksgiving itself, due to a collective amnesia in American history, is mythically connected with the infancy of the nation. Stuffed and sated after consuming Dadi’s food, I too was brought back to the uncorrupted space of early infancy when my life consisted of eating and sleeping under the care of nurturing women.

Growing up, I always felt like I had three mothers, but it was only my two grandmothers, with their unabashed affection and refusal to see me as anything other than their tiny baby, even after 21 years, that could make me feel like it was the fourth Thursday of November any day of the year. 

If this moment was a movie, it would zoom in on her face to show, yes, her tears, but also her mouth turning upward, threatening to show the smile she’d been fighting to suppress. 

Last Thanksgiving, the usually predictable Southern California weather seemed to mirror my family’s collective instability over Dadi’s health. Rain callously poured the entire day, while the wind slammed against tightly shuttered windows. Relegated to the indoors for the first time in recent memory, we crammed into the living room. Sitting on the floor, in one messy circle, we balanced overflowing plates on our knees, our shoulders involuntarily rubbing up against one another. 

Facing one another in a perfect circle, we all shared what we were thankful for; only a few words had been spoken before I saw tears creep out of the corner of my aunt’s crinkled eyes. That was it. Mere minutes after, everyone else followed her lead and broke, too. 

Some distant cousins we see once a year at Thanksgiving seemed shocked and truly terrified at this impromptu outpouring of emotion from my family, who normally use these speeches as an opportunity to roast one another. 

Dadi, perched up and looking down at us from her chair, while bleary-eyed, seemed to delight in our outward, slightly unhinged display of collective pain. If this moment was a movie, it would zoom in on her face to show, yes, her tears, but also her mouth turning upward, threatening to show the smile she’d been fighting to suppress. 

If for the past years we’d been consuming her love through all of her invisible hidden domestic labor — the hours spent in the kitchen as we swam in the pool, the heaps of laundry and linens she’d do, the myriad of dishes she’d wash up — that night, we rendered our gratitude visible for her to consume in return. 

The last entry on my list is, A boy I’ve been seeing just told me that I’m too cold. I’m worried that I didn’t care in the slightest because I was too preoccupied thinking about you. I don’t want you to continue living in pain; I want you to be at peace, but I’m scared that if you go that’s what I’ll become. 

I’ve recently begun to fear we’ve become too greedy in our fight for her. After countless surgeries, procedures and months on end in the hospital, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been consuming everything out of her fragile body to avoid dealing with what it means to exist in a world without her.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].