How I spent the first Thanksgiving after my divorce

By Nancy Payne-Hambrose

I can remember the first “single” Thanksgiving after years of “married” Thanksgivings.

My daughter and I, having finally fled domestic violence only four months prior to Turkey Day in 2006, were living a numb, bewildered, depressing, and heartbreaking existence that first holiday. Strangely, I remember questioning myself: is this what the Pilgrims felt like that first autumn? Not knowing the unchartered territory, the unfamiliar tastes and sounds? Displaced and alone? I was sure there was a connection between those first settlers and us: to be free from a dictatorial regime, an oppressive environment.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade hummed from the TV in my modestly lit and simply furnished bungalow.

My daughter, still in her pajamas and bedhead hair, played quietly with her Barbies, periodically gazing at the TV screen, mesmerized by the glitter, showmanship, and excitement of the themed floats, featured performers, and balloon characters.

And I wept, silently, into the apple pie crust I was kneading in preparation for dinner at my sister’s that afternoon. Out of pure helpfulness, she had asked me to bake. “Keep her busy” was the secret code among my family members that season.

I remember the searing pain of loneliness and isolation I felt during what was supposed to be the beginning of the most joyous time of the year. Life as I once knew it had been shattered due to the reckless and debilitating decisions of my ex-spouse. Through tears, I would check in on my daughter playing in the other room—playing the way young girls do—“speaking” in doll voices at their fingertips. For this uninterrupted moment of her innocence, I was most grateful. 

Dinner was at my sister’s—a sprawling house with a husband and three, young rambunctious children, a doting aunt, loving grandparents, a brother and his girlfriend, cousins, and my sister’s in-laws. All would be present for the feast. Chairs would be strategically arranged around the rectangular dining room table—napkins folded, scribbled paper napkin rings, hand-created in shapes of turkeys and leaves by my two nephews and a niece. Would I be placed on the end? The finality of a marriage—like death—illuminates that while other people’s lives move on, the grieving are left to make sense of the senseless, to understand the sudden exits of life; to carry on—ready or not—beyond Thanksgivings pasts.

I was in the throes of sleepless nights, too, and relentless, prayerful supplication that we would continue to be safe. My then nine-year-old daughter had started a new school in a new state, town, and home; I was dealing with a narcissistic ex-spouse, who felt it was his right to call my home any time of day or night to harass me and then threaten and demand to talk to our daughter, despite the developing restrictions in a our custody order. Transfixed, my daughter’s small frame would tremble each time the phone would ring. Making a mad dash to my side, she would cry and beg me not to put her on the phone “with him.” For these issues, I was not thankful. I was angry, scared, hurt, confused, overwhelmed, unprepared.

I don’t recall getting us dressed or even going to my sister’s that Thanksgiving but family photos tell me that we were present. I don’t remember passing the gravy or asking for another slice of pie—a store bought pie, since my kneaded pie crust just didn’t make it that year.

I do remember the filled-to-the-brim Tupperware containers stacked inside a paper-handled Acme sack handed to us as we left that evening—a token of unspoken love and care from family who knew full well that there was absolutely no child support coming for my daughter. Stretching those meals for as long as I could became a race against hunger for my child. 

Twelve years later, I am very grateful for the hardships on my personal Mayflower; the rough terrain of my Jamestown in securing sole, permanent, legal, and physical, no-contact custody; the growing courage to stand on my Plymouth Rock with each passing day, hand in hand with my now 21-year-old daughter in the aftermath of domestic violence and divorce. Similar to the Plymouth settlers in 1621, we struggled that first planting season. Since then, I have even hosted the favored meal in my own tiny home, family and friends elbow to elbow around the Broyhill Gathering Table I own.

Laughter fills the meal. Time passes, and now, my daughter and I hold more bountiful harvest feasts each year, after slow and steady, successful growing seasons in our lives. 

After navigating many years after DV, divorce, and single parenthood, Nancy Payne-Hambrose is grateful for second chances and slices of pumpkin pie. Connect with Nancy at:

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