Essay: The Stories We Tell over Thanksgiving

Writer Sarah Chandler reflects on stories that have stuck with her from holidays past

An illustration of three people having a heated discussion during Thanksgiving.

illustration by lars leetaru

It’s a familiar annual ritual: on the third Thursday of November, we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner together. Before taking a bite, my family and a few assorted friends share what we are most thankful for this year, or in this moment. If you’re dining with us, bring a poem, an inspiring quote, or a good story—and prepare to hold hands.

One year, my youngest sister’s first love was a new face at the table. Our overflowing feast was a marvel to him because he had grown up poor in a family that, for religious reasons, didn’t celebrate holidays. When it came time for our yearly ritual of sharing, he told a story from his days as a camp counselor, working deep in Minnesota’s north woods at an outdoor education program for juvenile offenders.

These boys had chosen the camp over incarceration in a juvenile detention center, and most of them had suffered terrible abuse and neglect. The hope was that learning to hike and camp and survive in the wilderness would begin to build the confidence, discipline, and well-being necessary to heal.

Toward the camp’s conclusion, the boys embarked on a much-feared solo expedition of hiking, pitching a tent, building a fire, cooking a bare-bones dinner, and braving the night alone under the stars. The final, ultimate test was mundane, but all-powerful: Each boy was given a Snickers bar with the instruction not to eat it—save for dire emergency. On the wrapper, with a marker, they wrote down the situation that caused each of them to wind up in the correctional system in the first place.

That night, each boy invariably reached a breaking point. Unbeknownst to them, the counselors were only a few hundred yards away at the main camp, where they heard a quiet whimpering build. As the night wore on, this turned to sobbing. In that vast silence, the boys’ fear was deafening. Across the forest rang the heartbroken cries of kids whose spirits were crushed far too young.

“Did they eat the Snickers?” we asked, riveted.

“No,” my sister’s boyfriend said, shaking his head. “Almost never.” He explained how, at the final night’s goodbye ceremony, the boys would walk up and place their unwrapped Snickers in a box next to the campfire.

When I’m scared, or faced with an impossible task, I see those boys shivering under the stars. I picture them emerging from their tents at dawn, holding the uneaten Snickers, having won small but not insignificant battles, and no longer lost in the woods.

Each year, as we add high chairs around the table for new arrivals, other chairs are whisked away. I long believed that when you lose someone—through a break-up, a death, or a move to New Jersey—their absence creates a negative void. This has turned out to be not quite true. Beloved people tend to stick around.

This year may be one of my grandmother’s last Thanksgivings, and when she is gone, a story of her grappling with delayed gratification—in a different way than the boys in the woods—will remain.

One freezing winter evening in 1947, she left the office where she worked as a secretary to catch the streetcar home. As she stood shivering in front of a corner bakery, the pastries in the display window caught her eye. She fished a lone dime out of her pocket. Ten cents: a streetcar fare and, by chance, the price of a sweet roll. She was hungry, but equally cold.

I can’t remember which she chose: to buy the warm roll and walk home, or to take the heated streetcar. Only that immutable lesson of adulthood remains: You can’t have it both ways. And even if you could—would the roll taste as sweet, or the streetcar feel so warm? This story, like so many others we pass around the holiday table, will flicker on with a fire all its own.