When Nanner Puddin’ Means It’s Going to Be OK
I almost chickened out on going to Mama Diva’s that November day in 1998, and my chest seizes up when I think about it now. Here’s me then: 26, newly-ish single, broke as hell, attempting to breathe. I’d crash-landed in New York City a couple years prior, jumped without a plan or a parachute, and was just now clawing up toward daylight after post-grad depression dunked me under and pinned me there. Through some miracle—likely my willingness to work dirt cheap—I’d scammed my way into a design job at an online city guide, and even more shockingly, Lissa, the platinum-cool, leather-skirted music editor, befriended me to the point of asking what I was doing for Thanksgiving.
The holiday had never held much warmth or pleasure for me, just the specter of pallid turkey, mounds of gravy-slicked dishes to be scrubbed, other people’s stress to quell, and tongue-clucking relatives wondering when I’d wise up and go back to school for something useful and lucrative, like teaching, and maybe stop dressing so weirdly while I was at it. I was tolerated—barely—but my presence at the table felt like a ticked box on someone else’s list, rather than something anyone was hungering for. Boxed stuffing, canned pumpkin pie, me.
Something needed to change. Because I had.
Of all the distinctly American holidays, Thanksgiving is the most hidebound. On its face, it’s all about celebrating gratitude for present blessings. But at the heart is something unbending and often uncomfortable: nostalgia for a very particular way of being that doesn’t always make room for the reality of who’s at the table that year and how they need to be fed. What should be familiar and joyful can be alienating and painful. People grow up, suffer loss, make new family, and settle into their skin to become the ever-evolving person they are happiest being. If the script remains unaltered, often out of habit, it can chafe against the reality of the person you’ve become since the last gathering. But when the assembled are willing to shift just an inch or two to make room for you, it can feel like the very definition of gratitude.
Every Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about what can stay, be shed, or shift from the years before, and what that might mean for the people at the table. What might happen, I wondered, if we looked at the holiday as an opportunity to mark who we’ve become—or who we are becoming?
My longtime friend Stephanie Burt, a poet, Harvard English professor, and transgender writer, told me about the first Thanksgiving after she transitioned. Each year, Stephanie’s extended Ashkenazi Jewish family flocks together from around the country for a massive, multigenerational feast around a table laden with turkey, gravy, brisket, kasha, three kinds of cranberry sauce, and an elaborate stuffing that her spouse, Jessie, has learned to master over the two decades they’ve been together. Stephanie, to her consternation, finds herself having to play catch-up in the kitchen.
Though she’d been presenting as nonbinary in private and in some social situations for some time, Stephanie publicly announced in 2017 that she would be going through a medical and social transition. In 2018, for the first time, she was welcomed into the kitchen to help make Thanksgiving dinner. Her previous exclusion from the kitchen wasn’t personal by any means, just baked in and handed down throughout the years: The women do all the food preparation, save for cutting the meat—a man’s task in their familial sphere.
“I was finally being treated as a woman by the women in my family,” Stephanie says. “It felt great. It felt like I was where I was supposed to be.” There was a hitch, though—she hadn’t been taught to do many of the culinary tasks that many of the other women took for granted, and she kept having to ask. It was a mixed blessing of that acceptance chafing against the “learned helplessness” ladled onto the men of her family, Stephanie says. “But at least I’m on the correct side of the inherited, gendered, invisible barriers. I felt like I belong in this space.”
It was a learning experience for her and her family, but families by nature are in flux. People marry, divorce, are born, and die. And sometimes, they are alive and loving but cruelly out of reach. Writer Ashley C. Ford shared with me the first Thanksgiving she spent with her father—when she was almost 30 years old.
Ashley’s father was incarcerated on a sexual assault charge when she was about six months old, and for the next three decades, his absence became an almost corporeal thing for her, fueled by four in-person visits over the years, a hand-drawn card he sent for every birthday, and phone calls when he’d worked enough hours in the prison to be able to afford the extraordinarily high per-minute charges, plus all of the fees heaped on top. He was never able to call on a holiday.
The year she turned 30, Ashley got to share a Thanksgiving with her father for the first time, at her aunt Trina’s home. Due to conditions of her father’s parole, he wasn’t allowed to step indoors, but Ashley knew what to do. While he reunited with family out in the driveway, she ran to the kitchen and fixed her father a plate: ribs, ham, turkey, dressing, the works. “I wanted to get him everything that I knew was made the way Grandma would have made it. I knew that no one would deviate from Grandma’s recipes.”
Her father instantly recognized it for the gift it was. Ashley’s grandmother was his ex-wife’s mother, but she had always treated him like her own flesh and blood. She’d died two years before he was released from prison.
Ashley, who is writing a book about her relationship with her father, knows that the two of them will never get those years back. “When somebody is incarcerated, we don’t just protect society from them, we strip society from them,” she says. “And you really break down a family when one person is incarcerated. What it does is at this point irreparable.”
This Thanksgiving plate, served in a lesser exile, tasted of a past that could not be repeated but could be honored, and it was also a reminder of how much open sky there was ahead. Ashley and her dad can make plans. They call each other whenever they want to, just because.
For those who have suffered a more permanent loss, every Thanksgiving can become a reminder of how things used to be, leaving a small, invisible wound. But my former colleague, Katie Hawkins-Gaar, shared how the first Thanksgiving without her husband, Jamie, was also a moment of healing.
In February 2017, Jamie was running a half marathon when he collapsed. He died at the age of 32 from a rare heart condition that was undiagnosed at the time. The couple had been close friends in college, married at 23, and had started the paperwork to adopt their first child. They’d moved from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida, so Katie, a journalist, could work at the Poynter Institute. They’d made a home, gotten a dog named Henry, built a community, dreamed of a future together. A land mine lurked in the months, weeks, minutes ahead.
“The first Monday in August without Jamie—you can turn every little thing into a first,” says Katie. She told herself she was doing OK, and to prove it, she decided to host Thanksgiving for friends as she and Jamie had for the past few years. “I probably said ‘we,’ now that I think about it,” she says. “You just get in that habit.”
Her friends knew better than to argue and agreed to be there for whatever she needed, even though it was obvious to them that she was struggling. Couples often naturally fall into a division of labor, and the Hawkins-Gaars were no exception. “Hosting by yourself is obviously way different than hosting with your partner. Trying to fill the shoes of a talented cook and hosting when you’re grieving—it was just a lot,” she says. Thirteen of the couple’s friends and family members gathered around the table, brought side dishes, showered praise upon her admittedly terrible turkey, and toasted the man they so terribly missed.
“His absence is giant and especially on a day like that,” Katie says. That year, she took particular comfort from a holiday tradition she had growing up. To play the Thankful Alphabet, you go around the table and each person takes the next letter, she explains. “I’m thankful for apples. I’m thankful for Barack Obama,” and so on. It is, she says, what helped her survive that first Thanksgiving alone.
“Gratitude got me through some of the hardest moments of that year where I wondered what there was to be grateful for. I would stop and force myself to list it out,” Katie says. “To do that exercise with friends around the table was so beautiful even though we all were still in shock that this person, this wonderful light that we loved is just gone in an instant.”
The next year, Katie and her new partner, Billy—whom she met when she was giving a talk about losing Jamie—attended someone else’s Thanksgiving, and she was tasked only with bringing a salad. While she felt a pang, noticing the easy energy the hosting couple shared, she found the beauty in it, too.
“That was good for me,” she says. “Even though it looked entirely different and still reminded me of past Thanksgivings, it was this great reminder that I’ll always carry Jamie with me and always carry my past with me, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that. It can look different.”
As for the Thanksgiving that would become an important first for me, I had no real or appealing plans that particular Thursday in 1998, but I wasn’t about to admit that to my colleague and made some bluster about keeping my options open, possibly getting out of town. Lissa saw right through me but was kind enough to entertain the ruse. Well, if your plans change, my friends and I are having dinner in Harlem, and you’d be welcome to join. Don’t worry about cooking; Mama Diva’s got that covered. Just bring something to drink—she prefers Korbel; don’t get fancy. Thank you, I said. I’ll maybe try and swing by.
I didn’t have any Korbel on hand, but I did have a mostly full, massive bottle of Jack Daniels with a recipe on the side, and that would have to do. I bolted to the train, clutching a bodega bag full of lemons, and contemplated hopping off at every stop between Union Street and 125th and Lenox. On every set of knees balanced a foil-topped casserole dish, a Tupperware tub, a string-tied bakery box, enough to fuel a battalion of loved ones. I was an army of one, encroaching on a gathering of mostly strangers, and they’d know I was unwanted elsewhere. But hey—at least I came bearing booze. I breathed in deeply through my nose, steadied myself, and pressed the buzzer.
Mama Diva. China Doll. Miss Ellen. Dr. Ellen Edwards Robinson. This elegant, ageless woman in a polar bear sweatshirt was many things to the world: a gifted prosthetist, painter, makeup artist, habitué of Harlem nightclubs and drag balls, mother to a biological son she called Turkeyhead and a spiritual one we all called Mr. Diva (aka my friend, writer Eric Diesel), and in that moment, the savior of my soul. I wasn’t special—anyone from the neighborhood knew they could show up at her home on Thanksgiving looking the slightest bit peckish, and she’d let them heap a plate of turkey, candied sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, long-simmered barbecue, whipped rutabagas, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, and the best greens known to humankind to take home, alongside slabs of thickly frosted cake, pies as far as the eye could see and the stomach could stretch, and Nilla Wafer–studded banana pudding that Lissa; Eric; his now-husband, John; and I came to use as a mantra in our tougher times. “Nanner puddin’, nanner puddin’, nanner puddin’” translates to “It’s going to be OK.” I wasn’t special, because she made everyone feel that way.
I’ve rarely in my life felt as solid, surrounded, accepted, and cared for as I did on those Thanksgivings among the other misfits perched on every sittable surface of Mama Diva’s apartment. It looked, smelled, and tasted nothing like where I’d come from and everything like where I wanted to go—where I have gone since. It’s not Thanksgiving for me unless I’ve scanned my circle of friends and colleagues to see who seems like they’re being vague about their plans; I let it be known how welcome they are, ask what dishes are essential to them, and say how much it would mean to have them with me.
Mama Diva died in January 2008 at the age of 77. That core group of us spent every Thanksgiving in between with her, including the final one when her lights were starting to fade. My husband, Douglas, and I picked her up and ferried her to John and Eric’s home in Queens, where Eric had toiled for days to make sure that every last dish he’d learned from her would pass muster. When she was out of earshot, Eric wiped his eyes and whispered that he didn’t think she’d make it through the year, but maybe she’d rallied because she loved the holiday so much. I theorized that she wanted to stick around and make sure he knew just how to make the greens correctly. He did, and she approved. I watched and learned. I made it mine.
Here’s me now: 47, happily married, steadier of foot, calmer of breath. Lissa moved to Las Vegas a while back, and John and Eric have made a home in Los Angeles. I miss them fiercely, but we text a lot, and, most important, they’re living the lives they need to now. Things change, and it’s OK—so long as someone cares enough to make sure the collards taste right and every friend, old or new, knows just how welcome they are at my table.