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Short Story: Full Empty Chairs

Updated: Dec 2, 2019


As sad as it is to admit, I can confidently say that a large majority of my family is either terminally ill, in prison, broke, or living their lives in the lap of luxury on the West Coast. I would be lying to myself if I said I didn’t get a bit glum around certain holidays, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, when my friends all talk about how they need to set up an extra table to fit all their aunts and uncles coming in from Virginia and Ohio or Florida and Colorado. Of course, it’s not that I don’t love the family I do get to see. It’s more like I see the same exact people every single second of every single day of every single year, and being a slightly poor seven-person family living with four needy children, things can get a bit stressful. For whatever reason, this Thanksgiving was different.

My sister Samantha is a 22-year-old Ball State graduate who just came back to live with us again this past month. Although I still don’t really get to see her that much, since we have such busy schedules, it is nice to have her back. She has been dating her boyfriend Connor for about a year and a half now, so obviously we spent this Thanksgiving with him too. Since they were the only “guests” we were having, we only had to move my two younger brothers to our breakfast bar, and everyone else fit comfortably at our small kitchen table.

From the get go, everything was slightly off this year. My mom started cooking too early, and the turkey that my dad got for free for working at Costco was like the size of someone’s overweight pet parakeet. Not to mention Connor was watching football by himself while my brothers played video games, my grandma did laundry, and my sister and I sat on our phones. I had been receiving texts all morning from my friends, and the notifications were bugging me while I was swiping through my Instagram feed, so my fingers unconsciously swept through a lot of the notifications without my reading them. This distant dynamic went on for a while, until eventually the food was done. I also should mention that lunch was ready at one, and we had just eaten breakfast at around ten, so to top off the good fortune, no one was hungry. The mashed potatoes had somehow turned brown, our sweet potato casserole was miraculously saltier than sweet, and the most flavorful thing on the table was a basket of frozen dinner rolls that we thawed out from the leftover heat of the turkey in the oven.

We all just kind of sat there, looking at our hardly full plates, not really saying much. My mom broke the seemingly endless silence with her “what are you all thankful for” question that we answer at the dinner table every Thanksgiving. Every single year we all have something good to say. Every single year we go around in a circle and answer the question individually, and sometimes my grandma will even say a prayer, which is rare to hear at my house.

But this year there was nothing. We all just sat there and said nothing. We couldn’t think of a single thing we were thankful for. Nothing. We sat like that for a while. Until finally, in a moment of desperation, my mom said she was thankful Connor had come. She was thankful we had a guest. In that moment, as I watched him thank my mom for her kindness, and everyone began to eat, I realized that I, too, was thankful Connor had come. I was thankful our food wasn’t as plentiful as normal because it was just the right size for us. We don’t need a dinner for twenty in a household of seven. I was thankful that we were forced to watch football all morning and appreciate Connor’s likes, and as I looked at my phone on the counter filled with push notifications for iMessage, I was thankful for one more thing: I was thankful my family hadn’t come to see us. I was thankful that we had an empty chair for Connor to sit in at the dinner table. I was thankful I could finish eating and text all my friends back that I love them and they are important to me. It became clear that I didn’t need my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles to have my family during Thanksgiving because the people filling in their empty spots at the table are more of a family to me than anybody else has ever been, and I’m still, and always will be, so thankful for that.

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