Monday night, it was my job to pick up the Olive Garden takeout for our impromptu Thanksgiving meal at the nursing home my dad is staying at in Gridley. Olive Garden, not your traditional Thanksgiving food, but my dad requested that, and with permission from the staff at his new location, we had a date in the nursing home’s dining room. The place is nice. Quiet, small, and no urine smell. It’s farther out from the rest of the family, but it was the closest place due to the evacuations from the Camp Fire. My dad’s previous location had been in the living room of our house on Boquest Blvd in Paradise. The house that is now ashes.
So while my mom, my brother and my niece all met with their insurance people to talk about coverage, I got everyone’s order and picked up our meals at the Chico Olive Garden before making my way to Gridley. My other brother and I had to suddenly make one more stop for diapers after my 3 year old had a little accident. So I popped on over to Walmart in Chico, to grab some diapers.
After parking the car, I could see the meals being cooked and hear the distant strum of a guitar being played at the Paradise Fire Refugee tent city that resides in the Walmart parking lot. With tents rippling in the cool night breeze, I made my way inside to grab the diapers. It was weird in there. Christmas music playing over the speakers, as if nothing was different from a normal week of Thanksgiving. Yet we all looked at each other. You could see the tired eyes. You could feel the weight of worry as you looked at the arms and legs of people. One couple walked around with their dog in their arms, the look of shock still in their eyes. And the cruel irony of the Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was being played overhead. This is the new reality right now in this land of displacement. Even though the calendar says its Thanksgiving, and Christmas is around the corner, its like we’re all watching from a glass room while others experience the festivities and normalcy. Its as if there is a bubble of another reality. And that bubble is called displacement. That bubble is called survival. That bubble is called tragedy.
With a heavy heart from the reality of the pain I had seen walking the aisles of Walmart, and with that Christmas song now stuck in my head, I returned to the car. We made our way out to Gridley, in the hopes of bringing some semblance of family and Thanksgiving cheer to my ailing father. After the 30 minute drive, my brother and I set up the take out food containers on one of the small circular tables in the nursing home dining hall. While my own babies cried due to their exhaustion, we set up chairs in a semi circle so that my dad would also be in the circle when he would come wheeled in.
Slowly my family trickled in, exhausted after hours of deliberations with an insurance agent (that will be later post). My dad was wheeled in, and we said our blessing for the food, and began to partake of our feast. Due to the long car ride, the breadsticks got damp from the condensation inside the bag, and the pasta was luke warm, but we were together. We were in our family huddle. One of the traditions in my family, like most, is to say what we’re thankful for on Thanksgiving. One brother shared that he’s grateful for memories of all the places that we lost. Many of us shared how grateful we were for the fact that we are all alive. By the way, there’s something amazing that happens when you hug someone that you thought came that close to death. It’s like you feel every part of their soul in that embrace. It’s like you see every facet of every year you ever lived with them in one moment.
With the chaos of kids crying and salad getting kicked off the table by my 5 month old, it didn’t really matter cuz we were all together. It was messy. It was lukewarm. It was bittersweet. But it was real. In some ways it felt like we were going thru the motions. And in some ways it felt like a beautiful spiritual moment of raw togetherness; a sort of “screw you” to the tragedy and grief of all that has happened. After a few more extended family arrived, we all were present in this new space, this small nursing home dining room – our substitute for home. After asking if we had any desert (which I had totally forgot about getting), my dad made an announcement and said how thankful he was for each of us, before being wheeled back into his room. We remained there and shared and listened to the stories of escape from the fire. We winced as we heard what all the insurance agent had said to my mother before cutting her a stingy check that afternoon. We felt the same helpless pain of sentimental fragments that are forever gone from each of our stories. We all still felt the dumbfounded twilight zone reality of no Paradise. And then, we all began to trickle back to the different places of refuge of each of our displacement. Chico. Oroville. Bangor. Gridley. Palermo.
This is just one of the thousands of stories of displaced Thanksgivings this year. But I will say this: There was something special that happened that night. After I left that nursing home with my babies, that stale dining room felt a little warmer, had a kind of glow, because we had all been there together, and love had been present. We had created a tiny sense of home in those few minutes as we held onto each other. I have a feeling we’ll look back on that memory with a deep sense of awe one day. But for now, it was a displaced Thanksgiving.