Thanksgiving 2014 was first holiday I spent with my “adoptive” family. I was nervous. In my old life, the word “holiday” had become synonymous with the phrase “epic let-down.” Or worse. Without fail, my mother seemed determined to ruin every holiday on the calendar. It didn’t matter how much she prepared for the event with child-like anticipation. On the special day, she would fall into a horrible doldrum. Or she would turn the holiday into an opportunity to attack me and my brother for everything we were doing wrong.
I had my eyes wide open during Thanksgiving at my adoptive parents’ house. If I caught so much as a whiff of disagreement, I would chuck holidays away forever. My previous parents had been great at building up the ideals of the holiday season, only to rip it all down on the actual day. Like a gingerbread house. Gorgeous. But built for destruction.
* * *
At our Thanksgiving table, Jen slid into her chair next to me while Sam finished filling his plate. “We’re not going to say a prayer or anything,” she said, “but we want you to know …” She paused to rally just the right words.
“Yes,” Sam interrupted, dashing a flurry of pepper over his food, “we’re thankful for you.”
I tried not to laugh.
Jen sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, we’re thankful for you.” She turned to her meal, but before she could lift a fork, she touched my arm and met my eye. “I always wanted a daughter. And apparently …” she inscribed a circle with her head, grappling with an abstract thought, “God saw fit to give me a daughter who was an adult. So, yes,” she concluded, “I’m going to call you ‘princess,’ and yes, I’m going to dress you in pink, and yes, I am very thankful for you.”
My throat constricted and tears pricked my eyes. What was she saying? That I was the answer to her prayers as much as she and Sam had been the answer to mine? I set my fork down and wrapped my arms around her. She hugged me back so hard, my spine hurt.
I told myself that the proper response would be to tell them that they were what I was thankful for. But I was way past being able to say anything intelligently without a flood of tears ensuing. Did they know that not a day went by that I didn’t think about them and feel unspeakably thankful?
* * *
After dinner, Jen reached to the cupboard above the stove and pulled down a chicken wishbone that she’d set aside earlier. She handed it to me.
I stared at it for a minute, my face slack as I searched my mind. What to wish for? I never believed in wasting wishes on trivial things. Even less in wishing for things you could get more certainly by hard work and a solid plan. For as long as I can remember, any time I ever wished upon a star or a penny thrown into a fountain, I wished for things that were too far beyond my own reach.
I looked at Jen, perhaps more seriously than the situation called for. “What if I don’t have anything left to wish for?”
She merely smiled. As if the indirect compliment were a little tacky.
But it was true. I had absolutely nothing left in the world to wish for. I used to wish I would become a writer. I used to wish I had a dog. And I used to wish I had a dad. Those were really the only three things I’d ever asked of stars and pennies and wishbones. And they were mine. On top of that, I had a mom, too. A real one. Hadn’t even known I wanted one of those.
I felt guilty for having a wishbone, when there were other kids in the world who needed it more than me.
Then it dawned on me that this was not the first time I’d been granted a wish and had none to make. In Lake Geneva, where I had been on location research, one lake resident had turned her share of the Lake Shore Path into a garden of wishes. She had put up a white rail fence on either side of the trail and hand-painted every foot of it with vines and flowers and inspirational quotes. And she’d hung a ship’s bell from a tree, with a message that said, “Ring the bell to make miracles happen.”
I’d stood there with my hand on the rope, just as I now had my hand on the wishbone … and I had nothing left to wish for.
Except one thing.
That the wish that had already come true would never, ever end.
Sam’s voice broke into my thoughts. Something about going to Hawaii and bringing the dogs.
I smiled. That’s what he was going to spend his wish on?
“Okay. Do you got your wish?” he asked me.
He pinched his end of the tiny wishbone between his large fingers and we pulled.
At the last minute, it dawned on me that with wishbones, only one of us would get our wish. What if my wish for a forever family lost to Sam’s wish for a trip to Hawaii? What would that say about the fairness of the universe?
The bone snapped.
Not once, but twice. The top of the wishbone arched through the air and landed in my lap. I gasped and laughed at the same time.
“What happened?” Jen asked.
I found the broken piece and held it up. “The top broke off!”
“Wait! Wait!” Sam held his end of the bone up next to mine. “Oh. Never mind. I guess they’re the same length.”
Jen declared that I was the victor, because the top of the bone had flown into my lap. I was surprised by her verdict. I had somehow concluded that the cosmos was saying my wish was so absurd the wishbone wouldn’t even work.
Jen took the other wishbone – the one from our Thanksgiving turkey – swaddled it in paper towel, and tucked it carefully onto the shelf above the stove. “There,” she said. “That’s the wishbone for next year. That can be our tradition.”
Next year. As if my wish had already been heard. There would be a tomorrow. And a day after that. And for the first time, it dawned on me that there might even be a next year. And another Thanksgiving. And more after that. And that there might always be a wishbone waiting on the shelf above the stove.
I already know what I’m going to wish for every year. A family that lasts forever. Maybe I would infuse that bone with my wish every day until next Thanksgiving to give it better odds.
It’s one year later, and the wishbone is still on the shelf above the stove, waiting for our second Thanksgiving together. This past year has had many ups and downs – and plenty of times when I was convinced that the ship’s bell and the wishbone had let me down. But somehow, whatever happens, we’ve always managed to pull through together. Real family doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens; it means nothing bad ever wins.