Let’s face it: Many of us spend Thanksgiving with people we’d rather not sit through an entire meal with. We do it out of tradition or obligation, even guilt.
This year, our guests of honor don’t want to spend Thanksgiving with us at all. In many ways, we don’t want them here, either.
It’s not because we don’t adore Vlad and Vitalina. As far as I’m aware, they’re fond of us, too.
But if everyone had their wishes, Vlad and Vitalina wouldn’t be spending Thanksgiving – a holiday that until recently they had never heard of – with us. They would be home in eastern Ukraine, leading the ordinary lives of a teenage boy and his mother: going to school; going to work; coming home to a toasty warm apartment in their small city; tending to the plants – herbs, onions, geraniums – that bring a curtain of green to a sunroom that faces the street.
War abruptly altered their lives
Despite the November chill, Vlad would still be going for bracing winter dips in one of his city’s enormous lakes, just as he did with friends in late February.
Until the bombs dropped.
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Until air raids meant huddling together in a bunker, trying to attend classes online or playing cards in the dim light as troops from neighboring Russia – just 30 miles away – rumbled into the city.
Until the family got out – with only one suitcase and their little cat. Alive, but not undamaged.
“In my body I am 14, but in my head I am much older since the war,” Vlad told me in the summer, a few weeks after they arrived to live with us in England.
In his eyes he was older, too. By contrast with my own 14-year-old son, Vlad’s wide-eyed stare spoke of months of being on high alert, trained for the first sign of danger. He spoke little and smiled even less.
The particulars of this family’s six-month test of stamina are similar to those of millions of other Ukrainians who have fled their homes since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. But every individual has their own losses, worries and wounds. Familiar items and beloved pets left behind in the scramble to escape. Friends scattered to the far corners of Europe and beyond. Family members left behind to fight and struggle to survive. Loved ones who are no longer alive.
When he was smuggled from home, the driver instructed Vlad to wipe all the photos from his phone. Why, I asked, you’re only 14?
“Because if they stop us at checkpoints and see pictures of Ukrainian flag or symbols,” he said, not elaborating.
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For now he has memories shared with his best friend, who is staying with a host family in Belgium. And new memories with his girlfriend, another teenage refugee from an all-but-levelled city a few hours south of Vlad’s home, who is staying with a host family in the village next to ours.
She also will come to Thanksgiving dinner, polite and smiling and probably – like my sons – annoyed that they’ll have high school in the morning, an ordinary November Friday in England.
Then again, ordinary isn’t so bad.
Vitalina picks up a decorative pumpkin, smaller than a Granny Smith apple, giggles and wrinkles her nose. “We have these in Ukraine too, but much bigger,” she says.
Yes, I tell her, the ones we eat are bigger, too. These are just for decoration.
“I do not like these to eat,” she says.
In a wry expression our family has come to cherish, she narrows her eyes when I tell her that pumpkin pie is an important part of Thanksgiving dinner.
“Strange people,” she says, rolling her “r” and letting out peals of laughter.
So maybe this year we will add borscht or varenyky to our Thanksgiving meal, just as the other guests will bring wine or cheese or some other contribution from their home country.
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Thanksgiving, British-style, is a hodgepodge of company and contributions. From one year to the next invitations are as capricious as they are in demand. You might get the call because Thanksgiving coincides with your birthday. The kids might have asked you. You might have been cheeky enough to invite yourself and made such outstanding gravy the first year that your family secured a place around the table ad infinitum.
Everyone is welcome as long as they aren’t too awkward (as the Brits tend to be) to partake in the mandatory, post-dinner declaration of something they’re thankful for.
This year we’ll be thankful for our Ukrainian friends, who have enriched our lives with their strength, courage, patience, grace and good humor.
For their sakes we hope next Thanksgiving they won’t have to be with us – or perhaps we will all start a new tradition: Thanksgiving in Ukraine.
Laura Potts is news and media manager with the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom.