My Thanksgiving: every day is now after surviving cancer
Singer and breast cancer survivor Joy Barnum shares her thoughts on Thanksgiving Day
My first memory of Thanksgiving was of making a turkey in kindergarten using a trace of my hand. I thought Thanksgiving was about turkeys. Then we moved back to Bermuda when my mom, Mellonie Furbert, finished her college degree after taking time out to have us. She made a sugarless apple pie so I thought Thanksgiving was about pies.
Yesterday my bestie, Jessie Wagner, and I did the eight-hour drive from New York to Virginia, her home state. We have been making similar treks since college. Back then, my sister, Ruth, and I had nowhere to go, because Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Bermuda. Jessie invited us to her home and we have been coming here to her family’s homestead ever since.
Over the years the location has changed. Family members passed away and this is my first year back post-Covid-19. My nana, Shirley Egenolf, loved to send me here with an empty suitcase and a Black Friday mission to procure all of her Christmas presents. Jessie and I would scour the stores for hours with Jessie saying, “Uh uh, Nana’s not gonna be mad at me! Let’s go to Macy’s for that church dress”.
I thought Thanksgiving was about shopping and sales. Nana left this plane six months ago but her mannerisms and teachings are experienced daily. I still feel her connection in my nieces, Elizabeth and Grace, and my mommy. I see her in my sister, and definitely in myself.
We all hunkered down in 2020 and saw the world collectively as it was, broken and in need of love and connection. We celebrated when Indigenous Day took the place of the heralded conquistador. We have finally seen justice for Ahmaud Arbery. This year, Breonna Taylor’s family was paid but waited two years for any officer to be charged. Now the United States is riding the election wave.
But everyone gets to celebrate this day with family despite the world around them.
Last year, I cooked and cooked and cooked all day making sure I had foods that my brother-in-law, Ulric Hetsberger, would like, a maple-mustard, turkey, chorizo-stuffed turkey leg and homemade pecan pie, among the offerings. My sister, Ruth, made lavender-laced mini lemon-meringue tarts and we sat around my tiny table eating together while my nieces drank grape juice out of fancy glasses.
Now, after more than a year of breast-cancer-related procedures and surgeries, I know that Thanksgiving is about celebrating life. Every day for me is now.
My father Al Barnum’s mother, Carrie Harmon Barnum, is from the Nanticoke tribe. They are a part of the Algonquins who fled Delaware and went to Philadelphia and across into Canada. Thanksgiving has morphed into learning as much as I can about the only ancestry I have privy to. On the way to Jessie’s house, we drove past the Delaware sign and the Nanticoke trail. I like to imagine what a quarter of my ancestors were doing before Thanksgiving was a thing.
Then we arrive and Jessie’s home feels like my home and Jessie’s mom, Yvonne Wagner, is my Ma. All the cakes are lined up on tiers because she has been baking and cooking since last week and freezing and defrosting and icing cakes this week. She gave us field peas (black eyed peas) and rutabaga, a yummy mashed gourd with a little sugar in it, and spaghetti casserole upon arrival.
We go up to the converted attic space we slept in as teenagers and it feels good.
Thanksgiving Day will come and I will be surrounded by friends who are now family. The door will open and close as people take plates home. When the place is all cleaned up and Ma settles in bed, we will watch Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like we used to and eat grits with butter and cheese the next day.
Thanksgiving started as a betrayal of humans who connected in harmony with the land. For me, it has been about the evolution of being in the present while honouring the past, and family, and food, and sales, and making each moment count.
Back home in Bermuda I am missing the tree-lighting ceremony that Tomorrow’s Voices graciously puts on and I’m missing my sister, but Thanksgiving is a day. Connections are for life and I intend to water all of my connections every chance I am given.