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Families May Be Apart For Thanksgiving This Year, But Connections Burn Bright

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This Thanksgiving is unlike any other for almost everyone. There will be fewer place settings, smaller sides and more video calls as people take caution during the coronavirus crisis.

COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S., and hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. The CDC recommends against traveling, saying "celebrating virtually or with the people you live with is the safest choice this Thanksgiving."

NPR's Morning Edition asked how people staying at home are planning to celebrate the holiday — and received hundreds of responses on Twitter. Most are limiting their gatherings to a handful of family members while gearing up to connect with kids, parents and grandparents virtually.

Thoai Ngo is a 38-year-old epidemiologist living in New York. His family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, and now the 32 of them live all over the country, so Thanksgiving is one of the few times they can get together.

But Ngo is most worried about the safety of his 83-year-old mother. That influenced the family's decision to celebrate separately this year. He says he will be on FaceTime with her so she can help him make traditional Vietnamese dishes.

"I have many nieces and nephews, and I rarely get to see them just because of work and life," Ngo says. "So I will miss their little faces. And, you know, they grow up so fast. I will probably miss my mom the most and the little ones."

Thoai Ngo and his extended family. Members of his family are celebrating Thanksgiving separately this year.
Landon Wise / Thoai Ngo
Thoai Ngo
Thoai Ngo and his extended family. Members of his family are celebrating Thanksgiving separately this year.

Mary McKay, 28, is used to a small Thanksgiving with her immediate family in Ohio — it's usually McKay, her parents, her two siblings and their spouses. But this year they'll have to forgo a tradition she says is the highlight of their holiday.

Five years ago, the family started a scavenger hunt at an antique mall — everyone gets $5 to find the creepiest item. Then they'll go out for pizza and gift their items to each other. McKay says her sister-in-law takes the tradition very seriously and will spend hours in the store in search of the perfect creepy pick.

"We'll have clown pictures or dolls with missing parts," McKay says. "There was a collector's ceramic plate with like a porcelain doll image on it. That one's one that we've kept in the family and passed it around."

This year McKay will spend Thanksgiving dinner with her husband and her parents — so she's already taken the opportunity to mail her siblings some creepy items from years past, she says.

Karen DenBleyker, 70, and her husband live in Waterville, Maine, while their two daughters live across the country in Seattle — where they were all planning to celebrate this year.

Instead, DenBleyker is staying home and having dinner for two. But the couple want to make it special, so they're planning on having a picnic at Mackerel Cove, a scenic overlook on Maine's coast.

"There is a parking lot that overlooks Mackerel Cove, which is an absolutely beautiful place," DenBleyker says. "And so even on a cold, brisk Maine Thanksgiving Day, we can be warm in the car and have our Thanksgiving dinner."

She says she loves and misses her daughters and wishes they could be together, but that there's still so much more for which to be thankful.

"My message to the frontline workers, the nurses, doctors, all of those who are out there is to stay safe, stay well," DenBleyker says. "We appreciate all that they do and hope that next year we will have the Thanksgiving that we're all hoping for and missing this year."

Ngo has a similar message for his family. He says while family members are far apart, he's thankful they'll always be close.

"I just want to tell my family and my siblings, and especially my nieces and nephews, to stay strong," Ngo says, "because we're making the sacrifice for this holiday, but we will get to see each other for many more holidays to come."

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