Thanksgiving Day tradition on hold but Dearborn family grateful

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

For more than two decades, the extended family and friends of Jack and Nancy Auffenberg have gathered at the couple’s Dearborn home for a buffet-style Thanksgiving, a sumptuous feast highlighted by a 25-pound brined turkey and Nancy’s homemade stuffing, in which the ingredients include freshly baked bread and her own maple-sage sausage. And then there’s a smorgasbord of traditional side dishes and desserts brought by others.

The holiday meal is always a sit-down affair, with tables in the dining room and kitchen draped in table cloths and set with fine china and place cards and colorfully decorated with centerpieces made of fresh flowers, fancy pumpkins and candles.

Nancy Auffenberg, 65, is thankful that she and members of her immediate family contracted the coronavirus and have survived. She is photographed in front of her home in Dearborn, Mich. on Nov. 23, 2020.

It’s not just about the meal, it’s about fellowship. Typically, 30-35 people attend the Auffenberg’s Thanksgiving potluck, coming from Detroit suburbs like Troy, Grosse Pointe, Beverly Hills and Plymouth, and from as far away as New York City, Philadelphia and Wisconsin. Little has changed over the decades, except for fluctuations in the guest list and some recipe tweaks.

Until this year, the year of the pandemic.

This Thanksgiving will be anything but traditional. There will be no extended family potluck, no mixing of households. Heeding the warnings of federal and state health officials, who are discouraging gatherings to help slow the spread of the deadly virus, families are spending the holiday in their separate homes, miles apart.

For the Auffenbergs, the joy of gathering with relatives and friends is not worth the risk of spreading or getting the virus, something the family is all too familiar with.

Four family members, including Nancy’s 91-year-old mother, Betty Whatley, contracted the disease during the early days of the pandemic. They all survived, with no long-term effects, at this time.

 “I’m grateful that despite the four of us having the coronavirus that we are healthy. I’m grateful my mother is still alive and with us and that she didn’t need to go to the hospital. I’m grateful my daughters were here to help care for her,” Nancy says, noting her mother could not even stand up and needed around-the-clock care. It was a long ordeal for all of us.

“But there is so much to be grateful for.”

Expressing gratitude even during challenging times is healthy and beneficial, says Dr. Elizabeth Duval, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

“During difficult times, we tend to focus on the challenges, think more negatively, and ignore the positive, so recognizing what we are grateful for can help us create a more positive perspective and offset negative thinking,” she says.

In the weeks before the pandemic, the family experienced great joy and loss.

In January, a granddaughter was born, and a couple of trips were made to Philadelphia to see her before COVID-19 became widespread. On St. Patrick’s Day, just days before Michigan’s statewide shutdown, Nancy’s brother-in-law, Daniel Muldowney — married to middle sister Susan — died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 60.

“The anxiety about Dan dying so suddenly. It was a firestorm. There were just so many things going on at the time,” Nancy says. “It’s still impacting all of us.”

Nancy Auffenberg, 65, is thankful that she and members of her immediate family contracted the coronavirus and have survived. She is photographed in front of her home in Dearborn, Mich. on Nov. 23, 2020.

'A very stressful time'

In late March, as the virus was spreading in Michigan and across other parts of the country, Nancy received notice that the first COVID-19 case had been confirmed at her mother’s senior living community in Dearborn.

“We had not been able to see her since the beginning of March. No visitors were allowed,” recalls Nancy, a trained speech therapist. From her own conversations with her mother and talking to a nurse, she realized Betty “was declining over a period of a few days in cognition and strength, and was not eating very much despite not having a fever or other common symptoms of COVID-19 at the time.

“The nurse advised she seemed to be really disoriented. I decided to go get her.”

The family brought Betty home, thinking she had a cold. It turned out Betty had contracted the virus, confirmed months later with an antibody test. Within a few days, Nancy and her daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, were ill as well. The sisters had driven home from the East Coast to attend their uncle’s funeral and were working remotely in Dearborn.

“The first symptoms that my oldest daughter and I had were the nagging sinus headache that lasted for about five days,” Nancy says. “I tried everything — Advil, Tylenol, sinus medication and nothing worked. It never left. It was debilitating.”

She lost her sense of smell and taste for several days.

Nancy Auffenberg, 65, is thankful that she and members of her immediate family contracted the coronavirus and have survived. She is photographed in front of her home in Dearborn, Mich. on Nov. 23, 2020.

“I make really good French onion soup. I caramelize the onions — the effort is well worth it,” she says. “My daughter was feeling OK and asked if I would make it. As I was cutting big onions to caramelize them, I was crying, my eyes irritated by the onions. But I couldn’t smell them. I licked my finger after touching an onion and I couldn’t taste it …  It’s not like when you get a cold and lose some taste and smell. This was a profound difference.”

Caroline, the youngest daughter and who is asthmatic, started showing symptoms a few days later.  Concerned about her breathing, Caroline went to a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at a nearby hospital. Because of her youth and less-severe symptoms, she was not given a test. Medical officials encouraged her to focus on treating her shortness of breath with her asthma regimen. Her COVID-19 diagnosis was confirmed at a testing a few days later.

“She had a lot of difficulty breathing. To watch someone struggle to breathe …,” Nancy says, not finishing the sentence. “We’re thankful she did not have to go to the hospital.”

Betty suffered a mild stroke about a week after arriving at her daughter’s home.  

“When we finally figured out what was wrong, honestly, we didn’t think she was going to make it,” recalls Susan Muldowney, who, at the time, was in the early days of mourning her husband. “You kept hearing on the news about how older people were much more at risk, at risk to die. It was a very stressful time.”

Nancy Auffenberg, 65, is thankful that she and members of her immediate family contracted the coronavirus and have survived. She is photographed in front of her home in Dearborn, Mich. on Nov. 23, 2020.

A new tradition

Betty will spend Thursday with Nancy, her husband, and their daughters in a scaled-down version of the holiday dinner. Jack never contracted the virus. His wife shooed him to the family cottage in northern Michigan when they realized the illness was COVID-19.

Nancy and her two sisters are exchanging side dishes. Nancy is making her usual stuffing, which also includes dried cherries and roasted pecans or walnuts. Susan is whipping up mashed potatoes (with sour cream, cream cheese, butter and chives) and brussels sprouts. Youngest sister, Laura, is making sweet potatoes.

“It’s absolutely disappointing we won’t all be together,” says Susan, whose family has regularly attended the dinner. She’ll spend the holiday with one of her sons and his wife. “It makes more sense to stay home, but it’s still hard. You throw in the death of a family member and the COVID restrictions, and the holidays are made worse because you can’t get together.”

At the Auffenberg home, the dining room table will be set again with fine china and freshly made centerpieces. Elizabeth and Caroline will help in the kitchen.

“It's nice to have Thanksgiving be a little normal,” Nancy says.

Maintaining some sort of traditions, even scaled back, during a holiday is important, UM’s Duval says.

“Having structure and routine have been shown to help reduce feelings of anxiety and sadness,” says Duval, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of psychology. “So, things that are routine can be comforting and can help us cope with challenges. For many people, finding ways to maintain routines and traditions, even if they look a little different this year, may help us to feel better and stay connected to the things we value.”

ZOOM seems to have become a new holiday tradition, especially with relatives and friends spread apart this Thanksgiving.

“It’s a great thing to do,” Nancy says. “At Easter, we had 10 phones on the ZOOM call, from California, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, and all of us around here. We still had the coronavirus in our household at the time. My youngest daughter was still fighting it.”

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation, Duval says, noting there are other ways to stay in touch with family and friends.

“It is more difficult to connect socially right now, and I think many people feel isolated. Finding ways to stay connected to loved ones, even in smaller numbers or via alternative methods (phone, video calls), can provide ways for us to support one another,” she says.

The use of Facetime and Zoom has been a godsend for the Auffenbergs. Jack and Nancy have relied on Facetime to keep in touch with their granddaughter, who belongs to their son, Christopher, who lives in Philadelphia.

“I’m grateful we’ve had the ability to have all these moments electronically,” Nancy says. “We get to facetime her everyday. She knows us. We walked into her house in October — we hadn’t seen her since July -- and she knew us. She waved to us. I’m so very grateful.”