Sarah Hehrer has been quietly plotting the trip for months. In bed with her laptop — between episodes of “Avatar: the Last Airbender” — she would play around on Google Flights, flipping through departure dates to see which was cheapest. It was “preliminary,” Sarah said, “really, really preliminary.” But she wanted to go home for Thanksgiving, and it didn’t hurt to look.
Sarah, 25, has lived in this Bay Area apartment for two years. She still can’t quite figure out how to use the TV. Like pretty much everything else here, it belongs to her roommates, two perfectly nice people with whom she has very little in common. And though the roommates fled to their parents’ homes in the early months of coronavirus, Sarah mostly sticks to her bedroom. It feels a little strange, she says, to sit on someone else’s couch and eat dinner with someone else’s spoon.
It’s Monday, Nov. 16. Thanksgiving is in 10 days. Sarah’s family lives over 2,000 miles away in Ovid, a tiny town in central Michigan. She still hasn’t decided whether to book a flight.
Across the country, people are struggling with the same last-minute calculation. For a while, coronavirus numbers seemed to be stabilizing. Case counts held steady in most places through the late summer and early fall — then election coverage dominated headlines for weeks. It was mid-November before the national surge became truly impossible to ignore, as much of the country began enforcing a new round of restrictions. With just a few days to go, Thanksgiving remains an open question for many, with people like Sarah wondering: Should I go home?
Sarah’s parents — both Republicans — want her to be with her family. They aren’t worried about getting sick, despite spiking coronavirus cases in Michigan. “Family wins out over fear of the virus,” her mom says.
Sarah isn’t so sure.
Her mother and father live in the house she grew up in, on a dirt road behind an apple orchard, far enough from the neighbors that there was never any need for curtains. Her sister, her grandmother, and her aunt and uncle live less than 15 minutes away. Sarah is the only one in the extended family who has left the state. She last went home in June.
There will be at least 12 people at the Hehrer family Thanksgiving. Sarah’s sister, Meghan Hill, suggested that they get creative when Sarah told her she was nervous: What if they held Thanksgiving in the garage? They could wear coats, she said, and leave the door open for extra ventilation.
Sarah appreciates the effort, but social distancing just doesn’t seem very realistic when Thanksgiving temperatures can dip below freezing in Michigan. While they might successfully shiver through dinner, she said, eventually someone would suggest they retreat to the basement — with masks, if that would make Sarah more comfortable. They would turn on the annual Lions game. Her mother would offer wine or homemade apple cider. One by one, each family member would take off their mask to have a drink. No one would bother putting them back on.
Sarah would be watching her 82-year-old grandmother, who has continued driving friends to doctor’s appointments and taking homemade dinners to people around town throughout the pandemic. Sarah could never ask her grandmother to keep her mask on or to sit a little farther away.
“It’s the unwritten rule,” Meghan says. “You don’t tell grandma anything.”
When grandma brings her signature marshmallow and jello “salad” to Thanksgiving, Sarah says, you smile and you eat it.
If grandma goes in for a hug, you hug her back.
Ovid has a population of just over 1,600. The nearest Walmart and McDonald’s are 20 minutes away. There were no chains at all until Sarah’s senior year of high school, when a Subway arrived, followed a few months later by a Dollar Tree.
Everyone in town knows the Hehrers, Sarah says: Her grandma grew up in Ovid. Her parents met at the local high school and got married soon after graduation. “It’s a very familiar, warm, comfortable place for us,” says Sarah’s mom, Kathy. She and her husband, Ken, have had the same jobs for decades: Kathy manages the finances at a local dentist’s office. Ken installs and maintains pipes at Michigan State University, 30 minutes away.
Kathy and Ken have lost patience with the kind of stay-at-home orders that paralyzed the state for months in the spring. Many of the regulations seem like clear government overreach, Kathy says, implemented by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). When Whitmer announced that restaurants would start recording names and numbers of their patrons to help with contact tracing — before she banned all indoor dining on Nov. 18 — her husband made a list of fake names and numbers to give out to anyone who asked.
“Sarah feels the virus is more deadly than her father and I feel it is,” Kathy says.
Sarah has a Gretchen Whitmer bumper sticker pinned up in her room.
Kathy and Sarah have had plenty of conversations about the danger of the coronavirus. It never lasts long, with Kathy ending on a point that is hard for Sarah to argue with: She has lost both her parents. Kathy herself is a cancer survivor. Her sister, Sarah’s aunt, was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.
“You just don’t know what’s coming around the corner,” Kathy says. “To shut down our lives and not see the people that we love — I have a problem with that.”
Kathy and Ken expected Sarah to leave Ovid. She was the “adventurous one.” They thought she might try Detroit or Chicago. Sarah was finishing up her senior year at Michigan State University when she told them she had accepted a job in Oakland, Calif.
Kathy immediately launched a fervent campaign against the city: Think of the earthquakes, the fires, the crime.
Ken treated Sarah to a sub at Jersey Mike’s, then broke down crying across the table.
“I was a first-gen college student. I was much more liberal than they are," said Sarah. “They didn’t understand why I wanted to go that far away."
Sarah and Kathy talk on the phone most days, usually for over an hour. Kathy is never the one to call — she doesn’t want to be a bother — but she stays up until midnight, in case Sarah wants to talk after dinner.
Kathy hates thinking about Sarah alone, especially on Thanksgiving. Sometimes she will wake up in the middle of the night and picture Sarah lying in bed all day, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to. It would be worse than any other day during the pandemic, because all of Sarah’s friends will be busy with their own families.
“Sarah is a very social person. She needs that interaction,” Kathy says. “On a holiday, I just don’t think anybody should be alone.”
Sarah has hardly seen anyone since March. Her friends all live at least a 20-minute drive away and she doesn’t have a car. It’s been hard to justify the risk of a bus ride for an hour or two in the park.
Sarah had big plans for 2020. She had just started dating again after a bad breakup. She thought she might switch jobs, start a new relationship, move to a new city. “Anything to just keep moving forward,” she says. Now she wishes she could move back to Michigan, but her employer has insisted that she stay in-state. Her room is too small for a desk, so she props up her laptop on a storage cube she bought at Target.
Sarah can’t help thinking about Thanksgiving at her house. Her parents wake up at 4 a.m. every year to prepare the turkey. By the time Sarah is up, there are three different casseroles in the oven, cheese potatoes in the fridge and a platter of cornbread on the counter. Her parents’ wedding china is on the table, next to the good silverware. Her mother has arranged her collection of salt and pepper shakers — the ones shaped like turkeys and fall leaves — in between pieces of decorative corn.
Everything smells so good that Sarah might step outside for a moment, just so it can hit her fresh when she walks back through the door.
The Thanksgiving table gets a little bigger every year. A cousin gets married, another cousin has a baby. There was one year that Sarah didn’t come home for 10 months. When she finally got to Ovid, her parents had lost 70 pounds between them. They looked like different people.
“Life for them is happening without me,” she said.
When she’s home for the holidays, Sarah tries to remember every detail that happens. It’s a few days when she can tell her family to hold up: Stop moving for a second. Let me look at you.
She goes back to California with a slightly different picture.
Especially now, alone in her apartment, she could really use a new one.
On Tuesday, nine days out from Thanksgiving, Sarah gets a call from Meghan: Five people in their aunt’s office have tested positive for the coronavirus. Her aunt and uncle won’t be coming for Thanksgiving; her other aunt and uncle might stay home, too.
Sarah feels her heart rate start to speed up. Her stomach hurts, and her voice is shaking. These days, any piece of coronavirus news can leave Sarah feeling like she might throw up.
By the time she goes to sleep, Sarah has decided to spend Thanksgiving in California. It’s a “bargain with the universe,” she says.
“If I stay home this time, you’ll let me go home for Christmas.”
Sarah plans to treat Thanksgiving like any other day. She will get up a few minutes before her family sits down to eat at 2 p.m. Eastern time, dab on a little concealer so she doesn’t look too pitiful, and then wait for her dad to FaceTime.
The call will be quick. Her dad will say hello, then pass the iPad around the table. If the weather is nice, Sarah might go for a walk. She’s been saving Anne Helen Petersen’s new book on millennial burnout — she might start that. Dinner should be something at least a little bit special. Her favorite sushi takeout is too expensive for a regular night, and Thanksgiving would be a good excuse.
This won’t be the first Thanksgiving Sarah has spent away from home. She missed it two years ago, when she celebrated with her ex-boyfriend’s family.
She has never been away for Christmas.
“We brought Sarah home from the hospital on Christmas Day,” Kathy says. If her daughter tries to skip Christmas, she says, she’ll fight it. Ken will talk to Sarah. They’ll offer to cover the price of her plane ticket. Anything.
Sarah says she will keep watching the case counts, but she might fly home even if the numbers keep getting worse.
“I honestly don’t know.”
“I know that sounds bad.”
One of Sarah’s best friends from college has decided not to see her family until everyone is vaccinated. This friend talks a lot about the sacrifices she’s making, Sarah says. But this friend also lives with her partner.
“It feels like she’s making a very different decision.”
Even if Sarah doesn’t fly home for Christmas, she would never judge anyone who does.
It can feel like an impossible choice, she says — and you’ll never be quite sure you made the right one.