I grew up an only child with alot of time on my hands and a full imagination.  Learning to play by myself, work alone, and live as a single adult until my 40s is my DNA and what makes me an independent thinker and spirit.

With no brothers and sisters, very few aunts and uncles, nieces or nephews the holidays were always a strange mishmash of “orphan”  dinners. You never knew who would be around the table. It was always an assortment of friends, newcomers in town with nowhere to go and – gasp- usually a single, eligible male hand-picked by my mother to meet her then-single daughter.  There were few actual “relatives.” Most of the family stopped speaking to each other over the years, another strange thread of DNA on both sides.  Mind you, I have some great relatives who I adore in mainly in New Orleans, plus a handful in Chattanooga/Atlanta, New York and Virginia. It is just not that many. And the line stops with me with no children on my own.

After my maternal grand parents died in the late 1980s, the family dinner table was quite small: mother, father, occasional aunt, uncle and cousin when we were speaking. That’s about it. Christmas morning we ate a hearty French toast breakfast and opened gifts. Dad disappeared to his office to work (Tax Season!). Mother started her round of social phone calls. Maybe a movie later. A friend or two would stop by.  By the afternoon I was usually alone with my new gifts, a book, my writing and my imagination. Christmas came and went quietly.

The word “Relative”- is in a manner of definition- “relative” to what I have learned to consider family. My mother always tells me “Friends are the Family You Choose To Hold Close.” I have taken that to heart over the years. My best holiday memories have been spent with dear friends who have stood by me through good times and bad and who have welcomed me into their families, traveled with me to faraway places to spend Christmas and New Years and made me laugh until I cry and help me cry until I laugh.

Most are on my GOTMC mailing list and, this Thanksgiving, I thank all of them for being my extended family.

There is the other Melanie, who I spent Christmas with in Los Angeles one year. And whose family taught me the real meaning of giving. When I just knew the lump in my breast was not a good sign, she was the very first person I called for advice.

There is my friend Kathy, who took me home for Christmas after my grandmother died suddenly one December. It was my first Christmas around young children.  They all jumped on me to wake me up Christmas morning. Kathy threw the “Millennium” New Year’s party that brought me back to NYC from Indonesia so I could be with friends on my 40th birthday.

There is my friend Susan who spent my 43rd New Year’s birthday with me in Chile where she challenged me to climb up a live, snow-capped belching volcano- one of the scariest and most exhilarating things I have ever done.

There is my friend Valerie, who spent Christmas with me in Bali. We still laugh about the shreiking gekko that was scratching its way into our hotel room one night from the roof. (Over the years the gekko has become a komodo dragon, and it has grown from three feet to five as she retells the story.)

There is my friend Nancy, who, on a dare, flew with me to Japan at Christmas when Delta was running a flash mileage sale. The plane had a bomb scare in Atlanta, and we sat on the tarmac for hours. We still laugh about the Japanese men who took us to dinner one night and the challenge to communicate with them.

There is my friend Sally, who celebrated my 30th New Year’s birthday in Amsterdam.  And Carol who hopped a New Year’s Eve train with me to Philadelphia to Jack’s Firehouse where the owner made sure Champagne, oysters and caviar were always an arm’s reach away from us.

My friends Sophia and Tori take us into their home in Provence every summer and will fly across the pond at the drop of a hat if I ever needed them. Their mother, Mary,  makes the best English meals and is always a sympathetic ear.

My friend Mary Jo went through alot last year and it was a joy to ring in the New Year with her in Charleston as we bid 2011 goodby and looked forward to better months ahead. The next day we walked barefoot on the beach in Pawley’s Island and ate Hoppin’ John with our friends Laura and Nick. It was the last New Year’s we spent with my beloved dog Chance, and I remember how happy he was skipping along the beach almost like a young puppy again.

My friend Wendy has faced so many health issues. Yet, one phone call with her and you are the one feeling so much better. She always remembers my birthday and seems to have E.S.P. to know when I need a pick me up.. 

My friend Bonnie is the big sister I never had. When I was at a really low point earlier this year she lifted me up when not a single blood relative offered to help me. Bonnie rang in my 50th New Year’s birthday with me in Barbados at a local Bajan restaurant where the band played Happy Birthday after the stroke of midnight.

And then there is the lovely Laura, who lives overseas and has opened her home and her heart to me so many times. I just know I can always count on Laura and her generosity. Even though she is miles and miles away geographically, she is always with me in spirit.

When I was facing cancer, it was my friends near and far who rallied for me most. Carol and Dawn took the train up and went grocery shopping for me and took me to lunch. Bonnie and Alison brought dinner. Everyone sent gifts, cards and notes of support.  When I had to cancel my New Year’s Eve to Asia after my chemotherapy started, Susan made sure I has a place to go to spend my birthday. After I had a drug induced meltdown over an uninspired birthday lunch with my husband (no gift, no card, no cake, bad food), Susan arrived from the city, a breath of fresh air, and took me on a beach walk where we lay in the sand making angels. Laura flew to New York from Hong Kong- where I was supposed to spend my birthday with her- and hosted a belated birthday dinner party for me. And Valerie took up a collection among my friends to make sure I could purchase the most beautiful wig possible to cover my bald head. In contrast, my mother sent me a shower cap and lavender scented body cream (Note to anyone sending gifts: Cancer patients can’t stand the smell of perfume and have no hair to cover in the shower.)

I am spending Thanksgiving this year with another set of my extended family, Joannie and Nick. Joannie was the first to offer to entertain for me when I was engaged. We spent our first visit to Greece in their beautiful home. And we rang in the New Year with them in East Hampton in 2009 after my father died.   

This year, I have free first class tickets to Asia to spend the holidays with Laura and her husband. It is the trip I had to cancel in 2009. They have offered to put us up, and we will ring in the New Year together.  The first time to Hong Kong for me and the first trip to Asia for my husband.  Well, maybe.

This year my mother told me if I did not spend Christmas with her she was taking my expensive gift back and would not speak to me.  I am breaking her heart.  Was this a bribe or a threat? I have a house in Chattanooga where a purple Christmas tree is up all year round because I was taught that the spirit of Christmas should be enjoyed year round and not tied to a specific day. I was taught that Friends are the Family You Choose. I was taught to celebrate every day and to seize opportunities when they come your way and to do everything you can when you are still young and healthy. 

I guess it is all relative.