This wasn't the first Thanksgiving that 13-year-old Dayana spent with Santos Magana's big, extended family. But this was the first time that she had something very specific to be thankful for.
Dayana is now, officially and forever, part of that family. Magana adopted her a week ago, turning a long-standing emotional tie into a legal bond.
Not that the technicality mattered much. "I've been with him since I was a little girl. I called him Dad back then," Dayana said. "I didn't really let myself think about him not being my father."
She has lived with Magana, off and on, since she was a toddler and he began dating her mother. The couple had two daughters together, now 7 and 4. But Dayana's mother ran off, leaving him with all the children.
Magana is the only father she has ever known. Still, it took four years — dotted with legal hurdles, logistical problems and emotional setbacks — for Dayana to officially become his eldest daughter.
I was in the courtroom when the adoption was formalized last weekend. I watched teenage bravado dissolve in a trickle of tears as Dayana posed for pictures with her family and a certificate from the judge, declaring her a member of the Magana brood "with all the rights and responsibilities expected therein."
The "rights and responsibilities" of being a family member. That's a wonderful phrase to ponder in the context of a holiday that — forget the turkey and football and
In my family, that means I have the right to embarrass my daughters at the holiday table with stories of childhood foibles, and they have the responsibility to praise my sweet potato pie, no matter how overly sweet or underbaked it might be.
If you're a child in foster care, with no close family to speak of, the holiday might be just another reminder of all that your life is missing.
That's why it was such a pleasure to attend Los Angeles County's Adoption Day, when 200 foster children were legally joined to the people who have been caring for them.
The connections I saw reflect the dimensions of family.
Sylvia Jimenez was 49 and had given up on her dream of being a mother when she got a call two years ago from her ex-husband. His drug-addicted niece had lost custody of her four children; they'd been neglected, skipping school and sleeping on the streets or in homeless encampments.
Jimenez had a good career and a comfortable home. Would she be willing to care for the children, their mother wondered.
By then the kids had spent more than a year in foster care, split up and perpetually moving from home to home. County officials couldn't find anyone willing to house them together.
So Jimenez agreed to become a foster mother for the three girls and one boy, now ages 10, 9, 5 and 4. "I went from zero to four overnight," she said. "It was a big change. But what else could I do? Those children needed me."
Last summer, the children's mother was shot to death during a robbery. On Saturday, Jimenez officially adopted Rebecca, Giovanni, Olivia and Mary.
"This love is different from anything I've experienced," Jimenez told me in the courthouse. "I really feel now that my life is complete."
What started as a short-term favor for a man who had once been her husband turned into a life-altering journey that made Jimenez a mother.
Glenda Griffin's new family was a bit longer in the making.
She took in her niece's three sons — now 7, 6 and 3 — one at a time, as their young mother stumbled for years through bouts of drug addiction, homelessness and domestic violence.
"She wants to be a good mother," Griffin said of her niece. "She tries to be there for them." But her life has been unremittingly rocky, and her children need stability. So on Saturday, Griffin became their mother by decree.
She couldn't have done it, she said, without help from the Alliance for Children's Rights, which provides free legal services to protect neglected children. The group helped Griffin qualify as a foster parent and spent more than a year aiding in her fight to get the mental health and educational services the children are entitled to receive.
"I never knew it would be so hard to do what you know is right," Griffin said as she prepared to file into the courtroom of Judge Michael Nash, where the boys were given teddy bears and wandered through the gallery, showing them off. Nash, playing the role of jocular uncle, helped round them up for a family photo.
Griffin's two daughters, 23 and 13, were in court to witness the moment. I asked the teenager if she minded having three rambunctious little brothers. She rolled her eyes, while her mother answered for her. "She knows, we are family… this is what family does."
Family created not just by bloodlines, but by a mix of love and responsibility — and built on the belief that every child has the right to a loving family.