Our family Thanksgiving celebration didn't come off exactly as planned.
We'd imagined a long-postponed reunion of siblings, aunties and cousins from around the country, gathered at my brother's grand new home in Palo Alto.
But circumstances conspired to unravel that plan.
Some East Coast relatives were forced to back out by sky-high airfares, unexpected medical bills and budget-choking college tuition hikes. One cousin just lost a job; one is allowed no time off at his new one. Another was grounded by worries that looming foreclosure might make this the last Thanksgiving his family will celebrate in their own home.
My daughters and I were among the no-shows. Four airline tickets would have set us back $1,000. Driving would have required the expensive rental of a roomy, road-worthy car.
Even my sister — with a steady job, vacation days in the bank and a gift of frequent flier miles — declined to leave home in Cleveland. Her husband's unemployment benefits ran out this year. She was hoping to rack up some weekend overtime at her job as a hotel housekeeper.
She's heard rumors than the hotel is planning layoffs for early next year. If she had come to California for Thanksgiving, "I'd be worrying so much," she said, "it would ruin the holiday."
We're no different from many American families this Thanksgiving season: Grateful for what we have, but worried about what we stand to lose.
National economic stats seem to offer the barest glint of returning prosperity.
But the individuals behind those numbers are wrestling with the fallout of unparalleled struggle: lingering fear and insecurity.
This has been the busiest holiday travel season in years. Thanksgiving trips had dropped by 25% by the time the country's housing and financial crisis hit rock bottom last year.
This year — despite a 20% increase in both gas prices and airfare — the most travelers since the start of the recession were expected to take to the highways and skies.
Experts were eager to put a bright spin on that. The upsurge reflects improved consumer confidence, better stock market performance and a growing sense for many Americans that the worst of the global economic crisis is behind us, according to the travel director of the American Automobile Assn.
Maybe. But I suspect it also reflects our desperate need for familial security; a return to the comfort of rituals that allows us to believe that things have returned to normal, or at least the normal of our memories.
The last few years have degraded our lives in ways that go beyond economic, straitjacketing us with anxieties about what once seemed like such basic choices: whether to trade in a car, when to get married, where to send the children off to college. Every decision could be ambushed by some lurking uncertainty.
It's been a process that brought us down a notch, made the notion of "working poor" real to a once-privileged middle-class bunch.
The gloom seems to be easing a bit. Hiring is up, home prices are rising, credit card offers and Christmas catalogs are, once again, crowding mailboxes. And, according to retail analysts, the number of shoppers on Black Friday weekend is expected to grow to 152 million from 138 million last year.
But where they see hope, I see mere desperation for deals — a "take that" to an economy that has stranded people on the sidelines. Scoring bargains feels like a way around a punishing economy that has forced us for too long to do without. Those long lines outside stores with give-away prices reflect the determination of have-nots to make up for all that these past years have cost them.
It got so intense in my neighborhood that a woman in line at the local Wal-Mart pepper-sprayed other customers to get a jump on the door-buster safari.
I imagine if you're an inveterate bargain-hunter, that Thanksgiving opportunity to shop is something to be grateful for.
But what if you're that low-wage worker forced to pull an all-nighter to ring up those big-screen televisions and caramel macchiatos?
A friend who runs a Starbucks at a local mall said almost all of her employees "volunteered" to work the Thanksgiving night shift required when the mall decided to open before midnight for Black Friday shoppers.
They are young people buried in student loan debt, single parents cobbling together part-time jobs, teenagers helping support unemployed parents.
It wasn't much different at the Target store I visited Wednesday afternoon. A cheery young clerk named Garnet ushered me through her empty line. I asked if she'd be working Thanksgiving night. She grimaced and nodded.
"Eleven at night until 8 in the morning," she said.
She'll drive from Thanksgiving dinner at her mother's house in Palmdale back to Northridge, clip on her Target tag and — with no sleep — pull a nine-hour overnighter.
She couldn't turn down the shift; "it wasn't an offer," she said. "I'm not sure how I'll make it work, but I'll be here.... Anyway, I can use the paycheck." What she made on that extra shift will buy one textbook for her college classes next quarter.
So what is she thankful for? I asked. She looked around at the store's quiet aisles and short cash register lines.
"That we don't have to work that hard today, I guess. That maybe I won't be too tired."