- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ah, to be single and free - a fact of life increasingly for American women, especially unmarried women 35 and older, whose number has increased nearly 20 percent over several decades, according to David Popenoe, coordinator of the National Marriage Project at the Rutgers Research Center in Piscataway, N.J.

Such an upbeat view doesn’t always carry over on holidays, however. A certain angst can descend if you live far from family and are unable to travel homeward, especially on Thanksgiving, an all-American family-centered nonreligious celebration. And it isn’t only tightened budgets that keep some people from traditional gatherings.

Helen Crowe of Arlington, a pediatric nurse from Australia, is employed by Georgetown Hospital where staff members plan a potluck dinner that day. “Someone has to look after these sick children,” she says.

That is one extreme: working souls considered vital employees too special to be given the day off. Then there are those like Jean McMahon of the District’s Southeast, an employee of the U.S. Labor Department, who is from Iowa but calls two trips home within one month - Christmas looms in December - out of her reach. She is weighing volunteering on Thanksgiving Day at a soup kitchen or joining a group of friends.

The latter is becoming customary in transient urban precincts such as the District. In some cases, it even is the preferred mode. Whether divorced or never married, singles accustomed to a free-flowing social life often treasure the choices their independent state might allow them. Some cite dissension in family ranks as a reason not to gather with blood relations. Others say family is too scattered to consider meeting every year.

Ann of Falls Church, who is divorced and asked not to give her last name, is one of the latter. She spent one Thanksgiving Day visiting the National American Indian Museum on the mall, “no Pilgrims, but a lot of Japanese tourists,” she laughs.

Jeny of Arlington, who also asked that her full name be withheld, has worked in soup kitchens in her hometown of Raleigh, N.C., as well as organizing a group dinner with people of diverse backgrounds “so that my kids got exposure to people from other countries.”

“My parents are in Springfield, Virginia, and I end up going home taking with me whomever I’m dating at the time,” says Sarah Farby of Arlington, who works for a marketing firm. This often means she will have two Thanksgiving dinners in the same weekend, if her boyfriend returns the favor.

The improvised family - a group dinner made up of friends and acquaintances - is increasingly the custom, to judge by casual conversations with a variety of single people across the Greater Washington area.

“To be in a room with people you like and have chosen is really wonderful and something to give thanks for,” says Carolyn Bartholemew, a lawyer who is also vice chairwoman of a U.S. congressional commission. She spent last Thanksgiving in Ethiopia visiting a friend who works there for a nonprofit.

“Some folks can be with 20 intimate family members and not feel very enthusiastic about celebrating,” she says.

That situation doesn’t apply to her, she says, emphasizing her own plans to have her mother and some friends over to share dinner in her Adams Morgan apartment - the first time she has hosted Thanksgiving.

“It is doubly wonderful that I don’t have to go anywhere,” she says.

Taryn Fielder, a lawyer, has been “adopted” by a woman who formerly worked in her office who always invites others to share what Ms. Fielder calls “an amazing dinner” at the woman’s home in Bowie, Md. A four-year resident of the District, Ms. Fielder says “the first year I went home for Thanksgiving and got food poisoning.” Even so, she is close to family and will have her parents, who live in Niceville, Fla., join the party.

Likewise, Carol Danko, a congressional legislative aide, also plans to be “adopted” or “find some friends. It’s up in the air. You want to spend it with people you love, and that is hard when people are far away and married. Luckily, Washington is full of smart, single, beautiful, successful women all in the same boat together.”

“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but it is always a surprise and I never know what I will be doing,” says lawyer Reyna Walters. “I always try to see one of my relatives.”

This year she will go to North Carolina to be with her mother who, as a Jehovah’s Witness, Ms. Walters says, doesn’t celebrate holidays, and also attend the wedding of a friend on the weekend.

“I like Thanksgiving because it definitely is the time of year when you aren’t stressed about presents and a good time to be thankful for things that have happened to you during the year. It’s not as commercial,” she says.

There is a secret to being invited out at such times, confesses Theresa Holmes of Alexandria, who has lived in the area and worked for nonprofit organizations for 10 years. “You do not have to be alone if you don’t want to, and not if you have a support system the other 365 days. I’ve heard it is tough to make friends, but not if you are a little bit interesting.”

Single men, too, are liable to be affected. John Gifft, a lobbyist for a telecommunications firm, says he never goes home for Thanksgiving, but instead gets together with friends to make dinner.

“We’ll decide on the menu by e-mail. I might say ‘I’ll make the turkey,’ and someone else makes stuffing. Then we’ll sit down and watch football. I love Washington because people come from everywhere. You can count on belonging as long as you are accepting of people with differences.”

He will see his family in Ohio at Christmas.

“In effect,” he says, “my friends have become my family.”

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