It’s my least favorite holiday. I don’t think I really knew that, or even examined the question fully until today, but the verdict is clear. I’d rather just skip Thanksgiving. I believe that the grateful life is a healthy life, and that counting one’s blessings is a worthy use of time. I’ve made it Day 73 (so far) of delineating three different things I’m thankful for each and every day for a hundred days. It’s not that. I am grateful.
But this holiday . . . this holiday gets me down.
I was an only child and we lived 800 miles away from extended family. In Ohio, my great Aunt Della was famous for her thanksgiving feasts. But I was never a guest there. I remember fish fries in the summer, and sauerbraten and homemade noodles, and at Christmas the fudge she used to send through the mail. But I never had a chance to bow my head for prayer at her Thanksgiving table.
Nor at my Nana’s house in South Carolina. I’m sure there were Thanksgiving traditions there, but I don’t know what they were. I couldn’t even speculate. I know the fried chicken and the green beans and the macaroni and cheese and the pound cake. But Thanksgiving? I haven’t a clue.
I do remember one childhood Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend: roast goose, Asti Spumante, Doberman Pinschers nosing around my lap for whatever I might slip them.
Then, a divorce, and we moved to England, where Thanksgiving is some foreign holiday, and the fourth Thursday in November passes without comment. Later, in Canada, we again had Thanksgiving, but it’s the second Monday in October, celebrating the harvest and somehow cleaner, without the bloodied history of European interaction with tribal nations. (Not that Canada doesn’t have it’s own brutal history, it’s just not that history.)
To Boston for college, and a hasty marriage one morning just prior to Christmas. The month before my mother and stepfather came to visit for Thanksgiving, but Bob was due for an extended family gathering at his grandmother’s house on the north shore. We delivered him there, met everyone, shook hands all around and left. Later, Bob said, his sweet grandmother felt terrible for not asking us to join them, she’d been so flustered, there was plenty of food. But we went away and drove along the Massachusetts coast until we found someplace open. A dining room that looked out over the cold gray sea, where I ate tinned chowder and cringed under my stepfather’s harangue at not being asked to stay.
Of course, I was also rebuked for not taking more time off to be with them; but working in retail there were no days off the weekend after Thanksgiving, and we could be sure that those days were going to be utter hell.
Mind you, Thanksgiving itself is big business in Boston. Plimoth Plantation, which was developed around the site of the original colony has been a major tourist draw since 1947. It tries to present a picture of both the immigrant and indigenous cultures and you can still eat “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner” there for $93. Each. (Or $68, if you want to re-enact the 1621 dinner with “A Sallet, Mussels Seeth’d with Parsley and Beer, a Dish of Turkey, Sauc’d, a Pottage of Cabbage, Leeks & Onions, and a Sweet Pudding of Native Corn.”)
Set off for Montana on my own some years later and I remember weeping when they played “American the Beautiful” on the radio. Amber waves of grain, purple mountain’s majesty, fruited plains– yes! Finally, a place where Thanksgiving meant a connection to the earth.
Reality was that I married a lovely man with two young daughters. Every holiday was a cause for a fight with his ex-wife over where the girls would land, and Thanksgiving was no different. If we had them for Thanksgiving, we missed Christmas morning. And it wasn’t up to us to decide.
But working at a newspaper there in Montana I helped create the most rewarding Thanksgiving I’d experienced. While doing a human interest story on Meals on Wheels, we discovered that they didn’t deliver on Thanksgiving. Restaurants weren’t open on Thanksgiving. If you had nowhere to go that last Thursday in November, you were out of luck.
So we set about hosting an all-volunteer free Thanksgiving dinner for the community, citing of course, the communal nature of that first Thanksgiving. My friend Sheryl cooked the 90 turkeys on the rotating racks of her enormous bakery oven. The head chef from a nearby resort came to organize the kitchen. Food poured in, money poured in, volunteers came out in droves. No one was asked to prove their need. They only needed to want to be there with all of us. The District Judge gave the opening prayer. We fed 700 people.
The next year, we did it again. My father and his wife were on hand for that one, and again, it went splendidly. The next night, over dinner in Livingston’s best restaurant, my father lit into me for my lack of self-discipline. When I tried to defend myself (“I write 5000 words a week for publication, Dad. That takes some self-discipline”) he roared at me that he wanted some respect. I got up and walked out, happy Thanksgiving.
We did the Community Thanksgiving Dinner until 2001, when the events of 9-11 tapped out everyone’s last dime for charity. There was not enough money, or energy leftover to give locally.
Years later, we came home one winter evening to find three turkeys standing in the driveway. Live turkeys. They looked a bit like wild turkeys, but turned out to be Bourbon Reds that belonged to the neighbors. We were welcome to them, the neighbors said.
Apparently they’d acquired 4 turkey chicks in the spring and named them Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter. Apparently “Thanksgiving” had put up such a ruckus at becoming the centerpiece of the holiday meal, the neighbors had lost interest in going through all that again.
Turkeys are funny animals. These three– two toms and a hen– liked to sit on the ridge line of the barns, or atop the chimneys like storks. They slept in the barn at night, bedding down in the straw with the ponies. They’d greet you in the morning and run to meet the car when we came home in the afternoon. They would cluck and coo and gobble as they made their way around the farm.
One day Edward the dog got loose and caught and savaged the two toms. I wanted to kill him, I really did. I was ready to load him up and head for the veterinarian. My son Julian, then about 8, wept and pleaded and argued Edward’s case until I gave in. I picked up the poor beleaguered carcasses, wrapped them in a sheet and set them in the back of the pick-up. I knew my husband would put them in the green dumpsters; there’s no burying anything in the Montana winter.
The hen mourned. I would watch her sitting alone on the barn roof. She wouldn’t go inside anymore. She turned away from the grain I brought her. With temperatures predicted to plunge to 20 below, I brought her into the mudroom of the house. She threw herself against the door. I let her out. In the morning I found her frozen to death in the snow.
It was a long time before I could face the carcass of a turkey on a platter. The next Thanksgiving we had a rib roast.
Late in August of 2005 my father came to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to recover from laryngeal cancer. In the inexorable march over the next three months he scheduled people to come and visit. We sent an email– offering to travel from Montana to Missouri for Thanksgiving, thinking one last chance to do this right– but our offer was refused. He’d already scheduled his wife’s son Michael and Michael’s family for Thanksgiving instead. Absent was any message of inclusion. He died the day after Christmas.
Two years later we moved to Ohio, and finally we had a shot at a real Thanksgiving with extended family– my 90-something-year-old grandmother, aunt and uncles. their families gathered at my uncle’s house. One year I brought the sublime macaroni and cheese I’d learned how to make from my southern Nana, and no one touched it.
But for the most part, these were happy gatherings, with pickles and noodles and turkey and ham and salads and a kid’s table and plenty of wine and conversations that went on long into the night. Then my grandmother died, and we met only one more time for the holiday. This year my Uncle tells me that the main event at his house is a “quarter pound mixed-meat hot dog and curly fries.” He did have cranberry juice for breakfast. I tell him that we need to be better organized.
We had a quiet thanksgiving here. We weren’t in the mood to cook, and the oven is broken anyway. We thought we’d just get by with burgers today. But the burger place was closed. You can’t buy a burger on Thanksgiving, but you can buy a big screen television. Or an iPad. Or whatever Macy’s and Kohl’s and Target is selling; the hordes out there trampling each other for deals hours after being grateful for what they already have.
Thanksgiving is marked at our house this year with bacon and eggs and hash-browns. Perhaps it’s better to just be thankful every day and never mind the rest of it.