Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays. Some version of Christmas exists nearly anywhere you go, but not Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the one you must create, wherever you are, the one that makes you American and makes you find the company of other Americans.
Growing up, we all climbed into the wood-paneled station wagon and headed to my Gramma’s house to celebrate with my Irish side of the family (creamed onion side dish, which I have never seen or heard of at any other Thanksgiving table). I remember the elegant woodwork in the house that her father built, how the dining room had a deep window seat with brass latches you pull up. Inside seemed a chamber of secrets about my fiercely independent grandmother, widowed when my mom was just three. I remember once finding drawings—a hand, a foot, a still life—she had been taking an art class. I remember the tank for the toilet was high above the bowl with a pull-chain. In the doorway from the hall to the kitchen were the pencil makings, to see how tall we had grown year to year. Through the kitchen there was a back door with a porch and a doorway to another set of stairs. These went up to the attic, which was as magic a place as anything. A floor had been nailed down over the insulation, so we could walk around. I can still smell the air there: stale and woody. The bones of the house were visible in the attic; so much thought seemed to have gone into every detail. Down where the eaves met the walls were all sorts of fantastic things: a built-in bookshelf and desk, a clothing rail from which my mother’s beautiful 50s and 60s dresses hung. In the center of the attic, at the roof’s highest pitch, there was a swing. We ate Thanksgiving there until the year my grandmother fell and broke her hip. She pounded on the floor for hours until her sister, who lived below, came home.
Since I went to university quite far from my childhood home, going home for Thanksgiving was usually impractical and cost-prohibitive. I would have to fly home, after all, just a few short weeks later for our frightening large Christmas Day celebration with the Italian side of the family, where my army of cousins would gather and we would eat heaps of homemade raviolis.
In California, once we moved off-campus and into our own apartments, playing at being adults, we started our own Thanksgivings. There were enough of us who were either too far or too disinclined to return home. There were always drunken confessions, and random guests at the table. Something was likely over or under-cooked. Then there was the time that my friend worked in the home office of a adult photographer (it being L.A., after all), and was house-sitting while he and his wife were in Cabo. We held our dinner there, in a house nestled high in a Beverly Hills canyon above Sunset Blvd, a world away from our apartments.
The first year in Brooklyn, when some of those same California friends and I found ourselves in the wintry east, we were totally broke. We held terrible temp jobs and the bills tacked up on the fridge were in pink and red–second and third notices. Still, by this time our tradition had become each other and that’s what we would celebrate. The most organized of us taught me how to roll pie dough and created a shopping spread sheet for the ingredients and scheduled cooking times. It is no wonder that she later got an MBA and is a successful business executive. My contribution was cheesy choreography. At some point it was decided that there would be a dance-off, boys vs. girls, with the loser having to do the dishes. The first year the music was “Spice Up Your Life.” I would teach a routine to the girls, and then the boys. We laughed so hard at the boys’ earnest efforts that we willingly gave them the crown.
One year we were in Amsterdam for a film festival and had a feast–Malaysian style–with two other American who were in town. As my friends began having children, the orphans’ Thanksgiving vanished. People started celebrating with their new families or returned to their extended families.
In our first year of parenting, I was grateful to rejoin my mother’s table with my sons and all their cousins. My in-laws came from New York. After dinner, the boys found a push toy and amazed us and themselves: they were much closer to walking than we knew.
This year, Sascha’s aunt and uncle from NYC spent the holiday with us, after a long trip that included going to Israel and London. (They swoop in to cook when we need it the most: in Los Angeles, a few months after the boys were born and the frozen meals in the freezer were eaten up, they came and cooked for us every night for a week.) The boys were a bit shy with them at first, but soon they started called their great Uncle Steve simply and definitively, “UNCLE!” If you know him and his outsized-personality, you know this is especially fitting. As in: the one, the only, “UNCLE!”
This Thanksgiving, we wanted to open the cottage doors and invite our apple-bearing neighbors for pie and crisp and show them gratitude for the kindness they have shown us.
We did not think of next year and wonder where the table would be set. We only thought of all we had before us on the table and were glad.
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HAPPY (BELATED) THANKSGIVING!