The countdown to Thanksgiving is on, despite the fact that retailers would like you to choke down your turkey and fixin’s so you can dash off to stand in line for Black Friday sales. To me, though, they are so missing the point: Thanksgiving is by far my favorite day of the year and should be savored and enjoyed. A holiday that celebrates gratitude, includes the most natural, deepest sleep-inducing ingredients (red wine + tryptophan = better than Ambien), AND has the best leftovers? Perfection.
Yet there is one lil’ caboose in the Thanksgiving party train that can send the whole damn day swinging off the rails: family. You know, the peeps who put the “fun” into dysfunction. My earliest Thanksgiving memory encapsulates exactly that: it was the early 1970s, and an aunt of mine had just had her legs amputated due to complications from diabetes.
As her husband wheeled her into the house from her new tricked out van, every single grownup in the room started to cry. Not discrete tearing up, mind you — heaving, loud sobs. As a huge fan of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I was terrified: Sendak’s vision of monstrous, horrifying aunts, uncles, and cousins was coming to life in my own living room! Thankfully, my aunt’s hippie sons had the wherewithal to whisk me out of the room and give me a little pre-Channukah gift: Sea Monkeys and the newly released Led Zeppelin IV. Although it would be years before I understood any of what I’d experienced, I always associate Sea Monkeys with shimmering tears, and to this day can barely listen to hauntingly ironic lyrics of “Black Dog” (“Hey, hey Mama, said the way you move…” — crap, not so much.)
Those early gatherings really taught me how nutty Thanksgiving could really be: my Uncle Lou would give me a handful of silver dollars, but if I didn’t write him a thank you note the very next day, we’d hear about it — either in a handwritten page-long diatribe addressed directly to me or a nasty phone call to my mom where the deaf old man would scream at her loud enough for people a town over to hear. Then there was misogynistic Uncle Jimmy, who never once said please or thank you and treated all women like servants and men, like my younger brother, like fellow businessmen, if not drinking buddies. I thank Uncle Jimmy for my feminist bent and also a successful career as a waitress, since being around him for a decade of Thanksgivings really shaped my personality, not to mention impeccable serving skills.
Eventually my mom decided that dutiful Thanksgivings were no fun for any of us, so she jettisoned obligation and moved us over to celebrate with the only family on her side that were young, relaxed, and fun to be with. Not that there was no crazy — there totally was, like the time my political activist cousin told my very proper Bostonian Grandma about how he got stoned with Yippie Abbie Hoffman shortly before his death. (I think it was my cousin’s attempt at an Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving fable.) But overall, it was a lot easier to feel grateful for family when surrounded by folks we would choose to hang out with even if they weren’t blood relatives.
But perhaps the most memorable Thanksgiving for me was the last one I spent in New England. I’d recently broken up with a serious boyfriend and was dating a new guy. I asked my mom if I could bring him around for the holiday, and she aced that idea. She argued that she hadn’t even met him, and she really didn’t want to impose my rebound beau on our family. What she didn’t know was that the new guy was the for real guy. As we cleared dishes from the Thanksgiving table, I broke the news to my mom that I had fallen hopelessly in love and was moving after the holidays from Boston to New York to be with him.
And yes, there was some screaming, yelling, and maybe a little gnashing of teeth. Superficially I was breaking the news that I was moving away from our hometown, perhaps for good — but what I was really telling her that Thanksgiving was that our family was about to expand. Not that I had a ring on my finger or a child in my belly yet, but from the deepest place in my heart I could tell that everything as I knew it was about to change. And for that I was overwhelmingly grateful.
November 16th is presumed rebound guy and my 16th wedding anniversary. And less than a week later, we will sit down at my transplanted New England parents’ California Thanksgiving table with our children at our side. Turns out anyone can be a pilgrim at any time, drawn to a new world for many good reasons — but the best reason of all is for love and family.
So if you see me trying a bite of every dessert this Thanksgiving, just know that symbolically I’m celebrating the sweetness of life. And eating as a metaphor for life means no calories (right?!) — one more thing to give thanks for!
Speaking of symbolic foods, you might want to make my Grandma’s Cranberry Mold — chock full o’ nuts — perhaps as it is at your own Thanksgiving table!
3 cups boiling water
2 small packages cherry Jell-O
1 large can of crushed pineapple (with juice)
2 cans WHOLE cranberry sauce
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 small bag of shelled walnuts
Red grapes and orange slices for garnish
Add the boiling water to the Jell-O. Add cranberry sauce, lemon juice, crushed pineapple with juice, and nuts. Pour into a greased Jell-O ring and let set overnight. Garnish with red grapes and orange slices, and enjoy!