Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I love in theory and dislike in practice. It’s not because I’m not thankful – I am, for so many, many things – but honestly? When you come from a small family, Thanksgiving is more about the food than anything else. And it’s kind of a pain in the arse.
Here is a snapshot of my family:
I am an only child.
My mother had one brother that she didn’t get along with 50% of the time. He’s lived in California all of my life. He had two daughters with his first wife, my cousins Lisa and Caroline. I’ve met Lisa exactly twice in my life. Caroline I’ve hung out with three times, but to be fair, we keep in touch on Facebook and sometimes via texting. My uncle Dick had two kids with his second wife, my cousins Chelsea and Jordan. I’ve met Chelsea once, when she was barely out of toddlerhood; I’ve never even met Jordan. Ever. We’re also friends on Facebook.
My mom’s dad died when I was seven. Her mom, my nana, passed when I was a sophomore in college. They lived in Boston and I saw them a couple times a year if I was lucky. My nana kind of hated me because she thought I looked too much like my father. Well, everyone says she didn’t hate me, but she sure acted like she did. I am still wounded from the times that I would answer the phone with a cheerful, “Hi, Nana!” and she’d snarl, “Put your mother on.”
We spent one Thanksgiving in Rancho Mirage with my uncle, his then-wife Suzanne, Chelsea, and my nana. It was a very strange trip in that I was 12 and had my period for only the third time in my life. My mom got angry with me on the plane because I hadn’t mastered how to use a tampon yet and it was a really long flight. When we got to my uncle’s house, his big dog – I don’t remember what kind, but to 12-year-old me, it was ENORMOUS – tried to…um…have his way with me. It was beyond traumatizing.
My father has one sister; that’s my aunt Barbara. We’ve always been close and she’s been like a mother to me since college. She and my uncle Jeffrey have two boys, my cousins Zach and Josh, and they’re like brothers I don’t get to hang out with all that often. Funny thing: Zach has worked in Delaware for years and now actually lives here, but I still pretty much ONLY see him when Joe and I drive to Fort Washington for Shabbat dinners.
I actually lived with these guys for the eight months after I fled Fort Wayne but before I left for grad school. And when I moved home after I got my MFA, and the boys were still in school, I used to drive up for Shabbat dinners/Family Game Night almost every Friday. Then Zach spent a semester in Israel, and Josh was working the bar- and bat mitzvah circuit, and that kind of stopped.
I still miss those dinners.
My aunt’s mom passed when she was 13. My grandpop remarried, and that’s the only grandmother I knew on that side of the famlily. Grandpop died just a few days before my 17th birthday; his funeral was actually ON my birthday. Grandmom died in February 2006.
When I was little, Thanksgiving was spent at Gram and Grandpop’s house. After Grandpop passed and Gram moved to Virginia, to live with her sister, my aunt took up the mantle. Sometimes her in-laws would come down. I still dream about my uncle’s mom’s chestnut stuffing. It had a pinkish hue but was OMG good.
Delicious stuffing aside, I spent most Thanksgivings kind of bored. The men watched football. Zach is almost nine full years younger than I am, and Josh three years his junior; they tended to play video games. I was the only one in my generation and most of the time I was considered too young to help out in the kitchen. I read a lot to keep myself occupied.
I longed for a big family gathering, one filled with touch football games and annual traditions. But when you come from a small family, this isn’t the norm.
When I stopped speaking to my father – this was back in grad school – I lost Thanksgivings with my Fort Washington family. I thought maybe we could trade off years, but my aunt felt strongly that no one should be alone on a holiday. We started a new tradition of dinners together the following day, for post-Thanksgiving Shabbat.
So then I started having Thanksgivings with my mom and stepfather. Literally, just the three of us. My mom and I would prepare these enormous menus that would result in about four times as many leftovers as we ate on the actual day. She’d stress herself out – holidays were almost ALWAYS stressful for Mom – and there was some other general unpleasantness. Like I said: no love lost between me and Thanksgiving.
I spent one Thanksgiving with Joe’s family before his grandfather passed away. It was a big, noisy affair with aunts, uncles, and cousins streaming in at different times. Their tradition was to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation after dinner. They shouted out lines with each other. It was nice. We’d planned on making this our new tradition.
But Pop passed in spring 2009, and Grammy didn’t host the following year. We had Thanksgiving with my mom and stepfather instead.
The year after that, my parents went to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, and we were displaced. This is the year that my best friend Wendy insisted that Joe and I come to Thanksgiving at her house. I felt odd, like I’d be invading her family gathering. Nonsense, she told me. I insisted on making stuff, because that is what I do. So I brought a pot of my mom’s pumpkin and sausage soup, a batch of her cornbread dressing, a kale gratin, and a goopy cranberry pie with botched homemade crust that we affectionately dubbed “Frankenpie.” I made Ina Garten’s gravy, which is so good that Wendy eats the leftovers like it’s actually a soup, at her house, just before turkey was served.
Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving with Wendy and her family: it is, typically, a drama-free affair. Everyone is generally pleasant and no one argues. There’s a lot of laughing. We all help out in the kitchen. Wendy’s husband, dad, and uncle watch football in the basement. Joe watches YouTube videos with Wendy’s kids. I catch up with her brother’s girlfriend Jenna, whom I adore. We all eat too much pie. Wendy sends everyone home with leftovers.
It’s really, really nice, is what it is.
And that’s what Joe and I have done for the past four Thanksgivings. And I actually started to look forward to the holiday again, if you can believe it.
So when I told Wendy that this year we wouldn’t be coming – that Joe’s aunt Brenda was hosting a big family Thanksgiving and had invited us to go – I felt really sad. It’s not that I don’t like Joe’s family, because I do. And I love his aunt Brenda, who’s this totally ballsy badass who says whatever comes to her mind and doesn’t censor a single thought. Plus, we don’t get to see Grammy and Joe’s brother Archie enough – or see ANY of his family enough, really.
But. You know.
Going to Wendy’s for Thanksgiving had become OUR tradition. Joe’s and mine. Her kids start asking about the pumpkin soup weeks before. Hell, they thought I was bringing it to Easter dinner. If it were up to them, they’d have pumpkin soup at every holiday (kind of like how my cousins would prefer to have my aunt’s matzo ball soup at every holiday).
When Joe got aunt Brenda’s invitation, he started dancing around our living room like a little kid. He is SO excited to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and that excitement is infectious. Plus, we got off easy this year; I’m making a double batch of my mom’s soup this morning and we made our semi-famous Sour Cream Apple Pie yesterday afternoon. That’s it. No stuffing, no gravy, no kale gratin.
Tomorrow, we’ll go to aunt Barbara’s and have a lovely second Thanksgiving with my second family, and then Thanksgiving will be officially over until 2015. I’m more than okay with that.
Besides, I have to start planning this year’s Christmas dinner. I’m hosting my stepfather and his neighbor Charlotte, who was one of my mom’s best friends. I’m looking forward to it. Christmas was always my mom’s holiday, after all.
Let me end on a positive note: I honestly have so much to be thankful for this year. More than I ever thought possible. And if Joe’s and my biggest issue on Thanksgiving is figuring out which of our many loved ones to spend it with, then we don’t have any real issues at all.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!