I have a memory of Thanksgiving from my childhood: My uncle and his son, who was about 15 at the time, came over to have dinner with me and my parents. My 8-year-old self tried really hard to “play” with my older cousin – I remember us sitting on the floor rolling a ball back and forth under the coffee table – but he wasn’t’ really interested and I wasn’t really interested and it went down as one of the most boring Thanksgivings in history.
Then there was the one where all the sinks backed up and we couldn’t cook until the plumber came.
And the one where the dog got sick and threw up all over the house and we ended the night in the veterinary emergency room.
And, when i was a little older, the one where I just gave up on participating and spent the day watching an X-Files marathon on FX.
No, Thanksgiving didn’t really “click” for me until I stopped spending it at my parents’ house. I had just moved to Chicago one October and got a retail job, so being away for Black Friday was not happening. “But the store’s closed on Thanksgiving,” my co-worker said. “What are you going to do for dinner?”
“Come over to my house. We’re having a bunch of people. It’s all orphans like us – people who can’t go home.” And then he drew me a map to his house, and we discovered he lived around the corner from me.
That became Thanksgiving #1 – and they made a tur-duck-in (a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey), and we drank, and played games, and for the first time I felt both like I belonged at the table and that there was something to be thankful for. We had 4 more “Orphans Thanksgivings” in Chicago:
Thanksgiving #2: “Litte things” – where all the foods were “appetizer sized”
Thanksgiving #3: Deep-fried turkey and circus wine… I’m told the turkey, which they fried on the back porch, was delicious, but the wine – several bottles named after circus performers, like “tightrope walker” and “strong man” was my favorite.
Thanksgiving #4: “Orange foods” – carrot stuffing, cheese soup, mashed sweet potatoes… we got our vitamin A that year
Thanksgiving #5: “Thanksgiving comes early” – celebrated in September due to extenuating circumstances.
That year, after pulling together an entire Thanksgiving dinner in September, I was not willing to prepare and host another dinner in November. I mentioned this to my co-worker, who over the years had transitioned from co-worker to actual friend, and he agreed. “Come to my parents’ house,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing this year.”
I was skeptical. After years away from my own parents’ house I wasn’t sure I was willing to spend the holiday with anyone’s parents. It seemed like backtracking. But here’s what happened:
I met my friend at his house after he finished work. By the time we had dinner and got ready, it was late – after 10pm. We started driving the 3 hours, stopping for coffee at my favorite place, Tim Hortons. We passed tiny upstate towns with gazebos already lit with Christmas lights. He showed me the “landmarks” along the way – particular stores, streets with funny names. We listened to music and sang. When we got there, after midnight, we tiptoed in and I got assigned a room next to the wood-burning stove that heated the house – warm and cozy. Dinner was cooked for us – for the first time in years I wasn’t responsible for anything. The parade was on TV, and then Lifetime movies. At least 10 other family members showed up, all bearing dishes of food. Instantly I was part of the family. And nothing bad happened.
Next week will be year 3 of this new tradition. I look forward to it with a sense of calmness. It feels like it has always been this way, and I like that. The other Thanksgivings have faded, like all memories do with time, and I’ve adopted a forgiveness for the ones that had seemed to unbearable. I drive on Wednesday, hoping for coffee at Tim Hortons.