It was getting chilly. Cold, really. People were getting hungry, antsy, nervous -- how folks tend to act when families and friends gather for turkey and togetherness. Only back then, pilgrims and had just stepped off a boat and into a completely new life, the stakes were a little higher.
So what do you do when you're a pilgrim, your lifelong home back in England is nothing but a memory, and because of the Jetstream in North America (and the lack thereof back in jolly ol' England), you've miscalculated and made landfall entirely too far north -- relative to the lack of insulation in the clothes you brought? Oh yeah, and you also don't know anything about the animals and vegetation surrounding you. Regardless of what you might do, our ancestors undertook a course of action that, for better or for worse, set in motion the events, occasions, and traumas surrounding our annual November get-togethers.
And all they meant to do was survive the winter.
Good Ol' Days
Remember when the holidays were pleasant?
Let me restate that: there used to be a time when the holidays were pleasant. Believe it or not. It didn't used to be that Christmas decorations made appearances in stores in the month of October. It didn't used to be that Black Friday was a newsworthy occurrence.
Sometimes, you may wonder if there are people out there who actually have fond memories of family Thanksgiving dinners and look forward to them all year -- or is it a damnable lie?
So, it's Tuesday before Turkey Day. Kids are pulled out of school right after lunch. Bags were packed last night -- except for mom's because she was too busy making sure everyone else was ready. Kids are in tow, but instead of a leisurely trip to the airport, there's a detour back to the house to pick up mom and her freshly-packed bag.
Airport.Parking. Lugging bags across multiple football fields' worth of concrete because dad wanted to pay $1 less per day. Checking in.Checkpoints. Remove your shoes.
"Is there a metal screw in your knee or something, sir? Step over here."
You've been randomly chosen to be violated by a TSA agent. Enjoy!
If God is smiling, the flight is uneventful. If God is laughing, you get to sit separately from your family next to Sweaty-Vomiting Man --and he missed a shower this morning.
Finally, touchdown. No lost bags. Rental car is a breeze. Off to grandma's.
Hugs. Smiles -- some of them are forced. Multiple arrivals of exponentially-increasing relatives. And it begins.
Thanksgiving By Numbers
59: Percent of Americans who will check their work email at least once on Thanksgiving Day.
15: Percent of them who are thankful for the distraction.
248 million: Number of turkeys raised in the United States in 2011 (that's almost 7.5 billion pounds of bird).
7.5 billion: Collective weight of the population of Singapore.
750 million: Pounds of cranberries projected to be produced in 2011. No figures available on how many of them are shaped like cans.
13.3: Pounds of turkey consumed annually by the average American.
768: Miles-per-hour that sound travels. When the Air Force was conducting test runs in the 1940s and breaking the sound barrier, the resulting sonic booms caused fields of (heart-attack-prone) turkeys to drop dead of fright.
2: Things for which Sarah Josepha Hale, an American magazine editor, is known: persuading Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, and composing "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
4,500: Calories consumed on Thanksgiving Day by the average American. Ever wonder why the United States is a nation of fat people?
The Relatives No One Wanted To Invite -- but Granny Mabel did so because she felt obligated. On the one hand, these people have to go somewhere. On the other hand, "do they have to come here?" Mom tells dad not to make such a fuss -- they probably won't come, anyway. Then again, everyone knows that familiar feeling when the doorbell rings and a cacophony of clearing throats -- including uncomfortable joking about how if there was any chance of them actually showing up, they wouldn't have been invited; and under-the-breath oaths to keep an eye on the silver -- begins.
The Rebellious Teen."Why is our cousin putting Doritos on his mashed potatoes? And is that a straw in the gravy boat? He's such a sweet boy, but what's with his pants? They look like they're falling off. But he's giggling at everything I say, and his eyes are so very, very red."
The Whispering Aunts. Always with the whispering."What grade is she in now? Ninth, I think. Her poor mother. To have to look at that beautiful girl every day and see that she just ruined her hair. Who dyes their hair that color? Hand to God, if my daughter ever did that to herself... Oh, and our nephew -- did you hear? Kicked out of that Baptist college. The story is he pulled a bunch of fire alarms, but he looks like he's on drugs to me." See, the italics mean "whispering." Also, there is the very outside chance that the whole Baptist college thing might be slightly autobiographical.
The Family Smoke Hole. When there's a family gathering spanning four generations, invariably, there's a group of kids -- maybe the teenaged cousins and a few twentysomethings-once-removed -- who just can't stand another minute around the elderly and need a break. Cue the garage. When one of the older aunts steps out to pull the fruit salad she made last night out of the fridge, she is assaulted by a nicotine cloud. The teenagers look around desperately for something to do, some non-tobacco-related activity that would justify their being out there in the first place, the young adults scoff at the kids, and dear auntie bums a smoke. "Don't tell Uncle, kids." Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
Resentment.The superstar of the holidays, resentment pervades just about everything. Steven is angry that he never got to take ballet as a child. Michelle blames her parents for her lifelong inability to push back from the table. Grandmother wanted to be a dancer, but since PeePaw knocked her up after The Big One, she was relegated to kitchening and baby-making. No New York for her, and she's looking for someone to blame.
Togetherness. The kind cousin of resentment, togetherness is the thing that makes all of the above worth it. For all the things commonly complained about, for all the terrible Thanksgiving anecdotes told, the truth is, they soon become laughable topics of conversation. Usually, some decades-long feud gets quietly settled; someone lets something else go and decides to be friends again; or some long-forgotten memory corrects the perception of someone who had been holding on to a misperceived slight since the Carter administration. The family settles down for games or a movie. The kids play Speed or Go Fish. The adults break out Scrabble, and dad eventually makes a last-ditch effort to win by trying to play "llamalistic." "No way, dad. That's not a word." "Sure it is. It means 'of or pertaining to a llama.'""No way, dad. Not this time." He then tries sneaking a few extra tiles.
Before there was such a thing as a digital native, family gatherings were different. Back in the day, when the clan gathered at the patriarch's home, there were hugs, laughter, stories, and the grandchildren grudgingly performed their piano pieces for the extended family.
"Here's what we did since we saw you last Christmas. What have you been doing with yourself, dad? Retirement suits you. Really. And mom, since you took up gardening, your vegetables are incredible! Man, these green onions are delicious."
These days, the real function of family holiday gatherings revolves around stuff the digital immigrant grandparents can't do themselves.
"Well, Mikey, we sure love living out our sunset years here, but this iPot isn't working right." "It's an iPod, dad." "Right, iPod. Anyway, do you know why it won't play the songs in order?'I Write the Songs' isn't supposed to play before 'Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again.' That really bothers me.""Mikey, honey, would you be a dear and look at our email? When we get on the interwebs, we keep getting that 409 message." "It's 404, mom, and the Internet and email are different things."
There comes a time when you have to put your foot down. Especially if you're an IT guy in real life.
"No, mom, I won't fix your printer. I'm here to see family. This is supposed to be time off."
Timeless Holiday Traditions
Not everything is different than it was back in the day -- and this is the holiday stuff so deeply cherished. Of course, there's football, which dates back to the very first Thanksgiving when Ye Olde Dallas Cowboys played the Cleveland Indians, and then later in the day when Detroit lost. It doesn't matter that we don't remember who they lost to. We just know they lost. Really, come on -- it's Detroit. That's just what they do. They give the world Eminem and bad football.
But there are also the small inconveniences and discomforts that are always mercilessly heaped upon the kids.
Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone gets a piece of some of this stuff.
"Ricky, Uncle Lester has a bad back. Remember when he had that disc operation? Yeah, so anyway, he's not going to be able to sleep on the pullout couch because that bar across the middle will hurt his back too much. But you're young and resilient, so it won't bother you all that much. So Uncle Lester and Aunt Steve will be staying in your bedroom while they're here. Oh, don't be ridiculous, Ricky. That couch isn't that bad. You'll be fine."
Grandma still has a mustache. Little Jennifer still can't stop herself from asking the age-old question concerning why grandma has a mustache.
There's always story time. Someone suggests that everyone tell their favorite holiday memory. Someone will begin telling that same tale from the family lore about the Thanksgiving that dad tried to deep-fry the turkey and ended up setting the garage on fire. But the family was so resilient and just happy to be together that once the garage was extinguished and mom had penciled some eyebrows back onto dad, the cousins all made a run to the store and bought sliced turkey.
Aunt Ginny finishes the story with a flourish, telling how they all ate turkey sandwiches that day and gave thanks that everyone was okay. Bobby was in such a bad mood that Thanksgiving! Then again, his bike had been in that garage. It was ruined, and he had to walk to school for a month.
"Oh, Bobby. Don't dwell so much on the negative."
A few more stories come out. They almost never involve hookers in their major plot points. But then there's that one family member who opens her story in a way that tells everyone this might not be the usual holiday tale.
Cousin Andrea might preface it by saying that it might not be her favorite memory, but it's a good story. It's about the one Thanksgiving night that mom had too much wine while she was cooking. Andrea tells -- with only the slightest bitterness in her voice -- about how her mom fell asleep on the couch during dinner, lit cigarette in her mouth.
"Why didn't we have batteries in that smoke detector the year dad burned down the garage, am I right?"
Andrea's story continues with mom drunk on the couch, the carpet on fire, dad grabbing a glass of water to throw on the flames, but he trips on baby Stephanie's walker. He falls face-first into the coffee table -- "smile, dad, show them that space where your tooth used to be" -- and splashes every drop on mom.
Of course, she thought he was throwing the water on her, which made her bound up from the couch, slap him hard in the face, and blindly shout out how she knew she should never have married him in the first place, because Spencer Hasenpfeffer is successful now, and he had wanted to marry her.
"Man, that was a funny story. Come on, people! Why are you looking at me like you're uncomfortable? That's a funny one. Maybe that's my favorite holiday memory after all."
Awkward silence -- the soundtrack of family holiday gatherings.
There was once a time when Thanksgiving and the day after were for celebrating, watching football and ushering in the Christmas season. The television played in the background. Everyone kept one eye on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- maybe the local high school's marching band got to be in it that year. The parade offered sneak peeks at whatever smash hit was playing on Broadway that the family would never, ever have a chance to see in real life. Matt Lauer said neat things about stuff floating across the tube. Al Roker was still fat.
And the world got a little brighter when Santa was seen bringing up the rear of the parade.
That day and the next, families spent their time recovering from eating a little too much, maybe finishing cleaning the kitchen, and hauling out the Christmas decorations.
"Hey, here's the wishbone. I can't believe we forgot it! Here, Jenny, pull."
Laughs. Smiles. Mild profanity from Dad regarding yet another tangle in the string of lights.
"Oh, hey, listen to what's playing on the radio! It's that one Christmas song from that one singer who made a Christmas record! Now it's reallyholidays time!"
These days, Thanksgiving tryptophan is not so much something to fight against while watching the Detroit Lions get spanked again as it is a sleep aid -- mom needs to hit the hay at 3pm so she can be rested and in line at the electronics store before 9pm, ready to take advantage of the sales. And how cynical is all that in general?
"Hi, we here at BuyMoStuff are selling the new Super Laptop (complete with 100 terabytes of memory, cubulator-carbulators, gold rims, and the 600 Blaster extras package) for eleven dollars! That's right! And we printed in half-point type at the bottom of the advertisement in that gargantuan newspaper that we have only one of these available. The rest of them cost $17,000. And we're so glad so many of you have promised them to your lovely little children."
"And I, Sarah Soccer Mom, am taking advantage of these deals by buying every single half-priced Playstation 8 so I can sell them on EBay. Christmas, Schmistmas. Mama's getting paid."
It ends up being worth it all, in the end -- the travel, the family politics, the pent-up anger, the suburban dysfunction, that one dish that was prepared horribly wrong. Actual fun times eventually ensue. They almost always do, and be honest -- surprise immediately follows. But a pleasant surprise is a wonderful thing.
You end up liking that guy who your sister has been dating for three years as you finally begin to get past the idea of what he's been doing with her in his apartment after dark. Uncle Jimmy finally makes it through an entire fourth Thursday of November without saying something that makes absolutely everyone uncomfortable.
Grandma Idabel breaks the tension surrounding the family's accidental discovery of Amanda's recent tattoo by revealing (though not showing anyone) that she has had a tattoo of a tiger on her left breast for sixty years. Said tiger is a lot longer these days than it used to be, but still -- Grandma Idabel has a tattoo, so no one can get all that bent out of shape over Amanda's butterfly on her ankle. Hatchets get buried. Food gets eaten. Family time is spent. And spent well.
Hey, things could be worse. Ever spend Thanksgiving alone? Worse, in the emergency room? Now, that sucks.
At any rate, this year, I vow not to be in need of any sort of urgent care. If anyone brings up my Baptist college past and all the related shenanigans, I'll be able to laugh about it, and not just the funny parts. There will be no Doritos on my potatoes this year. I will not drink gravy. If I am in need of Visine, I will use it.
I will not force my son to sleep somewhere other than his bed so that someone I neither know nor like, but to whom I am nonetheless related can be more comfortable while freeloading at my house.
I will not set foot in a store of any kind on That Friday.
I will soak up holiday spirit. I will break the chain of abuse by not cheating at Scrabble now that I'm the one who's the dad. I will hug my cousins.
Well, most of them.
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