Friday, November 25, 2005

The morning after

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love Christmas, too--but Thanksgiving holds a special place in my heart.

The first time I spent Thanksgiving away from my immediate family, I was about to be 24 years old*. I had been living in San Francisco, had fallen in love with Paul, and--in an effort to cut my ties to him, had quit my job, given up my apartment, and flown to Singapore, where my favorite uncle and his family were living. Unfortunately, those ties to Paul were stronger than I was, and he ended up flying over to travel through Thailand with me. We spent a month traveling, then returned to Singapore just before Thanksgiving. My uncle, who worked for DuPont at the time, had business in Hong Kong or somewhere, so my aunt and two young cousins (ages 12 and 10) had arranged to go to the local American club for dinner. Paul and I tagged along.

That Thanksgiving is not necessarily a favorite of mine: it felt strange to be eating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, in a country that did not recognize the day as a holiday, in a climate that felt very much like the middle of summer. I knew that Paul and I were finished, and each day spent with him was just rubbing a sore spot raw. My aunt and cousins were similarly out-of-sorts: after all, their own father wasn't even around. But I do remember feeling somehow grown-up; I survived a major holiday without any immediate family, and it wasn't that bad!

For many years after that, I went home only sporadically for Thanksgiving, saving my vacation days to come home during the Christmas holiday. Back in San Francisco, I befriended Jen, and spent several Thanksgivings with her family--all of us crowded into her sister's tiny apartment, the assorted cast of characters changing from year to year, depending on who was dating who. Those Thanksgivings were full of love and fun, and I remember them with the same kind of nostalgia that I do my own childhood holidays.

Once we got married and moved to L.A., Lance and I started rotating holidays--spending Thanksgiving with one family and Christmas with the other, then switching it the following year. By then my sister had married and had kids, and I no longer felt such a need to prove my independence, which made going home something to look forward to again. My parents bought a vacation home in North Carolina, and we started spending Thanksgivings on the Outer Banks, instead of Delaware. Instead of all the aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins, it was just my growing immediate family, with the occasional grandmother or cousin thrown in.

In Los Angeles, Lance's mother usually made dinner. Sometimes the cousins would join in, and usually the grandparents were there. Once, Thing One and Thing Two made an appearance. Sometimes Heidi joined us for the festivities.

Last year was the first Thanksgiving after my grandfather's death, so instead of spending the holiday with their own immediate families, my mother's whole clan stayed in Delaware, and we had Thanksgiving at an uncle's home. Everyone was there--my grandmother, all 6 of her children and their spouses, 12 grandchildren and their spouses, 8 great-grandkids. It was the first time since the funeral that we had all been together. Very reminiscent of the Thanksgivings we had as small children, with the kids playing in the basement and the adults chatting and drinking upstairs. Also bittersweet, because my grandfather wasn't able to enjoy it with us.

This year, Thanksgiving was held at my mother-in-law's again. Fortunately, Thing One and Thing Two couldn't make it. Instead, we invited our neighbors, who have two boys, aged 3 and 2. Our friends Del and Jen came, too. And Lance's two living grandmothers. It was a wonderful group, made all the more exciting and fun because the kids were absolutely wild. Isaac could not contain his excitement at having his two best buddies over to his grandmother's house, and spent much of the evening running from room to room, grabbing toys from here and there, shrieking and laughing with the sheer delight of it all. Vivian even got into the swing of things, getting so excited about a Turkey shaped sugar cookie that she almost fell out of her chair.

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It was wonderful, and unlike any Thanksgiving before it. In fact, since I started living on my own, most Thanksgivings have differed dramatically. The location, the people, the mood of the holiday changes each year. To me, that's what Thanksgiving has over Christmas--you never quite know what to expect. Yes, there is always turkey, and mashed potatoes, but everything else is subject to change. It might be small, with just Lance's parents and our little family. It could be large, with all the extended cousins and grandparents. It may be mostly friends, with just a few relatives. Or maybe everyone at the table is related to you by blood or marriage. Maybe you spend the morning walking on the beach in a t-shirt. Or you bundle up in wool sweaters to brave the wet cold air. One year, my mother even put oysters in the stuffing. If you are very lucky, everyone in the room loves each other--so whether it is the first holiday without a loved one or the first one with a new baby, everyone leaves feeling full--of food, of hope, of contentment.

I feel very lucky.

*Rah, if you are reading this: what did we do the year before that? Did we do Thanksgiving together in Mill Valley? Or were we fighting already by then? For some reason, I can't remember Thanksgiving 1992.

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