Thanksgiving Away From Home

by Jen Doll

In my family, only one Thanksgiving tradition has stood the test of time and place. It’s not the turkey or the stuffing or even my mother’s famous pumpkin rolls, though if we are lucky, those foods are all there, and they are delicious. It’s not food at all, or the particular array of people present. It’s what happens in the moment toward the end of dinner, once the meal has been devoured and praised, when the coffee is being made and the pie being sliced and doled out onto plates. My dad pours himself another wine — red, of course, “it’s good for the heart!” he says — looks at the table in front of him, and asks, “What is everyone most thankful for this year?”

For a snarky bunch, we actually take this question seriously, and go around the table offering answers that range from silly to profound. Thanksgiving is special. It’s a day in which cheesy Q&A sessions, feeling surprisingly earnest, maybe even feeling openly grateful, are not just OK; they’re encouraged. (So is day-drinking, but that’s another story, and can lead to different, less heartwarming consequences.)

Through the years, my Thanksgivings have varied drastically. Because my parents moved out of the country — to England and then Asia, way too far for a long-weekend trip — after I graduated from high school, I never experienced the kind of Thanksgiving that involves really, truly going back home, to the house in Alabama where I’d spent my formative years. I never had the Thanksgivings of those who annually return to the places where they grew up, gathering friends from childhood at some local bar to reminisce after serving out the proper quota of family time. Instead, I had a cornucopia of Thanksgivings, with different people and their families.

For several years I went home with a good friend from college, whose family generously took me into their comfortable New Jersey abode for the holiday. There we did all the things my own family might have done had we been together: Ate turkey, talked over the pie about politics and current events and our personal affairs, drank loads of good wine, and at night, relaxed in front of the TV with seconds of dessert before heading up to the coziness of bed in a house where everyone has bonded and been fed well. I remember feeling a small pang of loneliness because I was not with my own family — the question wasn’t asked, and I didn’t dare ask it. In the years that followed, I returned to that home again and again for Thanksgiving, so much so that its traditions became very nearly mine, too. The turkey and stuffing, while not my mom’s, were very good.

Then it changed again. I spent one Thanksgiving with a new boyfriend’s family on Cape Cod, where the house was chilly and the food and traditions unfamiliar. We kept out of sight of his mom and dad, who argued incessantly, spending most of our time smoking pot in his bedroom or arguing at a local bar. I went to Boston, where my brother and his fiancée lived at the time, and we cooked a chicken and ate it at their kitchen table. (Did we ask my dad’s Thanksgiving question and offer answers? Possibly, and possibly in jest.)

There was another Thanksgiving in Boston that began so promisingly with potential new friends — until everyone got so drunk there were fisticuffs, a bloody lip, and a speedy departure (later, we would be more upset about not getting any leftovers than we were about the punching incident. The guy deserved it). There was last Thanksgiving, which I spent across the country with other new friends and without fisticuffs; I called my parents to wish them happy holidays and my dad asked me his usual question, supplying the answer for me (I had just sold a book). And I have a vivid recollection of the holiday I had with a good friend’s family in upstate New York. After the meal, as the pie was being served, I got up the nerve to suggest we follow my dad’s long-held tradition: “Let’s all say what we’re most thankful for this year!” Half the people at the table looked at me as if I had suggested cannibalism.

Though the day may range from Rockwellian to apocalyptic, Thanksgiving still tends to feel like the most consistent of holidays. We’re home, or at least enveloped in a sense of home that is familiar.

After a handful of years abroad, my parents eventually moved back to the United States, buying a house in Florida. Soon after that, I decided to visit for Thanksgiving, combining the holiday with what seemed almost like an all-inclusive vacation. After all, there was a pool, and all the food I could eat, at no charge. I bought a ticket, threw my flip flops and swimsuit in a bag, and flew down. The holiday décor and much of the food was the same, but for Thanksgiving dinner there were strangers present, friends of my parents whom I hadn’t met yet, their children, and even friends of friends. They’d all brought along their own potluck contributions to and expectations of the holiday. Other things had changed, too. Still, between the meal and the pie, which we ate outside on the screened-in patio to make the most of the South Florida weather, the same thing happened as always. “Let’s go around the table and say what we’ve been most thankful for this year,” said my dad, pouring himself another wine. And, raising our own glasses, and without an ounce of snark, we did.

Previously: Writing, Depression and Learning How to Handle Attention: A Conversation with Allie Brosh

Photo via becw/flickr.

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.