My Italian friend Liz (a real Italian who lives in Italy and speaks Italian) emailed me asking me what is this “something day” everyone is talking about. And by “talking about” she means Twitter and Facebook updates. I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an answer that would do the day justice so that she would be wowed by the richness of American culture. Since there’s a Michelangelo in most Italian churches, I wanted to come up with something really good, but this is the best I could do:
“Thanksgiving Day. It's the most important holiday in the U.S. Basically, it's the Thursday where you are forced to spend time with your family and you make it tolerable by pigging out and watching football.”
Liz might think I’m being cynical; after all, she has no reason to think otherwise since she knows me. However, I am not being cynical. And most of you can attest that I am, indeed, painting an accurate picture. Yes, of course, there are those lovey-dovey families who are really close, but they’re very rare and very annoying in their particular kind of dys-functionality. (You’re not fooling anyone.)
First, so that you foreigners can understand the true historical perspective and not what you might read in history books, I suggest you watch the second Addams Family movie; particularly the Camp Chippewa scenes. Howard Zinn could not have come up with a better illustration of the Pilgrim/Native American alleged schmooze-fest. (See photo above.)
For most Americans, going home for Thanksgiving feels like a million dentist appointments crammed inside Jehovah’s Witness sales pitch. But it’s something they feel they must do. And so that Liz understands what this day really means, most dinners end with one or more family members saying to each other:
I’m sure the Italians have their own special day where they tell family members to go fuck themselves. In my family, that could have been any occasion we spent together. You see, up until recently, before my mom and grandma died, we insisted on being close and united. (We were raised to believe that family is what matters most no matter what. That an ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship.) Toward that end, my parents threw elaborate, booze-filled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners where the cliché drunk uncle picked a fight with one of his kids, wife, and/or sibling and the evening ended with artichokes flying across the room, granny as referee and everyone in tears. Of course, the next morning, it was as if nothing had happened and the next year we were back on the edge of our seats waiting to see what would set off our uncle again. Then, somehow, people grew up, moved away, or died and the parties got smaller.
Except for the one time my sister’s ex-husband brought his insecure, Goth Olyve Oyl look-alike girlfriend and she got offended because someone put a dish on top of her made-from-a-pumpkin-from her-backyard pumpkin pie, we had a pretty peaceful and uneventful holiday celebration run. That is, until last year when my dad got drunk, my sister told him off, he told her off in return, I asked him to leave, and then my brother kicked us all out on the street right before we sat down to eat. (A dear friend took us and our dogs in otherwise we would have ended up at Denny’s.) It took us months to speak to my brother and sister-in-law again and the wounds from that night are still a little sore. It’s pretty hard to get over your brother kicking you out on Thanksgiving and then pretending like it didn’t happen.
This year I wasn’t even invited to my brother’s house. I was supposed to go to my sister’s but that plan fell apart when my pup Pepa got Kennel Cough. My sister has dogs and Pepa is going to be contagious for another week. Nothing can be done. I’m not upset that tomorrow is going to be like any other Thursday of the year and I don’t really mind bad holidays anymore. As bad as getting kicked on the street with no turkey dinner is, nothing can be worse than spending it sitting next to a hospital bed.
During her illness, my mom was in and out of the hospital many times. One year she happened to be hospitalized on Thanksgiving Day. I forgot why I was the only one in town that year. My dad didn’t want to do anything for dinner. He just wanted to go home and rest. (He spent all of his days by her side during that time, so it was understandable.) On my way to the hospital, I stopped at Denny’s to buy two slices of pie. While I waited, I scrutinized the diners. I felt sad for them, but then I felt even worse for myself. I was one of them. I was at Denny’s buying pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.
I pulled into the hospital parking lot, turned off the ignition, put my hands on the steering wheel and broke down. I thought it only happened in the movies, but it was happening to me. People actually do that. They break down at the wheel of their car. I composed myself pretty quickly because I didn’t want my mom to know I had been crying. Then I went up to her room and we had our Thanksgiving dinner together.
As I write this, I’m trying to compose myself. People don’t break down in front of their computers at work, do they? At least I haven’t seen that movie. I guess I wish there was someone left in my family that would be grown-up and stubborn enough to keep the tradition going. Where do you mine that stubbornness that keeps families coming together even though it’s more than likely it will end in melodrama? I’d like to believe that this paradoxical behavior still means something to my family. Sadly, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and I’m not a grown-up.