With Thanksgiving coming up in a couple days it’s natural to become nostalgic of Thanksgivings past spent in the company of family and friends. Or family and complete strangers, if you ever had Thanksgiving at my house growing up.
Mom always set a formal table for the holiday: Table cloth, festive albeit plastic centerpiece of flowers, fruit, and squash, china, two different forks. My contribution was generally little placards adorned with cheesy cartoon Pilgrim stickers that announced the names of our guests.
The guest list always included my mom’s younger sister, Lila, and her family. Lila was a music teacher and staunch Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. I used to like to tick her off with my bass-thumping Jesus freak music and ask her why she didn’t think it was “Christian.” At the same time, we enjoyed many conversations commiserating the state of public education.
Her contribution to Thanksgiving dinner included some notable dishes, pea salad for one. (Why would you waste good cashews on that? was the Doc’s two cents on that dish.) Another memorable morstle was the sweet potatoes drowned in orange juice and covered with mini-marshmallows. While it sounds tasty, it was actually rather bitter. Then again, I only like the sweet potatoes mashed with about two cups of butter and brown sugar, so what do I know about sweet potatoes anyway?
Aside from Lila’s family, we never knew who else would be gracing the table. In true Christian fashion, my mom made it a habit to invite people to Thanksgiving who had no place else to go. No family in the area, going through a divorce or hard times, those people got an invitation. For this I have to give the woman props. There aren’t many of us who want to open our homes to near strangers and the awkwardness that accompanies when they accept the invitation.
And this is why I HATED Thanksgiving. Part of it is a personality problem on my part. It’s not that I’m unfriendly, but I’m really not good at making small talk, and I feel completely uncomfortable around people I don’t know. But, over the years I began to understand and embrace the invited strangers. My husband, who can make a life-long friend standing in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, has helped in that area.
So about five years ago, when my brother invited a friend of his whom none of us had met before, I was no longer dreading this new person at the table. Instead, I was looking forward to it.
There are a couple of other things to understand, though, about our Thanksgiving. One – my brother, Scott, who was schizophrenic, could not handle being around people for long, especially people he didn’t know. He was often not well-regulated or not even on his medication. What this means is that during dinner we would be entertained by stories of the tracking devices the dentist had implanted into his cavity fillings at his last appointment, and then, immediately when he was finished eating, he would hot-foot it to the garage to smoke his cigar and glare at the people unfortunate enough to be driving by.
The other thing we could count on was that my other brother, Tim, would be late for dinner. When I say late, I mean like hours late. My mom routinely would tell him we were eating at 11 when dinner was actually planned for 2. He sometimes still didn’t make it. Tim also entertained us with his stories of the latest plot or scheme he had devised to ensure that he has a million dollars in the bank in six months’ time. He also talked incessantly of his friends, their kids, and the wonders of their accomplishments. (To say nothing of the fact that he had three nephews or nieces of his own but doesn’t even know when their birthdays are.)
Back to my story, though. This particular year Tim had invited one of these friends to dinner. Gary was a large, hulking man (anyone get that reference?) who spoke in an extrememely deep, booming voice. They showed up only an hour late. By this time The Doc was enjoying one of the Bud Light Limes he bought himself to make it through the festivities, and I was on my second glass of wine. First off, Gary showed up with a terrier puppy in tow. Did I mention that my mom hates animals?
“Hey, howdy do?” Gary boomed as he pumped my parents’ hands vigorously up and down. “Brought my puppy. Hope you don’t mind.”
I want to pee my pants, I’m laughing so hard on the inside. The Doc is whispering in my ear, “She’s gonna blow. You’re mom’s head is going to pop off right now.”
“I’m allergic,” my mom begins, “so I can’t really…” she trails off.
“Whadda ya want me to do with ‘im?” Gary asks, looking as if he’s been slapped in the face. “I can’t leave him in the car in the cold, can I?”
Oh snap. How do you respond to that one? Go mom…
“That’s a good idea,” she says.
So Gary turns around and marches outside to put his puppy in the car for the afternoon.
“This is gonna get good,” the Doc says.
When Gary returns he notices the beer in the Doc’s hand. “Hey, where can I get me one na dem?” The Doc graciously steps out the back door where the 12 pack is hidden and produces one.
“Yeah, I’m glad Timmy here asked me to come.”
“Timmy?” I ask. Noboby’s called him “Timmy” as long as I can remember.
“Yeah, Timmy.” He repeats, “You may call him Tim, or you may call him Timothy….but I call him Timmy.” Gary claps him hard on the back as he says this.
The Doc leans over, “They’re gay,” he whispers in my ear.
“They are not,” I hiss back.
Within two hours Gary has drained Doc’s beer, Scott’s smoking cigars in the garage, there’s a pile of peas on the Doc’s plate left over from the cashews he picked out of the salad, and I’ve got a warm buzz going on in my head. I could not wait to get out of there and back home. Coming there for Thanksgiving was a comedy of errors, nothing like the Normal Rockwell painting.
My parents live in Florida now. Scott died in January 2011, and I have seen my brother Tim for about ten minutes in the last year. We don’t have to make the treks up North for Thanksgiving dinner anymore. There’s no more awkwardness of meals with strangers (or near strangers.) There’s no more crazy stories of government conspiracy or money-making schemes.
Thanksgiving these days is relaxed and quiet in the company of my husband’s (generally normal) family. There’s tasty food, football, napping on the couch. I find myself mostly looking forward to this quiet, predictable Thanksgiving. I relayed as much to the Doc the other night, relieved that we no longer had to deal with the crazyness that punctuated my family’s gatherings. Yet the more I thought about it, while the memories were crazy, they were mine. While the family may be quirky, they are mine. And, while I can’t believe I’m saying it, there’s not much I wouldn’t give for one more of those holidays.