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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Several plates-ful of burnt rolls, dry turkey, and Hell stuffing, thanks!

I’ve always had a fond spot in my heart for Michael and Jane Stern, of the Roadfood books. Their first came out in 1978. It featured Mrs Forde’s, a Laurinburg, North Carolina diner where getting bullied by Norma- who owned it with her sister- was a rite of passage for students at St Andrews Presbyterian College for a quarter-century.

I’m pleased, then, to learn Ms Stern and I share a general loathing for Thanksgiving. In the online edition of The Paris Review, she has just published “The Nexus of All Despair”:

I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, based solely on the fact that I adore turkey. But if I were to remove turkey from the equation, I would probably realize that this holiday, for me, has been nothing but one hideous thing after another.

Why Thanksgiving is the nexus of all despair is a mystery. But to prove that it is, here’s a short list of some of the things I remember.

Stern serenely recalls half a century of dystopian, tryptophan-plagued November hells. As I read them, the spiteful old custodian of the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse that is my mind started rolling out long-suppressed- a few, just forgotten- exhibits from my own, gravy-stained history:

1960-1970, Ellerbe, North Carolina

My dad grew up in Texas. After his last Air Force posting brought him to North Carolina, he met and married my mother, and North Carolina was home for the next fifty years. We made three trips to Texas in my childhood, to reconnect with his family, and two of his siblings and their families turned the favor in the mid-60s, but we cousins all grew up strangers.

My mother’s family lived in Richmond County, North Carolina. When I was five, my father’s job took us to Raeford, an hour away from my maternal grandparents, and the next decade was my golden age of Thanksgivings. You could always count on a rotating mix of my mother’s six surviving brothers, their wives and kids, and a throng of nearby second and third cousins, great aunts and uncles, and close neighbors.

There was a kids’ table, which encompassed everyone from age four or five through high school. This irked the older cousins- consumed by appearing cool in the mix of yearning and frustration only life in the country can consume. But for a kid like me, it was very paradise. Plenty of food, plenty of playmates for a few days.

1965-78, Shelby, North Carolina

Of all the aunts, uncles and cousins in my mother’s family, we were the only ones with a different surname. My mother was the only daughter of eight children. We’d moved to western North Carolina in 1965. Ellerbe was several hours away now- the farthest away of the family. Both my parents suffered extended illnesses- my mother’s over several years, and requiring a seemingly endless hospitalization at a distant university hospital. My siblings and I spent weekends past counting with friends and relatives, and, when we were home and my dad was off to visit my mother, I was left in the understudy parent role. We now had a bonus sibling, ten years my junior. For me, those were years of improvisatory efforts as being an adult, but reclassification as a kid for purposes of the performance critiques that always followed.

My grandmother was also dying of cancer, and the family gatherings were curtailed. She died at Thanksgiving, 1972, and the funeral was one of the last great family gatherings I remember. Few of the cousins were staying in the area as farming declined. As a family, we were atomizing.

Through my high school and college years, Thanksgiving was a silent affair. We all stayed out of the way as my mother- disdaining help- pulled together way too much meal for the five of us. The good china was laid out in the nearly-unused dining room, and we ate. I don’t recall much conversation. Two of us were teens, and teens were pretty much a 24/7 irritant to my mother. Everyone seemed to be in a defensive crouch, ready to challenge the real, unspoken meaning of any remark.

Dinner would end. The dishes would be done. Football would be watched. I could never get back to college fast enough.

1979, Oxford, England

My first free-standing happy Thanksgiving memory. Some American friends and I scoured the city’s groceries and meat markets, looking for a turkey. Failing that, we phoned restaurants that, despite making their way largely off a large student population, didn’t see the niche American students afforded.

We ended up eating Chinese and seeing Animal House at the movies.

1981, Portland, Oregon

I was in law school, sharing a house with several classmates. For the first time in my life, I had fallen in with an in-crowd group. It was cool, being cool. We pooled our meager first-hand knowledge to put together a memorable dinner for eight proto-adults. After the cleanup was finished, one friend declared the only way to finish off the evening was to have a snowball fight at Timberline Lodge. 90 minutes later and 5800 feet higher, we were calf-deep in snow outside the famous WPA-built hotel. Once all were thoroughly dusted in the white powder skiers adore to this day, we gathered by one of the giant fireplaces for hot buttered rums.

Late 1980s, Sunriver, Oregon

One my sisters married a guy from Oregon in 1985, so when they came out for holidays, I was invited to tag along. The in-law were retired CIA folks descended from pretty much everyone on the Mayflower. Since their people had invented it, Thanksgiving was a big deal.

Once I passed review, the Colonel decreed I could be invited for the holidays even when my sister and her family were back in North Carolina with our parents. There was food aplenty, and interesting neighbors from the spook trade dropping in to visit and tell tall tales of secret deeds. These Thanksgivings- and Christmases- were relaxed, happy affairs, and conversations were, uniformly, landmine-free.

The Colonel and his wife moved to an assisted living facility in southern Oregon, which ended the big holiday events. Both lived to be nearly a hundred.

1996-99, Spokane, Washington

In 1995, I fell in love, and came out to my family. My sister's-in-laws promptly dropped the holiday invitations. No one asked if I was coming home for Thanksgiving or Christmas that year, and my beau was with his family, doing some spadework. I was his first boyfriend; we were still sorting out if the idea of us as a couple had legs.

We decided we did, and the next four Thanksgivings were spent in Spokane with John’s family, a big Catholic bunch whose holiday table stretched, L-shaped, through the living room, den and dining room.

We marked the change of millennia in style: Christmas in Key West with my sister and her family; home for New Years, on our bedroom balcony, watching the fireworks barge Bill Gates had towed in front his house on the other side of Lake Washington; then Hawaii in January, with all of John’s family for a big parental anniversary.

By August, my sister and I both found ourselves facing divorce proceedings. The Dot Com Bust in the spring had, as it unrolled, nearly bankrupted me, taking the shine off what had made me seem a catch when the boom was building.

My sister and her husband engaged lawyers. Being outside the law, John and I went to breakfast one Saturday and sorted out who got what on a legal pad. My parents had written one of their two letters to us, urging us to rally ‘round my sister in her time of trial.

They left me rally-less. We sold our house within the week, and I spent Thanksgiving 2000 packing.

2001, Seattle

My rebound romance was on its predictable trajectory. The object of my affections was invited, by his ex, for Thanksgiving. Mark thought to invite me along. He insisted they remained good friends, despite the breakup. (In the back of my mind, I wondered, a little, if I was a bit of payback- Boyfriend Past, meet Boyfriend Future- in the manner of divorce cases where one spouse shuts down negotiations over something s/he has absolutely no desire to have- the chainsaw, a boxed set of Sex and The City- just because it will drive the other spouse batshit cray-cray.)

My task was to bring a pie, and something to drink.

Anxious to make a good impression, I conjured a seasonally-appropriate pie- crust from scratch, a circular frieze of leaves adorning its perimeter, and a very good bottle of scotch.

Pre- and during dinner chat went pretty well, I thought. I had my antennae on Belgium’s highest threat level, attuned to any hint of mentioning a single provocative thought. This was a challenge, as the ex’s politics- veering inexplicably between admiration for Margaret Thatcher, and voting for Al Gore in the recently settled, if not resolved, presidential contest- he brought up repeatedly.

After another riff on the excellences of Al Gore, the ex asked me what I thought of the Supreme Court decision that found for President Bush.

I should have feigned a fit of epilepsy, or a turkey bone in my throat.

Having found the television news reports of the contest long onf stupid and short on legal analysis, I had looked up the briefs in the Florida and federal Supreme Court cases. I rattled off a quick precis, explained what I considered the moral of the story, and began to help clearing the table for dessert.

A pause in the shuttling between kitchen and dining room indicated Mark and the ex were having a chat. Mark came out, bearing the Glenlivet and pie.

I was being sent home. The ex had taken exception to my summary of Bush v. Gore, and thus, to me.

I decamped. The scotch was served, over time, to guests. The Accursed Pie sat in the fridge for a month before I threw it away.

The relationship lasted a year. I was to meet Mark’s mother for Christmas, ‘02. At the last minute, I learned by email, she "decided to stay home". He went to St Louis. What followed, the kids now call “ghosting.”  The next time I saw him was at the grocery, four years later. He had gotten back together with the ex, who lived in my neighborhood.

I changed grocery stores. I never baked another pie, either.

2003-05, Back to Spokane

After twenty years of work in and around Spokane, I knew lots of lawyers there, and came to be close friends with many. During my holidays with John we’d run into them around town, and started getting included in their holiday party invitations.

We particularly clicked with a retired court of appeals judge and his wife, whose son I had met a few times in Seattle, where he and his partner were law students. The judge was a polio survivor, wheelchair bound, and increasingly requiring round the clock assistance; his mind was as sharp as ever, and he needed regular shifts of visitors to keep his mind occupied. I amused him; a Republican finding myself seriously backsliding, I was an ideal convert for the old New Dealer’s punch card.

Once single, I started getting invited for the holidays; having gotten to know the extended family over the years, I was welcomed in a way my usual bachelor Thanksgivings- plonked down among people who all knew each other but not me- made impossible.

I kept the judge amused. We sat in his sunroom, sipped scotch, smoked cigars, and talked for days. I felt like Dr Johnson, adopted by the Thrales. The bonds grew stronger when I hired the son’s partner in my firm; the three of us dined together nearly every Friday in Seattle, and flew to Spokane together for the holidays.

In 2004 their relationship blew up. Although it staggered on for another year, I was caught in no-man’s land. The calls stopped, the invitations ended. The judge died in 2007.

2007, Port Angeles, Washington

My law partner left in 2006, after our largest client went bankrupt, owing us a fortune in unpaid fees. I became a Keynesian drinker, pumping funds into my bar tab to try and get out of my Great Depression. I shut my practice down and moved to a small town at the tip of the continental US: Canada lay twelve miles across the water.

Port Angeles already had enough lawyers, it developed, so I wrote a novel and hoped, Micawber-like, that something would turn up.

Of course, it didn’t. But for the first time- at the age of 51- my friends asked me to cook the turkey. I did my homework, and the bird was a triumphant sacrifice to the ancestors of my sister’s former in-laws.

Two months later, I was broke, and moved home to the Carolinas.


Thirty years after my last Carolinas Thanksgiving, I was back with the family. Well, some. My sister was married again, to a Belgian who spoke English like a German drill sergeant and was trained as a professional chef. He also didn’t much like me, not that, in those days, there was much to like. But there I was, so Thanksgivings found me at the bottom of the table- my sister presiding over the conversational salon, my brother-in-law handling the edibles. A couple of times I was let to make my horseradish mashed potatoes- no great shakes as a dish, but it gave me a role to play, and, against all the miraculous creations of my brother-in-law’s kitchen, I had plenty to take home.

I had become the crazy uncle, but I took my cues and kept quiet. The guests were always my sister’s and brother-in-law’s friends (my nephew, headed for college, made cameo appearances; my youngest sister would always accept and no-show), who, though I saw them frequently though the year, pretty much ignored me. I suspect they had been briefed not to poke a fork in my cage.

After I got my own digs- shared- I spent the next few Thanksgivings caring for the housemate’s pets. There was a malign cat; a ridiculously expensive purebred canine, imported, air freight, in anticipation of the looming death of the senescent Older Dog. Housemate decamped to Orangeburg for the holidays, to quarrel with his father over politics and protect his share of the estate; Air Freight Dog made repeated attempts to escape, and Older Dog acted out, pooping all over the carpet. The cat would pretend to be gone, or dead.

The Teens, Greenville, SC/Charlotte, NC

2011 and ‘13 were rather like Dr. Watson’s account of Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra- tales for which the world is not yet prepared. My new policy is an old one, first adopted in the 1990s, when I grew weary of others seeing me as a stray in need of a home, if only for an early dinner and some football: I lied- yes, had plans, thanks- and left town for the weekend.

Now I don’t leave town. But as Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, every week brings a few thousand new strangers. Most of the people I once knew here have moved away, or died.

But for the five years of my “marriage”, as certain religious enthusiasts like to air quote my personal assault on their values, I’ve lived pretty much alone. After I became single again, it took a long time to get back to the lost sense of solitude as a reasonably acceptable state of being. For a while there, doing things alone just reminded me I hadn’t anyone to do them with any more.

So I think I’ve hit my sweet spot for Thanksgivings to come. Quiet, orderly, unchained from the required menu. I watch no football, nor any reruns of Thanksgiving episodes of TV shows past and present, unless the film The Ref, Pieces of April, or Home for the Holidays, is on.

I continue to hope that every time It’s a Wonderful Life is shown, a little more of the master print decays into unsalvageability.

1 comment:

  1. I probably dislike Thanksgiving as much as you. Your recounting of Thanksgivings past was part comedy, part tragedy. As much as I enjoyed reading it, I wouldn't wish it on anyone, especially someone whose blog I respect as much as yours. Here's hoping your holiday season is, at a minimum, bearable. - CBC.