Getting ready to host this year’s Thanksgiving, I find myself getting nostalgic for all the Thanksgivings past. They’re playing in my mind like a movie, especially those that occurred after I quit going to my parents’ house in 1987. At the ripe old age of 42, I often find myself getting bombarded with memories like this–things twenty years gone are as clear as if they happened last month–and yet I’m also not sure how accurate my memories even are. (If you remember differently–and have enough interest to plow through a catalog that’s of dubious value to anyone but me–let me know.)
The first time I didn’t have Thanksgiving with my family, Josh Feit and I made a mud pie as our contribution to a meal held at Mead Thompson’s house. Otherwise, I recall the menu as being very traditional. Mead was like that. But I didn’t want to be, and I was disappointed. The only other vegetarian at the table was Martha. She was probably also the only other smoker, those two life style choices often going hand-in-hand at Oberlin. We bonded over this, sure, but who knew then that Martha and I would go on to celebrate Thanksgiving together for decades to come? Who thought of decades? I had done the math to figure out how old I was going to be when it was time to party like it was 1999, and that’s as far ahead as I ever imagined.
The next year, Thanksgiving was an Indian meal that Steph Ault’s father treated Steph and I to in London. And the year after that, senior year in college, Sari and Martha and I had no tables and no chairs and holes in the floor and beams falling from the ceiling in the house where we lived, but we invited a bunch of people and had an awesome vegetarian Thanksgiving siting cross-legged around a big pallet that we covered with an Indian bedspread. There was a tofu curry and a tofu-based nut loaf and even the pumpkin pie, whose crust I believe was rolled with a drumstick, included tofu. Take that, bird killers! Take that, cranberry peddlers! We were free from the tyranny of family and tradition! Pass the wine! Now the beer! Please pass it again! Tofu and ethnic food nazis that we were, Martha and I ruthlessly mocked the family dish Sari put together–I’ll share the recipe here: cabbage, saltines, butter–but it turned out to be one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, and we ate it for days, or for nights, rather, scooping it out of the old cottage cheese container we commandeered from a co-op when we came home tipsy from the Tap House.
My first Thanksgiving in Chicago was a low-key affair, my legs still wobbly from the jump to the real world. There were just four of us, I think: Suzannah and Bryan and John and me in the apartment on Crystal. But the second time the holiday came around, when John and I lived in the loft on Paulina, we had more of a come-one, come-all feast. Still vegetarian and scoffing at tradition, we used sawhorses and plywood to make a long table and covered it with (the same?) Indian bedspread. One guest–the sister of a woman I was friends with only briefly– was disappointed to learn that there would be no standard dishes, but she was a good sport and just trucked in her own turkey.
The year after that, I was in Sukhothai, and when I realized what day it was, or was told, I raised a glass across the guest house restaurant to the only other Americans in the place, a family. The image of them has stayed with me all these years. Middle aged people. Parents with children. It was as if I were seeing these things for the first time. Although I think of my backpacking trip as the pinnacle of my carefree youth, it was also, maybe, when the seed of a parent was planted within me. Further into the trip, I wrote children in a list of things I wanted in my future, and then I promptly forgot all about it until rediscovering the journal just a couple years ago.
Back in Chicago, there was a Thanksgiving at Archer’s apartment with the Chicago Rickets–Valeria and Maya and Gerald–where we had way too much food left over. Guilty and stuffed, we packed plates full and drove around looking for homeless people to give them to.
Then there was a Thanksgiving when I tried going to my dad’s, in New Mexico. I remember, with some embarrassment, that I insisted on not going to Joanne’s for the meal she was hosting–a traditional family gathering and the family not even mine, and yet sort of my dad’s? no way–but I did reconnect with Sara Zolbrod, my excellent cousin. I believe she and my dad and I cooked salmon; I was eating fish by then. I remember mostly the blue sky and Sara’s sunniness and the way she helped to ease my awkwardness.
And the next year was the first I spent with Mark. Martha and I were pesco-vegetarians, by this time, so we went to the apartment off Argyle he shared with Jim and we ate the shrimp cornbread stuffing he put in the cornish hens for everyone else, and I made a biryani. Then Mark and I moved in together, to the apartment on Winnemac, where, I must say, we experienced the heyday of Thanksgivings. Those were easy days of finding ourselves well-suited domestically and of being semi-settled but not settled down, not saddled. We could clean and cook late into the night in preparation, then booze it up and stay up late again with our great company, having great conversations–Sari and Josh were still in Chicago; Amy and Lee lived just down the street; Valeria, Tim, Tori, Russel, Jim and Heather, none of them had moved yet; and Martha was there: just because she’s perennial doesn’t mean she isn’t great. And the day after Thanksgiving, and the day after that, we could sleep in, together, as long as we liked, and then take a nap later. Ahhhhh. That’s living. Around this time, I started eating poultry. And more than eat: I started cooking it. I made a turkey. And I learned how to make–and like–mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and green bean dishes. It turns out, a traditional Thanksgiving meal can be quite delicious! Pass the wine! Please pass it again!
The only year Mark and I didn’t host Thanksgiving together was the year we decided to get married: Mark went home to tell his family and I went to San Francisco to visit Sari and Josh in their Mission apartment, and I shared a meal with them and a bunch of Stegner fellows. I saw Brenna on that trip. She had her girlfriend’s SUV and she drove me around. That’s not thanksgiving proper, but it sticks with me.
But oh! Wait! There was another year we didn’t host a meal: The year we went to Provincetown to visit Sari and Josh there. So maybe the endless series of heyday Thanksgivings on Winnemac was only actually a couple. Isn’t that the way, though. I notice that with Tillio, it only takes one incident to make a tradition, to suggest a recurring cycle: “And then we always…” he’ll say, about something he’s done once. But I understand. He means he wants to always.
When we moved to our condo on Glenwood we used Thanksgiving the way we had the first time we hosted in our apartment, as a deadline for getting art on the walls. We were at the end of our brief disposable income stage: we bought a big farm table that arrived just a few days before the feast; we had matching dishes and silverware and glassware that didn’t come from a thrift store. I learned not only to eat and cook but also to brine turkey. Mark started making his mother’s stuffing recipe, the one with ground beef, that he’s cooking as I type, because I had started to eat meat. My mom came to town with her gentleman friend. They stayed at the Days Inn in Lakeview, the one at Diversy and Clark, and they drank heartily. But I didn’t. I was five months pregnant. I remember how heavy my feet felt by the time the guests arrived. I remember the half glass of red wine I savored. Amy and Lee brought their newborn, Simone. Things were changing, but things remained the same: Martha and Jim and Heather with her chocolate bourbon pecan pie. Sari and Josh flew in from New York. Russel and Tori and Bob Rugh.
We were in that condo for five years. Did we ever not host a Thanksgiving there? The dining room was big, the table was big. But putting on Thanksgiving is a lot of work, which I don’t think I really noticed until everything was a lot of work. I hadn’t realized that a baby is not only a baby who always needs to be held and fed, but is also a dirtier of dishes and clothes and linens and floors. Infant Tillio cried a lot, but he was miraculously good the first year he was alive in November, sitting in his saucer uncomplainingly for longer than he ever had–which might be for a whole twenty minutes.
But each of us is only an infant at Thanksgiving once in our lives. It wasn’t long before he and Simone and Enzo Macaroni merited an actual kids table, until they could be in the living room by themselves for a little while. Go crazy with the TV kids, and let mama have another glass of wine! By this time, the preparations were a science. Mark and I were a well-oiled machine. Maybe the kid-fueled Glenwood Thanksgivings were the heydays of Thanksgiving. Maybe I needed the touch-base with adults I loved more than I did when I moved among them more freely, at my whim. The group got bigger–not just with the addition of kids, but with adults. We met Sherry and David through Sebastian, Tillio’s first best friend from preschool. I met Megan and her daughter Renee at work, and it was as if they’d been coming for years. And Sari and Josh usually made the trek for the occasion.
They came to our first Thanksgiving at our house, too. Sari was pregnant, but she wasn’t telling anyone yet. That was the year Tillio got a wicked stomach flu in the morning and, with the turkey in the oven and with maybe ten or twelve people on their way over, we had to call everyone and postpone. Mark went with Amy and Lee and Simone and Martha to meet just-arrived Sari and Josh at Ann Sathers, while I stayed home stroked Tillio’s head, practicing acceptance. And we gathered the next day, which was just as well for Megan, who didn’t have Renee on Thanksgiving proper, anyway, and we had a wonderful time. Angela Brown came too, and I think that’s where she and Megan really became friends. A couple months later, at Megan’s birthday party, Angela met the man she would marry, an old friend of Megan’s. And before Thanksgiving rolled around again, Megan died from a blood clot to her lung. I think of her so often, and especially at this time of year.
Just writing those few sentences about her brought the sadness down. Renee lost her mother, and Za lost her best friend, and the Mathews family lost their sister and daughter, and I feel almost greedy to make my claim. But Megan was the first person who I loved who died. Certainly the first peer. She was 36. She was a single mother of a nine year old girl. Megan’s death marks a before and after, for me. We can die. No matter how much someone needs us, how in the thick of it we are, we can just. drop. dead. Is this realization when middle age truly sets in?
I can’t remember much about the next year’s Thanksgiving. I was pregnant again. Sari and Josh did not come. Jim and Heather were long gone, with not only Enzo in tow but also now with the new Sophia. Angela was celebrating with Stel’s family, as she would forevermore. A family of friends is different than a blood family, and in many ways that’s good; it’s better. But there’s a lack of permanence. Although who’s to say: perhaps that is one of the better things. The pleasure-principal. The lack of calcification. There was a new couple, Christian and Michaela and their daughters Julie and Suvi. They were from Germany, and we met them at Tillio’s school and didn’t know them all that well, yet. Celebrating the American holiday together was the beginning of a friendship.
The year Lilli was a baby we retreated from Thanksgiving. The usual suspects were even more scattered, and I was so tired. The four of us went up to Zion and stayed at the Illinois Beach Resort. We ate at a seriously mediocre buffet and had a wonderful time, walking by the water, playing Ms. Packman in the 1980s rec room, swimming in the pool, napping. While elsewhere someone was getting trampled at Walmart, we were skipping stones in the lake.
But for myself, I think it’s wise to fight the urge to avoid effort, despite how overwhelmed I’ve felt at times in the last couple years. Last Thanksgiving we were back at it, toddler underfoot and all. Za came, our friend who we met through Megan, and Amy and Lee, and Candace and Nina, and Sherry and David, and ace neighbors Robin and Rick, to whom we introduced the pleasures of ditching the traveling-to-see-family routine. And Martha? Were you here?
Tonight the turkey is brining in the fridge once again, and the stuffing is ready to be put in the oven, and the cranberry sauce is made, and the house is, if not clean, then cleanish. When someone asked Mark if the kids were excited about Thankgiving, he told her that for them, it’s just a bump on the road to Christmas. That’s true, but not quite. Tillio told me that he likes to have a big crowd for Thanksgiving. That it’s worth cleaning up more, because it’s more fun. For him, this is tradition. We work hard to make a nice meal for our friends who, for whatever reason, don’t spend Thanksgiving with their family. And when they come, we enjoy them. I wonder what he’ll want to do when he leaves home.
My god. I don’t know who but me would be interested in reading through this list. But if you’re here: Chink chink! Happy Thanksgiving! I am grateful for my friends and for the family I’ve made with Mark, for the family who raised me. For being here.