The only time I ever went home for Thanksgiving was in college. I’m not sure it counted since my college was only twenty minutes from home and I stopped by almost every week. But I lived at the dorm and for Thanksgiving weekend, they kicked everyone out. So, I went home – back to my father and his old house, back to my bed.
The house wasn’t all that old, but it felt it. It was built in the fifties – a four square that had never been updated. When my father first bought that house, the lady who lived there converted part of the kitchen into a bathroom. She could no longer climb the stairs, so someone fashioned a powder room for her on the first floor.
As soon as he could, my father had it ripped out. But that was as far as it got. There was a hole left in the floor where the pipes had gone into the basement, and now it was covered by plywood. There were holes in the ceiling too, connecting to the bathroom upstairs.
What made the house old was the fact that nothing inside had been updated. The wallpaper and carpeting were all original and wearing away, including the matted green carpet in the kitchen. The upstairs bathroom was tiled with seafoam green and black tiles, and the tub and sink were bubblegum pink. The only thing that was new was the fresh paint in the bedrooms because my brother and I each got choose the colors of our rooms.
Still, the house had character – gumwood trim, a brick faux fireplace with built-ins, a three-season porch off the dining room, large grates in the floor for the forced air where my brother and I would stand to warm ourselves on cold winter days.
When I was in college, not much of this mattered to me. His house was a home. It had been a refuge from my mother’s house for many years before I turned sixteen, got my driver’s license, and left her house to move in with him. What mattered to me then was safety. I wanted a place where I could be myself. He also provided me with a car and more freedom than I needed.
Most importantly, he listened to me.
I’d come home from college at Thanksgiving, and it felt like my entire body was exhaling. I’d walk in and drop the things I’d brought with me, take the hellos and the hugs, then go upstairs for a nap that might last all night. I slept the hard sleep of someone who was on all the time. I needed someone to switch me off and plug me in.
Thanksgiving break meant that the semester would soon end. Within a month, we’d all pack up and go home for Christmas break. When I went home for Thanksgiving, it was the final rest before the big push toward finals. By then, I’d been at school for three months. I was exhausted.
So, Thanksgiving break meant two things: home and sleep.
I don’t think my father ever cooked a turkey. At least, I can’t remember that ever happening. I remember the year he took my brother and me out for Thanksgiving dinner, and I felt awkward the whole time, thinking we should have been home. I remember the year we went to the inn where my aunt worked and had a fancy dinner with a bunch of strangers. But I can’t remember what we ate when we stayed put.
In college, I’d come home and sleep until I felt human again, hang out with my friends who were home for break too, and maybe work a few shifts at the grocery store. I’d do nothing in that old, un-updated house except watch cable television until my eyes rolled back into my head. It was great.
When Adam and I lived in Alabama for six years, we never came home for Thanksgiving, even though the holiday was a big deal on his mom’s side of the family. She was the oldest of four siblings, each who had three kids of their own, so the gathering was big – like nothing I’d ever seen in my own family. I never experienced it until we moved back to New York, and I was stunned. I didn’t know family could be like that.
In Alabama, Adam and I were alone, carving our own path, making our own rules. Our first Thanksgiving was a hot one – so hot that we wore shorts and left the back door of our tiny apartment open all day, complaining that this was nothing like the Thanksgivings we were used to. He insisted we have a turkey and I had no interest in cooking, so he cooked a full turkey for the two of us.
That’s all I remember: the heat and him cooking. Those two things could define our time in the South.
I keep trying to remember what we did one year to the next while lived so far away. I can remember Christmases but not Thanksgivings. Did we make our own dinner or go to someone else’s house? I don’t remember. But Adam and I have been married long enough that there are lost years. I can’t hold them all in my head anymore. The less important ones have slipped away.
What I remember from our time in Alabama is this: Adam worked as a firefighter and I was alone a lot. Then, we had Lily and I felt really alone. Holidays were the worst. If he worked on a holiday, I’d be home alone with nowhere to go. No one took me in, and all of my regular haunts were closed.
I have one clear memory of standing at the kitchen sink, looking over the fence to the pink house next door, and bawling because I felt so alone on Thanksgiving. Adam was at work, and I had no one to make me a turkey. My head was filled with images of people gathering around the table with their loved ones while I counted the hours until bedtime – first for Lily, then for me.
That’s sad, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry that some of my stories are sad and that I want to tell them anyway. When your stories are sad and heavy, when you feel unseen and alone, you wish someone would see you and hear you. You wish someone would read your sad story.
You also wish your story would someday have a happy ending.
Here is an ending, and I think it’s happy enough:
Last year, Adam’s parents came over to our house for Thanksgiving. There’s no more big family festivities, we’re making our own small ones. Lily made place cards for all of us to write what we were thankful for. She wrote each person’s name at the top in her rudimentary handwriting, and waited anxiously for everyone to show up and write their answers. Josh watched her carefully spell each person’s name, anxious to help, but a four-year-old can only do so much.
I asked my husband-the-cook if he needed help with anything, and he said no. So, I sat at the table and painted my nails quickly before his parents arrived. When they did, his mom jumped in and helped him finish things up. She didn’t ask; she just did it. I sat at the table, and it never occurred to me that I didn’t do my one job for the day: making the cranberries.
So, we poured some wine and chatted a bit before sitting at our tiny dining room table to write our gratitudes on index cards and eating our feast. I wrote that I was grateful for our new car, the one thing that year that felt like a win, while everyone else said they were thankful for each other and for being together.
But I was thankful for each one of them. I was thankful we were together. I was thankful for that car, the exact one I wanted that showed up on Craigslist the same day our last car died. I was thankful for our home – the one with the pine trim, the one with the old kitchen in desperate need of updates, the one that feels like home.
Most of all, I was thankful that I didn’t have to be alone on Thanksgiving.
And this year, I’m thankful for exactly the same thing.