We always had Thanksgiving up in the country. My parents and all their friends had houses within 20 minutes of one another about 100 miles north of the city, and it was there that the holidays took place for me. It mostly took place at my house, but sometimes we'd go over to Simon and Josie's or the Classfeld's or even the Gilmore's. November can be cold up there, but I've always liked the cold and there's something inherently right about having Thanksgiving up in farm and orchard country. We would get to see the Turkey farms where our foul would come from and pick the pumpkins for the pies ourselves. City folk playing at the rural life, all of the fresh air and freedom, none of the isolation or lack of cultural connectedness.
The secular nature of the holiday helped as well. My parents were both semi-reformed communists, still dreaming of a world where nobody would go hunger and greed would not be a necessary ingredient to progress, but put off by Stalinism and Cuba, no longer able to support a party that would endorse tyranny as a tonic for the ills of capitalism. We had Christmas and Chanukah and Easter egg hunts, but always with strict and firm reminders that these were merely entertainments and that the meanings others attached to them were dangerous and evil. I guess it was sort of like how people whose birthdays or wedding anniversaries fall on September 11th must feel. Yeah you're celebrating, but there's guilt involved (Keynote about secular New York Jews, there's guilt involved in everything. If you're not feeling guilty about something then you're feeling guilty for not feeling guilty, at which point you start to feel guilty about your excess guilt. We make Catholics look carefree.) Those holidays were hurt by their taboo origins.
Thanksgiving was different. Yes there was the very sad story about how the Pilgrims slaughtered and mistreated the Indians, but because Thanksgiving was one of the few times where the two sides WEREN'T off killing one another it was in the deep background and pretty much irrelevant after the first serving of cranberry sauce. Our family had immigrated long after the end of the American Indian wars. We didn't have any blood on our hands.
Then there was my dad. He was the central figure in my life for my first 12 years and he loved Thanksgiving. His passion for food rivaled my own, and there was the added bonus of getting an opportunity to cook a 20 pound turkey or two, which doesn't come along everyday. We'd warm the oven early in the morning and he'd let me help with the basting. We'd sit by the fire and talk while the bird cooked in the oven and the women (we almost always had guests) made Mashed Potatoes and a bunch of green dishes that nobody really liked. We were responsible for the heart of Thanksgiving though, the bird and the stuffing we'd lovingly placed inside of it where the guts used to be (Gutting the turkey was always fun as well, but I wasn't really included in this because dad was afraid I might get some sort of disease if I wasn't careful.)
Later the guests would arrive and my friends and I would go out to the abandoned trailer near our house and shoot glass bottles with my air rifle until it was time to eat. (This was a great strategy for avoiding the undesirables, girls and smaller boys, because they wouldn't be allowed to walk over all the broken glass and rusted metal objects to get there, not like us big guys!)
The eating was always the best part of course. Turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. Sweet potato and salad with French dressing and spinach (For some reason as a kid I liked spinach and hated stuffing, I don't know why. I think Popeye might have been to blame.) My mom would get a look in her eye after my third serving but she couldn't say anything in front of all the people there and I would heap my plate high with everything I wanted and eat until I felt sick. After that my friends and I would go up to my room and play foosball or D&D or whatever until it was time to go late at night. Sometimes one or more of my partners in crime would stay over and we'd lie in bed (I had 2 spare beds and a futon in my bedroom) late at night listening to the cars pass on the road or the rain drumming on the roof. We'd plot our morning raid of whatever pie remained in the fridge and look forward to the rest of the long weekend up there in the country, where there were wide-open fields aplenty and cider at my friend William's house, and R rated movies that could be rented in town. (This was a large reason why William and I were friends. He had the big farm and the golf carts we could ride around in, an endless playground for a pair of young boys. I had parents that would allow video games and pizza and Steven Seagal movies, including ones with breasts in them. Together we had everything two young boys could want.)
It was a beautiful time.
Then my father died, and we became Thanksgiving nomads. Without my dad to cook the bird we couldn't host it at our house, nor did anybody want to. His memory filled the place with sadness. At first we tried to visit with some of the old friends we'd shared Thanksgivings with in the past, but though they invited us into their homes with warmth and affection there was still that pallor over everything. They'd look at my mother and especially me and either turn away with a sad nod or try to be too friendly, try to compensate for the loss, pushing casseroles and pies and compotes in our direction. You can't compensate for that kind of loss with refined sugar or rhubarb. Later we visited with new friends in different places, places where his ghost wouldn't linger at the head of the table looking sadly at the turkey, waiting for a piece of dark meat that would never come.
That just felt like a charade. It wasn't Thanksgiving, it was some weird holiday in a strange place with all the foods of Thanksgiving but none of what the holiday really represented. There's something about always being a guest at the holidays that gets to you after awhile. You feel unrooted, like your family doesn't really count. You hang in other people's special places watching them build the memories that make up a home life, then you go home and look around your pristine house and think about them still picking crumbs out of the carpet and the leftovers in their fridge and you want to cry. I stopped going after awhile. Just flat out refused. What was the point? I felt like a bit player in someone else's life, the bum who shows up at the threshold when he smells the pies cooling on the windowsill, hat in hand, telling a story about how he has nowhere else to go. I hated coming back to this apartment afterwards. This empty apartment.
Now there's a new thanksgiving tradition starting up in that old house, only it's not that old house anymore. The house I knew is gone, torn up and rebuilt from the inside out to make it something else. My old room is gone, walls knocked down, attic where I used to look for hidden treasures emptied into a dumpster. There'll be a new man holding the baster come tomorrow morning, a new set of friends and acquaintances filling the house, the ghost of my father exorcised, cast off to heaven or hell or oblivion or wherever you think old spirits are sent when there's nobody around to remember them anymore.
It's funny, I always thought I'd the one to pick up that old baster one day and take a shot at filling my father's shoes. Shoes that have grown as I have. That's the thing about losing a parent early, especially such a larger than life superhero of a man, they never lose any of that height or luster. I'm 6 feet now, well he's 9 feet. I'll never catch up to him. And I'll never lift that baster either. They've probably thrown it out, how can I blame them? It was probably 10 year old 10 years ago. There's probably a new one, with a bright yellow rubber bulb and a plastic tube not stained by year after year of squirting juices back on to a 20 pound bird. Not stained by memories or tears or the fingerprints of a dead man. I'm not needed either, the wielder of the new baster has 3 children, and they're more normal hardy types. They'll fill the house with plenty of sound and hope and music. Me, I'll be here in this empty apartment, with a couple Sam Adams beers and all the juice I can drink. Maybe some pie or Chinese food too if I get the urge. I was invited up there of course, and to a couple other places, but I don't want to go. I don't want to go out to some New York restaurant either, and pay $60 for some dry turkey and whipped turnip served by a snide dark-haired waitress who's only working Thanksgiving so she can have a shot of buying those $300 shoes she's had her eye on. Call it petty, call it silly, call it whatever you like but I don't want to be a nomad or a hanger on at someone else's party. I'd rather be alone. Self-sufficient. Maybe I'll crack a window and hope for a ghost who has nowhere else to go.