As a kid, it meant putting on the mom-ordained outfit of scratchy wool shorts, argyle knee socks, penny loafers and a stiff button-down shirt, topped off with a floppy bow cinched tight around my neck. I know, it sounds like we were in the circus. But the truth is, in the early ‘80s, this kind of thing was considered fashionable.
The awfulness of my clothing was surpassed only by the awfulness of the food. I despised every item on the traditional Thanksgiving menu, from the dry, white turkey and sour cranberry sauce to the soggy bread stuffing and mushy sweet potato soufflé. “What was deal with that, anyway?” I wondered crankily to myself as a child. Why couldn’t the pilgrims have chosen crab legs and french fries for their menu?
As a result, when my father announced one year that he was taking my brother and me to see his parents in Virginia for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t wait, even though visiting my grandparents meant a torturous, eight-hour car ride spent dodging my brother’s punches and choking on second-hand smoke. The trip was typically followed by three straight days of sitting with my grandparents, staring at the television. The bright side was that my dad didn’t care what I wore.
Thanksgiving with my grandparents went exactly as expected. The only real conversation I remember taking place while we were there happened during the big feast itself. While everyone else loaded their plates with turkey, lima beans and gravy, I opted for two defrosted dinner rolls and a dollop of fruit salad.
“Dontcha want some ham?” my grandmother asked, eyeing my plate. I glanced over at the slick boiled ham on the table and shuddered.
After a few minutes of silence broken only by the sounds of chewing and swallowing, she piped up again.
“No thank you, Grandmother,” I replied as I fastidiously tore my second roll into fourths.
“Dontcha want some lima beans? They’re real good …”
“No thank you, Grandmother,” I said.
My brother stifled a giggle, and a small snort escaped me as we made eye contact. I quickly looked down at my plate.
“Dontcha want some sweet potaters?” my grandmother said a moment later.
My father shot me a warning look, and the meal continued in silence until finally, my grandmother emitted a sigh of frustration.
“Dontcha wanna get fat?” she said to me, putting her fork down.
“Bwah ha ha ha ha ha ha!” I couldn’t control myself any longer.
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha!” My brother screeched across the table.
“Children,” my father said in a strange voice, and I could tell by his red face that he was fighting to keep from laughing himself.
My brother then fell to the floor and began rolling around, clutching his sides in laughter. I was doubled over.
“Well, I declare,” my grandmother said, looking from one of us to the other.
We laughed harder. We laughed until our stomachs hurt. We laughed until we were told sternly to leave the table and go to separate rooms until we could calm down.
My last memory of that night was my grandmother looking down at her tiny dog, Booger.
“Boogie,” she said, shaking her head, “I think they’s crazy.”
Although that experience provided my brother and me with a scene that would be re-enacted at family gatherings for years, you can understand now why the holiday leaves me cold. In fact, I’ve often been tempted to skip Thanksgiving altogether.
But what stops me are my two stepdaughters, whose only Thanksgiving experience before I came along was being taken to Kroger and told to pick out anything they wanted: Fruit Roll-Ups, Oreos, Dr. Pepper. And while there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, I can’t help but feel responsible for giving them a traditional Thanksgiving.
So we’ll have a turkey, along with a wild mushroom stuffing I can stomach, cranberry casserole, roasted-garlic mashed potatoes, homemade yeast rolls and an elaborate cake for dessert. We’ll set the table with our fine china and dress in the most stylish elasticized-waistband wear we can find.
As always, there will be pleasant conversation. There will be talk of thankfulness for family and friends. And when there’s laughter, I can only hope it’s the sidesplitting, sparkling-wine-snorting, watery-eyed, rolling-on-the-ground kind.
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