Every other year, I am a “Thanksgiving Orphan.” And actually, I like that.
This isn’t because of any family discord, actually. My family Thanksgivings used to be a good deal like the family Christmases, with everyone gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house and my cousins and me taking over the two top floors as our playroom while the adults got busy with the dinner downstairs. There wasn’t quite so much sugar on hand, so after dinner things were a little more mellow – I’d hang around the kitchen, stealing stray nibbles of food and making half-assed attempts to help with the cleanup. One year I remember my father did all the dishes while blasting Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, and I remember sitting in bewildered fascination and watching as he sang along – “But your new shoes are worn at the heels, and your suntan does rapidly peel….”
When we cousins were all older, we started getting into lively and boisterous penny poker games over dessert, my dad and the uncles all introducing weird alternative games – Blind Man’s Bluff, Irish poker, things they most likely made up. My grandfather once won the entire pot in a game my father called “Honest John” even though he wasn’t even at the table at the time. And one of my absolute favorite stories about my grandmother was the year she’d cracked a bone in her wrist a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, and as we were setting up for poker that year my father caught her stuffing ace cards up in her sling for during the game.
And then, people started growing up and moving away. My aunt and uncle sold that house and moved to Arizona, and my cousin Kathy soon followed. My cousin Mike hit the road as a musician. My brother started a two-year backpacking-around-the-world trip, then settled in San Francisco a while, then went on another one. My cousin Sarah started spending occasional Thanksgivings with her fiance Lee. My grandmother died one winter. Gradually the Thanksgiving numbers had dwindled to such a small number, and my grandfather was too frail to host, so Thanksgiving just became a dinner out at a local restaurant for only six of us. I loved seeing everyone, but it had kind of turned into a sad shadow of what it once had been.
When my grandfather died a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, everyone quietly agreed that we would “cancel” Thanksgiving that year, to spare us all another big travel slog so soon after we’d all gathered for the funeral. I made a modest meal for a couple friends who came by for a couple hours, but otherwise was on my own. At some point I called Mom to check in, and at some point she confessed that “You know….I kind of like not really doing anything today.”
“….You know what,” I agreed, “me too.”
My brother moved back from California the following year, with his wife and daughter in tow; they actually bought our grandparents’ house, and my brother has sort of taken on the mantle of Family Anchor ever since. The house isn’t big enough for everyone to stay in, but my parents and I get squeezed into folding couches and air mattresses and everyone else joins us for Thanksgiving dinners, and Christmas dinners. But not every year; my brother and sister-in-law handled the “whose family gets to see us” bugaboo by trading off which in-laws they celebrated which holiday with each year. The year they’re with us for Thanksgiving, they’re with his in-laws for Christmas, and vice-versa.
My other cousins and aunts and uncles started doing the same, synchronizing their holidays around my brother; so the first time Thanksgiving was going to be just my parents, one aunt, and me, we all looked at each other, thought instantly of how calm that solo Thanksgiving had been, and decided to just do that. We met for brunch the weekend before Thanksgiving, but then on the day proper we all stayed home. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing every other year since then.
And I love it.
I’ve tried checking to see if any friends are about and want to drop by, but they’ve always been off at their own family things. My friend Richard has an aunt in the city he spends the day with; my friends Colin and Niki always join Niki’s father, who’s been flying her whole family to the Caribbean every Thanksgiving. (The lucky sods.) And honestly, I’ve only been half-assed about finding people, because there’s something so lazy about spending the entire day just for me when most of the rest of the year I’m trying to do things for and with other people. I do cook something for myself – something long and slow and elaborate, something I can check in on now and then as I putter around the house. A lamb stew one year, a turkey soup another year. Once I managed to find a small enough turkey breast and made a mini-size Thanksgiving dinner for one, complete with two kinds of single-serve pie. But other years I just lay in a stock of generally decent food, and don’t even fuss with it – spending the day reading and knitting, reaching for some random snack food while lying on the couch in a haze watching Twilight Zone reruns. The idea is to spend only as much effort as I feel like, on anything – dressing, grooming, cooking, anything. If I’m inspired and really want to treat myself, I’ll make something fancy; if not, to hell with it.
And so this Thanksgiving, while everyone else is going to be getting up early to get a turkey in the oven and setting tables and trying to time out all the sweet potato and squash and green ban casserole or are getting up early to get all dressed up and hustle the kids and ten covered dishes into a car to drive like mad to be somewhere in time for dinner, I’m going to sleep in until about noon, then get up, get into my tackiest flannel jammies and shuffle to the kitchen to throw a turkey breast in a crock pot, then either read or watch a corny movie or maybe even take a nap until it’s done; and then at some point reheat the squash soup and mashed potatoes I made the night before, eat most of the cheese in the house, and then have only two slices of the turkey and half the soup and the mashed potatoes before finishing things off by eating an entire cheesecake from Junior’s and then maybe having a bubble bath before falling asleep on the couch again.
And it will be glorious.