Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Obligatory Thanksgiving Essay

 

I can’t remember a bad Thanksgiving.

Correction: I don’t remember a bad Thanksgiving. There are many reasons this is possible. I drank to oblivion! Unlikely. I drove it from my mind to keep the illusion of perfect family gatherings intact! Also unlikely, as I remember a few kitchen arguments and last-minute tensions that darkened the mood for a while. That’s expected. Something always goes wrong. The potatoes do not assume the proper density. Someone didn’t butter the lefse. The popovers were insufficiently puffy. But no one cares, and no one remembers. 

If you want Thanksgiving to be good, it will be good. If there’s a disaster, incorporate it into family lore. If there’s a side dish that gets forgotten, consider that the universe is telling you something about the local appetite for green beans. If the turkey is a bit dry, understand how the Lord works in mysterious ways but also through simple, obvious ways like gravy. If the gravy is lumpy, understand that all the gravies you will ever make, averaged out, will be smooth, aside from undetectable, infinitesimal lumps that can only be detected by electron microscope. 

Around these parts we expect a White Christmas as payment for living through the long winters. Other parts of the country have no such promise, and have to live through all the seasonal imagery knowing that won’t be the look of their holiday. But up here we also hope Thanksgiving will be Brown. It fits the menu. It fits the mood: the world has been utterly scoured of green, but there’s no need to start the icy entombment quite yet. An idea Thanksgiving is brown, with some leaves on the lawn and the gutter, the trees bare. There is nothing of beauty in the world right now, and that’s exactly the point where you want to take stock and give thanks.

When I was growing up I literally went over the river – the Sheyenne – and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. The ancestral farm was ten miles north of town. It was the only time we ate at the big table in the dining room. Pie in the kitchen, with Grandpa Victor enjoying a Grain Belt and an Old Gold. We’d get in the car to go home and he’d stand at the window, waving goodbye. My earliest Thanksgiving memory. It’s indistinct yet firmly engraved.

At some point there was a shift, and Thanksgiving was at our house. Mom took over. There was always a classic North Dakota relish plate – pickles, celery, those crisp peppery radishes. I have a picture of my mom and my aunt cleaning up after the Thanksgiving meal; they’re wearing heels. If you got down on your hands and knees you could see, indented in the linoleum, a hundred little circles pressed into the floor along the sink and stove, signs of their presence and labor.

Then Grandpa died. Then Grandma died. I went off to college. Now Thanksgiving meant returning home, not being home and having Thanksgiving happen. Then there’s the Thanksgiving when you don’t go home, because you have a home of your own. Then the first Thanksgiving at home where Mom is relieved of duty, and the family goes to the Holiday Inn. They really do it well!  You bring your young daughter, stay at the Holiday Inn, she enjoys playing in the pool with her cousins, and you watch it all thinking: this is different, completely so, but . . . family and turkey and the raw bleak November. It’s still Thanksgiving. 

Since we moved to Jasperwood, most of the family Thanksgivings have been here. It’s been grand. I can stand in the empty room some days and see my Dad with his second wife, see my Dad alone after she passed, teaching Natalie card tricks; I can see the strays my sister-in-law has brought over the years, my Mother-in-law right there playing Password, my other sister-in-law just the year before, or was it two, or three. I see the chair where I always sit, and the spot on the rug where the three dogs of the house have sat in turn, waiting. 

But that’s just my ration of bounty. There have been 105 Thanksgivings at this house. It’s a solid place. There will be a hundred more, as long as the walls and the foundation and the roof endure. This was a young country when the house was built. It is a young country still. May it never grow so old it forgets the humbling lessons of gratitude, and the happy joys of civic rituals. 

Today we celebrate no creed, no official birthday, no war’s cessation. We look inward to family and outward to the polity that protects our freedom. All this and pie. God Bless America. 

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  1. JennaStocker Member

    In the midst of all the madness, chaos, and uncertainty, we have this. The rote traditions are our lifeline. We will carry on.
    Thank you for this, and happy Thanksgiving.

    • #1
    • November 25, 2020, at 10:54 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  2. Peter Gøthgen Member
    Peter GøthgenJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    And as we celebrate, we can listen to one of the few actual extant Thanksgiving songs.

    • #2
    • November 26, 2020, at 5:00 AM PST
    • 2 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  3. Stad Coolidge

    James Lileks: Then there’s the Thanksgiving when you don’t go home, because you have a home of your own.

    I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home a few hundred feet underwater.

    Still, you’re right about the difference from being at home for Thanksgiving and going home. Even when you have your own home, it’s still “going home” when you and your kids visit Grandma.

    Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

    • #3
    • November 26, 2020, at 5:32 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  4. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge

    Thanks James! Master of le mot juste, or in many cases, many mots.

    Now let’s rid America of the scourge of extra turkeys. (Apologies to those sensitive to the plight and horrors of being a delicious bird).

    • #4
    • November 26, 2020, at 5:50 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Repdad Coolidge

    Beautiful, James. You have a way of writing about my life even when writing about your own. I’m thankful you choose to write here. 

    • #5
    • November 26, 2020, at 6:25 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  6. Rodin Member

    James Lileks: You bring your young daughter, stay at the Holiday Inn, she enjoys playing in the pool with her cousins, and you watch it all thinking: this is different, completely so, but . . . family and turkey and the raw bleak November. It’s still Thanksgiving.

    Ah, that triggers a memory: For several years (now sometime past) Mrs Rodin and I would go with her parents to Reno over the Thanksgiving Holiday, stay at the Nugget with their indoor pool, and variously lounge and spend time in the Jacuzzi while watching the snow covered mountains that surrounded us. It was a break from a lot of road travel for me, persistent patient needs for my father-in-law, and domestic demands for Mrs Rodin and her mother. All but me seemed to enjoy eating something other than turkey, but whatever style of meal that was available in the hotel restaurants, turkey was always an option. And so it goes…

    Now this year Thanksgiving is like three others that I experienced in my life: no great feast as we are packing to move for the third time in our 37 year marriage. The first was just before Mrs Rodin and I married in 1983. We packed up her household goods in a U-Haul that I would drive to New Mexico accompanied by her Persian cat, “Kitty”. No place was open to eat on Thanksgiving that year except Carl’s Jr — a desultory meal at best. But it was still a Thanksgiving of great anticipation. The second such Thanksgiving was three years later. We had sold our home in New Mexico and were moving Mrs Rodin back to California, as I had promised when we married. Staying in an apartment for a few weeks from house closing until departure had been an unpleasant experience after home life for a decade or more. I don’t recall Thanksgiving that year, specifically, but likely we partook of a friends’ feast that year pending our departure. Finally, this year is reminiscent of 1983 with both the difficulty of preparing a bounty during packing up a home and the lack of out of home feeding options (and no friends to join even if not verboten). So, this time with Mrs Rodin’s mother, we will have a home prepared simple meal of grilled chicken and stir-fried veggies accompanied by pecan and pumpkin pie acquired from a local bakery. Anticipating better Thanksgivings to come as we did in 1983, 1986 and now 2020, we prepare for a Third Act.

     

    • #6
    • November 26, 2020, at 6:32 AM PST
    • 12 likes
  7. Hartmann von Aue Member

    Bad Thanksgivings? I only had one. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends from church. They had a leftwinger of a lawyer as one of their fellow guests and he could not let the meal pass without making some snide remarks about Chimpy McHitler (this was 2007, I want to say). I defended President Bush, counterattacked, and kept it up until we reached a frosty and uncomfortable silence at the dinner table. We were never invited back. I regret it not one iota. 

    • #7
    • November 26, 2020, at 6:58 AM PST
    • 10 likes
  8. Randy Webster Member

    Rodin (View Comment):
    we will have a home prepared simple meal of grilled chicken and stir-fried veggies

    We’re having chili.

    • #8
    • November 26, 2020, at 7:07 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. PappyJim Coolidge

    I have been following James since the Chechen/Belsen atrocities occurred. His daughter and my granddaughter are members of the same age cohort. He has never let me down in the arena of entertaining and thought-emotion evoking mood setting. Thanks again, James.

    My first Thanksgiving away from home was celebrated at Parris Island in 1967.

    • #9
    • November 26, 2020, at 8:03 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  10. Hang On Member
    Hang OnJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I had four Thanksgivings (not in a row but near enough) growing up where alternatively a parent, grandparents, and an uncle all went into the hospital right before Thanksgiving, so I began to wonder when it would be my turn. Still hasn’t happened to me.

    I of course enjoy getting together and seeing everyone. Though that’s not going to happen this year. Christmas is also looking iffy.

    This year, we’re grilling. Fortunately, it’s fairly warm. Frankly, I prefer grilling to turkey, stuffing, etc.

    • #10
    • November 26, 2020, at 8:06 AM PST
    • 4 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  11. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    James Lileks: But up here we also hope Thanksgiving will be Brown. It fits the menu. It fits the mood: the world has been utterly scoured of green, but there’s no need to start the icy entombment quite yet.

    Thanksgiving Day, western Massachusetts 2014:

    • #11
    • November 26, 2020, at 8:47 AM PST
    • 6 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  12. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I am excerpting, without his permission, an email I received from my brother this morning. He spent the last two years of his thirty-plus year State Department career in Afghanistan, before retiring in September.

    I was just thinking how much has changed since a year ago today when I was sitting alone in the hospital cafeteria in Bagram eating a (terrible) turkey dinner shortly after being told it looked like I had stage four cancer and waiting for the helicopter back to Kabul. That day sucked. 

    Spoiler alert – he did not have cancer. Turns out forward air force base hospitals in war zones (understandably) don’t have great oncology departments.

    Thankful for friends, family and health, even in the midst of a pandemic.

     

     

     

    • #12
    • November 26, 2020, at 9:14 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  13. Captain French Moderator

    PappyJim (View Comment):

    I have been following James since the Chechen/Belsen atrocities occurred. His daughter and my granddaughter are members of the same age cohort. He has never let me down in the arena of entertaining and thought-emotion evoking mood setting. Thanks again, James.

    My first Thanksgiving away from home was celebrated at Parris Island in 1967.

    My first Thanksgiving away from home was at An Thoi, RVN. I don’t remember any of it.

    • #13
    • November 26, 2020, at 9:20 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnellJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    PappyJim (View Comment):

    I have been following James since the Chechen/Belsen atrocities occurred. His daughter and my granddaughter are members of the same age cohort. He has never let me down in the arena of entertaining and thought-emotion evoking mood setting. Thanks again, James.

    My first Thanksgiving away from home was celebrated at Parris Island in 1967.

    My first Thanksgiving away from home was during jump school at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky in 1956. I went into town and walked the streets, looking into windows of homes with large family gatherings, and felt so lonely it ached. Since then, I’ve remembered that feeling and been grateful for Thanksgivings with family.

    • #14
    • November 26, 2020, at 9:46 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  15. Randy Webster Member

    I don’t remember the first time I spent Thanksgiving away from home, but I remember the first (and only) Christmas I spent alone. I was in school at the time, and went to DC to stay with my brother and his girlfriend and work for a couple of weeks. They, however, went to Nashville to see my parents, so I was by myself for Christmas. The guy I was working for and I worked late Christmas Eve installing door closers in a church. It was way after dark when I got back to the apartment. Being alone on Christmas is a weird feeling.

    • #15
    • November 26, 2020, at 9:50 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  16. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Being in IT, I’m used to working Holidays. Thanksgiving day 1996 I was executing a major application upgrade that I had to babysit for several hours. I was single, I didn’t care that much.

    Three different people came in to the office during the day to deliver food for me.

     

    • #16
    • November 26, 2020, at 10:25 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  17. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge

    When I was first a newly wed, Thanksgiving came up a few weeks later.

    Both sets of parents demanded our presence. They lived only a 20 minute drive from one another.

    It was made clear that if we didn’t want to cause perilous insult to either set of parents and in-laws, we would attend their celebration.

    Eating a full Thanksgiving meal at one house, and then going off to eat a full Thanksgiving meal at another marred the occasion.

    I don’t have a single memory of being at either house.

    All I remember is getting sick from nerves on the way to my parent’s house, knowing I absolutely hated the rivalry between the two families, and vowing to be a more understanding parent should I ever ever have an adult married child of my own.

     

    • #17
    • November 26, 2020, at 10:51 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  18. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Bad Thanksgivings? I only had one. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends from church. They had a leftwinger of a lawyer as one of their fellow guests and he could not let the meal pass without making some snide remarks about Chimpy McHitler (this was 2007, I want to say). I defended President Bush, counterattacked, and kept it up until we reached a frosty and uncomfortable silence at the dinner table. We were never invited back. I regret it not one iota.

    The dessert was the frosty and uncomfortable silence.

    Funny how America keeps electing Hitlers to office. You’d think we’d learn that starting a land war in Asia is never a good idea.

    • #18
    • November 26, 2020, at 11:59 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  19. Charlotte Member
    CharlotteJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is the first Thanksgiving Mr. Charlotte and I (together 22 years, married for 17) have spent at home, just the two of us. (We did an early TG with my family two weeks ago, and he cancelled plans to see his family due to Plague concerns.) We got ready-made turkey meals from Wegman’s and have so far spent the day playing videogames (him) and playing on Ricochet (me). 

    I could really get used to this.

    • #19
    • November 26, 2020, at 12:29 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. Mark Alexander Lincoln

    Lovely!

    • #20
    • November 26, 2020, at 2:26 PM PST
    • 1 like
  21. Gromrus Member

    I always thought the relish plate was a Southern thing, pickles (homegrown and canned), celery, olives. Guess it was an American thing. 

    • #21
    • November 27, 2020, at 9:42 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    My favorite Thanksgiving: one year my mom special ordered a turkey from the neighborhood meat market — 47 pounds. 

    It barely fit in the oven and took more than 12 hours to cook. We talked about it for years.

    My mom wisely got 2 small turkeys from then on for our family of 8 plus guests.

    • #22
    • November 27, 2020, at 5:40 PM PST
    • 1 like
  23. Goddess of Discord Member

    Aww James, that was lovely. I have tears rolling down my cheeks. Thank you!

    • #23
    • November 28, 2020, at 7:03 AM PST
    • Like