My mom and aunts chat in the kitchen as they juggle and scramble and make messes while trying to avoid grease fires or pots from boiling over. A chef’s knife slices through celery and onions and carrots. Mom scrubs dirt off potatoes and peels the brown skin into the sink in strips. All day we chop and dice and slice and simmer. We mix stuffing and toss salad and mash potatoes. I visit with them and try to stay out of the way helping by measuring and mixing and adding butter. Everything calls for butter.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade plays on the television but no one is watching. This is the last year I will be at my grandpa’s house for this holiday, though I don’t know it at the time.
We have made this trek to Tucson, Arizona, every November for the first 20-something years of my life. My dad’s entire family—his brother and sister and their spouses and kids are here, along with step cousins and friends of friends.
The turkey rests in the sink, where it has been thawing overnight. My uncle and dad prep it for cooking. They take out the innards. They baste it and rub it with butter and herbs and stuff it with vegetables and spices. The process is messy, and for a vegetarian, nauseating, so I leave the kitchen until the bird is safely contained in the upper oven.
Despite the potluck of flavors and ingredients, the kitchen smells like whipped pumpkin and juicy Granny Smith apples bubbling over onto the searing oven floor.
While the turkey is cooking, all the cousins go out for a walk around the neighborhood to collect things for the table centerpiece. We did this when we were just toddlers; now we are in our late teens and early 20s. Fall leaves and acorns, branches and seedpods fill our pockets, which we unload in the courtyard when we return.
When the timer beeps, dad checks the thermometer protruding from the turkey, then carefully balances the roasting pan as he removes the bird from the oven. He carves it up into stringy slices with a buzzing electric knife, and lays them, dark and light, onto a platter.
Mom and I set the table. We unfold crisp white tablecloths and ironed napkins. We take silverware from the box, only used on special occasions. Even in my 20s I need a mnemonic to help me remember on which side of the plate the fork should be (something about F-O-R-K and L-E-F-T both having four letters). We shake the dirt from our walk findings and spread the treasures across the long table arranging them into centerpiece art. This installment looks more sophisticated than it did years ago, when a pile of red leaves and a pinecone sat in the middle of the table and everyone’s placecard displayed turkeys drawn from children’s traced hands.
We carry the casserole dishes and platters of food to the table—mashed potatoes and turkey and green beans and stuffing—placed on potholders between and around the festive décor.
And then we sit.
We all hold hands as Grandpa, whose chair is at the head of the table, says the blessing. It’s the same words he has said for the blessing for the last two decades. We pass the bowls and plates and platters and pitchers around the table—once for first helpings and then for seconds.
There are probably 30 of us at this table—an addendum of folding tables trailing off the long wooden dining room table and metal chairs grandpa borrowed from the church fellowship hall. The tables extend out the dining room and into the entryway of the house. No separate kids’ table has ever existed, though we did take over the addition of card tables when we were younger. We would scarf our food and always be the first to be excused to go play while the adults lingered around the table for a few hours between dinner and pie.
As kids, we spent hours exploring grandpa’s yard, an outstretch of untouched desert. We played follow the leader and drew hopscotch games with sidewalk chalk. We hid in closets and under beds and behind shower curtains in our games of hide-and-seek. We kept ourselves busy with our imaginations and each other. We played endless games of Uno. Then at night, because of the ratio of beds to people, all the cousins spread out their sleeping bags on the living room floor.
To tell about one Thanksgiving is to tell about every Thanksgiving. Sure, there was the year mom forgot the sugar in the pumpkin pie, or when dad was bitten by a scorpion and there was the year it rained four days straight and we did nothing but watch movies. But I can’t tell you what we did from one year to the next. I can’t tell you, without looking back at photos, which years we missed or which years all of us made it. Thanksgiving isn’t memorable for its individual years.
For my family, Thanksgiving didn’t change much from year to year. There was no agenda or measurable productivity, other than a single scheduled dinner late Thursday afternoon, which we typically ate later than planned anyway. No profound ideas were exchanged, and to the outside world, none of this seems particularly memorable or exciting—but something valuable happened here. The tradition we built was building us.
In the predictable and consistent space of Thanksgiving, we created our own camaraderie, a sense of togetherness that we solidified from year to year. It was a place we learned to drop our expectations, our agendas, and enjoy company. This tradition required each of us to carve out time for each other, to drive hours on the stick-straight desert road and to leave work or school, and to plan. It required us to prioritize family.
But further, Thanksgiving required us to make an exchange. We knew when we came to grandpa’s house we had to trade in internal resentments and rivalries and suspicions and even general dislike for certain family members for the sake of the holiday’s integrity.
There were terrible things that happened among my extended family, maybe not on Thanksgiving but between Thanksgivings—messy divorces, separations, depression, family feuds, cancer and even death. And with these events, the dynamics changed. But we recognized our damage and created a way to overwrite it.
These gatherings seemed remarkably unaffected by the troubles that infect so many family reunions. Our family had as rich an assortment of character flaws as any other, but on some level each of us made a conscious decision to value the holiday. We put things on hold, or at least hid our true feelings for the sake of the idyllic feel. I know a lot of family events go wrong; a lot of my family’s events go wrong, but Thanksgiving was an untouchable holiday. Nobody wanted to be responsible for ruining it, so in a very real way, it made us behave better, like a legislature that had, for once, decided to set politics aside and do something idealistic.
Regardless of what happened within the family in any given year, or what was brewing under the surface during those few days each November, I only have happy memories of this holiday. The beauty of the tradition we built was conducive to a truce and each year we worked to not violate it. My brain has strained out the negative, evidence that our efforts worked.
Our Tucson Thanksgivings finally conceded to conflicting schedules, cost of travel and lack of vacation time. Family members once able to make this yearly trek now have different plans. It’s not that we no longer prioritize time together but that we want similar valuable traditions to happen in our own newer families.
Tyler and I have started hosting Thanksgiving for a few people—family, and friends who are dear enough to be considered family—in our tiny apartment. Our everyday silverware and our special occasion silverware are one and the same and there’s no space for an addendum of tables. What I have learned from 20 years of Thanksgivings surrounded by family is that the turkey sometimes burns, we might forget sugar in the pie, the board games could very well be missing pieces, but the same space still exists; the one that has always existed. No matter the house, we call a truce at the door and then we linger and jabber and laugh and fail to leave room for pie.