You like Thanksgiving done the same way your family did it as a kid — exactly the same way. You want dinner served at the exact same time you had it as a kid, with exactly the same proportions of mashed turnips, drunk relatives, and football and exactly the same interval between dinner and pie, and when the Thanksgivings of your adult life deviate from that formula, you feel uncomfortable and annoyed, and the fact that you feel uncomfortable and annoyed makes you even more uncomfortable and annoyed because you know it's childish and inflexible of you to feel that way, especially over a little thing like whether to call it "stuffing" or "dressing," although you just don't see why anyone in their right minds would call it "dressing" because you don't dress the turkey with it, you stuff the turkey with it, and if you don't stuff the turkey with it, it's cheating, and you know that sounds harsh, but your mother took her rings off and jammed an arm up that bird every year and she did it for the team, goddammit, so don't bake the stuffing or dressing or whatever the hell in a separate dish and try to pass it off as the real deal. BECAUSE IT AIN'T. And who puts nuts in the dressing or stuffing or whatever the hell? Nuts go in a dish. Stuffing is bread cubes, celery, and butter, and that's it. And everyone knows that, except your mother-in-law, who is the kind of person who serves mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes as side dishes, like, hello, too many potatoes going on here! "But it's a different kind of potato!" No shit it's a different kind of potato, lady — it's the kind you don't need, because you already have the sweet kind, but since she doesn't even put Jack Daniel's in the sweet potatoes like a normal person, why even get into it.
Of course, when friends and family come to your house for Thanksgiving, you don't understand why they get all het up about how your family does things, because your family does things properly at Thanksgiving, and yet you find yourself yanked by the elbow onto the front porch and out of the range of your mother's hearing so that your friend can tell you in a tone of voice usually used by deliverers of telegrams from the War Department that, well, he doesn't know how to tell you this, and he's there for you whatever you decide to do, but he feels you should know that your mom is making a salad, on Thanksgiving, and has therefore vacated her senses and must be restrained with bungee cords in the basement before anyone in the house inadvertently consumes a healthful green on the country's most hallowed day of gluttony. You snottily explain to the friend that it is the custom among thinking people to serve a salad on Thanksgiving. The friend stares at you in horror, then composes himself and attempts to shrug nonchalantly that he's never heard of that before, and you roll your eyes and suppose aloud that he's going to object to the creamed onions, too, ha ha ha, the very idea. Only later, when he is staring at his plate with an expression of outright dread, will it become clear that the friend dismissed the original reference to creamed onions as a joke, because evidently wolves raised him. In the Soviet Union. Where, apparently, party doctrine also dictated that Thanksgiving include corn, in niblet form. Niblets, for Pete's sake. Un-believable.
And so you spend the meal responding to your mother's outraged bellows of "what's the matter, DON'T YOU LIKE MY CREAMED ONIONS?" and "ohhhh, so they don't HAVE salad in VLADIVOSTOK, POOR BASTARDS" by explaining pointedly that not everyone does things the way we do, Ma, remember? You know, like those heathens who eat at one in the afternoon instead of at four-thirty, so as not to miss any of the football? And your mother announces that Thanksgiving is not about football, it is about giving thanks for family and friends and not living in Russia and eating nibletted corn, and furthermore, she is certainly not going to get up at four in the goddamn morning to put the goddamn bird in the goddamn oven just so everyone can shovel food into their mouths in a big goddamn hurry and rush off to watch whatever bowl is on TV instead of having a nice, pleasant conversation, as a family, like normal families, for once, and speaking of which, did we run out of white wine or what. And you wonder to yourself, as you do every year, who she could possibly mean when she says "normal families." This is a normal family. It's the families who don't start begging the uncle in charge to hop to it already with the Bloody Marys at ten in the morning who have something to worry about in the "normal" department, in your opinion — families who say things like "mmm, stuffing with raisins" and "cranberry sauce from a can — my favorite!" What's with those families, anyway? What's with all the getting along and the sobriety and the food all coming out of the oven at exactly the same time and whatnot?
So, you don't understand your friend's strange culture, but you can empathize with him. You have attended Thanksgiving dinners where it is actually considered inappropriate to regale one another with embarrassing stories, at which no roll caught air and no stampede occurred. You have gaped, utterly at a loss, at cherry pies, wondering how on earth these people can live with themselves when they have violated The Brown-End-Of-The-Spectrum Pies Rule so flagrantly. You have waited patiently for one of the damper and more earnest cousins of this primitive tribe to clear her throat several times in an attempt to get the attention of the table — a nearly impossible task, given that the table has had sixteen extra leaves, four card tables, an ironing board, a rocking horse, and a stack of encyclopedias appended to it in order to accommodate all the cousins and boyfriends and roommates and vaguely pathetic neighbors — and then for her to tap the side of her water goblet with her fork, which should prompt a "NOT ON THE WATERFORD, FOR THE LOVE OF PETE" outburst from the matriarch.
The cousin will blush deeply and apologize and then announce that she thinks we should go around the table and each say what we're thankful for this year, and then the peanut gallery starts in with the "I'm thankful none of the Waterford got broken — OH, HOLD ON JUUUUUST A MINUTE" and the "I'll be thankful when this shit is over with," and then someone feels sorry for the cousin and says she thinks it's a nice idea, and why doesn't the cousin start everyone off, and the cousin stammers on for approximately a year and a half about having her health and the prospects for world peace and everyone gathered together, and she's monopolizing every available cliché in the process, to the resentment of the other forty dozen people at the table, who can now either 1) repeat something she already said and look like assholes, or 2) make a wisecrack and look like assholes, and you and your brother, only recently promoted from the kids' table, whisper to each other about what you should say and make bets on who's going to crack first and say he's thankful for that extra bottle of Cutty in the pantry, and then you start to panic, your littlest cousin is talking about how she's thankful for her Barbies and all their houses and dream cars and sparkly pink outfits and it's only two more people until it gets around to you, and you've got a wisecrack all ready to go, but then the nice old man next to you who's a friend of your aunt's gives a lovely speech about how it's so wonderful to spend Thanksgiving with family even if it's not his family, and everyone claps, like, "thanks," nice old man, if by "thanks" you mean "I want to brain you with the salad tongs because I can't possibly top that shit," and you blunder ahead with a mawkish sentiment about how great it is that the nice old man could join you, and it's also great that he gave your family that ginormous block of government surplus cheese, because…your family…really really likes cheese! And what a shame for it to go to waste when the nice old man doesn't care for cheese! So, thanks. For the…cheese.
And you'd also like to "thank" your brother for jumping in here aaaaany time now, which he does by "thanking" your parents for not making you wear a helmet in public, prompting your mother to "thank" both of you for embarrassing her with your joint failure to observe any kind of decorum, ever, and your father is suddenly very thankful for something in another room entirely and dashes thereto to express his gratitude in person, because he found your pained "What? We do like cheese!" hysterically funny for some reason and your mom is about to bury a butter knife in his eye, except that your grandmother doesn't know what's going on, so your brother is explaining to her that "it's funny because Sar is retarded," so your mother has to yell at him for using the word "retarded" first and then yell at your dad for encouraging you, and then your grandmother gets biffed on the side of the head with a off-target roll, and you don't want to laugh because you kind of don't like the cousin who threw the roll, and also your uncle hasn't quite decided whether to bitch your cousin out or to give up and start snickering, but it made this really funny [piff?] sound so you hope he goes with "snickering," which he does, and now your brother is picking crumbs out of your grandmother's coif while some other cousin is getting screamed at for insensitively calling pass interference on the play, and in the midst of the chaos, you turn to the nice old man and inform him that it's not just you, the entire family is retarded, like, severely, and he says, "You don't say. Huck me a roll, young lady," and on those rare occasions when you find yourself in a home where people behave politely, hand each other things instead of throwing them, and wash hundreds of dishes without towel-snapping anyone on the dupa, you don't quite know what to do with yourself. When you find yourself at a Thanksgiving where everyone quietly watches football for most of the afternoon, you want to scream, or drop a plate. It's too quiet, and everyone is drinking club soda, and nobody would dream of horsing around with the electric carving knife, and you saw the gravy in progress and you know it's going to come out too thin and you want to run away.
But you don't, because someone you love is there, and you do love that someone, in spite of his or her misguided belief that Cool Whip is not an insult to pecan pie. When that someone asks anxiously, "Why — what's wrong with bean casserole?" you smile and say, "Nothing, honey. I love bean casserole." You feel kind of put-upon about it, but you figure that this is how Thanksgiving started in the first place, the pilgrims all sitting down at the table with big fake smiles, and one of them muttering to the leader, "Do we actually have to…eat that?" and the leader hissing at him to shut it, it's this or stone soup again so we'll eat whatever pone they've got going and like it. And when it's your turn, you give thanks out loud to your hosts for having you, and you give thanks in your head to that someone you love's eight-year-old niece for saying the bean casserole tasted like sweaty feet, because…seriously, and you feel like a part of something much bigger than you, of a proud tradition, of togetherness and family and flying baked goods, and when you and that someone you love curl up in front of the fireplace for a post-turkey nap, the difference between stuffing and dressing and whatever the hell doesn't seem all that important.
November 24, 2003