In the absence of Nobel prizes, children, or other accomplishments that polite society would generally agree to be of a positive nature, I find myself measuring my life in meals. For example, if I were to be strapped onto a board in a deep pit, with a slowly descending, bladed pendulum as my only company, I would probably be preoccupied with visions of food: hasty slices of cheese pizza at my old bus stop in Brooklyn; bowls of pho as heady and endless as my grandmother; the six-course, dairy-free engagement dinner that led to a breakup. I would regret the things that I haven’t eaten, along with some of the things that I have – the vast acres of Old Country Buffet macaroni and cheese that I devoured as a child, my Rosebud sled, would surely come back to haunt my final moments.
Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to be the meal of the year in North America. For us gentiles, that’s pretty much all we get in terms of notably grand feast holidays. But the problem with remembering Thanksgivings is that, for the most part, the contents of the meal remain the same year after year. You’ve got your turkey, your pies, and your galaxy of sides. Holiday meals are inherently standardized; every family has their own traditions and habits that branch off from the general cultural template. But it is the sameness of the special occasions that makes them all blend together into one thyme-scented, pumpkin-spiced mental mush.
I have been present at 22.5 Thanksgivings, and I confess that, while the food and effort at each dinner have always been admirable, I only remember the crazy ones. Nothing makes a memory stick faster than trauma and acute discomfort.
There was the year my family paid a visit to my then-stepfather’s father’s home, somewhere outside of New York City. The huge tree branches and possibly Zen-inspired water fountains that filled his apartment would have lent it a cathedral-like atmosphere, if not for the acrid, dirty sponge-on-top-of-kimchi smell that hugged the walls and upholstery.
I don’t even remember the old man’s name, but I do remember his dog, a pit bull puppy with all the innocence and joie de vivre of a dog that had not yet had its tail cut off in front of screaming children. She had a rubber band wrapped tightly around the lower end of her tail. The old man sat my little sister and me (respectively 5 and 10 years old) on his couch and encouraged us to watch as he used a pair of heavy shears to cut it off. He had a difficult time of it, and I can only assume that the dog did as well. I don’t remember what we had for dinner; probably turkey.
That was our first Thanksgiving dinner with people who weren’t quite related to us by blood, and I wondered about the particular alchemy that occurred when one started a step-family. Was I beholden to like these people, too? Over the years, my tiny family of Amazons tried very hard to like our regrettably interchangeable male annexes, but it just never worked out. Our family was always changing through the years: dislocation and interruption were the status quo. I learned quickly that romantic love isn’t going to save anyone from themselves. But that didn’t stop me from trying my luck from time to time.
I repeated the experiment more than a decade later at my then-boyfriend’s family’s house in Minneapolis. Their home was warm in the way that only a Midwestern mother can achieve, through thankless, tireless years of digging through the bins and aisles at Arc’s Value Village in search of the crème de la crème of prairie chic. The night before, he and I stayed up for hours in their rooster-inspired kitchen, baking pies (apple and sweet potato), talking shit, and watching a documentary (“The Great Happiness Space”). Though his family had already lifted their separate bedrooms decree months prior, I still had to work out my anxiety over the whole situation by micromanaging the development of our pie crusts. When that failed to calm my nerves, I drank. All of a sudden I was sitting at their dining room table, hungover, and listening to a long lost family friend make some odd jokes to her prairie home companions about the two ethnic minorities in the room.
Would it be too vulgar to compare a Thanksgiving to a thrift store fitting room? The garment in question, which looked so perfect on the rack, transforms in the room. You notice the tiny flaws: a sticky zipper, some slight tightness around the arms, a missing button. My boyfriend’s family was the terrifying Christmas sweater counterpart to my family’s sassy high heels. But you have to make a decision: do I have what it takes to strut down the street and rock this? I wasn’t really sure if I fit in with my boyfriend’s life, but I enjoyed the novelty of it. People in their early twenties make important decisions like that.
My attendance at Thanksgiving dinner was that sort of dress-up game. It was presumed that we would get married and raise our beautiful, yet myopic half-Asian children in a tiny home in Seward. How much of this was simply my neurotic hallucination? I knew this, however: being at the nexus point of a family just felt good, despite the fact that my potential in-laws were sincere celebrants of the musical stylings of Coldplay. It certainly made me feel less alone, as a recent transplant to the city with no local roots to speak of.
It made for fun mental exercise to compare this Lifetime Thanksgiving to the one we celebrated at my mother’s carefully curated apartment in New York City the following year, where she invited her fashionista friends along and made a Lady Gaga album the soundtrack to the day. When I think of my blood, of my mother, I hear “Bad Romance” playing in the background. I can taste our yearly allotment of Joe’s Stone Crab claws, freshly flown in from Florida. I remember the constant parade of fabulous, doe-eyed men finding a home at their favorite hag’s dinner table and whispering to her about our boyfriends’ too-casual taste in clothing. Our Thanksgivings, more often than not, celebrated the single life of the queer urbanite. And our guests were fierce refugees from small towns who either wouldn’t or couldn’t go back home. The condition of my heart has become so much closer to theirs, now that I’ve found myself in the same situation.
This year, I’m going to celebrate this most familial of holidays with my two bosses, the chefs at the restaurant where I cook. I’m quite different from these guys, but we all drink together, sweat together, and make fun of each other relentlessly pretty much every day of the week. I spend more time with them than with any other people in my life right now, so I can’t help but like them. I’m looking forward to the green bean casserole (which I have never eaten before), the Wisconsin beer, and the “talent show,” during which playing a few liquored-up bass riffs from “Smoke on the Water” will constitute a talent.
For isolated people, eating with others is an easy and welcome diversion. We can pretend we have some distance from our isolation at the communal table, where we share and exchange our staked claims to love and obligation. The things that drive us apart come later, but for once we have some essential commonalities: smelling, chewing, digesting, sighing. Maybe this is how you begin to build a family from scratch. It takes more work to build bloodless relationships, but all you need in your starter kit is dinner.