Thanksgiving, in general, is a funky rummage sale. It’s full of relationships that had previously been stored in the attic of your social life: they’re dusty at minimum, batshit at worst. Rarely is there hidden treasure that’s appreciated in value. Mostly it’s like: Oh, yeah, I remember this thing. Kinda cool. And then: you look around, you’re absolutely crowded by old junk, and you’d rather not. Thanksgiving brings the fogies out of the woodwork. Also: too many side dishes! No matter your taste regarding the menu, there are simply too many dishes to arrange, logistically, and for too many people. As a child of economists, I can report: the economics of scale get trashed. And what’s the relationship to formality here! What is the ideal Thanksgiving outfit? A nice, rust-colored sweater? Formal leggings, but definitely not sweatpants? A roomy turtleneck dress?
As early as 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving, I’m usually irritated and bristling, adopting the attitude of needlessly-put-upon and also needs-to-be-the-most-helpful. This is the day of the year when I am reliably the most prickly for non-political reasons. Tensions are often high. In the words of the great Thanksgiving film, 1999’s House of Yes with perfect Parker Posey, the best thing to do is “baste the turkey and hide the kitchen knives.” I have often compared my Thanksgiving personality to that of the noble turkey: mean, hissing, hungry, and too proud to change.
But thinking about Thanksgiving this year, I feel all soft where I was spiky. Alone in the kitchen where we probably won’t be carefully coating two birds in butter and bacon in a month, I felt a flash of upcoming loneliness. I won’t be overwhelmed by nosy kin and noisy men; I won’t be disappointed with the fact that hot sauce doesn’t taste good with anything on the menu; and I won’t be acting out because of all this frustration. Considering the upcoming empty kitchen, I think in a bit of a wailing way: Who will witness my tantrums this year?
Last year, I was most famous not for the first turkey I ever cooked, but for my dramatic-yet-brief kitchen fit. When my dad taught me to cook the family turkey (two actually), he also taught me that only we—the high priests of turkey prep—were allowed entry into the kitchen. I thought I’d let the policy go slack, because I was a cool chef. People began to creep in for snacks, for drinks, for chats. And then, when I opened the oven, hip-bumped an in-law, and a greasy cheesecloth fell and five people rushed over to help, I turned over my shoulder and growled, “EVERYONE OUT!” Everyone scuttled away, quickly and slightly frightened.
It wasn’t really their fault. Thanksgiving does not set us up for success. Timing is weird; because of efforts not to ruin any appetites, everyone is cranky and hungry and three-drinks-into-tipsiness by like 3:30 p.m. There are too many people and not enough places to stand around. Everyone is trying to avoid someone, probably, and it’s just physics that everyone will be on the move, skulking off to different rooms. More often than not, this room is the kitchen, where there are too many cooks.
Though I didn’t love this holiday at all, I am a little distraught it’s not going to happen this year. I’m sure some abbreviated version will happen, but if the house isn’t filled with 46 of my close relatives and other sundry guests, a classic D.C. mix of foreign nationals, elderly neighbors and their expat children, and new girlfriends of my 987 nephews—well, it’s not really Thanksgiving.
This year, looking back on acting badly on every Thanksgiving doesn’t fill me with regret. It fills me with small grief feelings. I was in good company, being moody and conflicted about holidays. I miss the people who will understand why I’m snarling while holding a 14-pound fowl and not think twice about it. So I’m mourning something I didn’t even love. I’m mourning slacks. I’m mourning so many people staying over that, last year, I had to sleep on a futon in my parents’ room, because even all the couches were full of my nephews, even though it was literally my birthday.
The individual parts of Thanksgiving are clunky, irritating, tasteless, drab. But the whole thing comes together into something with energy and tasty sparkle. Do I miss any of these singular elements? The sad rubble of Brussels sprouts? The vaguely Irish friend-of-a-family-friend who, every time he sees me, doesn’t remember he’s met me, and then recites a whole-ass Irish poem about someone else named Maggie who was in a field. No, I do not miss these things. But I do miss that it was a celebration with life force to spare. What else but a messy situation would prompt two nephews to pull the turkey up the hill from a neighbor’s oven in a sled the years when it snows?
I know enough about nostalgia to know that it’s full of the misleading angelic haze of bullshit… and to know that what I’m feeling is not nostalgia, but something more genuine. I will really miss it, because I will really miss the whole real, weird beast. Last week, I read a bit in a Vivian Gornick memoir, Approaching Eye Level, where she writes about looking past the little tasks of life’s events: “I had always known that life was not appetite and acquisition. In my earnest, angry, good-girl way I pursued ‘meaning.’” Between all the food and the preparation and the sorting out who was sleeping where, I happily took for granted the meaning of it, the big picture magic of it. And I’m sad-happy to wait for the next time I can be a little lashing minor brute for a second and then snuggle on the couch next to my sister and refill our wine.