It is Thanksgiving day and I am eight years old. I am wandering by a local Kmart, staring in disbelief at the empty parking lot and the darkened windows. I can hear no cars on the roads, the subtle hiss of traffic is all but forgotten. For all intents and purposes, I feel like the only person on the face of an empty Earth.
For once, I am blissfully happy.
Let me go ahead and state something that may shock a lot of you: I absolutely hate Thanksgiving. With a passion.
Now, I know what most of you are going to say: Hate Thanksgiving? What are you, anti-American? No, it has nothing to do with that. In fact, I have some good memories of the holiday. Many years ago, when I was very young, I got up early and watched an animated television special that dealt with the Puritans and the first Thanksgiving. This one featured both the humans on board the Mayflower and a group of mice that had followed them; it predated This is America, Charlie Brown by a few years. I also spent many Thanksgiving mornings on the couch, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before Thanksgiving dinner would be prepared. I have happy memories of my father and I making a wish as we snapped apart the wishbone. But those happy memories are few and far between.
When I was young, my mother took on all the cooking. That meant that she was the one solely responsible for the turkey, the dressing, the rolls, the green bean casserole, the candied sweet potatoes and the pies. She was the one who was in the kitchen all day. There were only three of us, so it wasn’t a huge meal and no matter what, my mother seemingly eschewed any sort of assistance. For most of my childhood, I was simply too young to help her. When I got older, I never asked at all. The kitchen was her domain and hers alone. To tread there was never a good idea. It went double on Thanksgiving.
That’s a Norman Rockwell painting, by the way. It’s called “Freedom from Want”. You’ve probably seen it a few times before.
It’s a lovely picture, really but that’s the main dilemma. Namely, that this is just a picture. It isn’t reality. It’s fictional. But this was something that my mother was striving for, something she wanted on Thanksgiving day. She went through great lengths to try and get it, too. She slaved in the kitchen, trying to get the food absolutely perfect, the pies perfectly baked, the turkey perfectly golden brown, the candied sweet potatoes perfectly sweet but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t. Life isn’t a pretty picture and many things can–and often do–go wrong.
Which is where my hatred of Thanksgiving was born.
Whenever something went wrong with our Thanksgiving dinner, my mother found fault with me. Most of the time, I was simply sitting on the couch, watching television. I wasn’t directly involved in the preparation of the food. This wasn’t by choice, mind you; my mother made sure to make it absolutely clear that she wanted no help. So I helped her by staying out of her way. But that wasn’t enough. The mere fact that I was sitting near the kitchen was enough for her.
If she pulled out a slightly singed pie, she screamed at me. If the turkey wasn’t quite done yet, she screamed at me. If the candied sweet potatoes weren’t sweet enough, she screamed at me. No matter what happened, no matter how it had little or nothing to do with me, my mother screamed at me. I just happened to be the perfect target: small, relatively docile and not prone to calling her out on her attitude. So each and every time something bad happened during the holiday, my mother turned on her heels to shout at me, as if it was all somehow my fault.
Now, I few times I actually did protest. I pointed out that I had nothing to do with the fact that the rolls were slightly burned or I told her I wasn’t doing anything. That only made things worse, as she claimed that this was backtalk and that she didn’t want to hear it. So then she shouted me down and ordered me out of the room. I spent a lot of Thanksgivings in my room, sobbing as I clutched a beloved stuffed animal. This happened year after year and those are the strongest memories I have of the holiday: my mother’s raised voice, my stomach twisting in knots and my fleeing the room to the sanctuary of my bed quarters. Rarely if ever do I remember the meals but to this day, I remember the tears.
Trust me, there were a lot of tears.
Years went by and I grew older. The pattern didn’t change all that much. If anything, it seemingly got worse. After a while, I quit staying in the living room once the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was over, preferring to retreat to the relative safety of my room. The year I turned eighteen, my mother called my grandmother in mid-November and told her that she couldn’t face the upcoming holiday. It was just too much, she said. If the meal wasn’t perfect, my mother said she didn’t know just what she would do.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother simply replied, “It’s your own damn fault.”
That was when my mother stopped and actually thought about everything. And that was when she realized that her mother was correct.
What my mother was chasing was unobtainable. Perfection just doesn’t happen in the real world. There are “perfect moments” but those occur on their own; we can’t plan them into being. It was the same with Thanksgiving dinner: sure, my mother could plan on making the perfect pies or having the perfect conversation with everyone at the table but it might not turn out so perfectly. There were a lot of factors outside of her control and things could change in a moment. She didn’t realize that until that phone call.
By the time my mother finally understood that, it was a bit too late for me. I was already on the cusp of adulthood before she finally relaxed and started to enjoy the holiday. But at that time, the damage had already been done: I wanted nothing to do with Thanksgiving at all. I hated it with every fiber of my being. It just wasn’t “fun”. All I wanted on that day was to be left to my own devices. The huge meal with all the trimmings and the promise of family togetherness were of no interest to me. I just wanted to be alone. At least I wouldn’t be shouted at or punished for some petty transgression.
Even today, as an adult, I find I don’t enjoy Thanksgiving. A turkey dinner with a group of people I barely know? I’ll pass. I’d rather have a pizza with my husband and call it good. No muss, no fuss and I actually can relax and enjoy it. I’m with someone I love and enjoying a meal with him. That’s all I truly need to feel thankful.
As I round the corner of the building, the Kmart now by my side, I hear the soft thrum of a car as it glides by on the distant road. The illusion is shattered; I know that I’m not the only person left on the face of an empty Earth. It is nothing more than a mere facade. But even if it isn’t true, I still hold on to that mirage, that fleeting moment of happiness, as I have no idea when it may come again.