I was 23 when I decided to host my first Thanksgiving. It has always been my favorite holiday, but my parents had divorced earlier that year, so it wasn’t as exciting as usual. Instead of going home to face the misery, I thought instead I would maybe find similarly homeless people to share the meal with. I had been working as a bike messenger in DC, and had made some good friends. We always joked that a messenger without a girlfriend is called homeless- and since most of them were single, I thought hosting a thanksgiving meal like this should be easy.
I let everyone know if they wanted to celebrate, we could do it at my house. Even though it looked abandoned from the outside, it had an enormous eat-in kitchen which was perfect for entertaining. The exposed electrical wiring and chipped lead paint just made it even more of a perfect setting for a gathering of misfit souls. I imagined the night would be like an Adams family Thanksgiving; set in my spooky old house, with crazy people, delicious food, and enough alcohol to forget we were all abandoned. It would be so fun no one would even miss their family.
My boyfriend, Adam, loved the idea of not going home. Growing up his dad was in the navy, which made them nomadic, so my rowhouse was as much a home to him as any. Also, his mom was an alcoholic, so he was quite happy not spending money to travel down to Georgia just to get in a fight. I was relieved he had agreed, because no one would come if they thought I was cooking the turkey, but Adam had once worked as a chef, and agreed to cook the entire meal for me if I would make him pumpkin pie for dessert.
My original plan was to ignore my parents completely, but I heard my Dad wasn’t going home either, since he had to work. When I called, he said he was going to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead, and I thought if he wanted to eat with a bunch of surly strangers, he could do that at my house. So I invited him too.
Inviting him did not fit with my plan though, and I worried how people would react. My friends were mostly heathens and atheists and my dad’s idea of a good time was reading theology while listening to gregorian chants. If he came, he would be coming straight from church which meant he would certainly be wearing a suit, and maybe even a tie. He had also sternly disapproved of my decision to become a bike messenger, and he didn’t seem especially fond of Adam either. But the divorce had brought some fresh humility into our relationship, and he bravely accepted my invitation.
The other problem with my plan was that my friends, crazy though they were, were not as willing to give up on their homes as I was. And the people who were going to stay home had been so abused by their loved ones they had no interest in celebrating anything at all. Like my moody, motorcycle mechanic roommate, who locked himself in his room with an 18 pack of cheap beer, and spent the whole day listening to death metal.
The exception to this was Ed. I adored Ed, almost all the messengers I knew did. He was fairly private, but his collections of punk rock records and vintage Italian bike parts were infamous. He had the nastiest dreadlocks I had ever seen, cultivated out of a complete aversion to shampoo and hairbrushes. Ed was also the only person I knew in my generation with a mustache, which made him look Parisian to me- like if you stuffed all of his dreads into a beret you would see him painting along the Seine. Although in real life, I could never imagine him doing something so generic.
I was surprised he wanted to come, since we weren’t especially close, but I really admired that he didn’t back out when I told him my dad was coming. He was a vegetarian, so he wasn’t lured by the promise of turkey. He must have desperately wanted to eat something besides pizza. Or maybe he felt pity for Adam, not wanting his friend to be stuck alone at a table with my dad all night. I knew his family lived too far away to buy plane tickets home, but whatever the reason, I was glad he wouldn’t be sitting somewhere sad and alone.The Dinner
As the meal approached I started to regret everything about the dinner. The guest list was smaller and more mismatched than I had imagined, and I quickly learned that pie from scratch was beyond my baking skills. I was so worried about being a hostess. I had no idea how to create conversation among such incredibly different people. How could I have been so foolish to think we could all come and laugh together, and that would solve anyone’s problems? I didn’t think I had anything in my life worth laughing about right then, anyways.
When we all finally sat down, it was everything I was dreading. The food was delicious, but no one knew what to say to each other. My dad stared at the crumbling plaster walls, and I assumed he was wondering if he should send me some money. Ed nervously assured us that the tofurkey he brought was actual food, but no one else was willing to try it. I tried to catch Adam’s eye so he could make some adorable joke or use his southern charm to break the ice- but he wasn’t looking up and his mouth was full of turkey. I felt horrible that I had invited everyone and expected them to get along.
But between everyone’s first and second servings, we finally found something to talk about…what it was like to pee in a trough. It was startling for me to realize that I lived had 23 years ignorant of this humiliation. Silently I began to thank God for the ability to always use the bathroom privately, and vowed to never complain about someone peeing on the seat again. The men proceeded to enlighten me with horrifying detail; the length, the texture, the difference before and after a football game. We laughed at their experiences of fear, of dodging drunk football fans and of urine streams gone crazy. The men were equally startled to learn that, even at a stadium, women’s bathrooms always have stalls with doors, AND locks. They cried together at the injustice. The conversation continued on this way for quite a while, until I showed everyone the pie I made. Suddenly they were all full and ready to go home.
* * *
Years later, after Adam and I married and left DC, we heard that Ed had died. His individuality made him so loveable, but it was also part of what isolated him. I guess being an outsider made it too hard for him to fight the temptation of alcoholism. When he passed, Adam and I each remembered this as our favorite memory of him. And surprisingly to me, my dad really loved this Thanksgiving too. I felt bad about subjecting Ed to my family drama, but I felt worse for not including him in more of our broken gatherings. More than anything, I wished Ed knew how seeing him laugh with my dad made that my best Thanksgiving yet. Even though I was so sure it was going to be the worst.
Somehow the weirdness of it all saved it. In the end, I realized what we all needed to cope that year was less like the Adams family, and more like the Velveteen Rabbit. The celebration was shabby and the people brokenhearted, but that made it more real and beautiful than anything I had imagined. I still stress out about hosting people, but now I know nothing is as important as letting people know you don’t want them to be lonely. And it’s okay if it’s awkward, because even the saddest people might find a trough to laugh about.