I was 23 when I decided to host my first Thanksgiving. I love this holiday, it’s the last holiday still unspoiled by hallmark and commercialism. It’s hard to ruin a holiday about gratitude, but my parents divorced earlier that year, and celebrating wasn’t very exciting My main solace was that I knew I was not alone in my dysfunction, most people I knew dreaded family gatherings and had a similar feeling of unbelonging. In fact, most of my friends I had met working as a bike messenger, and we always joked that a messenger without a girlfriend is called homeless. Most of them were single, and I thought it would be a fun to pretend we were all happy, and could belong to each other like on misfit island, and share a big ol’ traditional meal.
I let everyone know if they wanted to celebrate, we could do it at my house. It looked abandoned from the outside, but it had an enormous eat-in kitchen which was perfect for entertaining. The exposed electrical wiring and chipped, possibly lead, paint just made it even more of a perfect setting for a gathering of lost souls. I imagined the night would be like an Adams family Thanksgiving, set in a spooky old house, with crazy people, delicious food, and enough alcohol to forget about Norman Rockwell types of celebrations. It would be so fun, no one would even miss the idea of family.
My boyfriend, Adam, loved the idea of not going home. Growing up his dad was in the navy, which made them nomadic, and my rowhouse was as much a home to him as any. Also, at the time there were unavoidable issues he would have to face at home, other people with addictions, his own addictions, a nasty brother in law, and some memories he’d be fine to forget. He was quite happy not spending money to travel down to Georgia just to get in a fight, and I was relieved he had agreed. No one would come if they thought I was cooking the turkey, but Adam had was a chef, and agreed to cook the entire meal if I would make him pumpkin pie for dessert.
I thought I would ignore my parents completely, but my Dad wasn’t going home either since he had to work. When I called, he said he was planning to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead, and I told him if he wanted to eat with a bunch of surly strangers who didn’t belong anywhere, he could do that at my house.
But inviting him did not fit with my plan. I was pretty sure most of my friends wanted to get drunk. They were mostly heathens and atheists and my dad’s idea of a good time was reading Karl Bart while listening to sacred music. If he came, he would be coming straight from church which meant he would certainly be wearing his white daffy duck collar, and maybe a suit. He had sternly disapproved of my decision to become a bike messenger, my house, my lifestyle, and the people in my life. Luckily, divorce had brought some fresh humility into our relationship, so he bravely accepted my invitation.
The actual problem with my plan turned out not to be my dad at all. My friends, crazy though they were, were less willing to abandon their families in favor of debauchery than I had assumed. And the people who were going to stay home had been so abused by that they had no interest in celebrating anything at all. My only roommate who stayed home hated turkey, and said he just wanted to lock himself in his room with an 18 pack of cheap beer, and spend the day listening to death metal.
But not Ed. He was almost always an exception. I adored him, as almost everyone I knew did. He was private, but his collections of punk rock records and vintage Italian bike parts were infamous. He had the nastiest dreadlocks, cultivated out of a complete aversion to shampoo and hairbrushes and a mustache, which made him look oddly Parisian.
I was surprised he wanted to come, since he hung out pretty rarely, but I’ve always admired that he didn’t back out when I told him my dad was coming too. He was a vegetarian, so he wasn’t lured by the promise of turkey. I’m sure he desperately wanted to eat something besides pizza. I’m sure he felt some pity for Adam, not wanting him 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 apparently they had instilled the same love for a gathering and a feast that I had come to love, and I was glad he wouldn’t be sitting home 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 and 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? There wasn’t much 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. My dad stared at the crumbling plaster walls, and asked if I needed some money. Ed nervously assured us that the tofurkey he brought was food, even though it looked like dog barf. I tried to catch Adam’s eye so he could make some adorable joke or use his southern charm to break the ice- but his mouth was stuffed with turkey. I felt horrible that I had invited extremes of people and expected them to get along.
But between everyone’s first and second servings, the ice broke with a story about peeing in a trough. It was startling for everyone to learn the injustice male discrimination in stadium bathrooms. They enlightened me with every 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. I was horrified to learn that they didn’t even have doors on the few toilets that were in there. How do you poop? The men were outraged to learn that, even at a stadium, women’s bathrooms always have stalls with actual doors, AND locks. They cried at the injustice, and the conversation continued for quite a while, until I showed everyone the pie I made. Suddenly they were full and ready to go home.
* * *
Years later, after Adam and I married and left DC, Ed died. His individuality made him so lovable, but it was also part of what isolated him. I guess being an outsider made it too hard for him to fight against the hold that alcoholism had on him, and he lost his battle a few years ago. When he passed, Adam and I each remembered this as our favorite memory of him, and surprisingly, my Dad actually said it was one of his favorite Thanksgivings too. I felt bad about subjecting Ed to my family drama, but I felt worse that he didnt feel at home at more brokn 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. 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 alone. And it’s okay if it’s awkward, because even the saddest people might find a trough to laugh about.