I love Thanksgiving. It is, and has long been, one of my two favorite holidays of the year, along with Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the coming of spring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions revolve around family-style meals that are steeped in tradition.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I didn’t always love Thanksgiving so much. When I was a kid, Turkey Day seemed nothing more than a gift-less dress rehearsal for Christmas. The food was similar, we saw the same relatives. The chocolate treats on the table were basically interchangeable, except for being shaped like turkeys rather than Santa. But, again — and I really can’t stress this enough — there were no presents! And also no tree.
Somehow it became a tradition in our family to pull the same prank on my poor, beleaguered mother year in and year out: At some point during the meal, one of us — usually my sister or me — would go over to speak with her about something we had contrived. And in the course of the conversation, we would slip a dinner mint into the cranberry sauce on her plate. Don’t ask me why we did it; I honestly don’t know. But we did it every year.
By the time I was in high school, we were having our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations either at our house, or at my aunt and uncle’s house — Turkey Day at one, Christmas at the other. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas, despite being Jewish. A lot of Jewish families did — it was a form of assimilation rooted in social pressure and prejudice.) But in the earliest years of my childhood (and in the years before I was born — I am the youngest child in the family, even the extended family, by quite a few years) we used to drive into New York City to celebrate both holidays at my grandmother’s apartment. Our Gram was a pistol. Funny, irreverent, fiercely loving, independent, strong-willed. She was all of 4 foot 10, but she dominated any room she was in. Even after all these years, when I think of Thanksgiving, the first image that pops into my head is that of our family gathered around her table.
Gram had a few friends who used to join us for Thanksgiving each year. Many of them had been friends of the family for so long that we were expected to call them “Aunt so-and-so” even though there was no actual blood relation. One of these friends was widowed, and she had remarried to a man named Milton, whom we were to call Uncle Milton. Uncle Milton was… Well, how do I describe him? He was old, as one would expect of the friend of a grandparent. But he was also somnambulant. And, looking back on it, I think he used to get pretty hammered at these dinners. We would arrive after he and his wife did, and he would already be well into his cups. We would go to say hello to him and, invariably, he would say, “David. Good to see you. Mind if I don’t get up?” He said this to everyone (although, as far as I know, he didn’t call everyone David…). He never got up, at least not until it was time to transfer from his comfortable chair to the supper table.
Milton became the butt of many, many family jokes. I am not proud of this. None of us are. But it’s true. When we would play 20 Questions, one of us would always devote a round to the poor man. “Is he dead or alive?” “Yes.” “Uncle Milton!” At some point we heard that Milton had fallen and broken his hip. His wife had called him for dinner and he had, against his own better judgment, gotten up. He pushed himself out of his chair and just sort of kept going… When sometime later, we got the sad news that Milton had died, we all wondered how anyone had been able to tell. I know — this is just terrible. Cruel, disrespectful, inappropriate. But, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m laughing as I type it all out.
Nancy and I have had extended family to our home for Thanksgiving now and again, and for a while we used to share the holiday with another family here in our little town. But our favorite Thanksgivings have been the ones we’ve had with just our daughters, and there have been too few of those in recent years. Our older child has lived in New York since going there for college in 2013. We’ve probably had only two or maybe three Thanksgivings with her since, and we miss her every year. Our younger daughter is still in college and will be coming home this year, with her boyfriend. They both had Covid earlier in the semester and, according to the public health experts Nancy works with at the University, should still be immune and will present no threat to us. It will just be the four of us for the holiday. Quiet, safe. We’ll Zoom with our older daughter at some point, and also with my brother and his wife, who are alone as well, and will be Zooming with their children and my sister-in-law’s parents. Needless to say, this is a strange year.
Which brings me full circle. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even under these extraordinary circumstances. I find the concept behind it, simple though it is, remarkably affecting. Of course we should take a day to ponder those things for which we are thankful. Yes, we should do this daily, but the fact is we are too often consumed with the demands of the day-to-day, the fraught emotions of a world that seems to careen from one crisis to another, the necessities of work and the obligations that sometimes keep us from appreciating fully the importance of family and friendship. A day of Thanksgiving is, it seems to me, just the tonic we need, this year especially, even as the exigencies of the pandemic limit how many we ought to have seated around our tables.
And so please allow me to close by thanking all of you. Whether you are a stranger who has read one of my books, or a friend I have known for years, or a relative who sat with me at our Gram’s table, I am glad to have you in my life. I wish you a joyous, safe holiday.