Monday, November 26, 2012

Why I Love My Thanksgiving Angels

I have the best Thanksgiving angels.

I don't know who they are going to be each year until they appear, and sometimes they don't appear . . . but that's okay. In case you're wondering, a Thanksgiving angel is a loving, generous person who steps forward before the holiday and invites you and, if you have them, your children over on Thanksgiving.

For the past sixteen years, I have needed Thanksgiving angels because I have had no plans on Turkey Day, no place to go. Thanksgiving is the penultimate family holiday, and I no longer have my birth family. My father died in 1986 and my mother in '95. Oh, and I am an only child. I am aware this is a pretty unusual situation for someone my age, but this is MY situation so I accept it.

What choice do I have?

When I was growing up, things were very different for me on Thanksgiving. We had concrete plans just about every year. First, we would stop at my paternal aunt's house in the Connecticut town next door to our own. I'd stand with the adults sipping my Canada Dry ginger ale like a small grownup while my first cousins once removed who were my age ran around and played with all manner of toys in the large house atop a long, winding driveway. I wanted to stay and join in the play, but we were off in no time to another destination, leaving me with a palpable feeling of longing and regret.

We were headed to my maternal cousin B's house in Greenwich, one more town over and just a fifteen-minute drive from our home in Darien. B is my first cousin yet, like all of my first cousins on both sides of the family, he is much older than me. His four children -- my first cousins once removed -- are my age. B's sister attended this Thanksgiving celebration as well. She lived in Manhattan with her husband and four daughters, also my age. Headed by another cousin of B's, a third family with four sons also my age came as well. Other stray relatives showed up from time to time such as my widower uncle in the early years or an elderly single woman whose exact relation to the family I can't quite place.

You can only imagine how I, the lone only child in the younger generation, felt about these gatherings involving three families of four children each. I LOVED them. TWELVE girls and boys in one fell swoop! TWELVE. For one day nearly every year, I was surrounded by all these relatives my age. It was fantastic. I got to talk to them and play touch football with them like the Kennedys. Then there was the feast -- my favorite meal of the year -- laid out amidst an array of polished silver candlesticks, delicate glass serving dishes, and a beautiful seasonal tablecloth. Turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and side dishes galore including the absolutely yummy sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. Martha Stewart would have issued her stamp of approved and then some.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day was also bittersweet for me because it came to an end, and I literally didn't see these people again till the following year unless someone in the family got married or died. My parents didn't socialize with the adult relatives and not residing in our town, though two out of three of the families lived within a fifteen-minute radius and the third just an hour away, they did not come into contact with us unless something was planned. Invariably, it was not.

I attended this gathering, which changed homes as B's family moved within the same town and B's sister was able to accommodate the group once her family moved out of the city to Connecticut, from as early as I can remember through the deaths of both of my parents. A couple of years thrown in there the party didn't happen (or perhaps we weren't invited) as I remember one or two Thanksgiving meals eaten at local restaurants. (My mother wasn't a cook.) Then in 1982 -- thirty years ago this year -- my father suffered a near-fatal aortic aneurysm at home on Thanksgiving Day. My father and I didn't make it to the party, though my mother did, briefly. (Don't ask.) Other than these few aberration years, the gathering of cousins was a steady gig I looked forward to all year long.

It was SO important to me, in fact, that I planned to keep on attending even after moving across country to Seattle following my mother's passing. The year she died I delayed my move until after Thanksgiving, and the next year I took a trip back East to coincide with the holiday so I could see my cousins. However, the following year B's wife pulled the proverbial rug out from under me during a long-distance phone call to Seattle. Her family had decided not to host Thanksgiving that year, she said. The three families would be celebrating separately . . . and that was the way it was going to be from then on is the way I understood it.

Alas, Thanksgiving as I knew it had come to an end. Just like that. My favorite day had suddenly become my least favorite day as I wondered how on earth I was going to spend the rest of those Thursdays in November and be happy about them. So began my sixteen years of fending for myself on America's premier family holiday.

Incidentally, I learned some years later through one of the families that the three had NOT gone their separate ways after all, at least not every year. Two of the families were still celebrating together regularly, and I suspect the third joined in from time to time as well since that family was actually the closer one in terms of familial relations. Liars.

What's this? An eleventh-hour invite to a gathering one other aberration year came my way many years later when B's wife let it accidentally slip in a birthday card to me something to the effect of "Hope to see you at R's house on Thanksgiving." (R is B's eldest son and the person who had taken up the mantle of holding the holiday get-togethers). Was I actually going to be invited again? Well, no, I wasn't supposed to be. R inferred as much when he placed a call to me just days before the holiday telling me what time to arrive "according to the written invitations that went out to everyone" else. I suspect I was proffered the backhanded invitation because I had mentioned B's wife's comment in the card to me to another first cousin of mine along with the information that I had been shut out of the party for the past seven years. I asked the other first cousin -- a kind and well-intentioned man -- if he was behind me getting the phone invite. He denied it, but I don't believe him.

Honesty is the characteristic I value most in a person.

Not expecting an invitation from the cousins, I made other plans for the holiday that year. Well, it just so happened that our Thanksgiving angels lived only one Massachusetts town over from R. How about that for a coincidence?! So I told R we could stop by for a little while. And that's exactly what my son Christopher (then only a baby), my boyfriend at the time, and I did.

However, R decided to humiliate me in front of everyone as we excused ourselves to go to the home of our Thanksgiving angels as planned AND as I had told him on the phone about THREE times. (He had called me back repeatedly to make sure we were coming, and I had each time reminded him that we were eating dinner at the other house per our first invitation). "You're LEEEAAAVING???" R bellowed, as we said our goodbyes and thank yous and made our way to the door, to which the others -- not privy to the fact that I had made our plans CRYSTAL CLEAR to R -- piled on with disparaging harumphs and outright abuse. My boyfriend, who had never met these people, was justifiably horrified! As was I.

I have neither seen nor spoken to R since.

If you're thinking to yourself at this point, wow, what shitty people, let me say just two things: 1. You haven't heard the half of it. 2. You're not the first to come up with that particular descriptive adjective in this context. My former psychotherapist in Seattle beat you to it by about thirteen years.

I can't recall what I did every single Thanksgiving since 1997 when B's wife placed that call to me in Seattle. I know I spent a few of them alone, maybe eating frozen pizza or going to a movie. One year a friend from a writing class invited me to her friend's celebration because she was estranged from her own parents. Lo and behold, the friend of the friend decided at the last minute to disinvite me because she'd never met me.

But more often than not, I have happy stories to tell surrounding the holiday, and many of them involve my Thanksgiving angels.

Here is a sampling of some of these wonderful people: Ju is a hilarious cousin once removed on the paternal side of my family. Ra is a friend from my Christian Science camp in Maine growing up. (Also hilarious). We were somewhat subversive cabin counselors together. The party at Ra's house, which happens to be located in my very first hometown of Katonah, New York, was highlighted by the setting off of very cool radio-controlled rockets. Christopher, then a preschooler, was allowed to press the button. We went to Ra's house a couple of times, but it was very far away. Re is a woman from my single mothers' support group. My boys had fun playing with her young twin daughters. Ja is a lovely woman who lives in my town. With her parents and brother visiting from the Midwest, she opened her home to my family and another from the elementary school. T was my Thanksgiving angel this year, inviting us to her beachfront home with many others: Ja's family, another third-grade mother whose children spent the holiday with her ex, a Guatemalan exchange student, members of T's extended family, and her husband's water-polo-playing nephew attending Harvard.

The gorgeous day turned into a starry night and the warmest I ever remember for a Thanksgiving. We went outside to the beach after a scrumptious dinner and stood around a huge bonfire built by T's husband.

My Thanksgiving angels mean the world to me.

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