For years, Thanksgivings came and went in a pleasant haze of Mom’s signature cornbread stuffing, marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole, and somewhat overcooked turkey – all served up in titanic portions. No matter: It was a chance for the family to gather around the huge oval dining room table laden with the fine French china, linens and real silver that my mother had inherited from her mother.
Our holiday feeds began at around 5:30pm. That gave my father and two brothers plenty of time to spend the afternoon sprawled out in the family room watching as many hours of football as possible on TV. There was something comforting about the unmistakably masculine sound track: the muscle-bound players’ loud grunts, the announcer’s play-by-play, the cheers and boos from my male kin. By late afternoon, even the gold shag carpet in the family room seemed aquiver with testosterone.
Meanwhile, my mother maintained her command post in the adjacent avocado kitchen, mashing, stirring, sautéing and unleashing the intoxicating aromas of turkey gravy and toasting marshmallows. Refusing all offers of help, she preferred to cook solo. I, the middle child and the only girl, was left to drift in and out of euphoric naps on the black naugahyde sofa, feeling snug in the cocoon of my family – our roles clearly defined on those occasions, no cause for familial tension.
The wheels didn’t fall off the holiday food cart until I was twenty-two years old, engaged to a guy my mother later called “the sociopath.” It was just before Thanksgiving 1978 when I found the list of eighty-two women’s names in his wallet. Uncharacteristically, I’d run low on cash and decided to borrow a few bills. The list was tucked between his tens and twenties. There was no question what it represented – he’d been foolish enough to mention some of these earlier conquests to me. But eighty-two? And why did two names appear after my own when, I deduced, the others seemed to be in chronological order? There could only be one answer: this turkey couldn’t keep his drumstick in his pants. With a lump growing in the pit of my stomach, I realized our relationship was over.
Thanksgiving dawned grey, raw and rainy that year. For the first time, my brothers were both away, neither able to make the trip home for the holiday. I had moved out of the sociopath’s apartment and completed the “drive of shame,” returning to live at my parents’ house two days before with a serious case of the break-up blues.
My mother was up to her usual turkey day ministrations, sleeves rolled up, a glass of chardonnay in one hand, ladle in other. My father and I were both distance runners at the time, though due to a relationship that had become testy during my teenage years, we had never run together. But, perhaps coached by my empathetic mother, Dad asked me if I wanted to join him on a jog before dinner.
“C’mon,” he urged. “We can launch a pre-emptive strike on the calories.” Somewhat reluctantly, I donned my gear, worrying about how we’d possibly pass the time, as conversing wasn’t our strong suit. But as we ran through the familiar suburban DC streets, breathing in unison and matching in stride, I felt a surprising camaraderie.
“How’re you doing?” Dad asked, as we began our second lap around the hood.
“Hate the cold drizzle,” I answered. In spite of the 40-degree temperature, I’d begun to feel an irksome mixture of rain and sweat building up on my skin.
“No, I mean, how are you doing?” he asked again. Stunned, I realized he was, probably for the first time since I was a toddler, asking me how I was feeling about life in general.
“It pretty much sucks,” I began, tearing up and tentatively launching into a catalog of the open wounds the sociopath had inflicted on my psyche. As we jogged around cul de sacs, past the brick split levels and Ford Country Squire station wagons, Dad listened and offered an occasional sound byte of advice.
“It’s kind of like running,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other. It won’t feel good for awhile but you’ll get your rhythm back.”
Within a month or two, I was back in the dating game, a little less trusting yet optimistic again. But that day, as I forced myself to ingest a few bites of the moist and crispy stuffing with an oozing marshmallow chaser, I began to realize that the protective bubble of Thanksgiving had been nicked. And, with the football game droning on undisturbed in the background, just the three of us, Mom, Dad and I, sat companionably in the kitchen, holding on to whatever we could of our family’s Thanksgiving traditions.