This was written about 12 years ago, but since it is late on deadline night and–hey, it is topical–here you dear readers go.
By Danny Mayer
I was twenty-three and living in Charleston, South Carolina, before I had the pleasure to make my own holiday. It was Thanksgiving, still Hawaiian shirt weather for the coastal lowlands, and I was left, like many of my co-workers from the restaurant where I earned the money to pay for my Masters degree, with nobody to celebrate.
Employees of the food and beverage industry, of which I am a part, are an itinerant bunch. As a group, we place little value in job loyalty, and because of this, we rarely stick around in one place long enough to establish anything approaching tradition. And this, I suppose, is what made this Thanksgiving so remarkable: We joined together, formed an alliance, and created, if only momentarily, a holiday all our own. We knew what was expected of us on Thanksgiving – a turkey, stuffing, people, football – but we also knew enough to see that our unique situation necessitated a break, in some way, with tradition. So we distorted some of the rules, held firmly to others. The result was a cobbling together of our collective childhood holiday experience, a Chimera-like adaptation of our individual notions of family.
I smoked my first turkey. Jim baked his mother’s brownies, straying from the recipe only once, to add the marijuana. Price not only brought his Christmas lights (they are a year-round fixture at his house), but also a pumpkin, some candy, and a wreath, all bought at the local Kroger. Seannessy supplied baked brie and a bocce set, Melanie the horseshoes and rotelle, Stan and Leigh croquet and mashed potatoes, Jessica a baseball, two gloves and gravy, Dave liquor for the White Russians and a Sony Playstation, Alicia the homemade rum chocolate cheesecake and hummus. The rest contributed what they could – Pabst Blue Ribbon, chips and dip, french bread, asparagus, a honey baked ham, beets.
The music, like the people who controlled it, was an eclectic effort. Saul swiped a Bing Crosby tape from the restaurant and played it, he claimed, “for the holiday atmosphere.” From the trunk of my car, I fished out an old Chipmunks tape, the one where Alvin gives away his Golden Echo Harmonica, a present – both the harmonica and the tape — given to me at Christmas when I was nine, and we played that. Dave brought in a Hank Williams recording, and feigning sorrow, we crooned to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Everyone brought CDs. I heard Barry White followed by Rage Against the Machine, Neil Diamond open for Bruce Springsteen, and at times, when both house stereos were turned up full tilt, even Frank Sinatra perform a duet with Prince, the performance followed rather unceremoniously by Michael Jackson.
Sometime after dinner, after dessert, after the sky turned too dark for baseball but still light enough for bocce, after many drinks and many pictures, Jim, the forty-year old patriarch/waiter from Colorado, suggested that we take a family photo. We totaled seventeen people, mostly drunk. It was too dark to take the picture outside. After an unnecessarily long discussion, we stumbled back into the den, crammed together, chose our poses and took the photo. I’m sure that it was more difficult than this last sentence implies, but it was well worth the effort.
A look through my drawers, filled with useless, sentimental scraps of my life, confirms this: I do not have much to remind me of that day. Leftovers are either eaten or left to spoil. We drank all the booze, recycled all the bottles. I lent my Chipmunks tape to Alicia, have yet to get it back, and now moving to Lexington, have given up hope for its return. I no longer speak to any of the people there that day.
In fact, I consumed or gave all but that one picture away. I look at it whenever I worry that I won’t have a family of my own, that my acts while alive will remain personal and separate. I look at it to remind me of my family and of the traditions that have helped define me, blood and otherwise. I look to it as proof that my grandmother, dead fifteen years, still matters, that she is not separate from me, that the small dab of white in the lower corner of her left eye in the one photo I have of her, the result of a camera’s flash from a long since finished Thanksgiving dinner, continues to flash into my own meal forty years later.
And so here am I: A fireplace. Wood paneling. A couch on shaggy carpet. Jason gives bunny ears to Dave. Seanessy stands up, grabs Alicia’s bare legs, and helps her to a handstand. Price cocks his head and laughs. Danny bites into a drumstick. Dave gives bunny ears to Kirsti. Carson flips the bird. Leigh feeds Stan a bite of her cheesecake. Reck waits impatiently to return to the bocce. The Redskins are on TV. Tupac is on the stereo.
And somewhere, far from here and there, our grandparents smile with myriad subtleties.