Turkey with twins: finding the true Thanksgiving spirit
One day we would have a family Thanksgiving like in a John Hughes movie. I pledged this to myself. Like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation – ok and essentially every Vacation movie – I always wanted to host the perfect American family holiday with everyone coming to the house for a big dinner, parlor games, family stories, and perhaps even some songs by the piano. Well except we don’t own a piano and I’m not a great singer. Except that one time I got a perfect score on Oasis’s Wonderwall in Rock Band for Xbox. We’ve never really had that, but perhaps that isn’t what Thanksgiving is really about. Halfway through dinner with our 5-month-old twins perched on my wife’s lap and mine, I realized this may be all I need.
Growing up, we spent a lot of holidays at my Grandparents’. They own not only a piano but also an organ as my grandmother plays in church services. We never gathered ‘round to sing carols but we did always have family gather from across the country, even though our family is fairly small. Dinner was always excellent, but the parts that stand out to me were the post-dinner conversations we’d have around the table where I’d hear the stories of our wacky relatives and their escapades. These manly came from my great-grandmother, a Hungarian immigrant who was born to a commissar – folks knew not to turn around when he was in town – and was fleeing Hungary after WWI when the regime changed as he had made many enemies. Apparently being a commissar in a small Hungarian town meant a lot of power. Besides having the incredible name of Zigmund – watch out next son of mine – Ziggy brought a sense of distrust for authority to the US and operated a speakeasy behind an ice cream parlor. Granted, these stories may be a bit exaggerated, or potentially untrue as we may actually have as much Ukrainian blood as Hungarian, but sitting in awe during these stories was a highlight of my formative days.
Additionally, my grandfather had many yarns to spin as well. Growing up in Perth Amboy around WWII, lets just say helicopter parenting wasn’t yet an idea. He once built a “flying machine” and ran it off of the top of his roof to discover he could in fact fly, for about 1/1000th of a second before plunging two stories and I believe breaking his hand. He also once decided to swim across the Hudson from NJ to NYC and had to be rescued by a cargo boat after discovering the strength of the current. From the stories, his parents weren’t even that upset. These stories added a strong sense of connection to the history of my family and my ancestry. I always took it for granted that everyone knew as much about their family as I did. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized not everyone could trace their family back to the American Revolution or leaving Denmark. Visiting the old country, periodically eating ancestral foods such as aebelskivers (Danish), goulash soup (Hungarian), or gluhwein (German), and these stories cemented my tie to our ancestry that many others don’t have.
When my great-grandmother died when I was about 12, her stories had impacted me so much that I decided to get up at the funeral and share her favorite one about a distant – though probably not as distant as we’d like cousin named Steve. Steve was a great guy. He always helped out his neighbors with yard work, little repairs, and lending a hand. He volunteered in his community and always said hi to everyone in town. Steve also happened to murder his wife. But Steve was a nice guy though.
When we first moved into our house, I thought our first Thanksgiving would capture the same feeling and traditions (well not the murdering part). With both sides of our somewhat new family together, I thought we would continue to sit around the table after dinner far into the night, telling stories and perhaps learning more about my wife’s side. Fleeing the USSR as a refugee in the 80s, I knew they’d have interesting stories. However, with a father who is the friendliest guy, but has limited English, a sister with three boys under 8, and a brother in law who often works Thanksgiving night, combined with family on my side with dogs who can’t be let alone all day, difficulty driving long distances, and a sister who had been branching out with her new relationship, it never worked out. We’d often gather in the living room before dinner, sharing the parade and dog show on tv, but never going that deep on stories. After dinner, everyone would clear out fairly fast. Often it would just be my wife and me sitting at the table at night, wine in hand, sharing stories with each other. This continued for six years.
I also always expressed my inner Clark Griswold with the Christmas lights on the house. Since we moved in, I added more and more lights, getting a bit better at it, especially after the first year where lights continuously fell off the house. Hanging from the poorly secured ladder and the gutter always made me think of old Clark and the joy I would bring to the neighborhood with my lights. Two years ago though, I was completely sick of it and decided to take a year off. I ended up doing the same last year. With the boys celebrating their first Christmas though, I knew I had to get back up there, especially with how much they love both bright sparkly things and things above their heads. Once I got up on the ladder, about three hours later than planned, three years of sitting left a lot of lights no longer working, I rediscovered how much I enjoyed it. Something about the engineering challenge of putting up dozens of strands of lights without blowing a fuse and the wiring puzzle felt something like a real-life game. Plus, somewhere deep down I just love the look of a well lit house, especially all in white lights. When the boys first saw the lights that night and both smiled huge toothless smiles, I knew I had found something of the spirit again.
This year, with the boys, we had a good reason to go back to not hosting Thanksgiving. I practically begged my wife to not host, feeling the stress of getting ready with the boys wouldn’t be worth it. She felt strongly that it was good for them and that at least having it once would be better than traveling twice in two days with the boys. So we hosted again.
This was also the first time none of my grandparents made it out to our house for Thanksgiving. My maternal grandmother lives in Charleston and periodically makes it up, but not this year. My grandparents on my dad’s side couldn’t make it either. My grandfather stopped coming a few years ago after a knee surgery made it very difficult to sit in a car for the ride to our house. My grandmother couldn’t make it either because my aunt was in town and threw Thanksgiving there to spare them the drive.
We always worry about keeping the house pristine during the holiday for some reason. We child proof everything we can think of (we always miss something), put out a million coasters, and go crazy with cleaning the house before. We both love a tidy house, but it makes for a hectic run up to the holiday. Add in the crazy spread my wife slaves away making for two to three days ahead of the holiday and nerves are tense by the time everyone arrives. Add in three nephews who are tornadoes of energy and usually at least two other dogs running around, sometimes chasing the boys, sometimes each other, and sometimes being chased by the boys, and it doesn’t always feel like a holiday. At some point this year, I realized we weren’t the Griswolds, we were the yuppie neighbors next door worrying about their stereo while sipping Christmas Margaritas.
At some point this year, perhaps during the aforementioned dinner, perhaps when our nephew decided to interrupt dinner with a history lesson, that, “all the pilgrims died. They all died.”, I realized it was nothing like the perfect holiday I had imagined, but perhaps it was better. When one of our boys got to taste mashed potatoes, his first bite of solid food, and gave a huge smile before chomping down for more, it felt right. When I realized it was the first year our nephews didn’t have a post-dinner change into super hero costumes, Thor and Iron man were favorites, though last year’s Star Wars characters were excellent timing, I realized I actually had come forward to this new ridiculous tradition. When the nephews repeatedly asked for us to let our dog out to play with them, then immediately ran away screaming, like they do, Every, Single, Year, I knew we had yet another new weird tradition, one that perhaps by the time they go to college will have turned into them actually playing with the dog. Our annual game of run around outside and throw the Frisbee and stuffed pig for the dog may not be a family football game like in the movies, but it is nonetheless entertaining and fun. And though our great aunt doesn’t bless us with the national anthem before the meal, perhaps the mixed blessing of accented English cheers from my wife’s father and the half remembered Russian cheers from my family are a better substitute. One year, I’m pretty sure the dog will chase a squirrel through a solid door (though it did happen through a screen door one summer) and someone will blow up a storm drain. If it never happens, I’m ok with it though. Maybe that’s the true holiday spirit, not forcing old traditions, but remembering them while forming new ones with new family members.