Sometimes I wish I could put in earplugs while standing in line at the grocery store. Perhaps if the lines were shorter, I’d zip through unscathed. The other day I just couldn’t help overhearing the guy in front of me explaining to the cashier the meaning of Thanksgiving. “It only counts if it’s the same every year: the same people must make the same dishes and always have it at the same house,” he said. “Otherwise there’s no tradition, and that’s what it’s all about.”
I’m not sure why I feel the need to pay attention to, or worse, internalize things that have nothing to do with me. Surely an invisible eye-roll and no further thought would’ve sufficed, and now I’m convinced that therapy, mindfulness and lots more yoga are in order in the new year. Personal resolutions aside, his comments got me thinking about my relationship with Thanksgiving.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving during my first semester of law school, my dad suffered a massive heart attack while at a conference in Chicago. My sister and I boarded a plane in New York, while my mother and brother flew in from Texas. We spent the holiday in the hospital, thankful that he not only survived surgery but also was in good enough spirits to joke with the staff and cheer us up. It’s not easy for patients, their families, and medical staff to spend holidays in a hospital. It was particularly difficult for my dad, who is a doctor and not used to managing things from that end of the bed. The hospital cafeteria turkey was rubbery and slathered in lumpy brown gravy, and the mashed potatoes clearly powdered, but I’d never been more grateful in my entire life, and that year, Thanksgiving took on a whole new meaning.
Years earlier, when I was in fourth grade and still living in Israel, my American mother decided to introduce her Israeli husband and kids to Thanksgiving. With absolutely no cultural context and no one else having a “special” dinner on that particular Thursday night, we were curious. I wasn’t a fan of turkey in the first place, so when it showed up on my plate topped with what looked like cranberry-colored jelly I was grossed out. The heap of sweet, orange-colored potatoes topped with marshmallows looked sickly and smelled oddly sweet. Candy on vegetables…? I thought that the stuffing, bits of stale mushy bread and fruit, was the last straw, but then out came the pumpkin pie. Who ever heard of a dessert made from vegetables? Surely Americans were confused about the purpose of vegetables. I was disappointed but consoled myself with the thought that Shabbat dinner at Savta’s, was only a day away. My mom’s efforts were about as successful as the time she introduced us to peanut butter at her American friend Andi’s house, and I gagged when the stuff got stuck to the roof of my mouth.
When we moved to New York right before high school, Thanksgiving suddenly became my favorite holiday, mostly because unlike Christmas, Easter, and the Jewish High Holy Days, everyone I knew celebrated it. Thanksgiving allowed me to belong to this new country and culture. While I would’ve preferred burgers or Chinese food to turkey (I was still newly infatuated with the endless delicacies that America offered), there was something cool and reassuring about partaking in my new homeland’s traditions.
As our family grew and scattered, this long weekend in November was one we could always count on. Coming home for Christmas break was not the same because we didn’t celebrate Christmas, but it felt as though that third Thursday in November was sacred for everyone. Even the turkey itself grew on me, but nothing rivaled the piles of side dishes. When I moved into my first home, I hosted my very own first Thanksgiving. I researched recipes for weeks, took time off work to cook, and even learned how to bake, a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me. I respect that not everyone loves to spend hours in the kitchen, so when we’ve had a potluck or even a mostly catered Thanksgiving, I was still grateful to be together.
When I overheard that conversation in the food store, I walked out pushing my cart thinking about the year we spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. We were together, we were alive, and we were thankful. I also thought about all the years I hosted 30 of my nearest and dearest, complete with china and crystal, and every hors d’oeuvre known to Martha Stewart. We were grateful to be together then too – what we ate or who cooked didn’t matter. And then there was the time that my entire extended family flew to an all-inclusive resort last minute. Despite the mass family upset stomach, we were thankful to be together. For me, Thanksgiving is not about what we eat and where we gather, although I’m sure the next time I host, I’m going all out and over the top again. As long as my family is around me, it’s Thanksgiving.