Thanksgiving is a love or hate it holiday, largely depending on how you feel about your family. While I disagree with my extended family about many, many things – shockingly, not everyone shares my very liberal views on politics or theology – I both love and genuinely like them. So having most of my extended family together on my mom’s side this Thanksgiving was pretty awesome.
Both of my parents are from northern New Jersey, land of traffic and Wawas. While they high-tailed it for upstate New York, many of my relatives stuck around. When I was a kid, we’d always make the three hour trek down to my Aunt Linda’s house for Thanksgiving, bringing my mom’s signature dishes of mushroom dip and cranberry mold.
Thanksgiving at my aunt’s was the host for a variety of “coming-of-age” experiences. In my late teens, I realized I was seeing my extended family get seriously tipsy for the first time. They were drinking port and playing a movie trivia game when my conservative uncle imitated the bit in Ace Ventura when Jim Carrey talks out of his butt. Although I couldn’t drink, it felt like I was getting initiated into an odd, vaguely uncomfortable club. Similarly, a visit a few years ago revealed how big the gap between my viewpoint and others were when a simple conversation about my job steered into a comment about young-earth creationism in literally one sentence.
Since then, Chris and I haven’t been back up there often. It was difficult to leave the D.C. area between his work schedule and a new baby, and when we did, we’d go up to our hometown. But since Chris’s parents were visiting his sister this year and we didn’t to drive between 6 and 10 hours to Albany for a long weekend, New Jersey made a lot of sense.
In some ways, it wasn’t all that different from when I was a kid. The trip was about the same length and I sat in the backseat. However, instead of reading quietly, I was throwing random entertainment sources in front of Sprout. At various times, I sang at least ten verses of Old McDonald, drew random letters on his knock-off Magna-Doodle, discussed the intricacies of Elmo, and switched between reading Kakfa and the Little People Let’s Go to the Farm book.
Arriving there, we experienced an outpouring of hugs and kisses from the relatives, to which Sprout responded with shock. While he knows my parents, being in a new place with a lot of new people dazed him. He wasn’t upset, but whenever anyone asked him a question, he’d just stare.
That all changed by the time Thanksgiving dinner rolled around the next day. Having everyone around was obviously far more exciting than eating turkey or carrots. He chattered away, keeping a running tab on dinner. My mom exacerbated the situation by giving him a serving of cranberry mold right off, which is mostly sugar with a little bit of cranberry. Although he did ask for it, once he had a bite, there was no hope of getting real food into him. (No grilled cheese, but this comic rang true to me.)
The excitement extended far beyond dinner. During dessert, my cousin, his wife, and their kids came over, who Sprout has never met. At 9, 7, and 1 1/2, they meshed well despite the age gap. Sprout delighted the older ones by repeating anything they asked him to (“Holy Moley Spicy Guacamole!” was a favorite). He didn’t get along quite as well with the little one – he was surprisingly jealous about his books and there was a shoving incident over a kids’ couch – but it was about as good as we could expect with toddlers. Everyone cracked up as we shared family tongue-twisters like Stella-Ella-Bella-Henusky-Steina-Schawba, supposedly the name of my great-grandfather’s girlfriend (presumably before he married my great-grandmother). My mom added onto it by telling the older kids to say, “One smart fellow he felt smart,” which was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious for the 9 year old boy. (Say it out loud.) I’m sure his mom was thrilled.
In addition to the second cousins, we had the rare opportunity to see both of my grandmothers on the trip. While Sprout had met them both before, he was too little to remember. One of them, who lives in Florida, has been at my aunt’s for the past several months recovering from a paralyzing case of the shingles. Although Sprout cried last time he met her, this time, he smiled and even kissed her several times. She worried that her oxygen tube would scare him, but he took pride in helping move her tube under the couch so that people wouldn’t step on it.
While my other grandmother is possibly in better physical condition, she has severe Alzheimer’s and lives in an assisted living facility. My dad, Sprout and I visited her there, where she was already sitting in their spacious, well-lit common room. Already a bit nervous, I was further disoriented by the fact that even my dad didn’t recognize her at first. While she was gaunt, it was the empty look in the eyes of a once vibrant woman that made her appear so unrecognizable. But once we introduced ourselves, she focused and we started to see her past self a little. Conversation with her was forced, of course – we needed to constantly remind her of who we were and details of our lives. It wasn’t as disorienting as I thought it would be, but it was still sad. Nonetheless, I’m still glad we went – even if she didn’t remember it, she clearly appreciated us being there in the moment. Fortunately, Sprout didn’t catch on to the underlying sadness – he was too distracted by the TV playing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the residents playing Bingo with candy corn. It’s always a relief to me when his joy brings light in difficult situations.
From the youngest to the oldest, being with our family members was truly a cause for thanks.