While other hostesses give the impression that they sashay through the kitchen, effortlessly preparing dinner for fifteen in heels and a stylish quilted apron, my mom has no such interest. She’s not coy or charming. She won’t pour your drinks or welcome you to our home with demure, selfless gestures and batting eyelashes.
Hang up your coat, grab a beer, and make yourself comfortable.
She’s less Ginger Rogers than Aaron Rodgers, a metaphysical presence who takes over the game at-will. She can smell your fear: it has savory notes of thyme and the brightness of lemon. She’s using it to baste the turkey.
This is her house, her kitchen, and if you’re not blocking for her, stay out of the goddamn way.
Dinner is supposed to be at three. I don’t know why. I’m the only one who seems shaken by this strange and arbitrary time. It’s the best meal of the year, and I really don’t want to screw it up. What time do I eat lunch? Should I just power through? If I just delay gratification a few hours, great riches await. It’s a big risk considering last year, I lost focus early and spoiled it all by binge eating cheese and crackers like a noob.
At two o’clock, my aunts, uncles, and cousins march right in without knocking or ringing the doorbell. Their arms are filled with warm dishes: mashed potatoes, pumpkin muffins, and green bean casserole.
Total power move: My dad is still in the shower. Maybe he just wants to make an entrance since this is the one time a year that he wears a shirt with sleeves.
By the time he’s ready, most of the guests are already sitting at the kitchen table cramming their mouths with traditional Thanksgiving appetizers. Just like the Pilgrims, we have shrimp cocktail and limp spinach dip. It’s a failsafe prelude to the best meal of the year.
Between bites, my Uncle Jimmy (think: jolly Nick DiPaolo with a union card) tells us stories, pausing for laughs as if it’s a bit from a stand up comedy set he’s never performed. The only person not laughing is Aunt Kathy, who provides comedic gold of her own, sputtering out her catchphrase, “Jimmy, you’re an asshole,” between sips of Miller Lite.
In my family, being an asshole is as much an insult as a term of endearment. It’s who we are. Loud, raucous, and opinionated. Brash and offensive, rash and defensive. We’re a bunch of third graders; we tease you because we like you.
The assholes lay on the floor in the family room watching the Detroit Lions, who are usually irrelevant because we’re Jets fans. The moms stay in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes, stirring the gravy, and talking about grown up lady things. I don’t know exactly what that entails, but I assume it includes coming up with catch phrases like “Jimmy, you’re an asshole” and my mom’s signature, “I’m going right to heaven.”
Though dinner was supposed to be at three, it’s now five o’clock, and the turkey is not up to temperature. Roughly ninety pounds of potentially fatal bird bacteria, and serving it prematurely would be biological warfare. Instead we wait, grumbling quietly to each other but never to my mom: that would pose a more immediate threat than eating raw poultry.
While waiting, I overeat shrimp cocktail while everyone else overdrinks real cocktails.
Our volume escalates with every clanking can or bottle into the recycling bin. Everything we do is animated and out loud, which makes it virtually impossible to hear when my mom finally shouts that dinner is ready. We crowd into the dining room, which has been vacant for an entire year. But this is Thanksgiving.
We heap mountains of food onto our plates and sit quietly for the first time since dawn. We fold our hands and wait.
Call us heathens if you like, but saying Grace was not a daily occurrence at my house, so it carries certain amount of pageantry on Thanksgiving. It’s awkward and out of place, not unlike the silver cutlery and fine china.
Before I learned to cut my own turkey, I was content to yell “Grace!” from my seat at the kid’s table, chuckling to my cousins who had already accidentally eaten some of their mashed potatoes. We didn’t care about this weird speech except when we got yelled at for horsing around.
As I got older, that changed. My dad gets our attention now, because this is Thanksgiving.
My dad is a man’s man. Not the kind who makes demeaning jokes about women drivers or fails to tell you he loves you. The kind who doesn’t trust anyone who won’t look him in the eye. The kind who always drives an American car, quietly suffering through a gridlock commute every morning and afternoon so he could send his two daughters to college. The kind who turned down promotions if they meant he wouldn’t make it home in time to see my basketball games. That kind of man.
The kind of man you want leading your table in saying Grace.
He thanks God, and my mom, for the feast she prepared, for being a great mother and friend. He looks around the table, noting how grateful he is that we’re all here and in good health. He welcomes new babies, says goodbye to the family members we’ve recently lost, and remembers Aunt Barbara, who we can’t forget no matter how much time has passed.
My dad is not afraid to make eye contact. To thank you, specifically. To tell you he loves you, that he’s so grateful you exist, to tip his beer bottle in your direction until you blush or look away because you’re not built to endure this much heartrending honesty.
It is so profoundly personal, so brave, that I am physically uncomfortable. I shift in my chair and fidget with my napkin as my dad gives thanks for family and friends who have become family, for the roof over his head, for the food on the table. The very things that he helped to create, maintain, and build. He’s so genuinely grateful, as if he didn’t have a hand in it all. It’s a humility I suspect you learn when you realize just how lucky you are.
I want him to end it with a joke: a knee-slapper, a corny “dad joke,” anything that will let me swallow this lump in my throat, but he doesn’t.
There is no hi-hat, no punch line. That would be a cop out. He speaks from his heart, sharing humility and yes, grace, with a room full of assholes, including my mom who called him an idiot before she banished him from the kitchen. But that was before dinner. And this is Thanksgiving.