While picking bits of pumpkin pie from our teeth on the last night of Thanksgiving break, my husband Francis and I sat alone in the family room, mulling over the holiday in silence.
It had been very different from other Thanksgiving Days. Our college son’s desire to sleep in his own bed convinced us to cancel a rental cabin in Maine and accept an invitation to spend the day at Francis’ college roommate’s house west of Boston.
It felt odd going to someone else’s house for the holiday. We had gotten used to spending Thanksgivings alone with our kids for the last eight years or so, because it was usually impractical to travel great distances to be with extended family.
So this year, when we decided to go to someone else’s house for the holiday, it felt a little funny. I had to admit, not having to cook an entire meal by myself sounded pretty sweet. Francis’ college roommate, Marty, was expecting 30 people, and I was more than happy to be a mere contributor to what would surely be an epic buffet.
We arrived mid-afternoon to Marty’s renovated clapboard farmhouse in Bedford, Massachusetts and it immediately felt like we’d stepped into an L.L.Bean catalogue. Our lab Moby leaped out of our minivan to sniff Marty’s labradoodle, “Gretzky”, and the two frolicked on the outskirts of the yard, stirring up wispy puffs of milkweed floss that floated over the adjacent field like fairy dust.
Marty and his family spilled out onto the wrap-around porch to greet us, then escorted us to the barn where the rest of their relatives were cracking open cold beverages around a roaring woodstove. The barn had been converted into a party house with refrigerators and a television, nestled in the trees on a rise overlooking the property.
Marty’s three siblings, who all lived within driving distance, were in the barn with their families. Francis knew them all, but I had only met them once or twice before. It seemed like everyone was tall with full heads of hair, intelligent but not nerdy, well off without being haughty, effortlessly dapper and genuinely friendly. Their children – all older teens and young adults – were amazing conversationalists for their age, chatting with cousins and adults with ease about their life at Notre Dame or their work in analytics at Google.
When dinner bell rang, we all circled around the platters laid out in the house’s candlelit dining room, piling our plates high with turkey, beef tenderloin, creamy cauliflower, candied sweet potatoes, and too many other side dishes to count.
With all hands chipping in, an obscene number of dishes were washed, dried and put away, leaving nothing but wine glasses and dessert plates for the next round. A fire pit was lit outside between the house and barn, and someone turned on music as the sun sank behind the black silhouette of trees.
From my Adirondack chair near the fire, I watched uncles and aunts dancing and laughing freely with nieces and nephews, having done this at family gatherings many times before.
“They’re all so . . . so perfect,” I thought. I couldn’t help but compare the idyllic scene to our own military family’s hodge-podge of Thanksgiving experiences while stationed in California, England, Virginia, Germany, Florida and Rhode Island.
Just then, a thought crept up on me that had to be suppressed. Before I would allow “Why can’t we be more like them?” to corrupt my consciousness, I mustered my best defense mechanism.
“They must be hiding something!” I convinced myself, and envisioned loudly accusing the crowd of impossibly perfect people: “Show of hands! How many of you have declared bankruptcy? How many kids here smoke pot? Anyone a hoarder? Someone here must surely be addicted to porn!”
An hour later, we were back in the van driving home, and I was thankful that I’d kept my mouth shut. I had come to the unavoidable conclusion that our friends’ Thanksgiving event really was perfect after all.
After two days of feeling inadequate by comparison, it finally dawned on me that there is more than one measure of the strength of a family. Military life didn’t allow us to cultivate long-standing traditions with extended family because we had to move around so much. More often than not, it was just our little family of five together on the holidays, doing our best to have fun.
“You know Hon,” I finally broke the silence in our family room, “We may not be perfect, but the fact that we can spend the holidays alone with each other year after year is proof that, we are perfect for each other.”