The heat in the car is on too high. The dry air burns my nose but I don’t turn it off. In the driver's seat next to me Ashley has been talking since our car pulled out of our driveway and away
from the comforting lights of our home. She’s been talking about her family, the ones we are speeding towards, but I’ve drowned her out, opting instead for the quiet of my own mind preoccupied with details that are meaningless. My overactive imagination brings me back to past Thanksgivings. I can see my childhood self lost in the glow of the holidays with rosy cheeks, an empty stomach, and blind faith. The holidays have a different charm now that I’m older. The magic isn’t sparked by tales of Santa but rather spread in the kind wishes of others and the time spent together. Back then, the holidays were spent with the people I grew up with, my family. This year I’ll be spending Thanksgiving with Ashley’s family as an in-law. It’s scary to walk into a place that got along fine before I came and try to fit in.
I pick at a string coming loose from the sleeve of my navy blue sweater. I didn’t want to wear it, I had vouged for my usual flannel button up and jeans but Ashley had insisted that I look nice. So here I sat in my khaki pants and dark brown shoes that are too tight and stiff in the toes from their lack of use. My sweater is itchy. My skin revolts against the rough and scratchy holey material.
“Are you listening to me?” Ashley’s voice breaks the numb silence that's settled over me. She raises her eyebrows at me, momentarily taking her eyes off the road.
“Huh?” I mumble, reluctant to admit that I haven’t been listening to a word for the past half an hour.
‘Aunt Rosemary is going to complain about the food,” Ashley continues on, unfazed by my wandering attention. She’s just as nervous as I am.
My chest seems to constrict when the car ignition turns off. I freeze for a minute. Ashley reaches across and grasps my hand.
“We can do this,” She tries for a smile. “We got this, we’re going to have fun.”
I nod. My feet crunch the freshly fallen snow as I step out of the safety of the car. My hands start to sweat as we hit the cobblestones leading up to the house. Ashley thrusts a bottle of wine decorated with a dramatic red and white ribbon into my hands.
“Remember to ask my Mom about her book club and be sure to tell my dad that the repairs he made to the bathroom look great.” Ashley’s voice gets softer as we near the door. I take a deep breath. This is our first Thanksgiving as a married couple. My family lives out of the state so here I stand outside the house of Ashley’s parents ready for the judgement, and the questions, and utterly boring and one sided conversations I’ve been instructed to start of my own free will. The cherry red door with the oversized Christmas wreath swings open and enticing smells of turkey and cookies waft into the crisp evening air. Mrs. Dorset stands there, her greying curls frizzy from the humidity of the kitchen she has becomes a slave to during the holidays. Flour coats parts of her wildly printed Christmas shirt and stands out against her black pants. She wraps Ashley in a tight hug. It’s a sweet moment. A mother embracing her child after time spent apart. They exchange their pleasantries in obnoxiously loud and cheerful voices. I hover on the edge of the step, careful not to get in their way. I am forgotten for the moment. Mrs. Dorset takes the vegetable platter from Ashley’s hands and whisks it away to the kitchen, beckoning us inside. The house seems to envelop us when we step inside. Smells of food come from every which way and candle perfumes mix seeming to singe my nose hairs. The whole house has been bathed in Christmas decorations from lights hanging around the windows to jolly Santa figurines making a home for Hershey kisses and M&Ms to holly and mistletoe covering every open stitch of wall. Little children weave their way through the legs of adults as they make up wildly imaginative games to entertain themselves. Older children compare their phones and other electronic devices in an attempt to occupy themselves without resorting to the young ones shenanigans. The adults either gather in the living room to watch the football game and gorge themselves on appetizers before dinner or they gather in the kitchen making small talk and helping to set up the food.
We mingle. I tell Mr. Dorset that the bathroom looks incredible even though the grout is sloppy. He reminds me to always take good care of his daughter, not that he has to. Ashley’s great Aunt Lillian interrupts my conversation sweeping in breaking of cheap lavender scented perfume and tells me I am looking to thin and needed to fatten up with a pinch of my cheek. I meet Cousin Harold while filling my appetizer plate with dip and he assumes I am unemployed within the first minute of meeting me and offers me a job at the factory he works at, which happens to be hiring. A fellow in-law Louisa the wife of Ashley’s sister Mark tells me that my sweater is out of fashion and offers her services to help me find more high end clothes, she rambles on until Ashley appears from nowhere to save me. She slips her arm through mine and we stroll through the people. She points out a family friend Hue who used to help with the garden and the intimidating figure of Jack a cousin who works at a motorcycle repair shop and definitely looks the part. Ashley leaves me to welcome Aunt Rosemary who just drove four hours straight to be here and I am swept into a conversation with dear old Uncle Charles who launches into a dreadfully long childhood story about the time he lost his shoe in a hay loft and had to walk three miles to school with only one shoe.
It’s a relief when the call that dinner is ready rouses the guests to move to the dining room. People trickle in, stopping to wash their hands or blow their noses, or to refill their drinks. It takes a while to get everyone sitting around the table. From the chair beside me Ashley’s face is flushed and glowing, her short black hair has come loose from its intricate braid and strands hanging in front of her face. She grins at me, her eyes shining. I smile back. Our hands meet under the table for a brief squeeze. Mrs. Dorset stands up and clinks her cup with her spoon.
“We are so happy that everyone made it safely and we are so blessed to spend this holiday with you all.” she beams around the room. A moment of silence follows. Mrs. Dorset elbows her husband sitting beside her. “Bill, is going to say our blessing now.” Mr. Dorset pushes his chair back and stands up, clearing his throat.
“Well, we gather here to be thankful for everything that we have. Grateful for our lives full of prosperity, grateful for our food that has been prepared for us by our loved ones, and grateful for our company, there’s no one we’d rather spend our holiday with.” He sits down again as glasses are raised in salute.
“That was a good speech,” I whisper under my breath to Ashley. “How long do you think it took him to make it?”
“I doubt he wrote it in advance,” she whispered back. We share a smile.
The food is passed around the table. Heaping swirls of mashed potatoes float between hungry people, stuffing and casserole bounce through different hands. The candles on the table illuminate the happy glow as people chatter. The bright red cranberries reflect the light against the clanging silverware. Noise erupts as the knife plunges into the golden brown turkey. The meat is passed around, the final piece of Thanksgiving dinner to the already overflowing plates. Wine glasses clink together as guests dig into their food and conversations flourish between different parties. I savor the food on my tongue as I survey the people around me. These people, many faces I’ve met some in passing, some in depth, many people I haven’t met yet. They are not the family that I grew up with but this table is beginning to feel like home. Perhaps while this is the end of an era of childhood games and familiar faces it is also the beginning of a new era, one that will hold just as many cherished memories as the first. We all eat until we can eat no more. Silence falls as people take a minute to process their food and then the conversation spikes up again with reverence. Filled with wine and good food the conversation shifts from small talk to deeper conversations. Mini arguments erupt as people debate politics and gossip about work and friends. Before friendly discourse turns to turbulent disagreements with lasting effects dessert is served with carefully planned out timing. The table becomes a sea of pies with golden brown crusts peeking out from underneath meticulously swirled whipped cream. Coffee and hot chocolate are past around the table their warmth spreading throughout the room. As the deep rich flavors spread through my mouth laughter returns to the house. Stories are shared of past Thanksgivings. How turkeys have been burnt or dropped, and pies forgotten at home. How snowstorms have kept the family from gathering and have kept the family from parting. How the children have interrupted prayers and spilled drinks and how playful conversation has turned to argument that have divided people. How now everything is perfect.
Dishes are cleared and they clank as the excess is scraped off. The sound of football wafts into every area of the house. Glasses are topped off and small candies are passed around. Kids scream and run underfoot. I recline into the worn couch beneath me and Ashley sits close our hands intertwined. We are surrounded by rosey cheeks and loud voices and full stomachs. It smells like perfume and cologne and pies and turkey all mingled together. It sounds like passionate conversations, and laughter, and excited television announcers, and happy children. It's starting to feel like home. It’s not until we follow the lead of others and take our leave, until the wind whips our faces as we walk to our car, until the cheery lights of the house faded out behind us, until our own door shuts behind us that I finally say the words lingering on the tip of my tongue.
“That was a perfect Thanksgiving,”
“It always is,” Ashley smiles at me. “It gets better every year.”
“It does,” I agree. “Thanksgiving is like coming home whether or not the people you are with are family or friends, it feels like home.”
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Great story! I loved the detail.