Notes on Thanksgivings Past

I wrote this back in September, when it was still almost 80 degrees out, and I had no reason to think of Thanksgiving. I hope, if you are based in the States, that you had a good Thanksgiving day, whatever “good” means to you. It was sunny and warm in New York, and I put on a slightly ridiculous wool plaid cape. We took Bear to the dog park. We ate a little too much. I enjoyed a pie I did not bake.


Although it is almost 80 degrees out, I am thinking of Thanksgiving.

I loved Thanksgiving as a child, when we were living in a small college town, and my parents’ academic friends would gather a small collection of misfits for dinner. These dinners were elaborate and traditional, the tables set with fine china and flowers in crystal vases, and there would often be family members present, college-aged children on home from break, or slightly sullen teens who found themselves saddled with unwelcom duties, like peeling potatoes and entertaining the children. Later, when my mother went back to graduate school, the two of us began spending Thanksgivings with her advisor. My mother’s fellow graduate students were unconventional. I remember a Thanksgiving spent at a cabin in the woods, where almost all of the women were divorced. It was a potluck and there was no turkey. These women were no longer interested in upholding the conventions of patriarchy, and instead of gathering around the stove, we all went for a walk in the snow. I remember hot chocolate, laughter, and the absurd joy of leaping into snowbanks with two Malamutes.

*
These days, the holiday comes and goes without much ceremony. If the weather is good, we take the day to walk in the cold. 


On balance, I prefer things this way.


Of all my recent Thanksgivings, only one has etched itself into my consciousness. 

*


November in London is cold and dark. When it rains, the cold sinks fangs into flesh and won’t let go. Nothing I did seemed to drive away the cold. My bones ached and congealed into lead. I remember the city outfitted with lights, the big Christmas tree in St. Pancras station – the station held the Fortnum and Mason outlet closest to the British Library, where I spent the majority of my days, and I would stop by to replenish my supply of tea and snacks – and my sense of sadness and exhaustion as I trudged through the rain and the cold, trying to will a research project into being. One cold night, I finally gave up and arranged to go to Belgium to meet my father’s friends. I went to Fortnum and Mason the night before, and bought enormous, expensive tins of Christmas biscuits. The next morning I took an early train out of St. Pancras station. The train passed under the Channel and emerged on the continent. On the other side, I found the same watery thin light. I wanted, more than anything else, to be somewhere golden and tropical.


My father’s friends, I’m certain, could sense that something was off. For Thanksgiving we had what my hosts described as “very Belgian” food, including a gratin of Belgian endive. The endive pleased me because there seemed something precise and appropriate about eating Belgian endive in Belgium. It filled me with the same bubbling joy as the partridge that I saw on my first trip to England. (We were at a conference in Oxford. I looked out the window and saw a fat bird sitting in a tree–my very first partridge sighting. Before I could stop myself, I exclaimed, “It’s an actual partridge sitting in an actual pear tree!”) The day after Thanksgiving, my host mother asked, “Do you have exercise clothing? Something you can move in?” She bundled me into a cashmere wrap and we went to a yoga class. The setting was spectacular — we laid our mats down on a parquet floor with intarsia borders, and proceeded to take class in what must have once been a ballroom, with beautiful panelled walls and tall, narrow neo-gothic windows. The teacher softly whispered instructions in French. Outside, Brussels was bathed in thin, watery northern light, but here in the yoga room, the temperature was tropical, and I could almost will myself home. I realized I was also quietly weeping. My face and body were covered with salt, mingled sweat and tears. Here in this belle époque ballroom in Brussels, I had quietly transformed into my own inland sea.


Since then, I’ve preferred the let the day pass mostly unmarked. Some years i buy cranberries and make a sauce, but I never have the turkey, nor do I host the dinner. 


I’ve never really considered why I do not.


It might have something to do with being a kind of eternal exile. To live in America is to make peace with the fact that my parents and I circle each other like planets in the night. Now and then we find ourselves in conjunction. 

*

Looking over this list of Thanksgivings, I realize that I’ve left out my favorite Thanksgiving in recent memory, the Thanksgiving that we spent in Paris when we were first married. We went to Paris in late November, a delayed honeymoon. Somehow I had failed to understand that if London was miserable and cold in late November, then Paris would be more or less the same. It poured on and off during our stay—we had glorious, crisp late autumn days, but we also had long days of rain. Thanksgiving day was frigid but bright, and we ate a deconstructed Thanksgiving dinner at Ellsworth, a small restaurant run by an American chef. I remember eating a small pot of fondue housed in a tiny pumpkin, and also something with chestnuts. We were surrounded by American ex-pats. It was warm and comforting and I was very, very happy.


Postscript – I learned to bake pumpkin pies using an all-butter crust, homemade whipped cream — and the Libby’s pumpkin pie filling recipe from the back of the Libby’s can. There are fancier ways to make a pumpkin pie, with more sophisticated flavors and ingredients, but the taste of that Libby’s pumpkin pie is pure nostalgia.

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