Not Thanksgiving, probably Easter 1985, from left to right: (a grumpy me), Bever-leigh, Stevie, Mom holding a carrier with a kicking-baby Jos, and a very goofy Joe.
At least not like I did as a kid.
Every year, until I was 12, my family tradition was Thanksgiving at my godbrother Stevie and godsister Bever-leigh’s house. Their mom, Elaine, would cook up a feastly meal with greens, yams, turkey with stuffing and gravy, baked mac and cheese and plenty of brewed sweet tea. There was a ridiculous amount of deserts- pies, cakes, ice cream, custards and cobblers.
Actually, Thanksgiving kicked off on Wednesday. After a half day of school (which was really nothing but a potluck party), Dad would pick us up and drive us over to Stevie and Bever-leigh’s house in Newark, where they’d be waiting with overnight bags to sleepover at our house. There was Thanksgiving service at our church (where Papa was the pastor), and then we were back home for a night of laughter and play, and eventually, reluctantly, sleep.
We were up early the next morning in our PJs to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and eat a bowl of cereal. None of us five kids ever made it through the whole thing- the boys had remote controlled cars to crash and we girls would get busy playing house with our Cabbage Patches.
Time would fly, and before we knew it, we’d be packed up in the 1984 Dodge Caravan, headed north on the Parkway, to dinner, to feast, to fun. Stevie and Bever-leigh were older than me- Stevie about a year older than Joe, Bev, two years younger than him, but two years older than me. They seemed to know about the whole world. Stevie had giant posters of LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane on his wall, while Bev had Whitney Houston and Salt-N-Peppa. They both collected Garbage Pail Kids cards, and had small TVs in their bedrooms. Stevie had both an Atari and Nintendo, later a Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, while Bev had a VCR and an extensive collection of movies- “E.T., “Indiana Jones“, “Back to the Future“- that would keep us entertained for hours.
Dinner took place in a perfectly polished, buffed and shined dining room, with washed and startched tablecloth, placemats and napkins. There was no kid’s table- we kids knew how to act. There was also no Mister to the Miss Elaine- she was a single mom who had worked at New Jersey Bell with my dad and became a close family friend back before there was me. I don’t know when Miss Elaine had split with my godsiblings’ dad, but it didn’t really ever seem to register to me as a kid that he wasn’t around. My dad got the head of the table, and we’d all stand and hold hands and bow our heads while he’d lead us in a somewhat long, perhaps a bit superfluous prayer. Once completed, we were all expected to recite something for which we were thankful, and Joe could be counted on to give an answer that was silly and heartfelt, while the rest of us kids just wanted to get it over. Dad would carve the turkey, and he’d make a small show of it. Finally, there was the food, some salty, some buttery, some sweet, all savory. My favorite was the creamy spinach casserole and the homemade double layered yellow cake with the rich chocolate frosting.
After dinner, the grownups would gather in the living room to drink coffee (my parents, the teetotalers) or some other, adult beverage (Miss Elaine and any other of the work friends who’d come to feast) and watch movies that were rated PG-13 or even… R. There was cursing and sex and violence in some, so we were to stay in the kids’ rooms in the back. No matter, there were Power Pad races and Duck Hunt battles and “Gremlins” to watch for the zillionth time. We were good.
It all ended when Miss Elaine had a heart attack and died when I was 12 in 1994. She was only in her 40s, and both Stevie and Bever-leigh were still in high school. My dad tried to help them adjust as they moved, I think, to Miss Elaine’s best friend’s, a woman they considered an aunt, who also worked at New Jersey Bell. She lived right upstairs from them (it was a multi-family home), so they’d stay in the same schools, too.
Throughout my teens, I began having nomadic Thanksgivings, going from my Grandmother’s, to one uncle’s to another uncle’s homes, one right after the other, until I returned home to eat some of my mom’s famous baked mac and cheese. Papa passed in ’95, and my parents split in ’96.
One by one, the strings that held together the tapestry of my childhood- and it’s Thanksgivings- became undone. Traditions died when people did. In ’99, my father, newly remarried, spent Thanksgiving weekend moving in his bride from her home in Milwaukee. Joe and Jos went and helped. I, 17 and a college freshman, stayed home with my mother, balking at what I thought would be disloyalty. In subsequent years, Dad began holding his own Thanksgivings, and my stepmom, Kathy, would be joined by her family from the midwest. I attended some years, only staying for a short period of time before making the rounds to other family members.
Those years I would always eat a lot, and wind up feeling full. But never happy.
Jos and I on Thanksgiving in 2010.
When K and I married in ’08, we had Thanksgiving at our place. Joe and his family came, along with Jos and her family. It was fun. In 2009, we tried a repeat, but me and Jos had an argument about something so stupid I can’t remember, and it was a fail. In 2010, we tried again, and we had a full house. Dad and Kathy even came, along with a few of K’s student workers he managed, and Jos and Joe and their families. Only Momm was missing. It was too many people for a one bedroom apartment, but I felt connected to my siblings in a way I hadn’t since childhood. I don’t even know why, exactly. Maybe it was the way our dad commandeered the TV to watch football and we wound up in my bedroom, but I had them, and even Dad under one overcrowded roof, and that was something.
Jos, her kids Justin and Sophia, and me, on Thanksgiving 2010.
It would be the last year ever to happen. In 2011, there was just K and me, and our new baby Z. Jos would go to her in-laws, Joe would be with his family. The following year, Jos was found dead two days before Thanksgiving. In 2014, Dad had a massive stroke, and was hospitalized, his nourishment came a liquid diet. He passed this year a little before Easter, and Kathy is in Milwaukee with her family for Thanksgiving.
She needed a bottle, lol. Z, me and K on Thanksgiving in 2011.
Again, it’s K, Z, and I, our little trio, observing Thanksgiving. K comandeered the kitchen, infusing this very American holiday with his Trinidadian roots. He jerked the turkey, made macaroni pie, Spanish rice and pitchers of sorrel. He’s got a new video game to play- “Destiny: The Taken King”– and will do so after dinner, playing remotely with Joe’s and Jos’ sons (Jos’ son Justin is being raised by my brother and his wife) using the PS3 and the Internet. Z and I played earlier, making a little Thanksgiving dinner for her doll, Little Zoe, and Curious George plush. She’s on her laptop now, playing an “Arthur” game on PBS Kids. K, in between oven checks, has jumped onto his computer, while I am on mine, writing this.
It doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving should, not like it once did. We’ll have the same basic ingredients- good food, video games, entertainment- but it’s not even close. What was, is not. Hopefully, some how, I’ll be able to find a way to stitch together the threads of my present and create some new traditions… and feel some of that old happiness.