I’ve had many different Thanksgiving experiences in my life, almost none of them of my own volition. When I was a child my family drove an hour each year to visit my great-grandmother at her country club, where I favored the dinner rolls and Jello cubes over anything resembling meat or vegetables. As my great-grandmother’s age climbed into the upper nineties, we spent the day in a retirement home dining room, my brother and I playing pool downstairs after picking at dry turkey, until one year she died, and we didn’t.
My Ohio college was too far from my Oklahoma home to return for such a short break, so during those years I spent Thanksgiving away and learned new traditions from people who seemed to care way more about the holiday than I did. My freshman year, my California friends and I spent the day cooking and shooting a cork gun at construction paper hand turkeys while we secretly longed for our families. Another year I spent at a boyfriend’s house, scouring a construction site for a brick that could be wrapped in foil and placed on top of a cooking Cornish game hen in the oven. My worst Thanksgiving involved spending hours watching pumpkins being flung by trebuchets on TV, making Easy Mac for myself and my lone friend who’d hung around on campus, and being nearly hit by a car on the way back to my dorm.
Thanksgiving had always been something that happened to me. It was other people’s need for consistency and my desire not to be lonely combined into a complicit act of performance. So I was dubious about this year’s Thanksgiving as much as any other. I live in New York City now and, lacking the time and resources to return home, had plans to attend my first Friendsgiving. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, it exists primarily to offer a form of solace to young people like me who are separated from their families but still want to create the sensation that they’re loved. You cook; you gather; you feel warm, at least theoretically.
As always, I was dubious. Maybe because to me, Thanksgiving was about doing stuff you were supposed to but didn’t really like. But I’m an optimist. So I bought a pie and got on the train to Brooklyn.
It was probably the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. I spent the afternoon helping my friend tidy her apartment and watching Mulan on a tube TV until the other guests started arriving. We laughed, drank, tried without luck to make sure all the food was hot at the same time, and when the last guest had trickled in, we ate off paper plates. Though there had been little coordination on the menu, the only duplicates brought to the potluck were mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. There were long, lazy courses and a lot of slouching on the furniture. I filled my plate with sweet corn, four cheese macaroni, green beans, and apple dumplings and laughed so much I felt loopy and drunk. No one made me eat turkey. No one told me what to do.
There are few holidays with as much steadfast tradition as Thanksgiving. The trappings of the celebration are nearly universal—there is the food, the football, the parade, the malaise. But there is also the fluidity of what a family means at different stages in one’s life. When you’re young and in an unfamiliar place, your blood relatives an inaccessible $600 plane fare away, the people who make that city a home are your family. To me, Thanksgiving is about the perspective it lends. It forces us to define who gives our lives richness and to pays tribute to them. The fact that pie is involved doesn’t hurt either.
Post and Photos by Bailey James.