True Stories

The Year I Tried To Give My Family The Perfect Thanksgiving

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How my attempt to give my family a 7th Heaven-style Thanksgiving ended in tears.

I would bring you home for any holiday — enthusiastically even — just not Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in the McIntyre household isn’t the Rockwell-esque, tryptophan-tinged haze of cheek kisses and spiritual gratitude that it is for other American families. Now, our Christmases are unrivaled, our Halloweens, impeccable. But Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving doesn’t get its own cardboard box in the attic. In my family, Thanksgiving is unheralded, anti-climatic, and over with little fanfare.

Looking back on it now, I see that Thanksgiving never really stood a chance. My mother is a narrow-wristed French woman who has many talents — making hot chocolate, embroidering, Elton John trivia — but very little comprehension of the English language or American customs. Thankfully, at least for my childhood’s sake, most American holidays have a French equivalent; these fêtes française served as points of reference for my mother and carried her, myself, and my siblings through one nationally-recognized holiday to the next. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving doesn’t have any French relatives. My mother knew absolutely nothing about Plymouth Rock or turkey hand drawings.

As an Irish American who never traveled further than Montana, my father should have been the one to lead the Thanksgiving festivities. But as delightful and hilarious as my father was, he had a fuse that was as short as his stature. (He was 5’4″). Dad was a short, angry, Irish Catholic who would come home from work and want nothing more than to take his shoes off, have a beer, string together a bunch of expletives about the LIRR and his boss, and then go upstairs to watch Jeopardy!. By the time I was in elementary school, he had managed to burn most of his bridges, including the one connecting him to his family and those that attached him to whatever Thanksgiving “is.” Frankly, my father probably would’ve been happy to forget Thanksgiving all together, but Christine McIntyre, family matriarch, ardent believer in assimilation, refused to let any American cultural opportunity fall by the wayside.

So, year after year, the fate of my family’s Thanksgiving was placed into the hands of a woman who didn’t actually know what she was celebrating. What resulted was a collaged holiday, something my mother pieced together from the pictures on her supermarket coupon booklets and the snippets of conversation she overheard while waiting at the school-bus stop. Our tethers to the Thanksgiving archetype were few and loose. We had a turkey, usually. For a while, stuffing. Outside of these few semblances of Thanksgiving normalcy, our holiday was pretty ship-shod, a result of my mother not fully understanding the task at hand or being able to rid herself of her pesky love of convenience. The McIntyre Thanksgiving was the five of us, with paper plates around the kitchen table, a tray of lasagna (at first because I hated turkey, later because I was a vegetarian), and my mother reaching in and out of the refrigerator (her chair was always located conveniently by the fridge door) to pull out more water or ketchup.

I whole-heartedly supported my mother’s take on Thanksgiving, until I started watching Thanksgiving specials. I was perfectly, naively happy until 7th Heaven, Full House, and Felicity showed me that there was another way. There was more to Thanksgiving than just sitting at a table — there were linen tablecloths, sweet potato pie, and ceramic dishware. Thanksgiving was something people performed! I suddenly realized that there was a right way to do Thanksgiving and my family was inexcusably wrong. I became obsessed with the idea of constructing the perfect Thanksgiving, of making my family into the ideal.  The year of the realization was also the year that I first grew anxious about my American-ness. I had been pronouncing “cicadas” “chee-cah-duhs” in my science class (thanks to my mother) and had been ridiculed by the rest of my peers. I was going to be an outsider forever. I went from being a happy-go-lucky girl who sat too close to the television to an eight-year-old having her first existential crisis.

I decided I would helm Thanksgiving, and so my ninth year on Earth, I became a little Martha Stewart (read: a lesser demon). I came up with an extensive shopping list for my mother, I discussed seating arrangements outside of the kitchen, and I briefed everyone on what they were and weren’t allowed to wear. My mother was confused but supportive. My father grumbled but didn’t ask too many questions. It was an extravaganza, and I was duly neurotic. But my family was mostly supportive, if confused that there were more side dishes than people. Through a combination of aggression and cajoling, I was holding onto the evening, when everything started falling apart.

The fire alarm went off — my father had left the thermometer in the turkey. It had melted all over the crispy, golden bird and was causing smoke to issue forth from the oven. He reached into the oven to pull it out, forgot to put on oven mitts, and dropped it with a rather un-Reverend-Camden-like curse. The entire contents of the flimsy, disposable roasting pan scattered all over the floor — grease, meat chunks, and the potatoes I’d forced my mother to roast. My hopes of becoming a normal, silverware-and-ceramic-worthy family now lay on the floor, being sniffed by the cat. My whole family started to laugh, and I started to cry hysterically. I ran up to my bedroom and was briefly inconsolable.

Later, sniffling and swollen-eyed, I pattered down the stairs and was wordlessly passed a slice of store-bought pie. The turkey had been cleaned from the floor and my family had moved on to Twenty Questions, because we were and are incapable of peacefully talking to each other for more than an hour without a game to distract us. The Doors were playing, my father was sharing some story from his days on the high-school football team, and my mother was cackling. The pie tasted good.

Since then, my father has passed away. We still eat off paper plates for all major holidays. We still play Twenty Questions (and my mother still picks Jesus every single round). I can’t say that it was through that Thanksgiving that I came to fully accept my family — I still try to shape things a certain way, try to tilt our picture frame back into a normal position. (Last Thanksgiving, I convinced my mother to make cranberry sauce, just because I knew it was something people did.) But 7th Heaven is no longer on the air — and though the Camdens are gone, lost in early-morning syndication, the McIntyres are still here, providing at least a testament to the durability of our family, if not our normalcy.