Dad sleeping on the couch. Mom slaving in the kitchen. This was the Thanksgiving of my childhood. So when my mom worked up the nerve to announce that she thought we should go out for dinner, I applauded her. After decades of spiraling out of control while preparing for holidays, the woman had earned the right to actually enjoy one. Besides, having moved away from New Jersey years ago, I felt I’d forfeited the right to complain. Although my oldest brother lived close to home, neither he nor his wife liked to cook. Still, my younger brother, who’d also moved away, had his doubts. His three kids didn’t go to restaurants under normal circumstances, much less for one of the most important meals of the year.
In actuality, this had all come about because of the grandchildren. Once they arrived on the scene, my family wanted to resume the tradition of attending the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City. But of course, a quandary resulted: How would the meal get cooked? My mother called in the experts. Boston Market catered and we added a couple of homemade items to the Thanksgiving menu. Reheating would be a snap, mom reasoned. But instead of the smell of turkey and mashed potatoes in the air, a horrible odor came from the oven. In all the confusion, my mom had neglected to realize she’d put the covers under the metal containers and plastic melted all over her oven.
Last year, when the weather report called for rain Thanksgiving morning, I figured our day was destined to be a bomb. But when I woke at dawn, the sky was clear. We arrived at the hill across from the Tavern on the Green shortly after seven and got comfortable. We had two hours to wait. My mother had come equipped with coffee and donuts. As I watched her offer breakfast to all our neighbors on the parade route, I thought, this is what Thanksgiving is all about, befriending your fellow man. As my brother pointed out, my mother was probably the only woman to ever give away anything in NYC. Unfortunately, the love didn’t last long. As the parade was about to begin, a man and his two daughters tried to squeeze in next to us. Appalled, my mom quickly sprawled across the ground, grabbing blankets and children to occupy as much real estate as possible. With a high pitch, “Kids, move!” she attempted to cover the ground like a human blanket, running this poor family, probably from Connecticut, out of the area.
“Maybe it was their first parade,” my brother speculated as he helped our mother to her feet. Or maybe this father didn’t know you had to arrive hours early armed with free coffee and deep-fried, fat-filled treats to win over the crowd.
Whatever the case, the man never expected to run into my mother.
Luckily, oversized balloons, marching bands, and celebrity songs allowed the magic to return. My oldest daughter, who’d been lucky enough to join the Care Bears float on our last trip, was thrilled to see the new Buzz Lightyear balloon. And of course, Santa’s float made my youngest squeal with excitement.
By the time the parade was over, my 3-year-old took Grammy’s hand in hers.
“This was the bestest Thanksgiving,” she said. And we hadn’t even eaten yet.
Since my mother wasn’t consumed with preparing the meal, she made pomegranate martinis while we dressed for dinner. Then, my oldest daughter orchestrated a Thanksgiving performance with her cousins. By the time they finished, my otherwise formal mother was in such a festive mood she told my daughter she could wear her Pocahontas costume to the restaurant. This, coming from the woman who had to be told by my kindergarten teacher to stop dressing me in patent leather shoes so I could play with the other kids during recess, was quite a statement. As I looked at my radiant mom in her orange sweater and autumn colored scarf, no grimy apron in sight, I wanted to scream, Who are you? And what have you done with my mother?
Then, as if to reinforce the Jersey stereotype, we headed to the restaurant – just down the highway from the Bada Bing, the gentleman’s club Tony Soprano made famous.
“Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction,” I reminded my southern sister-in-law.
The parade was phenomenal, but the little ones had become tired and hungry. I could see the tension in my brother’s face as the kids grabbed seats together. Before anyone could reprimand them for poor mealtime behavior,
However, Grammy passed out treats from her bag of tricks. Wooden tic-tac-toe sets, turkey sticker sheets, and hidden picture pages entertained the kids while the adults made more noise at the other end of the table. Before we left, the manager of the restaurant approached our table.
We waited for the worst. “I just have to say how well your children are behaving.”
I’ve been in the restaurant business a long time and I’ve never seen kids as well behaved as them.” My mother just smiled and enjoyed the last swig of her martini.
While my younger brother had quietly protested by ordering steak, even he agreed this was a Thanksgiving to remember – one we will not only try to repeat but also laugh about for years to come. In the end, it didn’t matter who cooked the meal or where it was served.
What mattered was that we were all together, making memories. Because, when it comes down to it, family, not turkey, is what Thanksgiving is all about.