It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
'Can you pass the gravy?" I waited patiently to fill my face with all kinds of Thanksgiving Day goodness. So far, everything on the table looked fairly innocuous -- stuffing, mashed potatoes, canned jellied cranberries, green beans, and broccoli. David handed me the silver serving dish, supposedly filled with the flavorful sauce that lubricates throatfuls of taters and turkey. But when I looked at its contents, I furrowed my brow and blinked my eyes repeatedly, hoping to correct my color vision. Could the gravy really be orange? My eyes darted quickly to each of the nine other faces in my attempt to determine if this was an isolated hallucination. It looked like I was alone.On the few occasions my family members were unable to spend that fourth Thursday of November with each other, we still celebrated together the following week. Because her daughters were domestically challenged, Mom always cooked alone on the big day. That is, until Faye married Sean, who has become our family's new culinary genius. Sean has since taken over the bulk of the holiday meal, wowing us with his brines and delighting us with his fresh apple pies.
My mother took it hard when I told her I was spending this year's Thanksgiving holiday with David's family. She kept blocking it out of her memory, convincing herself I'd never told her, regardless of how many times I mentioned it. So each time the subject was brought up, she relived her shock and I
repeated the words that seemed to calm her best: "It's either Thanksgiving or Christmas." After this, her face would relax into a smile and she'd tell me, "Have fun!" The same thing worked with my sisters -- given the choice, there's no contest. Christmas wins, hands down.
David's parents live on Martha's Vineyard, home to some rich and famous (James Taylor, Ted Danson, Walter Cronkite, Michael J. Fox), vacation spot for the Clintons, the Kennedys, and more. It's an arduous trek to get there from San Diego -- hours of flying, layovers, ferries, and buses. This year, we flew the whole way, taking a puddle jumper (a plane that seats a maximum of eight passengers) for the final stretch. We flew the last two legs with David's sister Michelle, who lives in Seattle.
David's siblings and parents would all be together for the first time in two years. This was hard for me to imagine -- I don't sneeze without calling one of my sisters or a parent, and two weeks without seeing them is pushing it. My mother (a New York Italian ) and my father (a New York Irishman) brought us up with a strong sense of family love and loyalty. We truly believe our family is better. This sentiment was captured best by my late cousin Jeffrey, who confided to me, "When I'm dating a woman, things go fine until she meets my family. Once they meet the family, they're suddenly talking about 'marriage' and 'the future,' and you know why? Because they want in." This seemed perfectly logical to us.
David's parents are Hungarian. His mother is a direct descendent from Hungarian aristocracy; she is polite, well-mannered, reserved, neurotic, and sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor. His father is outspoken and opinionated, choosing mostly to discuss politics and the latest updates from Fox News. The Hungarians play bridge several times a week and entertain frequently for their many friends and family members who want a place to stay when visiting the island. Out of respect for them, and at David's request, I restrain myself from being the "me" I am around everyone else; I pretend I am a refined young lady with no opinions whatsoever.
Sitting at the elongated dining table and watching the orange gravy for any unexpected movement, I silently picked at my turkey. This year, David's gourmet predilections would go head to head with the family tradition of dry white meat. The Hungarians were reluctant to brine the feathered beast, but we had brought a DVD containing Alton Brown's Good Eats episode entitled, "Romancing the Bird," to help our cause.
After the show, we convinced Eniko (David's mom) to make the stuffing without actually "stuffing" it into the bird (where it would harbor bacteria and slow the cooking time by hours). The first thing Robi (David's dad) said in response to our suggestions was "We've been doing this for 15 years! Why change it? It works!" David whispered in my ear, "Yeah, and it's been dry each year." After discussions, explanations, and scientific diagrams, the Hungarians were not interested in brining the bird themselves, but they said they wouldn't stop us if we carried out the moisture-enhancing act for them before Robi threw it on the grill.
As the turkey was being carved, it dawned on me how quiet everyone was. My family is LOUD. My sisters and I tend to talk at the same time, over and under each other's words, spouting out fragments of ideas that we never fail to comprehend.
Meanwhile, our significant others share knowing glances and occasionally try to get a word in edgewise (does not happen much). At Mom's house (the usual location of the feast), the Twilight Zone marathon blazes in the background as we flit between the living room and the kitchen, chattering, tasting, and laughing. Mom will kick off the meal by sharing what she's thankful for, and this continues around the table. Tears often flow as the realization of how lucky we are fully engulfs each of us -- it's an emotional time, and no one holds back.
This dinner was an exercise in restraint. David's brother, Dana, said grace. He used the word "Lord" a lot, which is a sure way to make me uncomfortable and annoyed (I'm a recovering Catholic). Robi suggested we go around the table and give thanks, as my family does, but the others nixed it. I hardly said a word throughout dinner. For a while, I kept count of how many perfect opportunities arose and were lost for me to make very funny, though crass, remarks. I stopped counting at six, so as not to become depressed over the missed chances to display my quick wit. If I had said any one of the things I had thought to say, this crowd would have been appalled, maybe even disgusted, or worse, they probably wouldn't get the joke. Whereas my family would likely have responded, "Oh my God, Barb, that's bad!" and then laughed anyway, because we share the same dry sense of humor.
As I was solving the gravy mystery -- the secret flavor is carrot -- David's two nieces sang and made other noises across from us. As a rule, I do not like children. They're loud, they fidget a lot, they don't practice perfect hygiene, and they require insane levels of attention. David's nieces are good girls, perfectly tolerable in doses, yet I still wondered if it was a bad idea to suggest muzzles for Christmas. (By the way, for the many of you who did not get the joke in my piano story, I was talking about a baby grand piano, not a child. Therefore, cards of congratulation -- though appreciated -- are not necessary.)
The highlight of our holiday meal occurred when, in a brief moment of insanity, David's mother rolled a small, round potato across the table to one of the children in response to its request to "Pass the potatoes, please." Everyone sat frozen in stunned disbelief at the breach of etiquette demonstrated by the family's matriarch of manners. Later, in hushed whispers, the girls (whose world had clearly been shaken by the bizarre "potato incident") admitted they no longer knew what to expect from Mama. Potato rolling goes hand in hand with bun tossing at my mother's table.
The turkey was moist (hooray!), the stuffing contained mushrooms (yuck), the dinner was tasty enough, and it offered a break from all things sausage, sour cream, egg, and paprika, the staples of a Hungarian home. But while looking at the fancy decorations, minding my table manners, and listening to conversations on topics that did not interest me, I missed my family. A lot. And I knew they missed me just as much. I was suddenly grateful that despite our differences, despite the fact that I have always been the proverbial black sheep, my family makes me feel like I belong. For that, I am thankful.