Every year on my birthday, no matter where I am or where they are, my parents call me and sing “Happy Birthday.” And some years, my mom goes on to tell me the story that I’ve heard my entire life. The one about how my dad had to eat a peanut butter sandwich for Thanksgiving the year I was born because his wife and new baby girl were still recuperating in the hospital.
“But I didn’t mind,” he always makes sure to say, “because it was a really good peanut butter sandwich.”
With a Thanksgiving debut like that, it’s no surprise that my Turkey Days have been a little less than traditional for most of my adult life. I haven’t ever had to resort to eating a peanut butter sandwich by myself, but I’ve come pretty close a few times.
Like the time Chris and I took the boys to Corpus Christi with a plan to enjoy a fancy hotel’s champagne dinner, then a family walk on the beach at sunset. Instead, Chris spent four hours in the ER with 3-year-old Sam and a bad case of conjunctivitis, I spent four hours driving a screaming 1-year-old Jack around town and we had to eat our Thanksgiving meal at the only restaurant open that day: What-A-Burger.
Or the time we were newlyweds in Los Angeles and went to Chris’ strange boss Gary’s house for dinner. I think I started drinking when I saw that we were eating on their pool table, I know I continued drinking when the dinner discussion turned X-Rated and I finally stopped drinking after I passed out on Gary’s daughter’s pink canopy bed and my husband had to carry me out to the car while quietly hissing that I had just ruined his career. (I hadn’t.)
Over the years I’ve had Thanksgiving meals in casinos, on the beach, at picnic tables and on the balconies of friend’s condos.
I’ve shared Thanksgiving Days with my sisters, my in-laws and people I didn’t really like but they had nowhere else to go, so what could we do?
I’ve spent Thanksgiving as a new mom with a six-week old baby, then two years later, as a new mom with a four-day-old baby who weighed less than what was roasting in the oven.
I’ve eaten burnt turkey, dropped turkey and turkey that was cooked upside down. I’ve eaten deep fried turkey that almost set the house on fire. And I’ve eaten turkey that still had the bag of innards left inside it. Twice.
I’ve dressed up for Thanksgiving, dressed down for Thanksgiving and once wore a giant purple bucket hat to an expensive restaurant because I’d accidentally splattered grease on my face the day before and looked like a blonde zombie.
I’ve been a lonely 20-year-old Oregon college student whose boyfriend drove 500 miles in one day just to cook her a Thanksgiving meal. And even though that boyfriend is still cooking for her, he’s never again made anything that tasted as wonderful as the instant potatoes, pressed turkey and boxed stuffing did that day.
I’ve told the joke, “Did you hear Butterball had to recall 2 million turkeys this year? Seems that they forgot to butter the balls” every Thanksgiving Day since 1989.
Some years I’ve spent Thanksgiving with my parents. Other years, I’ve spent it hundreds of miles away from them. The hardest of which was last year, when I spent the entire day with my phone glued to my hand, waiting for news of my father who’d just had a very serious accident and was in a California hospital awaiting surgery. I wish I could have brought him a really good peanut butter sandwich that day.
I admit that I sometimes feel bad when I look at pictures of gorgeous Thanksgiving spreads or listen to people talk about all of the gourmet meals they’re making for the holiday. I wonder if I should be more polished, more structured, more traditional for my kids’ sake. If I should take the decorations and trappings of the day more seriously. If I should just buckle down once and for all and buy that stupid gravy boat to match my dishes.
But then. Then I come to my senses.
Because Thanksgiving is a day to appreciate what you have. A day to remember to be grateful for your life and all of the terrible and amazing and wonderful things in it. A day to look at your family and your friends and say, “Good God, what did I do right to have these people in my heart?” Thanksgiving is a reminder to embrace what matters to us and hold it close, close, closer. And if you ask me, that can be done anywhere.
Even at What-A-Burger.