Once upon a time, most of my extended family lived within a few miles of each other. If your family is fun, I recommend this. My childhood holidays were, without fail, happy and lively affairs.
Different relatives divvied up hosting duties. My Auntie Susan covered Easter. Grandma Dacey covered Christmas. And Thanksgiving was hosted at our house, under the ruthless supervision of Mom. When I was a kid, Mom didn’t trust me to do anything that involved cooking—which was wise—so she did everything herself. My role was to be on call for assorted bits of unskilled labor.
“Get the big bowl. You know the one,” Mom yelled over the roar of the hand mixer.
I reached for a bowl.
“No, not that bowl. The big bowl.”
I reached for a big bowl.
No, the other big bowl. The yellow one. It’s in the lower cabinet.”
I reached for the cabinet knob.
“The other lower cabinet. To your left. Your other left. No! Look! Look where I’m pointing. Am I pointing there? Really? You think I’m pointing there?! Then I’m going to tell Santa to get you a trip to the eye doctor because I’m not pointing anywhere ne— Oh, for God sakes! Never mind, I’ll get it!”
Then Mom ordered me out to set the dining room table.
Our dining room table was large under any circumstances, but grew to mammoth proportions after I locked the two wooden leaves into place. It still wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate all the relatives, however, so Mom sent me to fetch the card table. This I would wedge against the end of the real table to make one, super long mega-mammoth table. The seats around this hasty addition were reserved for the youngest in the family: Cousin Celeste, Cousin Jason, and me.
And oh, how I hated sitting there. Not because of Celeste or Jason; I loved talking to those two. It was the crummy table, which was shorter and wobblier than the Real Table. Sitting there made me feel like a second-class citizen.
It was a classic case of the Haves and Have-Nots. The adults, the Haves, had a nice cherry wood table from Ethan Allen with matching chairs that were both stately and comfy. They had a real tablecloth, that is to say it was actually made from some kind of cloth. They used the good China and the real silverware.
Celeste, Jason, and I , on the other hand, sat our skinny butts on folding chairs; rested our elbows on one of those crinkly, papery, plastic-y table cloths; and ate on and with the same crummy dishes and flatware that I used every ding-dang day.
So I seethed with outrage.
This was my house, too, I reasoned. Shouldn’t I have a spot at the Good Table? Heck, Mom made me polish the silverware. Shouldn’t I at least be stabbing my turkey with a classy fork?
Year after year, I took my meals in the culinary ghetto. By the time I turned nine I had had enough. I begged Mom to find me a spot at the Good Table.
“There’s no more room,” she replied.
“I could switch spots with someone!”
“Dad!” I announced. It seemed logical. Dad was clumsy, slow, and weirdly passive aggressive about performing household chores; he always found a way to screw them up somehow. Dad was totally a card-table guy.
But Mom was unconvinced. She was Old School; to her way of thinking, a kid could never, ever, in any way, outrank an adult—even if the adult in question just brought home yet another leaky carton of milk.
“You can get a spot at the table when you’re older.” she replied.
What Mom meant by this was, “You can get a spot at the table when somebody dies.”
So as I took my place at the card table that Thanksgiving, I sullenly surveyed the Ethan Allen Aristocracy to my immediate left.
Shameful thoughts tiptoed across my mind.
To be clear, I wasn’t wishing anyone dead. I loved these people. I was just…checking them out. Just because. Just to see.
Aunt Marion looked a little paler than usual. That was interesting. And Uncle Bill seemed to be having a little more trouble getting around. And Grandma Allegra was always saying things like, “I won’t be around much longer.” And wasn’t she like a thousand years old?
These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an unpleasant shiver firing up my spine.
What was I doing?!
Thanksgiving wasn’t a day to covet what you don’t have; it was a day to show gratitude for what you do have. And I had plenty! More than most! I had a roof over my head and a soft bed and a backyard and an awesome family and a great meal and about a zillion other things that I took for granted every day.
And I was fixated on this?! Really?!
Ugh. How spoiled. How petty. I felt the shame wash over me.
So I shoved the idea out of my head. I returned to my food. It was delicious.
I asked for someone to pass the gravy boat.
Dad reached for it. And then he dropped it. Because of course he did.
As a half dozen napkins darted toward the nasty brown stain seeping into the tablecloth, I caught Mom’s eye. Her expression was impossible to misinterpret.
And I smiled. Because I knew for a fact that this time next year Dad and I would be switching seats.
And I was thankful.