What would her boyfriend think of her once he met her crazy family?
I was a college senior that November when I came across a stunning full-page advertisement in a glossy magazine. The photograph starred a silver-haired, patrician grandfather straight from central casting, poised to carve a resplendent Thanksgiving turkey at the head of a table laden with glittering crystal and gleaming silver.
Grandma stood at his side by a neat stack of blue-and-white china plates. Their grown children and dazzling grandchildren, waiting expectantly at assigned places, were all toothy smiles. They looked as if they had just won the Norman Rockwell Award for Family Harmony.
What I would have given to be a member of a family like that! My grandparents busied themselves at holidays loudly nagging us to get haircuts, to stop smirking or to "show some respect." I chanced another painful glance at the mocking picture. The children were all in dresses or ties, looking perfect and adorable at their own special kids' table.
In my disheveled family we would all be jammed together before mix-and-match dishes at a rickety, faded-red Formica horror whose shaky leaf threatened to send the gravy boat plunging into someone's lap. Not that anyone would take much notice amid all the yelling and chaos.
The dad in the ad beamed at the happy scene from his end of the table, while the mom dandled a newborn. My dad had left us years before. Instead we had Uncle Carl, whose concept of Thanksgiving dinner was to eat it in the listing recliner parked in front of the ever-droning television set.
Over the years I had learned to grit my teeth and endure my family's sorry behavior. The trouble this year was that my boyfriend was angling for a Thanksgiving invitation. I liked Alan an awful lot, but I had been putting him off until I could think up a plausible excuse. No way was he going to witness this annual fiasco!
I kicked the magazine closed and called my friend Judy. Maybe she would have some ideas.
"If Alan wanted to have Thanksgiving with me," Judy said, "I'd invite him in a New York minute."
"Suppose he sits next to my Aunt Florence, which he probably will since no one else can stand to, and she starts going on and on about politics, which she undoubtedly will because that's all she ever talks about. I'd just die! And so would Alan. Of boredom!"
"What's wrong with talking politics?" Judy asked.
"She keeps whining about the mayor as if she's on personal terms with him."
"Then there's my bratty little cousins. Their favorite tricks are slinging cranberry sauce at one another and putting the parts of the dinner they don't eat, like creamed onions, into their pockets."
"Oh, come on," Judy snapped. "No family's perfect; yours sounds like fun. I bet Alan would—"
"I am not inviting him!" I insisted.
As it happened, I didn't have to approach Alan about Thanksgiving. The next day he called me and announced, "I telephoned your old number by accident and got your mom's apartment. She invited me to Thanksgiving dinner! Wasn't that nice of her?"
Dumbstruck, I felt my head shaking back and forth. No!
"She what?" I finally managed.
"I said I'd bake pumpkin pie...."
"Alan, she hates pumpkin pie."
"I know. So I'm doing an apple pie."
"Oh, great," I replied weakly, but to myself I seethed, When will my mother stop running my life? After we hung up, I said, "Dear God, just this once, could you help my family behave a little more respectably now that Alan will be joining us for Thanksgiving?"
I was right about one thing. In the shuffle for chairs at our table, Alan did end up next to yakky Aunt Florence. Then one of my cousins wondered aloud to his brother, "Do you think I should go to law school or do what you're doing with your life—waste it?" and the fight was on.
Even before the kids had launched their first cranberry volley, Uncle Carl was comatose in front of the television with his unfinished plate rising and falling in rhythm with his belly.
Meanwhile, Aunt Florence monopolized Alan. "Do you realize, young man, that the West Side Drive project is a complete boondoggle? A boondoggle! The mayor knows the whole story, but he's just sitting on his hands. I wish...."
I wish I were any place but at this crazy dinner table. God, let the doorbell ring and let it be that family from the magazine telling me I was switched at birth.
The doorbell did ring, but it was yet another cousin—the chronically unemployed one (no doubt Alan would soon hear this sorry saga)—brown-bagging her own macrobiotic meal. By way of greeting she sniffed disdainfully and declared, "I do not eat the carcasses of animals." Oh, no...I rubbed my throbbing temples and tried to think of something more pleasant—like a root canal.
Keeping the mood lively, Grandma took a bite of apple pie and announced in mid-chew, "I'm having some of Alan's pie even though it doesn't agree with me." By the time coffee came around I had a screaming headache. Alan was very understanding and said he'd take me home. Inwardly I moaned, I'll never see him again.
Cringing in the front seat of Alan's car, I prayed he couldn't see my leaden face in the dark. Suddenly I felt miserable and guilt-ridden for being so ashamed of my family. But I couldn't help it. I knew they weren't bad people, that they were doing the best they could. God, you gave me this family. Show me how to be comfortable with them!
"Linda, I can't remember when I had such a good time," Alan remarked. "You never told me what a great family you have."
"I'm sorry about my aunt Florence...."
"Sorry? She knows more about grassroots politics than my poli-sci lecturer."
"Yeah, and Miss Macrobiotic is a barrel of laughs."
"But what a character! Your whole family is so honest and uninhibited. Everyone made me feel right at home."
"The little brats didn't get on your nerves?" I asked suspiciously.
"Heck, no. In my family youngsters are exiled to the kids' table. Our holidays feel so staged and dull by comparison, I'm afraid to bring you home. You would be bored." Alan turned onto my street. "Linda, you don't know how lucky you are."
He walked me to the door and hugged me good night. "Thanks again for such a wonderful time. I'll call later and see how you're doing." But I was already doing a whole lot better. There was nothing wrong with my family. What was wrong was me?
Inside my apartment I dug out the magazine with the photograph of the perfect Thanksgiving and studied it again. What was so great about a family from central casting? Frozen in a moment of orchestrated perfection, their happiness was contrived, a false ideal.
My family, with all its blemishes and foibles, was real. They loved me, loved me enough to embrace the boy I had brought home and make him feel welcome as one of us. Beneath the holiday cacophony was a genuine, loving happiness at being together—that was the glue that kept us close as a family.
Even Uncle Carl never missed a holiday meal. And me? Well, wasn't I just another character in this crazy cast? If a stranger felt at ease with them, why shouldn't I?
On the way to the kitchen to dig into the care package my mother had sent home with me, I tossed the magazine into the trash. God, thank you for showing me how fortunate I am. Another holiday meal with my family was right around the corner and I was looking forward to it. But I doubted it would beat the perfect Thanksgiving I had just had.
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