The annual landscape in the United States is structured by those holidays that bring families together, since we are otherwise so scattered across this vast country.
Growing up, my family celebrated Thanksgiving at home in Arkansas with turkey and all the trimmings. My sisters and I would set the table with the nice silverware and glasses from my German grandmother. After the meal, we would take the dogs for a long walk, up our meandering driveway and onto the dirt road. Fall in Arkansas is usually somewhat mild and the smells of dry leaves and woodsmoke would fill the honeyed afternoon air.
As I went from middle school to high school, our tradition changed and we started meeting up with cousins in Memphis for Thanksgiving, driving the 6 hours from Northwest Arkansas to cross that big muddy river. My sisters and cousins and I would stay in a hotel, while the adults all stayed at an aunt’s house.
After the Thanksgiving meal, we would take selections from dad’s enormous pie buffet back to the hotel, where we would snack on pie for breakfast or whenever. We would get dolled up and go out in Memphis, those of us too young to enter borrowing IDs from the older ones.
The day after Thanksgiving was usually reserved for going to the mall, which was a rare treat for kids who grew up an hour from any decent-sized town.
When I went off to college in Texas, I would still come home for Thanksgiving, still make the drive to Memphis to see the cousins. That first year, my sister had her little boy, Cameron. It was such a joy to have this new light in our family.
Thanksgiving became something to negotiate with boyfriends – would we spend it with his family, or mine?
But for several years now, it is a holiday I don’t much mark. I’ll spend the day working on a project or go out to eat a nice meal. The last couple of years, I’ve worked on Thanksgiving, serving the moneyed folk of Manhattan.
Of course, it isn’t the hardest holiday for me to give up, since I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life. I’ve recently started to consider how our emotional ties to food affect us in ways we don’t realize. I never thought of my vegetarianism as a rejection of others – it was just my individual choice.
I don’t prosthelytize or judge, I don’t mind looking at or even sometimes handling meat. Yet, I sometimes find myself feeling rejected because of what I don’t eat: boyfriends who act like they’re doing me a favor by cooking their protein separately, even my family will act as if I’ve just become a vegetarian to annoy them at holidays.
Sometimes I wish I was so inclined, and I could just give up the complications of vegetarianism. It isn’t very fun to negotiate at times – an invitation to a restaurant with no vegetarian items; trips to foreign countries where beef’s what’s for dinner; soggy portobello mushrooms on a bun, etc.
Food is often something we equate to love on a emotional level. Yesterday I was on the subway when a toddler came into the car with his parents. The little boy was crying for no apparent reason, though he was snuggled safely between his two calm, attentive parents. His face was a picture of vague, undirected upset as he wailed. Quickly, his mother brought him to her breast and he became instantly calm.
My first thought was, that kid seems a bit old to be nursing – not out of hunger – but to find a sense of comfort. However, I wasn’t going to complain, since it had stopped his fussing. But it made me think of how we are the same as adults, we’ve just matured to the point where we know it is no longer appropriate or possible to be comforted by mother’s breast, so we find other replacements. Drinking, smoking, eating and (my personal favorite) kissing are all ways we express this longing for comfort and reassurance.
Most of my boyfriends have been carnivores and it was never a problem for me. I did most of the cooking, anyway. But I begin to wonder: should I be looking for a vegetarian lover? Maybe that should be number one on my list, since my carnivorous paramours perhaps feel some deep need goes unmet by my lack of flesh-eating. How can I ever make mama’s famous recipes, thereby bringing back that sense of comfort only she could provide?
Truth is, these days I don’t feel like I fit in much of anywhere. If home is where the heart is, mine might be packed up in a box. I’ve got family, though they’re far, and friends (ditto), but my heart is still searching for a home. New York has been a good place to get to work on writing my book, but as that process draws to a close, I start to think about what will become of me. My cousins in this city have left or are leaving. Friends, too, have begun to disperse and move on and I wonder why I haven’t.
After I transferred to the L train last night, coming home from my Thanksgiving shift, a man walked through the car with a cane, bent forward and asking for change in Spanish. His spine was twisted and exposed, showing an old wound that was horrific to look at.
I gave him what I could and he was a powerful reminder of how fortunate I am in this life. I know if I’d been born at another time or in another place, I might not have the luxury of being a vegetarian.
I recall how nervous I was when I went to Germany for the first time when I was 12, to visit my grandmother. I had become a vegetarian the year before and I was afraid she would be insulted, somehow, that I was rejecting my German heritage.
But my sweet Omi was so kind to me. She didn’t act inconvenienced at all, didn’t frown or chide me. For dinner we had cheese sandwiches on dark rye bread with sweet pickles, and I was very thankful, indeed.
Love and miss,