True Tales of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is intended as a day of reflection, when you take a moment from the rush of daily duties to recall how blessed you really are for the things you have (whether they're all you want). But it doesn't always work out that way. Jack Neely, Rose Kennedy, and Cari Wade Gervin reminisce about those miscues.

A Moveable Feast

by Jack Neely

In November a long time ago, I found myself in Paris, by myself, with no agenda, which is the best way to travel. I stayed in a hostel

in an old building on the Left Bank, and spent my waking hours wandering.

One morning after I'd been there a week or two, I rose too late for the complimentary hard bread and coffee-in-a-bowl breakfast in the hostel's basement. I stepped out into the sunny street, thinking about crepes au pommes from a street vendor. The quick-paced crowds made it seem like a weekday, but I could hardly guess which one.

I'd been in Paris just long enough to see through some of it and start to think about going somewhere else. I'd been all the way through the Louvre three times—once when there were so many people crowded around the Mona Lisa you could only catch glimpses of it, once when I was the only human being in the room with her. I'd ridden the Metro all over the city, gotten off at stops I'd never heard of. I went to the Notre Dame and the Pompidou Center and Napoleon's tomb. When I found myself in the neighborhood of the Eiffel Tower, I gave it a wide berth with Gallic disinterest. I spent a lot of time in cafés, nursing vins rouges and bieres, and in parks, writing in my journal.

I fooled nobody. Beggars and hucksters approached me in the street speaking English. One fellow pointed at me and called me Zionist pig. I didn't understand.

"It is the way you dress," an Italian later explained. I wore blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a down vest. It had seemed passably stylish in New York. "We wear that for camping," he said, politely.

For a tour guide I had only a book by Ernest Hemingway called A Moveable Feast. A memoir of Paris in 1924, it names names, and includes addresses. It's a City Directory of the Lost Generation.

Everything is still standing. The French are proud of their buildings, and never tear them down. Hemingway's own homes, unmarred with plaques, were just modest, even seedy, apartment buildings. I walked up the creaky narrow staircase to one, until a poodle started yapping at me. Gertrude Stein's home was the only one I found that was marked with a plaque. No museum, it was an upscale residential building with its original interior courtyard. I had a harrowing adventure trespassing there.

Even when parts of it start to grate on you, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and hard to leave. From some perspectives, in the mid-morning sun, Paris just glows. That morning as I walked with my crepe, I decided to put off the train to Venice for another day or two.

Paris reflects America in a funhouse mirror. Punk rockers wore Confederate flags and listened to the Everly Brothers on boomboxes. Parisians swarmed places called "drugstores" that were nothing like Long's, bizarre upscale boutiques. An intersection is called Place du General Patton, which they pronounced with French nasal resonance. France loves America, but their own version of it.

Except for those oddities, I felt completely unmoored from America. Long-distance calls home were too expensive to contemplate. Once a week I sent a postcard to Mom. I hadn't seen an American magazine since London.

After my crepe I went back to the hostel to look at some maps and load my pockets for a long walking day. The only person there was an Australian, talking about museum hours. He mentioned that it was a Thursday. Maybe it was the hearing of English for the first time in a few days, but something tripped in my mind.

"You know," I said, "I think maybe today's Thanksgiving."

"What's that, mate?"

The Pilgrims wouldn't have liked the French much, and the French have never shown much interest in celebrating puritans of any sort. But a couple weeks earlier on the train, the rolling French countryside had reminded me of Thanksgiving, because when I was growing up, my family gathered in Dickson County for the holiday, and much of Northern France looks to me just like Middle Tennessee, but with stone houses.

Though I'd spent the month trying to pass for an international vagabond, on Thanksgiving I wanted to do something distinctly American, and gustatory, so I circled the last unchecked address on my Moveable Feast list: 14 Rue de Tilsitt.

After all the Metro rides and miles of walking, I'd convinced myself I knew Paris, but it was a street I'd never heard of. I asked the clerk how to find it. He seemed surprised that this unshaven young American had any business on the Rue de Tilsitt, but sketched me directions.

Far from the Left Bank, the Rue de Tilsitt, named for one of Napoleon's advantageous treaties, was one of the concentric arcs around the Arc de Triomphe. I set out on foot, and an hour or so later found the street, which didn't have the carefree hubbub of the South Bank. There were no tourists, no bohemians, no foreigners. It was rich and businesslike and very French. I half-expected to see Catherine Deneuve in a white mink stole.

The address I'd written in my notebook was that of an impressively big marble-clad building, Second Empire, five or six stories, no place a struggling writer would live, nothing like the angular nooks Hemingway favored. But then, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda weren't struggling much when they lived at that address.

F. Scott was named for Francis Scott Key, his relative, and his house was as American as I could get without dealing with actual Americans. His actual address advertised an acupuncturist upstairs. I wasn't in the mood for that, not on Thanksgiving, but within the same building was a restaurant called the Cafe de Tilsitt. I had to try it. It was Thanksgiving.

It was a light crowd, at 2 in the afternoon. The garcon seated me at a small table in the middle of the elegant room, and handed me a menu. It was, of course, in French. Gamely I‘d tried to learn some French, without success. With Italian or Spanish you can learn a few phrases and bluff the rest. Not with French. Mispronounce something slightly, and they'll look worried, as if they're considering calling the gendarmes.

You hear the French are rude and disdainful of Americans. Maybe some are. My waiter, a young man no older than me, was eager to help. I pointed at one dish, lapin a la moutarde, and shrugged. The waiter, who wore a black bow tie, put his hands vertically on top of his head like ears and began hopping around the room. He did not seem to find it embarrassing in the least. I admired his performance, but for my Thanksgiving dinner thought I'd get something plausibly American.

The French don't seem to eat much turkey, which they call le dindon. I pointed to the oeufs au jambon. Ham and eggs, if not a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, seemed American enough.

"One beer?" he said, grinning, perhaps the only English he spoke. But then, one beer with a French accent sounds very much like un biere. Maybe it turned English in my ears.

"Oui, s'il vous plait," I said.

For just 14 francs, it was fairly delicious, even without giblet gravy. Paris is a moveable feast, they say, and maybe Thanksgiving is, too.

Thanksgiving in Exhile

by Rose Kennedy

This wasn't at all like my first exile from the family Thanksgiving. The first time, we'd eaten the day before, the handful of siblings who lived near my parents, and were playing a couple of hands of cards when my mom made a joking remark to my thin-skinned 20-year-old self. I retorted, she topped me.

I was mad. I was furious. The idea simmered and came to a boil—I would leave! It hardly seemed possible, but I did, striding across the mildly sloped asphalt of our suburban street to cadge a no-questions-asked ride back to U.Va. with my neighbor, who had to play in the band for the Virginia Tech rivalry football game the next day.

This was frustration, revenge, audacity—and for a moment, deep, thorough satisfaction. Did it fall flat immediately? I remember boring days in the empty-but-for-me college apartment. I don't recall ever saying another word about it to my mother or father, just returning at Christmas for the usual, and how it—I?—became a family joke, a story.

The next bout of exile, though, was sweet and sorrowful: Wade and I in self-imposed seclusion for Thanksgiving in Knoxville our first year together.

We were partly culpable—tricky one-year separation laws in Virginia (he was from Williamsburg, too) on his side, an ex unwilling to become "the divorced baboon exhibit" on mine, and poor PR skills about the timeline on the utter failure of our respective marriages only somewhat explained the situation. Too much, too fast, a suspect agenda (would I move my kids from their father?), the complete surprise of our choice of mates—no wonder our families, both dining on their respective tablecloths eight hours away in Williamsburg, resisted. My mother in particular did not want to accept this interloper we'd known casually since his teen years, now with softly waving hair to his collar, a plant worker at a glass factory with a deep, country accent, and an imposing divorce—three young kids—in the works.

Wade's mom was quiet, mine skeptical, touchy, and convinced this man must by definition be flippant, disloyal, a bad match.

No marching or shouting, this time, just a civil decision made by me that perhaps it was too much to expect either side's great gathering to cope with our pairing, to travel far and cook into the night only to flail during the ceremonious dinner at the sight of these sweethearts.

We stayed home, at my home, here in Knoxville, with each other and gave thanks. The weather was balmy, glorious. Were we ever closer friends? We set a table on the cool, black-slate floor of my ex's childhood home, where I had stayed on with my children. I don't remember an amiable grocery store trip in each other's company before or since, but mine and Wade's main activity that day was trolling at the Kroger in Seymour, inexplicably open, and buying three Butterball turkeys at a ridiculous per-pound price. The great frozen lumps lurked in our 1950s freezer the rest of that year—Thanksgiving day we ate grilled tuna steak, purchased at the still shiny Fresh Market, marinated for days in Italian dressing. It was Wade's recipe, from guys at work, and it gave me pause when he didn't realize we could as easily use the bottled Wish-Bone from the fridge as buying new Good Seasoning packets. What else might this man not know?

We fixed broccoli, and cranberry sauce, neglected items on the menus made by Wade's wife; we would always have lots of both of those on hand, I told myself. I made some odd muffins that included both pumpkin puree and cranberry sauce, great murky heavy batter of a burnt orange hue, and he ate several. Maybe he thought I baked?

No phone calls that day, no lawyer letters, no driving endless hours to restore children to biological parents for a day or two.

The girls, my girls, came back part of the evening, and we ate Jell-O from these tiny molds their dad had found at a thrift store—with rabbits on top. We ate fresh noodles. The day was done. Is it only now that it seemed wonderful, candlelit, filling?

***

Another Thanksgiving is linked to that. This was not the one when all of us decided to work in a Hampton, Va., soup kitchen, and everyone was starved by the time we convened only to realize we had not one single speck of food for ourselves. My sister Amy and I shopped at 7-Eleven—nothing else open here, not like my Knoxville—and we ended up choosing limp, frozen single-serve pizzas for 16 over the alternative, Stewart sandwiches.

Nor is it the time we had to use Wade's mom's snowman mold instead of the rabbits, and the Jell-O melted all over the platter. Or the time my cousin Janice, who lives in Chapel Hill, memorably overrode my mom's objections to her asking the bunch of us for Thanksgiving with the remark, "What's 11 more?" (For years that was a funny Thanksgiving story, my mother trying to uninvite all-grown-up me to an event hosted by my cousin.) It was a bit after the year the Virginia police stopped us with five kids crammed in my mom's old Camry, sold to us used, because they noticed the inspection sticker—unneeded in Tennessee—had been scraped off. We rocked with mirth—who would take so many kids and three broccoli-cheese casseroles out to steal a car?

Rather, this is the time I had stopped eating turkey for one reason and another, and my mother had brought me, just me, a few ham slices. The single serving came out of my parent's newer Camry with a cut-glass bowl of her homemade cranberry sauce, intended for Wade, and radish roses and olives, wonderful green olives. We dined at my sister Joan's soulful, arty, squeaky-clean Victorian in downtown Hampton, candles shining, toasts raised, a nephew serving a chocolate-pumpkin cheesecake.

Talk turned to Thanksgivings past, and my mother, a cantor and poet, her voice soft but well-cast, held the floor. She started a story about the time our oven broke Thanksgiving morning, then threaded in the story of her older sister's far more boisterous family, whose oven had not just broken that same year but fallen right out of the wall. But back to us, in Williamsburg for our family's first Thanksgiving in a new state. Apparently little Rosie was the baby that year, the youngest of seven, the oldest just 11. My dad was still commuting in from Pennsylvania. There was some nice restaurant, a family spot, I'm sure my mom knows the name, and they were serving Thanksgiving dinner and found a nice table for the eight of us—who knows how my parents found the money? "And Rosie, for some reason," my mom says with a laugh. "For some reason she gets there and there was something she didn't like and she just started such a fit we finally had to take her home."

Wade's forking into more mashed, and he looks up, his gaze locking with my mom's—he still calls her Mrs. Kennedy—and drawls. "I know that feeling well." The two of them smile.

I felt, for the moment, the small sense of loss that accompanies the sweeping gains. But this time, I joined in the laughter, and scurried back into the fold.

Table For One

by Cari Wade Gervin

I had moved to Atlanta for all the wrong reasons. Which is to say, I had moved to Atlanta because I was in love.

The main problem with this scenario is that the person whom I loved had broken up with me about a month before I moved. We were on vacation and had a blow-out, smash-up fight, a fight there was no coming back from. I bought a plane ticket and came home early.

But later the sting of his words faded, and I decided to push ahead with my plan to move to the city where he lived. We were always on and off, after all, so surely if we were together in the same place, things would eventually work out. We had been talking marriage. We loved each other. We just needed some space.

I moved into my glossy, high-ceilinged loft at the beginning of October and promptly started shopping for furniture to fill it. I needed new curtains for the huge windows. I needed bookshelves and office storage. Most of all, I needed a couch—my first grown-up couch, I had determined. No more furniture from thrift stores now that I had turned 30.

One night, struggling to assemble a television stand from West Elm, I burst into tears. I was supposed to be building all this furniture with help. I wasn't supposed to be doing it alone. We were supposed to be shopping for a couch together.

I called my ex and asked him to come over. I just needed his help for five minutes, I said. I couldn't do it myself. He came over and held the boards in the right place while I turned the Allen wrench in the bolts. Within a few minutes, we had built the cabinet. Then he gave me a quick hug and a sad look, and he was out the door. He never came over to my apartment again.

That November would have marked our two-year anniversary. Instead I was alone and miserable. My ex would send me the occasional text saying how much he missed me, but I was beginning to realize that things were over for good. My mother made plans to come to town for Thanksgiving—we would go out to eat somewhere fun, and then go shopping all weekend—and then something changed with her schedule, so we decided to go to my cousin's house in Nashville instead.

On Wednesday as I was getting ready to leave, I was struck by a migraine. Flattened by a truck might be more accurate. I crawled into bed instead of hitting the highway, and I didn't get out until late the next morning. There was no way I could make it to Nashville in time.

It was Thanksgiving, and I was all by myself.

Thanksgiving has never been a holiday of supreme importance in my family. Some years we traveled; some years we stayed home. Some years we had turkey; some years we had stir-fry. So I wasn't devastated, per se, at the lack of aunts and uncles and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But to be alone, completely alone, with no plans, on a day on which seemingly every other American was celebrating with their loved ones—the sudden pain in my chest was sharp enough to take my breath away. I felt angry with my ex for putting me in this position in the first place. I wanted to be spending my holiday with him. I wanted all our holidays to be together, and that was never going to happen.

Then, after a cup of coffee, something shifted. I was alone. That wasn't going to change. It was Thanksgiving. That wasn't going to change. I could sit around feeling sorry for myself or I could do something about it.

I went to the grocery store and bought the makings of a lovely dinner—spinach, sweet potatoes, onions, chèvre, pomegranates, Prosecco, Parker House rolls, a box of instant flan. (I got canned turkey and tuna for the dog and cat.) I grabbed a bouquet of red tulips, too—my solo dinner needed a centerpiece.

A few hours later, the sweet potatoes were roasted and the salad was ready. I set the table with an orange placemat, because it was the closest I had to anything seasonal. I poured a glass of wine and sat down and toasted myself. I was spending Thanksgiving alone, and I was fine with it.

It turned out that I had forgotten some ingredient for the flan, so my Thanksgiving dinner didn't involve dessert after all. Yet as the evening wore on, the time spent by myself felt sweet enough. There were no friends or family, true, but there was also no drama or stress. No awkward political conversations, and no casually racist remarks by relatives. I got to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, without guilt for not tasting everything or alternatively for eating too much. I didn't get stuck in holiday traffic. I didn't wait in line. And nothing, absolutely nothing, smelled like gravy.

I'm not going to lie and say that was the day I got over my ex, and that was the day I moved on, because it isn't true. I was sad for many days and weeks longer until, one day, I wasn't.

Still, on that Thanksgiving I wasn't sad. I was thankful for the friends I would see that weekend, for my swank apartment, for good wine and good food, for my family, however distant. I was thankful for distraction—cooking, television, phone calls. But mostly I was thankful for myself.

I had made it this far. I had made it through the day. I was going to be fine.