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A Texan Thanksgiving

posted Jul 12, 2017, 8:04 AM by Eli Roberts
by Erin Magrath

"I'm waiting for my Mom," I smile at two inquiring ladies in baggage claim. "She decided to come at the last minute for Thanksgiving. We're camping, you know, just to get out of the city."

"Well bless your Mother's heart for spending time with you, living so far away from home and family!” one exclaims. I nod, pressing my lips into a polite smile. "Texans," I think, "always seeing things from the top down. If they only knew."

Clicking my black pumps on the floor, I nervously pick the dog hair off my skirt. Yes, I had dressed up for her airport pickup. Although my work allowed the Austin uniform, a t-shirt and jeans, cute professional wear seemed best for the occasion. The last thing my mother needed to worry about was a shlubby daughter, as everyone else fell apart.

We didn't talk about why she was flying down. She called me one night, "Erin, I just don't have anywhere to go...without your father". In that instant, I knew she had a dozen invites to Turkey dinner, but was unable to stomach the questions and looks that would be served alongside sweet potato pie and cranberry dressing.

She carefully picks down the stairs in platform sandals, painted toenails and a new carry-on bag. I can't help thinking, "She's so tiny." At 5 feet 2 inches, the only thing big about my mother is her hair and personality, but I always forget this as she looms giant, an all-encompassing figure in my childhood memories. Strong, undefeatable, unapologetically emotional, people get swept in her warmth and enmeshing ability to give and receive love. Our eyes catch, and her face lights up as she lets out a high teenage squeal. We rush into a hug, giggling and giddy like best friends. Suddenly the hug is too long, and I feel her body change as she presses into me a deflating shuddering sob. "Oh dear lord," I look up at the ceiling, rubbing her back, "we haven't left baggage claim, and she's already crying."

We had decided to go camping for different, unspoken reasons. My mother, the outdoor junkie, needs to be outside like other people need coffee. Myself, I just want to avoid the fact that after 11 months in Austin, I have made shaky friendships at best, and would be receiving no invitations to Thanksgiving. We care for each other's quirks and weakness in a secret complicity; an unspoken pact to make this the best Thanksgiving ever. We hit the road to Garner State Park with this in mind, riding high on the idea of nature, hiking, and lots of wine. Jake, our third canine amigo, maintains his head out the window, hound dog ears flapping wildly at 70 miles per hour. We blast all our favorites, the soundtrack of college visits and trips to Nana and Honey's: Van Morrison, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens, singing all words at the top of our lungs. It occurs to me that every one of the discs I slide into my surround sound, are stolen from Dad's cd tower. Once my father had bought each of these cds for himself, as part of his own musical enjoyment. I wonder if he even knows I had stolen from his collection, and appropriated their words and melodies for myself and mother. Why hadn't he thought to do the same? Although we are fleeing for the hill country, he whips through the air, and rests on the tips of our tongues. Mom plays the dashboard piano and we sing louder.

***
"I can't believe I'm in a Walmart, in the middle of nowhere, on Thanksgiving Day," I murmur drowsily from a bad sleep on hard ground. We walk with purpose into the blue and gray depression of small town America.

"We already made the list in the car, so we will be in and out. Just get the things for dinner, I'll get the wine and beer, and meet you at check out," Mom said cheerfully. She is in a great mood, or at least hiding anything else quite well. As a person who uses food as fuel, the greatest gastronomical holiday of the year is hardly missed. I, on the other hand, as I pick out canned green beans, instant mashed potatoes, and Oscar Meyer turkey, feel like I was living someone else’s life.

How did we end up here? Exactly a year ago, my highly functional suburban family had been sitting down to Nana's tried and true Thanksgiving feast, as we had for decades. Mom and Dad at the head of the table, Uncle Andy sneaking wine, me and my brother as usual with nothing to say to the cousins at the kids table. Nana had asked, "Do you think you'll be able to come home for the holidays next year Erin?"

"I don't know Nana, there is so much up in the air, and tickets are expensive from Austin. I'll be home for Christmas, I think." I had chimed in as everyone buzzed about my move. I had been so ready to leave. For the first time, a wave of guilt washed over me. If I hadn't left, would all of this have happened? Would my picture patriarchal, hero father have crumbled into a bottle of pills, exploding my nuclear family awry, broken and scattered over different sides of the battlefield? I don't even know where my brother is today.

"Did you find everything?" she chirps, thankfully waking me from my Walmart reverie, "It's going to get cold tonight, so I got something for us to wear," she grins, suppressing a laugh. I feign horror as my mother shoves on my head a pink leopard fleece beanie, then dons a matching, equally horrific zebra print. Out of nowhere, and to the bewilderment of the Walmart checkout girl, we dissolve into hysterical, abandoning laughter that rises into the fluorescent lights of the giant warehouse ceiling.

One chopped turkey, green bean, and cranberry stir-fry later, we walk Jake through the campground, arm in arm with water bottles full of cheap red wine. Garner State Park has soothed and rubbed us in these days on the lamb from our real life. The cool clear stream next to our campsite, lined by towering Cypress trees on fire in the last spit of fall, the eerie white stones of the river bed bathed in moonlight are new and shiny memories for East Coast campers of deciduous forests.

Other things remind us we are far from home, swimming in unknown traditions. A phenomenon we did not anticipate as East Coasters; camping during Thanksgiving is what thousands of Texans do by choice. Huge, happy families surround us, infestations of RVs, crowded campfires, and even smokers for multiple turkeys and full Thanksgiving feasts. They have strung up Christmas lights that bathe all nature in a warm holiday glow, sucking electricity from their generators and multiple battery packs. We wander as lost Thanksgiving orphans, without home, without country through these pretty Texan traditions, yet we can't find our way back home. I want to hate them, "That's not camping," I sneer to my Mom. "It's like they’re at home in their backyard, what's the point? What a waste."

"I know, I don't get it," joins Mom, but I see her looking hungrily -- not at the food on the table, but the tiny children playing under it, and the generations of family all around. She has to go back soon, and face that she will never have a table like this one ever again.

I want to hate them, but as I gaze up at the hundreds of twinkling colors, and feel her arm linked hard into mine, I admit the scene fills me with love, even as a spectator, like watching a Disney movie, or Norman Rockwell art.

I feel a slow landing of heaviness in my heart. I will never be like these people ever again. I will never have the big family gathering, and though I don't know this yet, I won't ever sit down with my Mother and Father at the same table. I am not happy like these people, and never will be.

But at this moment, I realize that now I can make up something entirely new, something that I choose and that I discover myself. As I see my family values, obligation, and expectation dissolve before my eyes, what rises is independence, power over my own destiny. "What a life this is going to be," I marvel silently, as we leave camp and make our way into the cold dark night.
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