I’m smiling. It’s admittedly not a real smile, but I’ve just spent five hours driving south on Interstate 95 through Connecticut and New York so that I could celebrate Thanksgiving with my future wife’s family in Fort Lee, New Jersey. So, forgive me if my smile is absolutely, positively false. This is the first time in my life that I’ve committed five hours of my favorite holiday to the highway, not to mention the presumably five-hour return trip home later that day.
So, when the door opens and Elysha’s uncle greets me with a big smile and a hearty handshake, I return the smile, but it’s forced.
Her uncle’s smile is not forced. Of course, it’s not. He’s spent the entire day in his own home, 25 feet away from his bed. He didn’t leave at the crack of dawn. He hasn’t spent the last hour crawling across the George Washington Bridge. He didn’t need to stop three times at highway rest areas to pee.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” I say.
“Same to you,” he says. “How long did it take you to get here?”
Brace yourselves. Maybe sit down in the unlikely event that you’re standing up while reading this column. If there’s a drink in your hand, maybe put it down. His response may prompt a physical response.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s not too bad.”
Not too bad? Are you kidding me? Not too bad? If I’m going to spend half of my day commuting to your home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the least you can do is honor the sacrifice with something other than, “That’s not too bad.”
How about a thank you? A cash prize? Perhaps a parade? Maybe not akin to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but something with a tuba, some majorettes, and maybe some of those Shriners driving their little cars in circles?
I don’t say any of this, of course. This is the first time I’m meeting the man. It’s the first time I’m meeting many of my future wife’s family. I have yet to become the family curmudgeon who says whatever the hell he wants. I’m still trying to impress Elysha and her relatives. Instead, I say, “No, it really was a long drive. It was pretty awful.”
In response, he offers me some wine, brie, and crudités.
Brie? Crudités? On Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is a day for turkey and stuffing. Cranberry sauce from the can in the shape of the can. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Pie. Lots and lots of pie. Then, later on, sandwiches containing all of those same foods again, just smushed together between bread.
Who wants to waste precious stomach space with brie?
Also, what is brie?
I know what it is today, but back then, I did not.
But even back then, I knew all too well what crudités are:
Celery, carrots, and dip, all assigned a ridiculous French name, complete with an accent mark, so that the person who brings rabbit food to a party doesn’t need to feel like a shmuck.
The proper response to someone saying, “I’ll bring the crudités!” should be “Don’t.”
And on Thanksgiving? Who wants to waste precious stomach space with raw vegetables that are literally fed to small, furry animals as a primary source of sustenance?
Never in my life had I seen food like this at a Thanksgiving Day feast. I’d seen my share of bowls of potato chips and Doritos, of course, but only a fool would eat a handful of Doritos when there is pie in the near future. Still, Doritos are a hell of a lot better than celery. Doritos are downright magical compared to celery.
More concerning than all of this, however, was the sound in the apartment. Or more precisely, the lack of sound. Lots of things make Thanksgiving Day special to me, but one of them – and perhaps the most important one – is football.
I get to watch football on a holiday. Not only is it allowed but it’s expected. Practically required. Part of the fabric of a Thanksgiving Day celebration. But as I sat down in a small circle of future in-laws, preparing for an onslaught of question, I scanned the apartment for any sign of a television and could find none.
This makes no sense. Given the length of our drive, the first game of the day is well into the third quarter. The sounds of large men hitting one another at high speeds, followed by referee whistles and mind-numbing cliches uttered by annoying announcers, should be evident somewhere in this apartment. I should hear football fans arguing over coaches’ decisions and swearing at zebras, but strain as I might, I hear nothing.
Is there really no football at this Thanksgiving Day celebration? Has the pigskin really been replaced by rabbit food and idle chit chat? Has my future bride introduced me to a circle of hell that Dante failed to notice?
This cannot be.
I wait a bit, wanting to appear polite. I agonize through small talk, answering questions about myself and my past, all the while waiting for the right moment to ask, “Where the hell is the television?”
Thankfully, I never need to say a word. As I’m answering questions about my long-term goals, someone mentions that so-and-so are watching TV in the other room.
Huzzah! A TV room. Of course.
A minute later, I excuse myself to use the restroom, and once I finish pretending to pee, I ask someone for the whereabouts of this fabled television room. I’m directed down a hallway to the back of the apartment.
I walk, trying not to run, then I turned the corner and see what I was looking for in all its glory:
An enormous television affixed to the wall, flacked by a couch and chair. Sitting on the couch were three women who I don’t recognize.
On the television?
In place of screen passes and open field tackles, there is a talk show.
This really was the tenth circle of hell. Dante apparently didn’t go deep enough. He missed this small circle of hell in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Some important things took place that day that I never expected:
Despite the lengthy drive, lack of football, and assortment of questionable appetizers, I had a good time.
Not a great time, and other than the Thanksgiving I spent alone, watching Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in a theater by myself, it’s one of my least favorite Thanksgivings ever, but I still had a good time. Take away the 10 hours spent on the road, and it might’ve even been a very good time.
I also got to know Elysha’s family over the course of the day. How could I not? It was either them or Oprah. Despite their bizarre interpretation of this important American holiday, they proved themselves to be good people. Funny people. Interesting people. The kind of people who I would want as family someday.
Once we got past the rabbit food and fancy cheese, the traditional Thanksgiving Day staples were delicious. I left the apartment with a full stomach and leftovers for the road. The celery was terrible, but the rest was quite good.
Most importantly, as we climbed back into the car for the long drive home, Elysha said, “Thank you. We never need to do that again.”
And we haven’t. We’ve spent Thanksgivings with friends and relatives. We’ve hosted Thanksgiving ourselves. During the pandemic, we celebrated with our own immediate family. But Elysha knows that it’s my favorite holiday, and she understands that hours spent driving and an absence of football are not the way I want to celebrate this holiday.
Frankly, she doesn’t either.
In some ways, our first Thanksgiving was our best Thanksgiving, because it was the one that showed me how much she loves me and wants me to be happy.
Better to learn this on a day when football is not being played, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist, and a record 51-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His latest books are Twenty-one Truths About Love and The Other Mother.
Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.
Illustrated By Sean Wang