You’re probably having the same reaction as most new acquaintances and coworkers. “Your in-laws live in Hawaii?! How awesome is that?”
Once upon a time, I gushed along with them. “I know! I’m so lucky! A free place to stay! Warm sand, sunny beaches, turquoise waters!”
But Andy and I lived less than two miles from the beach in Southern California (currently with multiple November highs of 87 degrees). We’d just come back from our honeymoon on the beach in Mexico. Even our wedding week in New Hampshire had been unseasonably warm and sunny (with the exception of the downpour and hurricane force winds during our ceremony, of course).
To a Washington, D.C. native like me, it’s not Thanksgiving unless it’s cold and rainy. Sunshine came only with an icy wind. My siblings and I sat inside by the fire, watching the Macy’s parade or football. We played cards and helped in the kitchen, peeling potatoes or snapping the green beans. My sisters snuck skin off the turkey, despite dire warnings about salmonella from Ex-Stepfather’s Third Wife. I washed hundreds of dishes and stuffed myself with Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister’s baked brie or Big Brother’s mushroom caps.
Every year Ex-stepfather tried to get homemade cranberry jelly to gel in an ancient rose mold. The cranberries were consistently recalcitrant. We laughed as it inevitably fell apart, and handed my Ex-Stepfather a glass of red wine.
“Almost,” we ‘d tell him. “You’ll get it next year.” The year I got engaged to Andy, we even meant it. The rose held its shape as Ex-Stepfather proudly carried it to the dining tables set for over 20 people, shaped like a giant U.
We cheered as he set down the mold. The cranberry rose promptly melted into a gelatinous puddle.
I figured Andy’s family gathered in the kitchen and around the table in a similar fashion.
Classic entitled white East Coast Anglo-American assumption, right there.
With the exception of some ill-fated Vietnamese pancakes, I discover that no one in my husband’s family cooked on Thanksgiving Day in Hawaii. It was too hot.
Andy’s mother, Sunny, hit a restaurant on the way home from work. She brought home turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie. Andy unpacked the bags while Sunny got out the plates. Then she tossed some utensils on the table, and said, “Here you go. Eat!”
I picked up a fork and hesitantly asked, “Popo isn’t coming?”
Sunny said, “Nah, we will see her at dim sum tomorrow. Eat!”
I looked around. Andy’s father had disappeared. “Shouldn’t we wait for Jay?”
Andy shrugged. He already had a mouthful of food.
Sunny snorted. “Daddy is probably gambling online.” Sunny picked up a fork. She peppered Andy with questions about his job and our honeymoon.
I ate a little. The potatoes tasted like plastic. The turkey had minimal taste, and the gravy tasted so synthetic I wished it didn’t have any taste. The pie was okay, at least.
Three of us, sitting in a hot kitchen, eating takeout, didn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all. I missed the familial horde, the home-cooked food, the jokes, and the cursed cranberry rose mold.
I ordered myself not to cry into my pie while Sunny told Andy which neighbors bitched about the leaves from her mango trees landing in their yard – not to be confused with the other neighbors, the ones who smoked so much that she, Sunny, was undoubtedly going to die of cancer. She probably had it already, she said.
My phone rang. Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister’s phone number lit up the screen. I left Andy to bond with Sunny and went to the bedroom.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” Lawyer Sis carolled. “You’re not gonna believe this! The cranberries MOLDED!”
“No way! I mean, of course, way, since I’m not there to see it,” I groaned and fell on the bed. “How do they taste?”
“No idea. Everyone’s afraid to touch it. Ex-Stepfather glares if anyone gets within a foot of the plate.”
“What’s the count on wine bottles?”
“Fifteen so far.”
“My God, you are all lushes.” And damn it, I missed my lushes. A tear dripped out of the corner of my eye.
“Not our fault. Baby Singing Sister was singing in the kitchen while doing dishes, and then Ex-Stepfather’s Third Wife told her she was sharp, and you can guess how that went over. Ex-Stepfather’s Third Wife took down a bottle all on her own after that. I think Baby Singing Sister retreated to her room and I’m pretty sure she took a bottle, too. And then at dinner Big Brother slipped up and made some comment about how he and his wife have so much trouble getting pregnant, only Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister overheard, and so then Doc Sis loudly told everyone that all she needed was the turkey baster and she could totally fix Big Brother’s Wife’s fertility issues.”
Incredulity dried my tears. “Holy shit.”
“No shit. And so then everybody drank some more, except for Ex-Stepfather, who started reminiscing about how easily our dead mother got pregnant, so I think his wife and Big Brother’s Wife polished off a bottle recovering from that, but he didn’t stop there. He went on about how the not having kids thing was why his Oldest Daughter’s husband left her –”
“Wait. Oldest Daughter didn’t come to Thanksgiving?”
“Oh, no, she was there, sitting two seats down, with her new boyfriend. And so they must’ve each had their own bottles after that. Maybe two. And by then Ex-Stepfather was in full maudlin mode, and he just wouldn’t shut up and so we all drank until we just didn’t fucking care anymore. Hang on.”
I heard gulping noises and guessed, “Making it 16?”
“Yeah, I was starting to get pissed off again. Where was I? Did I get to Ex-Stepfather’s Third Wife’s insistence that Oldest Son is clearly schizophrenic and not just a slacker?”
“You did not.”
Lawyer Sis told me all about schizophrenia/ slacker, plus certain family members finding out about Baby Brother’s overnight stay in a New Orleans’ jail, and I can’t remember what else. What I do remember, other than lots of exclamations, was that I felt better. Possibly from laughing. Possibly because Lawyer Sister had reminded me of the other, less pleasant side of family gatherings.
The relentless judgments of a critical, over-competitive family – each member certain that they, and only they, have the perfect solution to your problems and goddamn it, if you would just LISTEN…
This year, I didn’t have to listen. I didn’t have to spend the Thanksgiving holiday feeling emotionally wrung out and like I needed a vacation from my vacation.
This year, I was actually IN one of the most famous vacation spots in the entire world.
I interrupted Lawyer Sister in mid-reminisce about her ex-boyfriend and the bunny made of poop in Ex-Stepfather’s backyard. “Hey, Sis, I gotta go.”
“But wait! Don’t you wanna talk to anyone else? I can pass the phone around!”
“NO, no, I’m good. Take care, bye!”
I got in my swimsuit.
I collected my husband.
And then Andy and I went off to bask on the white sand and ride the warm surf at Makapu’u.
It wasn’t my idea of a traditional Thanksgiving.
But it was a damned fine vacation day.