The groceries have been bought and the cooking has begun. Thanksgiving is on the way. How will this year’s Thanksgiving measure up? Will it be memorable? Might it be the Best Thanksgiving Ever? Best ever? Is it possible, on a day filled with family and friends, turkey and potatoes and stuffing and pie after pie and maybe even a vegetable or two, that one Thanksgiving could be better than all the rest? How does one even pick one as being better than all the rest? After all, I’ve enjoyed forty-three of them so far.
Trying to choose one Thanksgiving as the best raises the question of what criteria to use. Should it be based on the people present? If that is to be the case, should I pick the first Thanksgiving with my wife or the first one I shared with my son? How about the year my wife and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house for the first time and got to spend the day with both of our families? Maybe it should be the last one with Dad or Mom before they passed?
Since Thanksgiving is a day overflowing with food, should the criteria for the Best Thanksgiving Ever be based on the quality of the food in a given year? Should I choose the year I finally mastered the cooking of the turkey, golden brown skin on the outside and moist on the inside? Or how about the year I successfully attempted garlic, bacon mashed potatoes? Or better yet, the year Mom showed me how to make gravy from scratch? Of course, I love my sweets, so maybe the designation of the Best Thanksgiving Ever should go to the year Mom brought a chocolate chip pecan pie – a pie that I feasted on for days afterwards (because I hid it in the back of the fridge) and perhaps even for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving? Or maybe the year my wife made a chocolate peanut butter pie- one I tried to convince her not to take to the family meal?
Maybe the criteria for choosing a Best Thanksgiving Ever should be based on memorable moments. In forty-three years, there have been plenty of them. The year Dad burned the biscuits, over-cooked the turkey, and nearly set the kitchen on fire? We sat at the table pouring copious amounts of gravy over our food with smoke billowing above our heads and burning our eyes pretending nothing was wrong. How about the year it snowed- in Texas of all places- and me having to drive from Austin to Dallas on those icy, snow-filled roads?
For one Thanksgiving to earn the designation of Best Ever it has to stand out from all the rest. And for me, one Thanksgiving does. Ironically, on a day usually filled with food, I can’t even remember the meal itself. I’m not sure if we even had turkey and all the fixings or if we got by on burgers and fries.
In the spring of 1977, as I neared the finish of the second grade, my parents separated. Shock and the other normal emotions followed along with a large amount of confusion. What did this mean? By the middle of the summer, they’d divorced and my brother and I were living with Mom in an apartment. By summer’s end, she’d met someone else and we were moving to Columbia, South Carolina. My head was spinning.
The day we left San Antonio is forever etched in my memory. On the day we left, my brother and I traipsed around the apartment complex with Dad, laughing, talking, and drinking sodas. Before leaving, we had our picture taken together. On the cover of my book, One Last Word, is that picture, taken moments before my brother and I got in the car with Mom and headed to South Carolina.
Although it might not be clear in the picture, my brother and I’s faces are marked by both sadness and confusion. So many things were changing and so much was unknown. What did it mean to move to another state? How far was another state? Until that point in our lives, we’d only lived in San Antonio. My mind couldn’t comprehend the fact I wouldn’t be seeing Dad every other weekend. I was still trying to process not seeing him every morning and evening. When would we see him again? Much was left unsaid. I don’t think he knew. Or if he did, he didn’t want to say.
Fall passed without anything of great significance. The memory of those months is a blur. I began the third grade at a new school, met new friends, played football, saw some movies, went roller skating, and played in the street with those new friends. Nothing stands out in my memory until Thanksgiving arrived and Dad is sitting on the couch in our living room. His hair is slicked back as always and his face is clean-shaven. In later years, he would grow the beard that would cover his face.
I remember not being able to sit still. I don’t recall if I was told Dad was coming for Thanksgiving or if he arrived unannounced. What I do remember is the feeling of excitement the moment I saw him. It was a combination sugar, Christmas, I’m up way past my bedtime hyper-excited kid sort of buzz. It reminds me of my own son, who is about the same age as I was then, just before his birthday or on Christmas Eve. There is an image of myself from that moment stuck in my mind. I am pacing the living room, walking in circles, talking non-stop.
Was this a dream? Should I pinch him or myself to make sure it wasn’t? No. A pinch might hurt. And if this was a dream, I didn’t want it to end. Besides, if I pinched Dad and this moment weren’t a dream, he’d pinch me back and that might hurt.
Despite being on the road for twenty-four straight hours, stopping only for food, gas, and bathroom breaks, Dad didn’t appear to be the least bit tired. He never stopped smiling. I’m guessing he was as excited as we were.
We packed our bags for a weekend with Dad, bolted out the front door, and climbed into his then gray Chrysler Cordoba, the same Chrysler he drove for another twenty years. My brother sat in the back while I sat in the passenger seat. We found a motel, checked in, and embarked on our Thanksgiving weekend. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, and pumpkin pie was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I’m not sure what exactly we ate. Food mattered little to me that weekend. What I do remember is thankfulness and happiness and gratitude, thrilled at getting to be with Dad.
We found a park and walked the trails and played on the swings. We spent some time at an arcade and checked out the sights of downtown Columbia. And we spent a fair amount of time in our motel room, hanging out and talking. Despite all the talking we did, I can’t remember a single thing we said to one another. I can imagine the things we talked about, the things we must’ve talked about, but I don’t specifically remember them. I can’t recall telling him about my new friends and new school or even asking him about the old neighborhood where he still lived and our old friends. But I do remember this- smiles. Lots and lots of smiles.
Dad was never one to police much of what we ate. If he watched what we ate, then he’d have to watch what he ate. That Thanksgiving weekend, we ate junk food like burgers and pizza and drank sodas all day long. We might have even had a soda with out breakfast. The three of us would’ve preferred to eat Mexican food, but there wasn’t much of a market for it in South Carolina at the time.
And then there were the pictures. Dad took roll after roll after roll. He took pictures of us at the park, in the motel room, standing in front of his car, next to monuments, and in front of buildings. At the time, I didn’t understand why he kept taking so many pictures. It didn’t dawn on me until years later that he didn’t know when he was going to see us again. No matter how much he might’ve loved us, states separated us. It wasn’t possible for him to come back next month or maybe even the month after that. (None of us knew that three months later, my brother and I would be back in San Antonio living in our old house on Gardina street with Dad.) Without an ability to predict the future, Dad kept taking picture after picture. Occasionally, he even let us take one or two of him.
It was the Best Thanksgiving Ever.
And then, almost as soon as it had started, it was over. Dad had to drive back to San Antonio to be back at work on Monday morning. One thing I am grateful for is that I don’t remember our parting or his departure. I’m sure it was filled with tears and hugs and clinging to him and sadness and wishing it weren’t so, but I’ve blocked it all out. I can only remember the best parts of that Thanksgiving weekend.
All these years later, despite many memorable Thanksgivings, many more spent with Dad, many with my own wife and son, having eaten many fantastic meals, that Thanksgiving weekend in a motel in Columbia, South Carolina feasting on hamburgers, pizza, and soda with my Dad and brother remains as the Best Thanksgiving Ever. Some future Thanksgiving might – might – one day top it, but it will be hard to do.
It was The Best.
Here’s a picture of Dad and I, taken by my brother while we were in our motel room, sodas in hand. (Apologies for the picture quality, time has faded it somewhat.)
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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