I invite you to close your eyes and imagine what Thanksgiving looks like in the home of the mentally ill. If you struggle to render such an image, let me offer some convenient hints: think grotesque quantities of unseasoned, over-steamed food, bitter commentary about the health and weight of those who are standing mere feet away, and the frequent exchange of nervous glances to ensure that the delusion of familial happiness is well-maintained.
I look forward to each Thanksgiving, somehow having forgotten the last. I spend my year in New York, basking in the love and energy of my friends, and even the very city itself. My eyes glaze over as I stare at the sterling silver chargers in the windows of Tiffany’s, imagining how they might look on my family’s long wooden table some time in late November. I fantasize about fleeing the confines of my drafty apartment for my childhood bedroom, as though it weren’t somehow haunted by my former selves. I let myself bask in the advertising, as though a perfectly-glazed turkey is somehow the answer to all of my problems.
When I arrive in my native Pittsburgh, this conjured warmth is left at the bus station like lost luggage, and I am plunged into the cold reality of another year surrounded by those who haven’t quite figured out how to love each other.
Though I muster my best attempts at being a well-adjusted adult, I crumble with envy at the Thanksgivings of my friends. Several of my best friends were raised in the type of lovely Catholic world where everyone still wears a purple velvet dress and matching headband to any holiday assemblage. The entire family takes group photos in front of a colonial fireplace (likely to be soon-repurposed for the Christmas card), or gathers ‘round a slightly out-of-tune upright piano to indulge in whatever Chopin serenade one of the well-groomed children is studying in their private lessons. At the dinner table, when the family goes around to share what they are thankful for, there is no sarcasm, no swipes at spouses, but genuine, if not boring, platitudes. Perhaps there is some good-natured smacking between the younger guests, but surely no one leaves regretting their presence at such a gathering.
It’s rather unhelpful that the older you get, the greater weight such otherwise meaningless dates (branded as holidays) carry. We are reminded of our mortality: How many of these things does my father have left? For that matter, how many of these things do I have left? We are reminded of our failures: A grimace when a family member you see only once a year struggles through your attempt at Oprah’s pumpkin pie. A snide “hmm” when the summary of your career fails to impress. We are reminded of the fact that those with whom we share blood are the ones we know the least. And we are reminded of the fact that those with whom we share blood are the ones most like us, in the worst ways fathomable.
Such realizations can make the day insurmountable. I find myself sneaking away to the bathroom for increasingly long periods of time, sitting on the closed toilet seat and whimpering at the fact that, despite the glares and binge-drinking and exhaustion just beyond the locked door, there is nowhere else I would rather be. Eventually, I find solace in the pattern of a shower curtain and allow myself to emotionally eat my way through a shriveled Tofurkey until the day gives way to the next.
Maybe there is a world in which this type of skewed holiday is embraced; in which everyone in attendance acknowledges their own contribution to the morbidity of our family legacy with a laugh. I have yet to witness such a gathering, and remain wary if it will happen in my family, in my lifetime.
But, maybe there is also something beautiful about the fact that we don’t let ourselves disintegrate entirely. Maybe there is some kernel of truth when we embrace someone and say how thankful we are to be with them, even if our individual chemical imbalances make us capable of expressing as much. Maybe we are pushing back against the grime and sludge that comprises each one of us as hard as we can.
Maybe we are just doing our best, and maybe that is enough.