by Jesse Post

 

I’ve spent a lot of my life in busses. As is the case with most of the folks I know, staying in one place too long gets me all itchy for the exciting new. Roots become harder to put down as it becomes ever more easy to leave.

I spend this bus time cramped, sometimes in that horrible half-sleep that happens when one sits upright for too long. This last time, however, coming back from Thanksgiving, I felt fine — more fine than I had all year, in fact. Of course, I was uncomfortably full (that dessert buffet always does me in), but maybe that was part of it.

We’ve always gathered in clans for support and ease and joy, and we create holidays to help keep it together, to keep us from straying too far. So every holiday is and always has been about family, but they’re also ostensibly about something else; something religious or somber or important. Thanksgiving is the only holiday that exists for the sole purpose of having everyone over at the house. The tribes that used to bind us are fewer and farther between as more and more of us take to the road, but on Thanksgiving we sit on trains and busses and planes with our pie boxes and bundles of steaming casseroles, and remember.

My family is somewhat fractured; occasionally unpleasant and reliably unreliable. We like each other but rarely come together as a whole. With no homestead of my own, every year of my adult life I’ve been welcomed at the home of my friends Kate and Jessica for Thanksgiving. It started as an almost-joke: Hey Dad, can we invite homeless Jesse over for Thanksgiving this year? But as college drew to a close and I kept coming back it eventually became just what I do. Every year we make our way back from whichever town or city or country each of us are living in at that moment, through the wintry New England night to the family compound: Kate and Jess, their brother Matt, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, girlfriends and boyfriends . . . and me.

The routine is simple: walk in, say hi, offer to help, accept the refusal, pour a drink, and start to catch up and make each other laugh. Dinner is almost ready as Susan touches up the food, precision timed and perfect. Tim carves the turkey and says grace. Then we dig in to the meat stuffing, the green bean casserole, the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the everything you’d expect. We pass the gravy boat and wonder why we still use this ridiculous gravy-spilling thing. We forget to eat something crucial and plan it in for the second round. We laugh at whoever has to sit at the kids’ table (usually us, but this year it was the grown-ups — ha!). At some point Kate and I will steal away to see how we’ve been doing lately. At some other, much later point, anyone left awake will make up another plate and throw it in the microwave before lounging out in front of the T.V.

We have no agenda, no prepared stories to impress any relatives who need impressing. We hang out, as if it’s not even a holiday at all, stuffing ourselves silly with all of Susan’s best work while the rain or even (sometimes) snow comes down and the wind blows through the already bare trees outside.

The clichés of family are many: it’s where you can be yourself, it’s where you feel whole, it’s your ancestry and your future combined. Sitting on the bus that afternoon, I figured it’s much simpler than all of that.

Day in and day out, we fight, alone. We get fired or heartbroken or just broke. Business plans fall through, friendships fade, bills pile up. The struggles that we have some measure of control over have a wearing effect on our confidence, on our resolve.

Then, walking through the door to those amazing kitchen smells, everyone is just happy to see you. Everything you’re doing is a step in the right direction. And, most importantly, everything is funny. We don’t even have to get all into the updates and sundry business. We just eat and save room for dessert, and somehow it all feels small and doable again. Family isn’t about who you live near or even who you’re related to — it’s just a rock of stability, always in the same place, there for you to return to no matter how far you’ve gone or how many dragons you’ve had to slay. And these days, in this scattered modern world, we might forget that without Thanksgiving.

Many people take this time to count their blessings. For me that comes later, when the days drag onward into the cold months and I think back to that day when it all boiled down to one thing: figuring out how to pack in a fourth plate before all the leftovers get put away, staying up until the wee hours, picking at the turkey, safe and sound.