My sixteenth Thanksgiving meal was the first one eaten without my family present. Also my last. Because I learned my lesson.
My girlfriend’s family was planning the mother of all Thanksgiving feasts. Everything was to be meticulously planned and prepared by the family matriarch, a hard-looking woman who chain smoked Marlboro 100s but did so with a whiff of proper daintiness that harkened back to her ancient Virginian roots.
Meals would be served in four courses and include fancy table settings, crystal glasses, and food I couldn’t pronounce. Relatives far and wide were more summoned than invited. A new dining room table was purchased just to accommodate the thirty or so people. “It’s going to be quite the soiree,” my girlfriend said. “Can you come?”
For two reasons. One was that I was her boyfriend and so had boyfriend obligations. Second was that her family was what I referred to as Important People. Successful and powerful and rich. They drove BMWs and wore J. Crew and ruminated over the stock market. They were, in essence, both everything my own family was not and everything I wanted to become.
I had no reservations about going because I wasn’t likely to miss anything of real substance at home. They Coffey version of Thanksgiving celebration involved little more than a turkey, some stuffing, and my own relatives gathered around a simple pine table. People who drove trucks and wore Wal-Mart and talked about hunting. Not that there was anything wrong with that. There wasn’t. I just thought that maybe it was time I broadened my horizons and saw how the other half lived.
So I went. And my girlfriend was right, it was quite the swanky affair. Fancy people arriving in fancy cars to eat fancy food. You would think all of that would translate into a fancy time. But then again, some things get lost in translation.
For one, I soon learned that all the wealth and power my girlfriend’s family had accumulated resulted in some bad feelings. Some were jealous of others, others were angry at some, and it seemed all of them had something against somebody. The meal, tastefully prepared, was given without prayer. And the table that was bought specifically to bring so many people together didn’t. Squabbles broke out. Arrogance was displayed. Pettiness was front and center. And before long my girlfriend’s mother, the properly dainty matriarch, jumped up from her seat and ran like a mad woman for her smokes, screaming through her tears that she “should have never done this!”
I sat there, lost in wonder at the sight. Here were people who had worked hard and labored much to enjoy the fruits of success, only to find that they had lost one another and a bit of perspective in the process. Far from being one of the family, I had been relegated to mere spectator. Which was fine with me. Those people were nuts.
My girlfriend had become accustomed to the shouts and accusations. She leaned over just as her mother slammed the front door and said, “Life’s a beach, huh?”
She said that often. And it seemed to me as though her family had lived up to that philosophy. They had all staked their claim on the shoreline and built their castles, marveled and worshipped them even, and then forgot that it was all sand in the end.
The good life didn’t look so good to me. If that was having it all, then I’d rather keep my nothing. So I did the only thing I could. I left. Quietly and politely.
I went back home, back to the plain food served on the plain kitchen table to my plain relatives. Back to a place where the bonds of God and family held true not merely for one day a year, but all of them. And you know, that wasn’t just the best Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had, it was also the best Thanksgiving period.
Because that was when I learned I shouldn’t just be thankful for what I had, but for what I didn’t.