Ask Maxwell: Thanksgiving Memory — 1995

published Nov 22, 2021
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When you’re a teacher, there is no holiday like Thanksgiving. The fall semester starts after Labor Day and you endure nearly three months of grueling class time to get your children in shape and moving meaningfully through the curriculum. You know the clock is ticking, parents are watching and your fellow teachers, all more experienced than you, are probably farther ahead. Teaching is very competitive. 

Then comes Thanksgiving week and you feel a collective sigh of relief, hear joyful shouts in the halls and the smell of pumpkin and apple pies being sold at the front desk by the eighth grade, raising money for their spring graduation trip. Everyone seems to agree that getting out of school early on Wednesday and having the rest of the week off to visit with family is a good thing. There isn’t the pressure of a gift giving holiday and it isn’t a religious holiday where some are observing and others are not. Thanksgiving is simple. At Thanksgiving everyone gets to participate at the same time and all that is required is a home cooked meal. 

During my teaching years, in my twenties, I remember being buoyed up with all the good cheer and finally feeling like I might make it to Christmas. All of a sudden your students are smiling and working hard to finish up their work, their desks are cleaner than they’ve been in weeks, and your advisor says nice things to you about how your class is doing. No one wants any bad news when there are handmade pies in sight. “Where are you going for Thanksgiving?” They ask. “Home with my brother to see my parents.” I say. “Oh, that’s nice. Where do they live?” “Out on Long Island — about two hours away. I’m catching the bus right after school.” “Good for you. Have a nice time. We’re driving up to Connecticut to visit my in-laws. We do Thanksgiving there and Christmas with my family.” 

So it goes. Everyone checks in. Everyone confirms their family. It all seems like the happiest of soft landings after the last few months. 

On Wednesday morning I make a concerted effort to buy two pies from the eighth graders during recess, send my children off with a handshake and a smile before lunch, and with good cheer and supplies for my own family Thanksgiving I head toward the bus to catch my ride out of town. My arms are full and I curse myself that I may have taken on too much. I’m a little late for the bus, the subway was crowded, I am sweating and I can’t run with all of my baggage. 

For the past few weeks we’ve been singing songs in class geared towards the holidays, reciting poetry, drawing, playing our recorders and now we’re all let loose on our families. For my part I can’t wait to arrive at my mother’s house and raise the bar on the holiday. I will bring all the good cheer I’ve been taught by my children and my school to my mother’s house and everything will be fabulous. We will sing songs, tell stories and I will help decorate the table. 

My brother picks me up in his white truck at the bus stop and I am jubilant. We hug and get settled in the cab. “How’s it going?” I ask. “Okay.” he says. The brother is not jubilant and really his head is still in San Jose, thinking about his job working for Knight Ridder, which is trying hard to go from a newspaper company to a digital media company and won’t make it in the end. He’s flown east for the week and has a lot on his mind. He mentions that some of his friends are around and he’s looking forward to getting away over the next few days and having drinks with them. All I can think about is how beautiful the Thanksgiving table is going to be. 

When we arrive at our mother’s house there are signs of cooking, but it takes a little while to find her. She’s somewhere rummaging around. The house is a bit dark and I want to turn on the lights and cheer up the house. My mother has a lovely smile for both of us and with a weary look in her eyes, she gives us both a big hug and tells us what she’s cooking, though she hopes we won’t be disappointed because she didn’t have the energy to do everything that she did last year. Our old friends, the Wagners, are also coming and she’s worried that Ellen will trap her in the kitchen, smoking as usual and talk her ear off. My mother would like it to be quiet, but she does enjoy talking to Arthur, Ellen’s husband, who always asks her about herself and if he can help with anything. Chester, my mother’s boyfriend, is also around. His specialty is margaritas, but he also has a plan for a potato dish that will cook in the oven. Chester loves to cook, but he doesn’t want to get in my mother’s way. 

I carry all of my luggage to my room — the cute little room with the twin beds by the living room that I’ve always liked the most. I unpack my roller bag, remove the two pies from my shoulder bag, put my book on the white nightstand and head back to the kitchen, expecting conversation, checking in, maybe a song? 

No one is there. Where is everyone? 

Very quickly I begin to realize that the festive holiday and the big group hug that I have been imagining is not what other people are thinking. To my brother this will be a week to get away from the house and visit with old friends. To my mother it will be a lot of work and activity that she is not a big fan of. For Chester it will be time with our family, and he will stay on the periphery, losing my mother’s attention for a few days and waiting it out. For the Wagners, it will be a delightful break from the city. They get to be guests. They come tomorrow. 

I put the two pies on the side counter next to the toaster oven, where I know they will be seen and go take a look at the dining room table. This will be my focus, my project, my stage, and I will decorate the table so dramatically that everyone will feel the holiday deep down. Yes they will! 

That afternoon, before the sun disappears I find branches with red berries, evergreen boughs and huge, brightly colored leaves to arrange on the table. In the quiet house I set to work, building a fall scene down the middle of the table. I gather all my mother’s tea lights and nestle them carefully in between. I dig up some old Thanksgiving paper decorations, a turkey and some stars, that we used to have as kids and hang them from the ceiling. It takes a few hours because I am meticulous. I journey back outside in the dark with a flashlight to gather more branches. I want nuts and berries, the richness of the fall season, the earth’s fall crop, and all of the things the children have been studying and drawing in school for the past few weeks. I can hear the hum of all their voices as I move to setting the napkins, plates and silverware.  I can see them drawing in the classroom as I draw place names for all seven of us who will be sitting down tomorrow. 

When I am done, I am happy. My mother comes in and admires my work. She smiles. Back in the kitchen, she’s cooking dinner and getting ahead on tomorrow’s sides. Chester has returned and is making margaritas with his signature recipe (1 lime juice, 1 triple sec, 2 tequila). My brother walks through the kitchen and asks when dinner will be ready and disappears up to his room. My mother has set a french baguette and a creamy brie cheese on the round kitchen table. I sit down and watch them, looking forward to a margarita. They are talking and laughing with one another as if I am not there. 

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and I am home. It’s not the home that I had imagined in my mind or one that carries all the good cheer I brought on the bus. It is the real one, the one that I have and have always had, it’s just that I always forget. 

I get up, lower the lights in the kitchen, and set a nice table for us with a tablecloth and more candles. Chester comes over and hands me a margarita, then my mother who is stirring a pot on the stove. He raises his glass and we all toast to Thanksgiving. 

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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