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All the Thanksgivings of my seven decades of life seem to blend together in my memory. Those of my youth were dominated by never-ending football games, watched on the boxy black-and-white TV in the corner of our living room. Mom would be in the kitchen for hours, roasting the turkey and preparing the side dishes and baking the pumpkin pie. My sister and I were in charge of setting the table. Finally, Dad would take a short break from the game, long enough to eat a plateful of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and green-bean casserole.
My mother was raised as a Catholic, but Dad abhorred all religion, so we did not say grace or give thanks to a mythical deity. I didn’t know about those things until I ate at friends’ homes later in my childhood. It seemed like a strange ritual. Why give thanks to someone not there when it was the money my father earned and my mother’s efforts in the kitchen that put the food on our table?
After I married, Thanksgiving meant going to my in-laws. My husband’s family is Dutch and his mother never made turkey, stuffed or otherwise. Instead she served ham, not a worthy substitute. My brother-in-law and his wife didn’t prepare turkey, either. Eventually I realized that the in-laws would have to come to our house if I wanted roasted turkey for Thanksgiving.
I loved the fragrance of the chopped onions as they simmered into buttery translucence in a large pot, waiting to be joined with the bread cubes. Then, each time I opened the oven door to baste the bird, the comforting scent of sage and thyme filled the kitchen. Who wouldn’t want that experience at least once a year?
My husband’s parents had given up on religion not long after immigrating to the United States. The people at their church in Ontario, California, were not welcoming to others who lacked the right social status. We did not say grace when we celebrated Thanksgiving with my in-laws.
There were four Thanksgivings that did not blend into the others: the four I experienced during college in Claremont, California.
My freshman year, a childhood friend invited me to join her family in Hacienda Heights for the holiday. We had been best friends in Portland from ages 10 to 14, until her family moved back to California. Her family was Episcopalian, but Darcy had converted to Mormonism during high school and was attending Brigham Young University in Utah.
The Powells were very welcoming, but I don’t remember much about the actual Thanksgiving dinner. I think one of the side dishes was a Jell-O and avocado salad. A large avocado tree graced the Powells’ front yard and Mrs. Powell tried to use the plentiful fruit at every opportunity.
Darcy and I spent much of the weekend in her room, to talk about college, our campus jobs, and our never-ending challenges with curly hair, but also to keep away from her annoying younger brothers. The weekend, though, was not a complete success. Darcy and I had grown apart since junior high and I was missing my college boyfriend, Kim, who was spending the holiday with his roommate’s family.
The next year, that roommate, David, invited both Kim and me to stay with his family for the weekend. The family was Jewish and the dinner ritual was somewhat different, but there was roasted turkey. The trouble started the following day.
The young men had arranged to spend Friday playing football with friends and expected me to go shopping with David’s mother and younger sister. I was not happy with this arrangement and crept away to sulk in the living room, a room that the family rarely used. Kim agreed to go on the shopping excursion to make amends, but back on campus we had a big row. Being together was not better than being apart.
Junior year we hatched a plan to get to Portland for Thanksgiving. During summers, Kim worked for a Portland car dealer who occasionally bought used cars at auction in Southern California and paid drivers to bring them to Portland. Kim made a deal to drive a car north, making enough money to pay for plane tickets back to California for both of us. It seemed the perfect arrangement.
I tingled at the thought of my first Thanksgiving at home in three years. To our surprise, the car was a bright-blue pick-up truck. We tossed our bags in the back and headed west from Claremont towards Los Angeles, then north on Interstate 5. It was Wednesday evening and everyone in the city was trying to be somewhere else.
Darkness was descending as Kim merged the truck from one freeway to another. We were just two of the thousands of pilgrims inching our way over the “grapevine,” the local name for the ribbon of Interstate 5 that snakes through the mountains north of Los Angeles.
Traffic finally thinned out after we got over the pass. A couple of hours later, we were cruising along, about ten miles south of Coalinga, when Kim noticed that the temperature gauge was in the red zone. He parked on the side of the freeway and turned on the emergency flashers. We looked under the hood. Even in the darkness, we could see the broken fan belt.
In those days, you couldn’t just pick up a cell phone and call for help. We waited and waited. Some drivers stopped but couldn’t help us. Finally, a California Highway Patrol cruiser pulled up and the officer called a tow truck.
The truck driver left us at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, but we were able to get the fan belt fixed. We also bought a new battery to replace the one that went dead while we waited two hours for help to arrive. Even though it was after midnight, the gas station resembled a carnival festival with cars pulling in, gassing up, and departing. There was even a food truck doing a brisk business at the edge of the lot.
We still needed to fill up with gas. A line of waiting cars stretched for a couple of miles, but the gas station operator let us cut into the line near the road. We were approaching the gas pumps when someone tapped on the driver’s side window.
“There’s something red coming out of your truck,” the person said. Being the daughter of a car mechanic, I knew immediately that it was transmission fluid. The broken fan belt had severed the transmission line. The station operator said he couldn’t help us.
Kim and I pushed the truck to the far side of the lot. We used a pay phone to call John, a college friend of Kim’s who owned a Ford Pinto. He was the only friend we knew with a car. It would take him at least four hours to reach us, so we tried our best to sleep in the truck cab while we waited.
It was daylight on Thanksgiving Day by the time John arrived. He even offered to drive us on to San Francisco if we wanted to catch a flight to Portland. We thanked him, but declined. I slept in the backseat of the Pinto all the way back to Claremont.
That evening, Kim and I ate dinner in the dining hall with ten other students who had nowhere to go for the holiday. The turkey and gravy were from a freezer package, but the pumpkin pie, at least, was freshly made. The dining staff even lit some candles to make our table look more festive. If anyone said grace, I didn’t notice.
By senior year, I had a different boyfriend, Tony. His parents lived in Northern California then, a good six-hour drive each way. Driving up there for Thanksgiving dinner didn’t seem very practical.
I don’t remember who came up with the idea. Perhaps it was Joe, Tony’s suitemate. Anyway, on Thanksgiving Day, the three of us drove down to Newport Beach where the college docked its racing sloop.
We spent the blustery November day tacking back and forth on Newport Bay and then out past the jetty to the ocean. I’m pretty sure we had the water all to ourselves. The mansions lining the bay were close enough that we could peek inside the large picture windows as we sailed by. I couldn’t see their dining tables, though, so I had to imagine the turkey platters, the fancy place settings, and the starched table linens.
When we got back to Tony’s Chevy, I felt calm and refreshed. And hungry. We’d eaten nothing since breakfast. We stopped at the first drive-in burger place we saw, probably In-and-Out Burger, a Southern California fixture both then and now. We ate our burgers and fries standing up, leaning against the car fender. No one said grace.
Beverly J. Orth is a post-baccalaureate student at Portland State University. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Fish Anthology, The Examined Life Journal, The Raw Art Review, Reed Magazine, Pathos Literary Magazine, ellipsis, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon (U.S.) with four sewing machines, three typewriters, one husband and no pets.