For those of us who leave home and stay gone—who graduate from high school and get a job, who get pregnant at 16 and go to college early, who maybe develop a drug habit that keeps us on the run for awhile…for those of us who maybe go to college and drop out and join the military, or who maybe just graduate from high school, go to college, go to graduate school, and just keep going and going until the idea of going home for Thanksgiving becomes stressful and complicated because before we can do that, we have to figure out what “home” really means—there comes a day when we finally look in the mirror hanging on the wall of the structure where we’ve been eating and sleeping and collecting stuff, raising our kids and paying to stay, and we ask, “Isn’t this my home?”
When I started college in 1986 at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota (Go Beavers!), I spent the first couple of Thanksgivings at my parents’ house simply because kids didn’t stay on campus over the holidays. My parents had recently moved, so the house they lived in was new to me. I had a hard time thinking of this place as home, but if my parents lived there, then it was. I would take the Greyhound from Bemidji to St. Cloud and it would stop in every tiny town along the way. It would take all day and I’d read a book for English class or sleep. Poor people rode the bus back then, lots of Indians and old ladies and moms with little kids, and drunk guys. We’d all ride that freaky ride from Bemidji, Minnesota, down highway 371, south to wherever else we were going.
I’d finally make it to my parents’ house, where incidentally there were always more young moms with their kids: my sisters, and sometimes Indians too, and sometimes drunk guys, and once in awhile an old lady named Grandma Lotus. When time came for the big meal, I’d head to the card table to sit with my nieces and nephews; I had been assigned to the kids’ table for many years. My mom wasn’t quite ready to take the reins from me and hand them over to Shanna (rhymes with “Ghana”), my oldest niece at seven, lest the six-year-old and the four-year-old and the two-year-old started messin’ around.
But after those first couple of years of busing it back to my parents’ house, I was gone. There was the very first Thanksgiving I spent away from home: I was an honor student at Washington State University (Go Cougs!), participating in an exchange program called Adventure in Excellence. Of course we understand the idea of exchange programs, and I was truly surprised that no one wanted to go back in my place to Bemidji State to spend their junior year in my moonboots. In fact, no other honor student in the entire nation wanted to exchange places with me, but Washington State University took me anyway. I met Seattle for the first time over Thanksgiving weekend of 1988; need I say more? I <3 Seattle.
How I segued from sight-seeing in Seattle from the back of a station wagon with two other twenty-year-olds and somebody’s mom driving to—just one year later—bringing a man twenty years older than me home for Thanksgiving, and yes! to meet my parents for the first time…I can’t really say how that happened. I was literally set up for that one; thank you, former college roommate. This was the man who would remove my wisdom teeth and fly me around in his airplane and introduce me to The New Yorker, Leo Kottke, hiking in the Rockies and fish served still with the skin on it in Key West. He gave me many rides on his pontoon under the moon on the Mississippi with wine, my dentist/pilot/Mr. Natural Minnesota boyfriend who lived right on a lake, so lucky.
But when I started to hate it, I moved to Alaska for graduate school, UA Fairbanks (Go Nanooks!), and that’s all she wrote about goin’ home for Thanksgivin’. I moved to Arizona shortly after (Go Sun Devils!) and became The Constant Professor. Instead of the year being divided into seasons, it was divided into semesters and summer sessions. I taught all the time and overtime.
Thanksgivings became a day to go for an early run, clean out a closet I’d been meaning to get to, grade papers if I had them, then mix up a couple of Jim Beam and diet Cokes and talk on the phone to every member of my immediate family, all six of them, and sometimes to the grandkids too. It was always, “See you soon! See you at Christmas.” I would be on school-year time for the rest of my life. I mean, at least I still am now.
It’s not a perfect schedule, nor do I expect it to be. But there is no disputing that the academic schedule favors Christmas over Thanksgiving by giving us several weeks off at Christmas. For Thanksgiving, we only get two days. You can’t fly home and get a good visit in over just a few days, so inevitably, and for better or worse, we begin to have our own Thanksgivings in our own homes. At least that’s what happened to me. It was 1998, they were letting me be a professor at ASU, and I had met a guy who I thought was the perfect man. Suddenly I wanted to make a turkey. I did, the boyfriend and a neighbor came over, and boom, I was a grown-up. I was thirty years old and there would be no more runnin’ around. A full-out Christmas happened at my house that year too. I was being an adult without even knowing it.
Which brings us back to the present, as I sit in my own lovely house with my own yard in full bloom, waiting for the little girl who took the reins from me at the kids’ table in 1987, when I was 19 and she was 8. She is driving here from Sahuarita, where she is a brilliant high school chemistry teacher, and she’s bringing a quinoa salad she made all by herself. I’m making Cornish game hens and having licorice for dessert. She’ll probably have chocolate. We’ll drink lemonade.
It’s a few hours later and the Cornish game hens are devoured. Shanna and I are splitting a bag of miniature peanut butter cups and doing the dishes together. Other than the crinkling of candy wrappers and the clinking of my Fiestaware, it’s quiet. I ask Shanna a question that’s been on my mind. “Hey, have you ever hosted a Thanksgiving at your house?”
“No,” she says. “Why?”
“Because I was just thinking what I was doing when I was your age, and if I had hosted a Thanksgiving yet.” I pause. “And I had.” I don’t add, one with a boyfriend who turned out to be gay and the other with the man who robbed me blind. “You’ve done better in this area than I have,” I say.
“I don’t know about that,” she says. “I like Thanksgivings at your house.”
My heart does a little flip-flop thing it’s only supposed to do when I’m falling in love. I am in love with the moment; I am in love with Shanna. She may as well be eight pounds and bald again for as much as I will adore her during the rest of her stay. “Thank you, sweetie,” the grateful adult in me says, while the child in me still wishes there was a grown-up table where I could run to brag.