Thanksgiving is a strange day for me. It’s not sad per se, but I don’t worship it either. It lost its luster when I moved to D.C. in 2000 and chose to fly home only for Christmas rather than Thanksgiving. I couldn’t afford both at the time, and secular Christmas with my parents and brother was more meaningful.
So, I spent Thanksgivings alone from 2000 through 2006. It was strange at first to wander around downtown Silver Spring or D.C. back then, when little was open and few were out, nearly always a chill in the air. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, as co-workers invariably asked my plans and learned I’d be alone, they would invite me to their homes and their own family gatherings or Friendsgivings. Back then I had a hard time explaining how excruciating the thought of that was as an introvert. If I couldn’t be with my family, I didn’t want to crash other families’ events, feeling awkward and out-of-place and having to do what introverts hate more than anything: mingle and make small talk. I would often just say I liked being alone, which wasn’t exactly true but the only way I knew how to answer. I often had to fight off extroverted friends or parental-type colleagues who couldn’t believe I didn’t want to be surrounded by strangers on the holiday.
By 2007, I was almost assuredly spending Thanksgiving with Eriq’s family, though I don’t remember that first one. Because they’re local, we only have to drive up the rode to his dad and Sheva’s house, which makes for a relaxed day. And while I adore Eriq’s family, the holiday has never felt the same without the large, noisy Padgett family around me in my Indiana hometown. The Maryland food was yummy by any objective observer’s standards, but it wasn’t MY food, not the comfort food I grew up with and expected on Thanksgiving. The potluck meal included vegetarian dishes (before I was vegetarian) and a lot of salads. I needed more starch.
Growing up, my favorite Thanksgivings were at our house, hosted by my parents. They were almost always Padgett gatherings, which means large and loud. (Dad has five siblings.) Mom loved to cook, although she would get a bit overwhelmed if people wouldn’t leave her kitchen and let her think. She can’t talk and cook at the same time, as she often reminded us. This presented problems since relatives always arrived by the back door that led into her small kitchen. As family arrived and set their “pitch-in” dishes (I never used the word “potluck” until moving to D.C.) on the counter or in the fridge, they would stop to greet each other, hugging and chatting noisily. Mom could be heard more than once raising her voice: “If you guys don’t get out of my kitchen, you’re not getting any food!”
The appetizers, side dishes and desserts began to expand all over the kitchen and into the dining room. There was always orange sherbet salad (orange Jell-O with mandarin oranges inside), a Padgett requirement that I never learned to like. I was always happy when Aunt Mary Lynn brought her version of green bean casserole, which seemed a little fancier than the original version. Aunt Diana would bring a crockpot full of delicious homemade noodles.
Aunt Sandra would bring her multi-layered taco dip appetizer that we all gobbled up. Mom always made two dressings (not called “stuffing”): one with oysters and one without. She made the oyster version for herself, though she was willing to share it with Uncle John. The rest of us shuddered at the notion. Even though the oyster dish was always the smaller of the two, no one took any chances, always asking, “Faith, which one is oysters again?” Store-bought dinner rolls were also standard and usually served as my brother’s main meal, along with some ham. (He could always be found in his bedroom, hiding out from the noise, often along with our younger cousin Jennifer, seeking refuge.)
Corn was always about six packs of Green Giant corn niblets in butter sauce, heated up in the microwave. Often forgotten among the large menu and chaos, Mom would often rush into the kitchen as we all were filling our plates: “Oh, I forgot to cook the corn!”
Mom wasn’t a fan of turkey. She never seemed to master cooking the turkey and didn’t particularly like the task. She sometimes also cooked a small Butterball ham, which I preferred. Later on, she realized: her kitchen, her rules, and stuck to only providing the ham.
I don’t have strong memories of Thanksgiving dessert. Someone always brought pies, of course. Multiple pies. I think Aunt Lan (Lee Anne, but we all call her “Lan”) always brought pumpkin. And if Mom cooked pies, there was usually a cherry one with canned filling because, in my dad’s mind, if you’re going to have pie, it has to be cherry, no matter the holiday. He would put a slice on his plate and plop orange sherbet salad on top. (I know, gross.)
A few years ago, I realized I could make my own Thanksgiving, so I began cooking my Indiana version on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year I’ll cook that version today, on the holiday, just for Eriq and I, before Zooming in with his family mid-day and calling my parents later on. My longed-for Thanksgiving meal is all sides. On the menu today: green bean casserole of course (I sometimes eat this as my main meal), mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and vegetarian gravy, Green Giant corn niblets and crescent rolls. I also plan to make an apple pie this morning. For a few years, I would make Cornish hens for Eriq and I, but after we gave up meat, we just stuck to the sides. This year, I’m adding salmon. That may sound weird for this holiday, but we both love salmon and 2020 is certainly the time to break rules and start new traditions.
While I enjoy cooking in general and preparing our own small Thanksgiving, the holiday will never be the same for me. That was lost long ago in 2000, when I left Indiana. Soon after, as my cousins got older and eventually started their own families and own traditions, the Padgett Thanksgiving grew smaller and smaller, eventually consisting only of my parents and Grandma Padgett, who lives in my hometown. I miss the loud family gatherings, where it never seemed like we had enough chairs and everyone drank pop with their meals. The Macy’s Day parade, and later football, was on in the background, though you never could hear anything over the sound of family talking and laughing. With seven or more cousins often there—all at least 10 years younger than me—there seemed to always be a baby or toddler I was more than happy to carry around.
The Padgett family still sees each other, but often in smaller groups, not one big gathering. Those days are behind us and can’t be duplicated. But I think of them fondly, especially on holidays like today. I’m thankful for that boisterous Hoosier family, the laughter and hugs we shared, and the happy childhood they helped create for me.