Every November, I test my memory cells by trying to recall where I’ve spent Thanksgiving for the past 30 years. I do okay for the most recent ten, and then things get blurry. I vaguely remember Thanksgivings at Uncle Bill’s and Aunt Alma’s during the 50s and 60s, but I don’t recall any Thanksgivings between the years of 1970 and 1974. This lapse can’t be attributed entirely to over-indulging in turkey, but can be blamed, in part, on a wayward cousin who always provided me with something to stimulate my appetite (though I never inhaled).
This year, like the past three, I’ll be spending Thanksgiving at home with my husband, Ralph, and my brother John and his family. The Thanksgiving four years ago, when Ralph and I spent the day in the emergency room at Kaiser, and then went back again that evening, is indelibly stamped into the painful part of my brain. I put the turkey in the oven as the paramedics arrived, and took it out when we came home. Three hours later, before I could serve the pumpkin pie, we were headed again to Kaiser.
I remember spending several Thanksgivings alone with my brother. Ralph’s twin came up from San Diego to stay with him. I took off guilt-free, knowing that Ralph was in capable, loving hands.
John and I usually went to Yosemite Valley. Sometimes it would rain while we were there and sometimes it would snow. It was almost never sunny. Ever the optimists, each year we brought skis, climbing gear and rollerblades with us, on the pretense that we would do something other than lie around in the tent. But we never did.
John would lug his veterinary textbooks along and I’d bring all the paperbacks I’d been meaning to read for the past 10 years. We’d search for the least damp, most level spot at Sunnyside campground. I’d put up the tent while John made a fire. We stashed our instant oatmeal, tuna fish cans and GORP in the anti-bear locker, gulped down a bowl of chicken-flavored Top Raman, crawled into the tent, rolled out our bags, and went to sleep. We didn’t wake up until the next morning. We tried to outwait each other until one of us had to use the outhouse. That’s the person who had to make the coffee outside on the frost-covered picnic table.
The first year we went to Yosemite I cried when I crawled into the tent. It reminded me too much of Ralph and the good times we once shared inside that little green nylon space before his accident. The tent smelled like Ralph and my sleeping bag smelled like Ralph and my brother’s bag, the one that had once belonged to Ralph, smelled like my husband too. Not the way Ralph smells now in his wheelchair, but the way he smelled when he was healthy and energetic, pitching the tent, gathering firewood, cooking dinner, and drinking beer. But now, after a decade, the tent doesn’t smell of Ralph. It smells like me and my brother and the garage where it is stored the rest of the year.
One Thanksgiving, my brother couldn’t go to Yosemite. He had too much work to do in his final year of veterinary school He didn’t want to deal with the rain and the snow and the bad smell of the tent. He needed lots of room to spread out his pig, horse and cow textbooks.
“Think of it this way,” he said on the phone a few days before Thanksgiving when he suggested that I spend the holiday with him in Davis. “You won’t have water dripping down your neck while you sleep. You won’t have cold socks, stiff gloves or frozen underwear in the morning. You won’t have bad coffee or noodles served with twigs. You’ll have a comfortable bed, a microwave oven and a flush toilet.”
“Can we pitch the tent in your backyard?” I asked.
“If you want to,” he said. “but I’ll be in the house drinking a hearty Cabernet, studying equestrian parasites and watching a Blockbuster video.”
I drove reluctantly to Davis. I spread my paperbacks across John’s living room floor and found a horizontal spot on his couch. On Thanksgiving night we ordered Domino’s pepperoni and sausage pizza to be delivered to the house. I made my brother get on the couch with me and eat it in the dark with a flashlight on his head to simulate camping. We balanced the pizza box between us, on our knees.
“Isn’t this fun?” I asked, shoving another wedge of pizza into my mouth.
“You betcha,” answered John. Then he got up, went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet, just to prove how much fun it really was.