Thanksgiving always left something to be desired in the Sousa clan. We had traditions and we abided by them, but our traditions were terrible. Even at their worst I had never feared for my safety, but sometimes traditions change.
Once upon a time, I at least had my grandmother’s cooking to look forward to. The turkey would be golden brown and melted in the mouth. Her potatoes were hand-mashed, the gravy made fresh from the drippings, the cornbread stuffing was aromatic and cooked to perfection. Her homemade pies were prize-worthy—always with a chocolate cream made just for me. And the pièce de résistance, her noodles—made from scratch, rolled by hand, slow-cooked in chicken stock.
But then Grandma died. And the traditions lived on. Sort of.
The role of dutiful hostess fell to my aunt, first born of the family. As tradition dictated, we would travel to her house and spend Thanksgiving with her family like we had done when Grandma was still around. Her husband, my uncle, was a blow-hard insurance peddler who always wore a leather USMC jacket at the table, just to remind everybody. He fancied himself a writer after self-publishing two books, both of which read like Tom Clancy fan fiction.
To his left sat my casually racist grandfather who always wore a white t-shirt and suspenders. Since my grandmother’s passing he had grown a Greek-style beard and didn’t have much to say. To his left was my seat, as it had been for years, forever ostracized from the life of the party which was always on the other end of the table with my three cousins—all of whom were married at this point. They would talk and laugh about their crazy married lives, and I would get to listen distantly.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful, which is certainly a deadly sin on this day of gluttony. It’s not that I didn’t like my family; it’s just that, aside from a few genetic markers, I really didn’t have anything in common with them. It’s best to say that I nothing-ed them, and they nothing-ed me in return.
They had never done anything deliberately harmful, but had never made an effort to get to know me—in their defense, neither had I. It was our tradition, and it had worked just fine so far. We had no reason to change. At least I didn’t.
The food had gone a little south since my grandmother left the scene. My aunt wasn’t much of a chef, her cooking would have only been passable in the direst of refugee camps. Burnt pies, gravy that was lumpier than the potatoes, warm deviled eggs, gray matter that smelled like wet cat-food which she pulled from the turkey and tried to pass off as stuffing. The tradition had evolved from enjoying the food to choking it down.
Except for the ham, which for reasons unknown to me, they had started serving along with the turkey. And though it seemed misplaced, it was probably the best tasting thing on the table because they ordered it in. It was a peculiar point of pride for my uncle who would single out different members of the family over the course of the meal and would repeatedly ask each of them “How’s the ham?” The answer would always be “good,” but, seemingly unsatisfied, he persisted.
All through the meal I maintained my decree of silence. It was my little tradition now to gag down my food quietly, to complain to myself about being ostracized from a conversation I had no interest in joining and then distantly judge the other guests. It worked for me, and while it probably wasn’t ideal—or healthy—it was comfortable.
The plates were cleared and the pies were brought out—this time a chocolate cream pie that had been purchased especially for me quickly became the crowd favorite considering the all the pumpkin pies were horribly burned. I accepted it with feigned gratitude and prepared to enjoy it, once again, in silence.
Then, unexpectedly, my cousin Jen turned to me. “Do you like guns, Alex?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, confused. “I guess.” I approached the conversation cautiously. This was new, and an odd non sequitur if nothing else.
“Want to see mine?” She asked.
Before I could answer she turned to her then-husband. “Get the gun,” she told him.
He put down his fork, lifted his leg onto the table and pulled a small revolver from an ankle holster. As the gun was passed to me they explained that it was a .38 caliber that they had bought for protection. I held it loosely, trying to look like I was admiring it, and wondering just what they needed protection from at Thanksgiving dinner.
“Want to see mine?” My cousin Jeff asked.
Again, before I could really answer he reached into his baby bag and pulled out another handgun. “It’s a .45,” he said, handing it to me. I sat there, fully armed, wondering just how ugly they had expected dinner to get. I felt like a fool, having only brought a fork and a knife to a gunfight.
They looked at me expectantly. For a brief moment I considered firing them into the air like a Mexican bandito, thinking perhaps that’s what they expected. Assuming that I missed the line on the invitation telling guests to come strapped, I wondered who else had been packing heat all through our family dinner. They looked like they wanted me to say something.
“Very cool,” was all I could think of to say, hoping it would suffice.
“You should come shooting with us sometime,” my cousins said. This was it, a new tradition. But no doubt a dangerous one. I could tell by the look in their eyes how quickly it would spiral into the Deadliest Game; me, running naked through the forest, hunted by my kith and kin. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.
I handed the guns back gingerly, trying not to look suspicious, trying not to look overwhelmed or confused and definitely not trying to look like I was afraid. This was not the Thanksgiving I had wanted, not the Thanksgiving that tradition had dictated. For all the horrible traditions, I had at least become comfortable with them. I didn’t want to bond, I didn’t want to go shooting, and I didn’t want Thanksgiving dinner—as horrible as it was—to resemble a Tarantino flick. It just wasn’t worth the risk.
They stored their guns and cleared their plates. As they went to go plan their Black Friday shopping—which they would attempt, still carrying, apparently—I sat at the table, wondering what had happened. Wondering how Thanksgiving had ever come to this. Grandma would have never allowed so many guns at the table. That was definitely one of her rules.
I took a bite of my store-bought pie. “I miss Grandma,” I said to myself.
“So do I,” said my grandfather.