Live the dream, they said. We’ll take up Christmas at another time!
I don’t remember exactly when my mother announced she wasn’t “doing” Christmas or Thanksgiving any more. Probably around the time I went off to my first year of college up in Dallas after we’d all moved to Houston. I do recall her saying that nobody cared. That wasn’t true, because we loved to eat, and there was football on TV. I mean, we cared. It’s just that no one liked the fighting, being together, or cleaning up.
That first Thanksgiving six days after Kennedy was shot was doomed from the beginning.* A bunch of us were watching Cronkite in the student center. When he announced the president had died, my roommate cheered. (A general’s son and Birch Society guy, he used to sleepwalk standing up in bed and throw salutes.) The evening of the assassination, I found myself downtown. How I even got there from the SMU campus is a mystery. I had no car and had never ridden a city bus anywhere in my life. The sidewalks, theaters, and restaurants were packed but quiet. No one chatted, laughed, or cried much. A few days later I got a ride to Houston with two freshmen football players in a brand-new red Pontiac convertible that one of them had gotten as a present from wealthy alums. They drove 80 mph all the way, passing blindly on the hilltops, and dropped me off at home. I think my dad was jealous.
It’s not that we had no traditions. The main one was that family was far away, and when they weren’t, we always went with the old man’s folks in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, ignoring my mother’s more numerous and gregarious relatives in Baltimore for reasons lost in time. In Chestertown, children were a novelty, like puppies, and you never let a dog run wild. Granny baked pies and cookies. Someone cooked a turkey and there were awful casseroles. My aunt brought something made of jello. My father and his brother smoked their pipes, and Granddad never said a word. It wasn’t all that bad I guess, but hell. All this before the age of nine, when the old man’s military career took us away to Germany and everyone disappeared.
Chestertown bears some of the blame. For all my early years as an Air Force brat, the place was always “home,” although we never lived there. They say that home is where you go and no one throws you out, but that’s not true: my uncle literally threw my cousin out into a raging blizzard on Christmas Eve, tossed her suitcase in the snow and cursed her out with mama crying on the stairs, when she told him she wasn’t going on to med school after graduation. And then she stayed away for decades! For my siblings and me, however, there was a mythic quality to the place. The roots we never had, perhaps. That may be why I ended up there in the summer of ’75 after moving from Austin to Maine and going bust as an itinerant metal sculptor because no one wanted giant insects made of welded steel. You probably think I’m making this up.
At any rate, the next twenty-five years were something of a miracle. The Eastern Shore was still unspoiled, hardly a condo or marina to be seen. There were ruins of old colonial mansions standing in the cornfields. You could rent waterfront farms for almost nothing. It was there I met the love of my life, and we had more adventures, friends, and glory days than most people ever see. An astonishing time of richness and opportunity. What never changed, however, was the dreaded holiday.
Aside from a few memorable and outrageous local celebrations with other folks’ extended families, it was often cold and lonely in November. My wife’s family lived in Iowa, mine in Arizona. Thanksgiving in Des Moines would probably have been sentimental and endearing, but there was never time to make the trip. Most of our friends had family nearby to visit. What we usually did was get away: a cabin on the Skyline Drive, a motel at Assateague, a Chinese restaurant in D.C., our first ever Grateful Dead concert, whatever we could find. It’s been the same in Taos. We’ve had our share of get-togethers, but usually we buy ourselves some fancy food to eat at home or go to restaurants. We’ve travelled when we can, but even that can set you up for danger to your psychic health unless you’re vigilant.
The culture, see, it shouts. You’d have to go to Mars.
* That may have been the the first and last time I came home for Thanksgiving after going off to school! SMU in Dallas first, then UT-Austin next year and forever more…