Pilgrims

The most important thing to know about the Thanksgiving I spent in Portland, Oregon is that I’m not sure I was even really supposed to be there. It was a delayed realization after I’d packed the bag and bought a plane ticket and watched my roommate give me a look of wilting indifference. It was after I told my parents I was absolutely not–oh-hell-no–coming home to spend the holidays with my recently expanded step-family in my mother’s brand new suburban tract mansion on the far other side of town from where I grew up and where it was miles to downtown and I knew no one. None of my high school friends that would still speak to me would even  drive all the way out there and the ones that maybe would—Portland and Ivy League– were spending their Thanksgiving together elsewhere so it’s only natural that I crashed their party

The day I left to fly out, my father was driving me from my hometown to the Charlotte airport when I mentioned that that friend that I was ostensibly staying with for the week had not ever responded to my I’M COMING email. This might have been a 1996-access-to-email thing or it could have been an oh, so, like, she’s really coming? thing. Whatever the case, Dad sensed there might be more to it than I was letting on. I was twenty years old, on my first cross-country trip, alone and I maybe had a hundred bucks in my checking account (which counted as rich in those days). He handed me a credit card out of his wallet—a loaner, only for emergencies—and instructed me to use it for a hotel if anything went sideways.

We stopped in Dallas for a layover. I smoked in a glass box and wrote in my journal, which isa guaranteed way to avoid talking to people when you’re a twenty-year-old box-dyed unnatural ginger in a tweed mini skirt and a motorcycle jacket. The journal was a tiny, square sketch book.  Maybe 5×5. I scribbled furiously. All caps, tiny letters, as if to say Art is suffering and I’m way too hardcore to let a little handcramp slow me down. I drew lots of pictures of emaciated people with unflinchingly punk rock hair. Probably because I was a fat person with the kind of punk rock hair that allowed me to work part-time as an office assistant at an upscale residential real estate firm. Which is to say, not very.

I landed at Portland at 9pm their time. I stepped off the jetway into the Pacific Time Zone. I  didn’t feel any different, but I went to the bathroom to check my reflection just in case. Outside, I was relieved to find my friends who seemed reasonably happy and not at all aggrieved to see me. They remarked about the size of my suitcase (Large).

“Planning to say awhile?” asked my Portland friend.

I laughed like that was funny. I thought, maybe. I didn’t tell them I’d brought 600 page drafts of my unpublished first nove I’d spend the night previous frantically xeroxing for them to read. I sort of hated myself for that.

 We drove through the rain to Portland friend’s house. Ivy League sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the back. I didn’t care. We listened to Prince on the stereo and I watched Portland shimmer through the rivulets of rainwater on the car window.

Portland friend lived in a brown, shingled rental house of pre-war vintage on the southeast side of town. There was a spacious front porch, surrounded by rhododendrons and various brambles. An old car front seat of what I think was a Buick, had been set up like a divan in the far corner. That’s where I smoked and wrote

None of Portland friend’s roommates were west coast natives. Everyone were nonchalantly stranded in Oregon for the holidays. The plan was that we would make our own Thanksgiving. Everyone would make a dish. Ivy League and I decided to make a grits casserole because we were both from the south. Someone put out an open call to the International Students at Reed College and told their friends to tell friends. Crafty scroungers came by to erect banquet tables out of rain-warped plywood and cinderblock. Portland friend’s twenty-one-year old roommate hit up a Sam Adams distributor[1] and bought cases of day-of-expiration beer for nickel per bottle. We spent the better part of two days driving around to pick up ingredients and, sort of, incidentally sightsee along the way.

I loved Portland. I loved it instantly and wholly. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown with bigger mountains and more water. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown a continent and nearly 3000 miles away from everything I was trying to get away from in my hometown. But I adored the rain and the green things and bookshops and the bridges. I loved the overwrought cafes and the bungalows and the pretty, lithe, literary-tattooed boys who would look you right in the eye and tell you earnestly that they were studying revolution. Compared to the ugly, rigid, beige sprawl of the New South city where I unhappily lived in those days, Portland looked heavenly. My ridiculous journal at the time reflects this. I wrote long passages about feeling content, about being warm, despite spending, in retrospect, much of that trip feeling sort of lonely, at a distance from my friends (who I believed–at the time– were maybe kind of ashamed of me because I was always  ashamed of myself) sitting outside on the porch in the chilly November drizzle, blinking back tears at the city lights.

On the day of Thanksgiving, we rose early and spent almost the whole day in the kitchen. Ivy League and I made giant aluminum vats of cheese grits and only-recently-no-longer-vegan Portland friend posed with her excellent turkey. The crowds started to mass just after sunset. Twice as many people showed as were expected. They came with casserole and wine and beer and pot. They came with travelling packs still strapped to their backs. They came from multiple schools and multiple cities and and  out of a car from somewhere in the California desert and off a train on a journey that began in New Hampshire. They came from Kenya and Thailand and Germany and Colombia and Detroit and Charleston, SC. As I went down the line, talking to people, carving out servings from dozens of dishes I didn’t recognize, among strangers, in a place I had never been, on the other side of the continent from home, I had this notion of This is Thanksgiving. Like, for real.  In a moment, a holiday I’d long since associated with 17th century religious zealots, ugly history, awkward family get-togethers and grotesque and unnatural acts committed upon sweet potatoes became kind of my favorite holiday. And throughout the rest of that evening, I wandered fizzy-headed and almost impossibly happy through a house crammed with food and fascinating stories. I was enchanted by the we’re all going to sit down and eat this together. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe or where you’re from or what you do or the fact that you maybe brought that tripping raver girl that’s offering to recreationally taze people “for fun” in the front yard and, like, maybe that’s kinda dangerous, so maybe someone should go out there and try to disarm her? That night I went to bed in a sleeping bag on Portland friend’s bedroom floor thinking, this was one of the best days of my life.

 I spent most of the rest of the 90s and into the 2000s, traveling over Thanksgiving, trying to recreate some semblance of whatever alchemy occurred in Portland. I went to Massachusetts and Texas and South Carolina. I insinuated myself into numerous friends’ family affairs and tried to cobble together new traditions in other places. It never took. For the longest time, I thought it was maybe a geographical problem. Something about not being on the west coast, in general, or in Portland, in specific. But in 2002, I found myself living in a shabby, rambling bungalow in Carrboro, North Carolina. It was house full of people I loved, with a large screened in porch fitted with an old wicker love seat in the corner, where I smoked cigarettes and wrote in my journal (larger, lined, no longer in cramped All Caps). Late at night I would sit out there, as the season cooled, and talk about Thanksgiving in Portland, about the lights from  porch  of the house on the hill and the foggy indigo color of the cloudy night skyand how all of the guests though Ivy League’s and my grits casserole was polenta. A couple days before Thanksgiving that year, I called people and made a turkey. Only twelve people came that first year, but I felt stir of something familiar. So thirty-five people came the next year. Then I moved into a new (ironically smaller)house. Our invite list expanded. Fifty-eight people came the fifth year. That was a record.

So.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I know the historical baggage. I know the family complications. I know the psychological challenges. I know it’s bad for your health and weird for your friend with all the dietary restrictions. For me, though, it’s not really about any of that. It’s about sitting down to eat with people I love and people I’ve never met. It’s hearing stories, trying new things and having a house so jam-packed with people you wonder, during, if you’ll find a seat, and, after it’s all over, at how lucky you are to have spent the evening with all these people. It’s about not taking your community, in its broadest sense, for granted and celebrating all that has to offer.

Here we are at 2017. Tomorrow will be the sixteenth time I’ve cooked a turkey. The sixteenth time I’ve moved the furniture around. The sixteenth time I’ve made the same dumb Puritan jokes. The sixteenth Potluck. It’s my favorite day of the year. It’s hard and messy and cramped. It will be over so fast that, in just a day, I’ll already be pining for next year

 

 

 

[1] These were the days, by and large, before microbrews, children.

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